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Interview with “Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life” Animation Director Chris Sauve


Middle School: The Worst Years of My LifeChris Sauve has over 25 years of experience in the animation industry. He has worked as a character animator for Disney’s Home on the Range, Brother Bear, Atlantis, The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Pocahontas. He was supervising animator at Warner Bros. for The Iron Giant and Ray Gunn and the animator supervisor of Everyone’s Hero for ReelFX. He also worked a a director on My Life as a Teenage Robot and Futurama and was animation director of the Cable Ace Award winning The Woman Who Raised a Bear as Her Son.

Sauve joined Duncan Studio in 2007, where he served as the director on their first interactive story app, “My Beastly ABCs” and has worked as head of story and supervising animator for them since. He took the time to discuss his role as Animation Director for Duncan Studio’s animated segments in Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life with Toonzone News.

TOONZONE NEWS: How did you begin as an animator?

CHRIS SAUVE: Depending on how far back you want to go, when I was very young — I want to say probably 8 or 9 — my parents bought me the big Art of Walt Disney book. I used to flip through that and painstakingly draw the Disney characters out of it. For me, I think it was almost like a Zen-like thing. It was a way to immerse myself in something and just disappear into it. I found it really relaxing and really fun. I still have some of those drawings. In 12th grade, we took a tour of Sheridan College, and I was floored by the fact that you can actually have a job in animation. I didn’t even realize any of that was there. I saw these people that were going to college for animation, and I thought, “Oh my god, I can’t believe you can do this for a living.” So I applied, I got in, I did that, and it was all go from there. I just really liked it. It has always been fun, it has always been something that I just really liked doing. My dad told me when I was a kid, if I’m going to do something for a living, make sure that it’s something that’s fun because you have to do it for the rest of your life. So it was fun to do, and it never occurred to me I would have to make a living and pay rent and all that other stuff. For me, it was fun first. Luckily I was able to pay the rent with it.

TOONZONE NEWS: You worked on Ren & Stimpy. What was that like?

CHRIS SAUVE: That was incredible. There was a gentleman named Bob Jaques. I worked in the studio in Vancouver, Carbunkle Cartoons, and we animated a handful of shows for the first two seasons. Bob Jaques, years before that, was my supervisor on my very first job I got in animation, and he was a huge mentor for me. He taught me everything I ever knew about cartoon animation. Then when Ren & Stimpy came up, I had the chance to work with him again. It was one of the few times in my career where we were working on something that was a hit at the same time we were working on it. Usually that’s not the case in animation because you finish a production and then you move on to something different, and then six months later or whenever it gets released. Usually the people that worked on it have moved on. In this case, it wasn’t. We were working on the second season while the first season was being aired and it was becoming a hit.

So there was an energy to the studio. It was this amazing time for us of feeling like we were doing something that was new and different and feeling like we were pushing the boundaries of what animation was. And at the same time, it was fun. We were young, and we spent time working super hard and then goofing off. And Bob would have screenings. He’s a real cartoon aficionado, he has an encyclopedic knowledge of old cartoons, and he collects them. He collects the 16mm prints, so every Friday he would have old cartoon screenings, and we would just watch crazy old weird cartoons and just be inspired by it and we would turn around and put it into the work. So it really felt in the studio like what you see on screen. You watch those Ren & Stimpy cartoons and you imagine what it would be like in the studio, and it was kind of like that. We were kind of nutty and we were working super hard and super long hours, but it was really exhilarating and inspiring and fun. It was a real good time. It was cool.

Middle School: The Worst Years of My LifeTOONZONE NEWS: Did you ever have to go back and re-animate? I seem to remember some episodes that were touched up later.

CHRIS SAUVE: If they were, that probably wasn’t us, it may have been a different crew that went in and did it. We had to do that stuff so fast you really got into a groove with doing it, but once it left our hands, it was gone and we were moving on. We really didn’t have a lot of time to finesse too many things or redo too many things. There could’ve been something done without my knowledge. I know we did a whole episode that was banned and never got aired. It was called “Man’s Best Friend,” and I think people have seen it now. We worked all this time on that show and it never got aired. There were certainly shots in the shows that were probably not appropriate and ended up being edited out and there was probably something that was done to patch it up, maybe that’s where things might’ve been reanimated or tweaked or changed. I don’t recall myself or any of the other animators redoing shots. If it happened, it was probably somewhere else that did it.

