San Francisco Chronicle
Sunday, November 12, 2006
(11-12) 04:00 PST Los Angeles — Long before "March of the Penguins" hit theaters, George Miller was enamored with Antarctica and its waddling denizens. In 1979, when he was directing "Mad Max," Miller worked with an editor whose father was Frank Hurley, photographer on Ernest Shackleton's famous South Pole expeditions.
"I was always intrigued by Hurley's photographs," says the director of the new animated South Pole fable "Happy Feet."
"Cut to 'Road Warrior' in 1981. I was telling this grizzled old cameraman how much I loved shooting in the desert because it's so spare. He said, 'Antarctica. You've got to shoot in Antarctica.' And now, 20 years later, here we are."
Actually, Miller has never set foot in Antarctica. But four years ago, from the comfort of his headquarters in Sydney, Australia, the 61-year-old filmmaker dispatched two excursions to Antarctica and amassed 80,000 pictures and sound recordings for "Happy Feet."
"It was all fed into the film," Miller says. "When you see those ice caps, you just have to make the movie look epic. And unlike David Lean when he made 'Lawrence of Arabia,' I didn't have to go to the deserts of Jordan. I could do it all from a computer."
Aided by a team of nearly 1,000 digital artists and programmers, Miller crafted an uncannily photo-realistic backdrop for "Happy Feet." A musical featuring songs by Prince, the Beatles, the Beach Boys and Elvis Presley, the movie tells the story of Mumble, a misfit emperor penguin voiced by Elijah Wood and animated by motion-captured performances by tap dancer Savion Glover.
Alienated from friends (Brittany Murphy) and family (Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman) because he can't sing like the others, the banished Mumble sets out to find "aliens" who seem to be gobbling up all the fish. Robin Williams enjoys roles as soulful sex doctor Lovelace and Ramon, a brash Latino penguin who aids Mumble on his quest.
The idea for a singing, dancing penguin movie occurred to Miller after seeing the National Geographic documentary "Life in the Freezer."
"When I found out that these penguins sing and imprint these 'heart songs' on each other as a way of finding a soul mate, I thought, 'Wow, here's a story which, in a sense, has already been written by nature,' " he says.
To render the anatomically unfeasible behavior of a tap-dancing penguin — the birds have no hips — Miller took a cue from "The Lord of the Rings."
"Very early on, the filmmakers were kind enough to show me the motion-capture techniques they used for Gollum," he says. "I thought, 'OK, that's how we can do 'Happy Feet.' "
Referring to the visual-effects Oscar-winning talking-pig picture he co-wrote and produced in 1995, Miller adds, "Unlike 'Babe,' we wouldn't have to wait 10 years for the technology to catch up with the story."
Miller describes his motion-capture sessions with Glover as mind-warping mash-ups fusing newfangled animation tricks with old-school hoofing.
"Savion would put on his suit with the little light reflectors on and dance on an American oak floor so he could create the percussion with his feet," Miller says. "On the monitor, Savion appeared, entirely live, as the baby Mumble on ice. I'd turn the computer around so he could watch himself as a baby penguin and adjust his performances."
Miller used software developed at Animal Logic, the company that previously provided visual effects for "The Matrix" and "Babe."
While digital artists fleshed out underwater dance sequences and lion seal chase scenes, Miller videotaped dialogue sessions with actors including Wood, who was cast after he appeared in "The Lord of the Rings."
"There's a sweetness to Elijah," Miller says, "but at the same time a steely strength and a basic sense of self-worth, and I thought, 'Ah! That's Mumble.' "
Wood says he was attracted by the film's "it's OK to be different" theme. "The great message for kids in this movie is that the things that separate us from each other are also the things that make us who we are," he says. "That's something that should be celebrated."
Though Miller initially conceived "Happy Feet" as a modest fish-out-of-water story, he expanded the scope once he began researching the region's ecology.
"As I got to know more about Antarctica and the penguins, I realized you can't tell this story without dealing with the issues of destruction of the environment," he says.
At a recent news conference, Williams ad-libbed an impression of Barry White and belted out a Mexican ballad in gibberish Spanish before settling down to discuss "Happy Feet's" environmental themes.
"Factory fishing ships basically play this game of hit and run with international fishing limits — it's equivalent to hunting squirrels with a bulldozer," he says. "They pull everything in, but they're only looking for certain types of fish and everything else dies, so this food source is being rapidly depleted. I already knew about the nature of factory fishing coming in, but I learned more about it making the movie."
Miller hopes "Happy Feet" offers audiences a renewed perspective on humankind's impact on Earth.
"The reason we tell stories of animals is that fables give us a way to look at ourselves," he says. "In the case of 'Happy Feet,' the penguins are us and the humans are the aliens. It's really about discovering ourselves again."