It is different because it’s live action, but when you see the movie and understand it’s a story about children, with children, and about good values, it’s not so different. Even with Thornberrys, I tried to talk up to children, not down to children. I’ve had the ambition to do a live-action film for a long time. I read lots of scripts, but I didn’t like anything until I read this book. It’s a beautiful story, and it moved me. I wanted to do it.
What in the story moved you?
The emotional arc. The messages it conveyed. And, how beautifully it was written. She [author Katherine Paterson] wrote it to put her own son’s mind at ease because something similar [the death of a friend] happened to him when he was a little boy. I could identify with the outcast little boy. I grew up in Hungary with poor parents, and I was odd. I hid my drawings, too. So, I felt close to the character.
You hid your drawings?
At first I did. I wasn’t sure enough in myself. I was insecure and shy. The only difference in my situation was when finally my father noticed, he encouraged me. In this movie, the father neglects the little boy, not because he’s mean-spirited, but because he’s so busy and occupied with everyday problems and trying to provide for his family, he misses the best part of his life. He has a hard time connecting with the little boy.
In the film, the real playground bullies become imaginary creatures in the children’s backyard forest. How did you design these visual effects—the Squogre, the Hairy Vulture, and Janice Avery, the tree giant?
We have so many talented artists in my animation studio, so I thought, OK, we’ll design all the Terabithia environments and creatures in-house. I talked to Dima Malanitchev, and with my guidance, he drew all the creatures. To his credit and to mine, too, when we took the drawings to the studio, everyone fell in love with them. They never changed from the beginning. We took those designs to Weta Digital, and they did the [3D] rendering of those drawings.
The citizens of Terabithia at the end of the film are especially fanciful. Did you have anything special in mind?
My goal was to do something a little different. I wanted to have a little more artsy, imaginative, fantastical creatures than the typical rendered characters you see in other movies. I thought, ‘What would Terry Gilliam or Ridley Scott have in their movies?’ I love those filmmakers. I wanted to go in that direction.
What was the result?
We have amazing, beautifully designed characters in the end. Everything is magical. We wanted to make a magical kingdom, so we went after the not-obvious choices. One [3D] character with no significance to the story is an amazingly graceful woman with a birdcage chest, and inside birds are jumping around.
You have worked primarily in 2D for your previous films and television series—The Simpsons, Rugrats, and The Wild Thornberrys. When you saw your 2D drawings come to life in 3D, were they what you expected?
People don’t think of CGI at Klasky Csupo because most of what they see is 2D TV animation and the movies we’ve done for Paramount. But, we have a commercials division where we do lots of CGI on [Autodesk] Maya stations. My belief is that the art form and the medium are not important as long as we have beautiful stories and beautiful characters. If the story is told well, the audience will respond. I’m open to finger puppets, 3D, or live action. If the story grabs me and moves me, and I feel like I can do a great presentation, I will do it—and nothing else can change my mind.
Why did you choose Weta Digital to create the creature effects?
They were introduced to me by Walden Media. When I met them, they were just finishing up King Kong. I was impressed with their artistic integrity, the teamwork, the [fact that] people were really nice, and also they responded to our designs very positively. I could feel the artists’ amazement when they were looking at the drawings; I could tell they really liked them. They saw immediately that they would work. Obviously, they did a tiny bit of modification, but they kept the integrity of the designs.
Did you worry about whether these unusual 3D creatures would fit well into the live-action film?
They’re very well produced, and you don’t see too much of them. I don’t think it’s a given which is CG or live action because they’re beautifully rendered with lighting effects and shadows, so they seem real. Your mind will tell you they can’t be real because no such thing can exist in real life. But I think they look real.
How does the CG enhance the movie?
I think the magic is very organic to the real-life story of the children; it’s a nice balance. This movie is not your typical Hollywood crass lightweight film. It has a lot of drama and unexpected turns.
What will you work on next?
I just got off phone with my agent. He sent me the 30th script in two months, and I turned it down. I’m very picky. A movie takes two years of your life. I’m not against doing something dramatic, and I could respond to anything that warrants good moviemaking. But I think I have great understanding of how kids think. I have amazing relationships with my own five kids. I took them to the set. I love to make movies for children.
Do you think of Bridge to Terabithia as a sad movie?
I don’t think there was a dry eye at the premiere. People were in tears, but not necessarily sadness tears. It ends with a joyful moment. They had tears from joy.