Why ‘The Bad Guys’ Channels Steven Soderbergh and Hayao Miyazaki in Its Stylized Animation

Director Pierre Perifel tells TheWrap about the specific aesthetic for the DreamWorks Animation film and teases franchise potential

Bad Guys
DreamWorks Animation

“The Bad Guys” are here.

Based on the book series by Australian author Aaron Blabey, DreamWorks Animation’s “The Bad Guys” follows a group of animal criminals – Mr. Wolf aka the Big Bad Wolf (Sam Rockwell), Mr. Snake (Marc Maron), Ms. Tarantula (Awkwafina), Mr. Shark (Craig Robinson) and Mr. Piranha (Anthony Ramos) — as they try to turn the corner and become (gasp!) good guys.

Director Pierre Perifel brings a wonderfully offbeat sensibility to the movie, which could have been another villain-goes-straight animated fable, of which there have been plenty (“Megamind,” “Despicable Me,” “Wreck-It Ralph,” the list goes on). By folding in a range of influences (everything from anime to Steven Soderbergh) and upping the stylization to incorporate more 2D flourishes, “The Bad Guys” feels wholly unique and might be the most enjoyable DreamWorks Animation film since “How to Train Your Dragon” back in 2010.

TheWrap spoke with Perifel about how he brought “The Bad Guys” to life – where the project came from (and how it entered his life), what his references were, what the upcoming “Puss in Boots” sequel borrowed from the film and whether or not he’s already thinking about a sequel.

How did “The Bad Guys” come to be?

Pierre Perifel: Well, after the short, I really got bit by the bug of directing and got with the studio and just asked them if I could start thinking of directing or co-directing something. I happened to be put on a movie that. once again, didn’t get to the finish line, but that left me with a bit of a gap for a few months.

Damon Ross, the producer of “Bad Guys,” had just purchased the rights to “The Bad Guys” at the time. He was working on a script. I ended up stumbling upon that cover of that first book and I was like, “Okay, what’s this?” And he was like, “Yeah, that’s something I’m developing.” I was like, “Are you kidding me? This is amazing.” To me, it was just like a lightning bolt. Just electric shock where I know what to do with this. It’s amazing. The idea’s there, big idea, the big concept.

I love animal animation. “Robin Hood” all of those animations and films, “Zootopia,” of course. Love those. But they are gangsters and it’s freaking Tarantino. It’s amazing! Damon said, “Yeah, I got a script, do you want to read it?” I read the script, it was like, oh, the voice of the character was there, the tone, the humor. And I was like, “You know what? Let me take this. I want to develop that.” I did a quick trailer, like a whole storyboard. It was three minutes. Three minutes in storyboards.

That trailer was really influenced by all those heist movies, mostly “Snatch,” “Baby Driver” and “Ocean’s Eleven.” I wanted to show the studio what I would do with this franchise. But it was not a heist movie at first. It was just like, those characters were really just straight criminals in the books, but for me, it was like, oh, I know. I want to see Tarantino and I want to see Soderbergh in there. I started doing some vis dev and artwork. Just decided to set it up in Los Angeles. We did a whole presentation for Margie [Cohn] and she was like, “Yep, I see this movie. Let’s do it.” That’s how it started. And then a few months later she was like, “You want to direct it?” I was like, “Yep. I want to direct it.”

Can we talk about the look of the movie? In that initial pitch, did it look like it does now?

Yes. It was a first past presentation. From the beginning, there was very clear. First of all, the trailer was really clear in stating the style of animation, the style of editing that I wanted, and also the story and the humor. In the visual presentation, I was really hinting that I want to do something more painterly, more illustrated with 2D effects and certain style of animation. This kind of character design-ish, even though we were not there yet. I really hinted at the kind of music that I wanted. All of these three elements were there, the way to cut this movie, the look of it, and the music. It was a very comprehensive presentation for them to understand what I was trying to do.

