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Animating a New Legacy: How Tonic DNA Brought Space Jam Back to Life

Behind the Work 363 Add to collection

As fans enjoy the sequel to the iconic 1996 live action and animation hybrid, LBB speaks to the team at Tonic DNA to discover how this New Legacy was drawn up

Animating a New Legacy: How Tonic DNA Brought Space Jam Back to Life

For millions of people currently in their late twenties and early thirties, 1996’s Space Jam holds near-mythical status in the world of entertainment. The film’s ambitious and iconic blend of live action and animation, with 90s megastars Michael Jordan and Bill Murray at the peak of their powers, is infused with memories of childhood for a generation of kids.

Working on a sequel, then, with LeBron James stepping into the not-inconsiderably sized sneakers of Michael Jordan, could have been a daunting task. Fortunately for Warner Brothers and the Looney Tunes squad, the Montreal-based animation powerhouse Tonic DNA was on-hand to ensure this reboot was a slam dunk. 

To go behind the hand-drawn scenes of the animation blockbuster, LBB spoke with several members of the team who brought the project to life. In no particular order, we heard from head of production for Space Jam Laura Montero, lead animator Alain Seguin, FX supervisor Geneviève Létourneau, animation supervisor for Space Jam Todd Shaffer, and supervising producer and Tonic DNA partner Howard Huxham…


Above: The official trailer for Warner Bros’ Space Jam 2: A New Legacy


LBB> Hello, all! First things first - how was the experience of bringing such an iconic franchise to life for a sequel?

Laura Montero> It was amazing! I have been passionate about traditional animation since I was very young. So to be able to take part in a project involving some of the most memorable characters from my childhood felt like a dream. 

Alain Seguin> It was fun and intimidating in equal measure. As an animator, you're responsible for making these crazy characters come to life, with all the subtleties that come with it. That's a lot of responsibility, especially considering that the entire population of planet Earth knows how Porky has a stutter, or how laid-back Bugs is - the little details of their behaviors that make them iconic.

Geneviève Létourneau> ​I felt very focused and determined to bring out the best in my team's work, and I was personally fortunate to have been able to animate 2D effects in some of the shots. 


LBB> Before this sequel was announced, Space Jam was a film strongly associated with the 90s. Many fans fondly remember that era of their lives when they think about watching the movie. Did you feel at any stage that you were trying to evoke a sense of nostalgia with this project?

Howard Huxham> At Tonic, our trip down nostalgia lane started a few years ago, as we have been working on a reboot of the famous Looney Tunes shorts for Warner Bros since 2019. The super talented team at WB wanted to recreate the Bob Clampett style faithfully in look, pace and storytelling. Working on this film has felt like the giant-scale culmination of all this work.

Todd Shaffer> With any project involving the Looney Tunes characters, we want to respect the work that has come before. So in order to do that, it’s important that we locate which era, starting all the way back from the Schlesinger work in the 30s, will serve as our stylistic foundation on a given project. Since Space Jam was established in the 90s that did serve as Spike Brandt’s foundation, and it was Spike and Devin Crane who defined the look of the characters.


LBB> Which did you guys find more useful in terms of inspiration for your animation - the original film, or the work you’d already been doing with Looney Tunes in a more modern era?

Geneviève Létourneau> I think it was a bit of both and more. I can't deny that my experience on the recent Looney Tunes cartoons had an influence creatively, but I would also look at the original movie to try to get a sense of the quality required. We also wanted to raise the bar, and take what was best of the old cartoons from the 40s. 

Todd Shaffer> I think we were using the same basic model sheets that were used on the original Space Jam, with some characters being slightly modernised or homogenised so they all fit into the same world. It’s a big cast of characters that sometimes come from different eras of Looney Tune history.

Alain Seguin> The work I'm doing with Looney Tunes is keeping my drawing and animation skills sharp, and so in that there's a momentum that helps with a project like Space Jam 2. There's also the acting sensibilities that are mirrored in the projects, letting us animators get a refresher on who these characters are. That said, it's worth mentioning how - though the general public might not detect it - there are gaps in design style between the two projects; Bugs in Looney Tunes has a slick, animalistic head that hails from old 1940s cartoons, while the one in Space Jam has that more ruffled, looser look that people like Chuck Jones brought to life in the 70s. Those differences kind of got spun up in the animator's head, and so there was a decent level of reset that had to happen.


LBB> Can you give us an insight into any particular scenes you worked on - are there any moments that especially stand out for you? 

Laura Montero> Honestly, everything felt very special. One scene that I remember fondly involves a Mad Max-inspired sequence, because Fury Road is a film I admire a lot.

