INTERVIEW: “Woody Woodpecker” Director Alex Zamm – Animation Scoop

INTERVIEW: “Woody Woodpecker” Director Alex Zamm

He’s one of the most iconic cartoon characters of all-time. Finally, Woody Woodpecker is getting the feature film treatment. Universal’s live-action/animated Woody Woodpecker hits Netflix and Direct-to-DVD on Tuesday (2/6). Veteran director Alex Zamm had the pleasure and responsibility of giving Walter Lantz’s hyperactive bird his CGI wings.

Jackson Murphy: My introduction to Woody Woodpecker was a Universal Studios Orlando rollercoaster ride about 10 years ago – bright red and fast. What was your introduction to Woody Woodpecker?

Alex Zamm: I remember coming home from nursery school as a kid and flipping around the channels that had a lot of the retro cartoons and just loving this character who was lovable and obnoxious at the same time. He always seemed to be getting away with things that we all wish we could get away with. At an early age, I loved the troublemaker characters.

JM: For those who aren’t quite as familiar with Woody Woodpecker, describe his optimism.

AZ: That’s a funny thing. I think he’s an unsinkable character. It’s interesting that you say optimism. He’s a 75 year old character. Over 200 shorts have been made with him, and he’s had many incarnations, where he was – in the early days (his design has changed over the years) – but he was very anarchic. And he became, like a lot of great characters, much more humanoid, friendly, cuddly and cute. Sometimes he has a temper, but I do think he is unsinkable. He’s determined more than anything else.

JM: As co-writer and director of this new “Woody” movie, how many of those classic cartoons did you watch as preparation for this film?

AZ: All 200.

JM: Wow.

AZ: It became a schedule of whatever we had seen over the years growing up and what I had been exposed to… I thought ‘We really should just start from scratch and watch them in order.’ And luckily Universal had put out two different box sets of Woody and the Walter Lantz world. We really… took a class. It was like a master class in watching the evolution of Woody – and how, at the same time he may have changed physically – but he stayed consistent in terms of his spirit.

JM: And what was that design process like as far as Woody going from the classic hand-drawn look to this new 3D CGI version?

AZ: We felt a lot of responsibility because we don’t want to disappoint fans. And everybody… it’s like with Superman: you change a belt or a cape and everyone has a feeling of what they love about that character. I tried to say, if we moved beyond his physical appearance, what’s the DNA of the character that’s cut across those 75 years?

It’s his red hair tufted. It’s his laugh. It’s the speed with which he moves. And then it was how his silhouette changed. He was much more round-bellied before and bottom-weighted, and then he became much more top-weighted. We started looking at him and saying, ‘What type of person is he? How old is he?’ Because – cartoon characters – sometimes it’s tough to know how old they are. And we kind of felt that he was a troublemaker, a little antisocial and very independent – we thought: he’s a perpetual teenager.

So we tried to model his physicality more on that of teenage proportions. And then we went through a lot of the design phase of… there are things that happen in 2D and we had to see how they worked in 3D. We had to play subtly with his proportions – that we would make his beak as elastic as possible… that his run and walk cycles gave us maximum squash and stretch. We wanted his hair tuft and his tail feathers to be as expressive as possible, so in the rigging and design, they could be adjunct to all his emotional expressions.

We were very aware of how he started in design, but the character we found that everybody knew and loved – the iconic one – was the late design phase where he has the 1950s style pompadour. That was probably the strongest anchor for the design, but then we deviated it slightly.

Alex Zamm

JM: You talk about the speed and movement of the character, but there also has to be a lot of speed when it comes to the comedy. He’s got a style all to his own, especially with the dialogue.

AZ: The dialogue and the physicality are really married with Woody. And in terms of all the actors I’ve worked with – live-action and animated: he’s the fastest. I’m on set mapping out his motion pads, and we found out very quickly, by the end of the first day, that he can move much faster than we can.