But yes, from the beginning, we quickly did the vis dev look test. All in After Effects and Maya, which is not our pipeline, but just to illustrate the look and the style and was even more pushed than what we have now, but very 2D looking. To really just prove a point and say, “This is where we’re going,” which they never said no and they were always encouraging us to go there.

How did you develop that visual language? Because it is so different than most “mainstream” western animation.

It is very different what you see. That also was in my head from the beginning. It’s something that I’ve wanted to see for a long time. I started, during the film, just teaching a little bit. Or not teaching, but actually really just telling the teams that’s the reference we are going for. This is “Ernest & Celestine.” Look at all the Kasuga type of demo reels from Japan. Look at Miyazaki, look at “Lupin,” look at “Sherlock Hound,” look at “Cowboy Bebop.” “FLCL” All of these references. You just go in and impregnate yourself with this. Of course, I want a more stylized, more cartoony flavor than this. It’s in a way, the look, that animation style is very French but international, at the same time. It’s weird. But the posing, you’re right. The posing is very specific.

Or you see the character in full profile, which is somewhat unusual.

It was supposed to not be as photo video reference as what we see nowadays, which is like, whether it’s DreamWorks or Disney or Pixar animators use a lot of video reference to get very subtle acting in there. I wanted something simpler. I wanted something more stylized really, and very appealing. Hold the poses and then if you go for some acting voice, it’s a bit broader.. Just nailed that as well. Face expression that pushed, we have different set of teeth… We have line work on the faces. All of that was in there from the beginning.

What’s on twos is really character effects. Clothing, fur, and effects themselves. Character animation really stayed on ones because it would’ve too complex for us to… We didn’t have enough time to dev the right tech to do that on twos for the film.

There’s also all these wonderful flourishes like the super long take at the beginning and all sorts of snap zooms and split-screens. Did that add to the complexity?

Complex transitions that happen sometime during heist, yes. Those are a little tricky in our pipeline to do. Snap zooms and whip pans, no, that’s not a big deal because you keep so many frames, it’s like actually easier. But we added a lot of speed lines to it and that was something that hadn’t been done before at the studio at least. We had to develop all that pipeline for speed lines. Split screens are tricky for the pipeline. And of course, that first shot, which is a two-and-a-half-minute shot, one take is beep to do.

How many shots were actually in that take?

I’m not going to tell you, buddy. Not many, really. I think it’s just three.

Oh really?

Two invisible cuts, yeah. But even though they’re invisible cuts, more for technical reason, it’s the same artist that did the whole thing.

You’ve referred to this as a franchise, is that something you have started thinking about?

I am crossing my fingers, hope to do more. The books are incredibly successful and there’s so many more books coming out. I think Aaron is planning on releasing 20. If all goes well, I hope we created a franchise for the studio and then can do many more. Because I really love that ensemble of characters, and that group of guys, and the idea of going back into a new adventure with them, I think it’s super appealing. And I think the audience is going to want that. We actually had a lot of those questions during preview screenings where people are like, “When is the second one coming?”

This might be a little presumptuous, but it looks like your style has influenced other DreamWorks movies – it looks like “Puss in Boots 2” has borrowed a little bit of this.

Yeah. There is a bit there. Because “Puss in Boots 2” started more or less at the same time as us, I think the directors also wanted kind of that similar stylized look too. But both movies, the way we work at the studio is like movies are usually paired together for technology. We do upgrades on our tech and pipeline regularly, but then movies are paired together so they are facing the same technical challenges at the same time. And if one has one, the other one can help. Both these movies are paired together and therefore, whatever we’ve developed on “Bad Guys,” knowing that the directors for “Puss in Boots” wanted to use also some of that stylization, or wanted to push in that stylized way, they would use some of our tech and vice versa. So, yeah, that’s true. And “Puss in Boots” is going to look awesome too.

“The Bad Guys” is now playing exclusively in theaters.