TOONZONE NEWS: You worked on a couple Disney movies, and you were credited as a character animator for the likes of Hunchback and Pocahontas. What did that role entail?

CHRIS SAUVE: First off, the funny thing is, I went from animating on Ren & Stimpy to animating on Pocahontas within six months, I’d say. It’s kind of nutty.

TOONZONE NEWS: That’s quite the shift.

CHRIS SAUVE: You can’t get much different in approaches and animation style than Ren & Stimpy and Pocahontas. Pocahontas was all shot in live-action, and we were literally tracing off stats, live action stats. I was with the Duncan Marjoribanks team doing Ratcliffe. He was a little more cartoony, so there was a formula of how to draw the character over the stats to make sure that you follow the action in the stats and still look have it look like the character. It was a laborious process, and it was so different from Ren & Stimpy, where anything can happen. It was very very structured, very very controlled movements in Pocahontas. Controlled, toned down acting choices. I still had fun, though. Duncan Marjoribanks was a great, great guy to work with. He’s still a friend and still a guy I hold in high regard. And Hunchback was where I started working with James Baxter, and I got to meet him and a bunch of guys I still hold as dear friends to this day. Tony Fucile, Mark Koetsier, a lot of the Canadians that I came down to Disney with were working on that film as well. It had a little more of a party atmosphere, I think. We moved into that new animation building, so there was a real feeling of fun in the studio. I had a good time on the film. Those two films for me all happened within a year and a half or two years, so it was all really quick. I was new in Los Angeles, new in California, so it was all fun. Had a good time on both of those films.

Middle School: The Worst Years of My LifeTOONZONE NEWS: Moving on to Middle School, what brought you to Duncan Studio?

CHRIS SAUVE: Ken Duncan did. I met Ken working on Pocahontas. We have very similar backgrounds. He grew up in Ottawa, I spent a lot of time in Ottawa, had family there even though I grew up in Toronto, we both went to Sheridan. We became friends. When he had plans of starting his own studio, he and I would go out at lunch time when we were working at the big studios, and we would go looking around at buildings and say, “Wow, wouldn’t it be cool to have your own studio here?” Talked about these dreams you have of doing these things. It was years later that I started working for Ken in studio in his house. He was still at DreamWorks, and he had an agreement with DreamWorks that he could run the studio and still work physically in studio at DreamWorks. So basically, he would leave to go to DreamWorks to work, and I would arrive at his house and work in his studio on little commercials and little animated pieces and projects. We did that for a few years. That’s kind of how it started. Really, the whole basis of it, the simplest answer of how I started working with Duncan Studios is because I was friends with Ken and we shared a similar view and similar aspirations in animation. We had similar tastes, we wanted to do the same thing in animation. That’s how I ended up working here, really. The fates aligned that Ken was able to start his own studio, and I had been working for him already for a couple years at that point. We had a little studio it was called Reel FX West for a while, he branched out, did his own thing, and I was there and have been there ever since, really. But the quick answer is, we were friends, and we shared a similar taste and similar goals in what we liked and what we wanted to do.

TOONZONE NEWS: When you took on this project, did you familiarize yourself with the source material first?

CHRIS SAUVE: Yes. When you’re starting to work on this, really with any project you start on, you try to get as familiar with everything you can about it. The source material was something we definitely went over. There was the script of course, you read the script, so you can get a feel for how the books were being adapted to the screenplay and what the goals and what the vision of the director was.

Middle School: The Worst Years of My LifeTOONZONE NEWS: Did you work with the illustrator of the book at all?

CHRIS SAUVE: I don’t know if we did directly. The design process for what you see on screen went through quite a few iterations before it got to us. There were quite a few designers that took a stab at it. There was a lengthy process of deciding on the visual style for this and it ended up being a bit of a mosaic of different styles. So the illustrator may have worked on it early on, but honestly, I’m not sure.

TOONZONE NEWS: Sounds like a lot of hands touched this. There’s also the fact that you directed the animated parts and there was a live-action director. How did that work?