Howard Huxham> There is a scene when Daffy tells Sam to shoot the ball (aka towards the basket), but Sam interprets this more literally and shoots it with his guns, getting Daffy in the process. This is one of my favorite scenes (and it also made it into one of the official trailers).

Geneviève Létourneau> I loved working on the iconic dynamite explosions. In the old cartoons, those explosions contributed a lot to that slapstick humour that I remember and love so much. Like Laura, I also loved doing effects in the Mad Max sequence. Road Runner and Coyote are two of my favourite characters!

LBB> The original 1996 film is such a cult classic. Before getting involved in this project, what were your memories of that original movie?

Alain Seguin> It’s a hazy memory to be honest, but a good one. I remember leaping into my career in animation at the time, and the Monstars struck me as premium animation to be studied. It's funny how, when you're working in animation, any good piece of acting or action in an animation film feels worth dissecting at length! 

Geneviève Létourneau> I was young when the first movie came out, and so I have fond memories of it. It was the first film I saw - even before Roger Rabbit - that showed how cool it can be to have cartoons walking and talking alongside real people. That made quite an impression on me. 


LBB> And has your experience working on the sequel changed your view of the franchise at all?

Alain Seguin> It has reinforced it. Warner Brothers is gutsy to stick to characters that have been around nearly a full century, which engenders admiration in me. Not only that, but that the new movie is so self-aware about this is hilarious. Hey, I see Looney Tunes lasting till the next century, maybe more! At least until Marvin finally eradicates all life on Earth.

Laura Montero> I think I am more aware about the evolution of these characters through time, and how their features and animation have changed depending on the era and the animator, whether that be Chuck Jones, Tex Avery, or Friz Freleng to name three examples. 

Todd Shaffer> The sequences we worked on were a lot of fun, and there is a lot of great Looney Tunes entertainment value in them. I think I can say with confidence that some of the animation in this film is the best, and most polished, that’s ever been done with these characters. We have a generation of animators today who are as good as the greatest animators in history, and in some cases, better. It was a joy to see these characters in their hands. 


LBB> Needless to say, the past 18 months and counting have been challenging for many people. Do you think that the fantastical, wacky, and escapist nature of Space Jam could be arriving at the perfect cultural moment?

Howard Huxham> I think animation in general has all of these qualities and, yes, getting a dose of some nostalgic characters in a huge blockbuster movie, with all the fun and silliness of Space Jam, is like giving your soul a bowl of hot soup at the end of a long winter’s day.

Alain Seguin> Definitely. People need a break, and to go back to movie theaters. Is there a better movie to get everyone out again, seeing that there's a light at the end of the tunnel? Give me wacky, funny, crazy animation over sappy dramas anytime, especially these days!

Geneviève Létourneau> Strangely, being so focused on the production of this film made the isolation and the pandemic a bit more bearable. Having a project and being needed by a team is a great way to pass through tough times. Hopefully, the energy and passion that went through the making of this film will shine through to those watching it.


LBB> How much of a challenge was remote working for this project? And how did you overcome any of the problems it threw up? 

Laura Montero> Remote working was - and is still - a challenge. From a technical standpoint it was time-consuming and painstaking to put into place, but our amazing IT department did a fantastic job in a very short amount of time. From a production point of view, communication was the biggest challenge. With a team of 150 artists around the world, making sure everything was ticking over without being all in the same room was hard. I am very grateful for the hard work the team did, taking into consideration the extremely challenging situation.

Alain Seguin> It's the technical stuff for animation studios that could weigh heavily, with computers being shifted around, drawing tablets being adjusted on kitchen tables, that sort of thing. And losing the studio environment was also a shame. There's something about being able to walk to another animator's station and exchanging ideas about a particular scene that adds collaboration to a movie. Still, Tonic was spectacular at keeping us integrated and feeling like we were part of a crew.


LBB> Finally, what’s one thing people might not know about this movie? 

Howard Huxham> The size of the crew needed to make this movie, under these circumstances, is likely far bigger than anyone might expect.

Alain Seguin> With traditional animation only just on the rise again, it was a little tough finding the right talent to help on such a high quality project, and so our recruiting tendrils had to reach far to find anyone experienced and well-versed in the style. I would say more than half of our animators were from Europe and beyond, making this a truly global effort!

Geneviève Létourneau> Everything about this film was created remotely. All the live-action footage was filmed before the animation crew ever touched a frame. We would have almost daily live reviews with the Warner Brothers animation team, which is not super common in a remote setting.

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TONIC DNA, Fri, 23 Jul 2021 14:54:00 GMT