So it was very exciting to have such a highly-kinetic, incaffeinated character. And then once we knew how much energy he was omitting, we started working with the voice – and the voice is the voice. It’s been established for a long time. It’s a high-pitched voice. It has a very specific frequency, or secret sauce as we call it, taking the normal recording and then it’s sped-up and pitch-shifted…sometimes line by line so it has the maximum effect.

JM: You’ve directed films with real animals as the lead characters (“Beverly Hills Chihuahua 2”, “Dr. Dolittle: Million Dollar Mutts”. Did it prove to be a challenge with a lead character who’s an animated animal?

AZ: I think every movie has its unique challenges and unique work flow and problem-solving skills. I’ve always been involved in animation. I started as a gag cartoonist for magazines, and I got very involved in a lot of animal cartoons I was doing. And I always loved how animals show us our humanity. And it was a lot of fun to do something like “Beverly Hills Chihuahua” or “Dr. Dolittle” where you’re really using the physicality of the animal and then supplementing… human emotions by digitally replacing their faces.

And that’s a lot of fun to do, but you’re somewhat limited. You’re limited often by what the animals can really do. And then you go to full CGI animals – even in “Beverly Hills Chihuahua”, there are a couple of shots where there are full CG dogs, cause there are certain things that we couldn’t get the dogs to do – it was very freeing to go into full CGI lead character. He wasn’t behaving exactly like how a bird would or a human – he was really true to the spirit of Woody.

JM: And I love that the DVD also includes one of the classic Woody shorts (“Niagara Fools”-1956). In the movie, Woody has to protect his home in the woods from the construction of a new house. Are you a wilderness guy? Have you ever interacted with any WILD animals?

AZ: Oh yeah. I actually grew-up in Woodstock, NY. I grew-up in the woods on a very remote bit of property. In fact, my parents built their house and I helped out with the construction. So the building of a house stage by stage was something I was familiar with, along with all the problems that come with it, and also learning to cohabitate with nature.

My mother is someone who’s like St. Francis of Assisi or Dr. Dolittle. She was always coming home with wild animals. We always were involved with animals as a big part of our life. One time nearby where I grew up, there was a construction site and someone had killed a groundhog – it was a mother who had wandered onto the site. So the baby was wandering around looking for its mother, and my mother, of course, adopted it.

So we grew up having a groundhog in the house, named Marvin Mammal. He would sleep in my bed and follow me around, so it was always an interesting balance between him being… a wild animal and a domesticated animal, cause he could get nippy if he wanted to. I’ve always grown up with animals all around the house and have been very comfortable with them – everything from snakes and owls and everything in between.

I love films about animals. I think there’s something wonderful because we find our humanity that reflect our idiosyncrasies – what it means to be human. They’re great vehicles for reflecting all our idiosyncrasies and foibles.

JM: So when you were coming up with the story for “Woody Woodpecker”, you must’ve used your childhood as inspiration.

AZ: I think you always find something personal in your movies – or any story. For me, this fun balance is always a wonderful theme and especially for the lead human character, played by Timothy Omundson, is Lance Walters, after Walter Lantz. And he’s out of balance, like many of us feel: he’s not connected to nature, he’s involved too much in work, he’s lost a little connection to his son. And I think everybody’s looking for a balance in the world and in their own lives, whether you’re battling a woodpecker or trying to balance a normal day. But I think it’s a pretty universal theme, and I was thrilled that Universal let me make a very ecologically minded movie also about preserving nature.

JM: I’m going to end with a question out of the Barbara Walters Playbook: if you were a bird, what kind of bird would you be?

AZ: That’s a really good question. Well now, having spent time with Woody, I think being a woodpecker would be fantastic. You might get a headache from all the pecking, but I see their impish spirit. I think I would enjoy that. Second choice would be an owl. They’re just incredibly soulful and wise animals.

Jackson Murphy

Jackson Murphy

Jackson Murphy is a movie critic and entertainment columnist. He is the creator of the website Lights-Camera-Jackson.com, and has made numerous appearances on television and radio.
Jackson Murphy
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