CHRIS SAUVE: Working with Steve Carr, the live-action director, was actually a fairly…I don’t know if the word is easy, but it was a fairly straightforward way of working. Steve is an artist himself. He can draw out his ideas and he can explain his ideas very well. So Steve would come to the studio at least once a week and we had lengthy Skype sessions. So there was a lot of communication between Steve and us, and we would get the direction from him. We would do our drawings, do our designs, do anything that we were doing for the film all the way through the process would be subject to his approval, and we would have sessions with him where we would show him the stuff and he would comment on it and give us direction and we would work out any kind of issues that came up. He’s a pretty easy guy to work with because he has a background in art, so that helped a lot.

TOONZONE NEWS: I thought the animated sequences fit seamlessly.

CHRIS SAUVE: That’s great. I’m glad you think so. I’m so close to it that you do these things and you trust your instincts and you try to do the best you can in the time that you have. There never seems to be enough time, but at some point, like every artist, you have to learn to let it go and hope for the best and that was the goal. We wanted these things to be entertaining little pieces that fit nicely into the movie, so I’m happy when I hear people say that. I sit here with my fingers crossed hoping that people like it.

Middle School: The Worst Years of My LifeTOONZONE NEWS: Do you have a favorite sequence?

CHRIS SAUVE: I think my favorite sequence in it is probably the zombie Dwight sequence. I think that we had some artwork done early on by an artist named John Nevarez, and it illustrated a feel to it. There was a little bit of a nod to old monster movies in the saturated color and the under-lighting in that. We wanted to get a little bit of that fun not-so-scary horror movie. Just the funny horror movie thing. And it had some fun to it. It fits into the movie in a good way. I think that one came out as close to what we originally wanted for that sequence. It survived the process fairly close to what we originally envisioned for it.

TOONZONE NEWS: What do you hope audiences will take away from this movie and your contribution to it?

CHRIS SAUVE: That could be a two-fold answer. The simple answer to me, honestly, is that I hope they 1) I hope they enjoy the movie. The movie is geared towards 11-14 year olds, so if it resonates with them, if they respond to it, that’s great. For the animation, all I want is for it just to be entertaining. Something that makes them laugh, make them think it looks cool. To me, it’s as something as simple as somebody going “Wow, that animation looked cool. That stuff looked pretty cool.” That’s the reward for me. I wanted it to be these little pieces of these ideas that spring from Rafe the character’s imagination — just kind of blast onto the screen for a minute or so and take you on this funny ride for a minute, and then you go back into the movie. It makes the movie possibly a little more special and something to be entertained by or laugh at. Then maybe it’s three-fold. Maybe it’s that hopefully somebody looks at it and goes “Man, that traditional hand drawn stuff can look pretty cool.” It has a cool different look to it, it doesn’t all have to look realistic. That sort of thing. I just hope that people look at it and think it looks unique and think it’s entertaining.

I know that’s a simple answer, but it’s as sincere as I can give. I really don’t have these kind of epic goals for saving 2D animation or anything like that. I feel like if we just get the chance to do something that fits in with the vision of the director, and it ends up getting on screen people and makes them go, “Damn, that looked cool,” that’s enough to me. If the movie does well and the animation looks cool then hey, hopefully, maybe something else will come up from it, but if not, maybe it’s something that people enjoy watching over and over. Who knows? Maybe some little kid sees it and gets inspired to go into animation. Who knows? That would be pretty cool. I do think it’s just taking this opportunity to do something that looks unique, and in the time that you have to do it, you just try to do something as interesting and entertaining as you can. And you get your shot to do it, you do the best you can, and you keep your fingers crossed that everybody likes it. So far people have been very complimentary, and I’ve been very flattered and I feel very good for our crew because they worked really hard on it, so it’s more for them and for Steve the director that I just hope that people respond to the movie and it does well. I’ll feel good for all those people.

TOONZONE NEWS: Well good luck, I think the animated bits definitely enhanced the world of the film.

CHRIS SAUVE: Great, I’m really really glad to hear that, it’s what we tried to do and I’m so close to it that it’s hard for me to tell if it was successful or not so I just hope that if that’s the case, I feel good.

Toonzone News would like to thank Chris Sauve for taking the time to talk with us. Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life is in theatres now.