Spotlight on Animation
Marc Loftus
December 13, 2016

Spotlight on Animation

Conrad Vernon co-directed 2016’s Sausage Party with Greg Tiernan. The animated feature about a sausage, out to discover the truth behind his existence, has taken in nearly $140M worldwide, far exceeding its $19M production budget. The film was Vernon’s fourth animated feature, having also worked on Shrek 2, Monsters Vs. Aliens and Madagascar 3. 
He recently spoke about that challenges of producing animated titles, the animated feature genre as a whole, and what he has planned for the future.

You’ve worked on a number of animated titles. Are you still learning, or have you managed to solve all the issues that pop up?

“I wish that was the case. It's always a test. The one thing that I know for sure is that things aren't always going to go as planned. They never do. Things always pop up left and right. [That’s] what makes it so interesting. If stories are good, they're not formulaic. So when you're working on a story, you come up with new ideas, new concepts and new ways to tell it all the time. What you have time for and what you have budget for is the big push & pull in making one of these movies, and that never changes. It's never a dull moment.”

Is that why you have so many of your own voice performances in this film — because stuff comes up and you do it?

“We have so many side characters in this movie — you know beer, toilet paper, licorice, all these characters. Basically, we have scratch dialogue tracks, which is what we kind of cut into the boards…We'll do temp voices before we can get the actors in, and sometimes the temp voices actually work and are really funny. One of our board artists, Scott Underwood, we found out is an amazing voice actor. He did Gum, Pizza, Bag of Chips…He did all these voices and they all sound so different, and they made us all laugh. So we said, ‘We've got to keep that in. That's really funny.’ It's the same thing with me. I did Toilet Paper, Can of Beer, the Hitler Sauerkraut, and it just seemed to work for the movie, so we kept it in.”

How many primary and ancillary characters are there in Sausage Party? 

“I know that our core group was five. There's Frank and Brenda, Lavash, Sammy and Teresa. That's a core group right there. Then we had these secondary characters — some that actually show up in more than one scene. Others, we kind of put them in the song and then they show up here and there throughout — [about] 15 other characters. Then we literally had hundreds of ancillary characters that were background characters. We were lucky that this was all done in a grocery store because [all] we had to do was put faces on boxes and jars and cans. 

“There were also Corn on the Cob, Head of Lettuce and The Apples and The Plums and all that stuff. We took the same face and just kind of redressed them — put a leaf on this one and a five o'clock shadow on that one, moved the eyes a little bit apart on this one. There were literally hundreds and hundreds of characters.”

So you figured out efficiencies for the pipeline?

“Yeah absolutely. The environments as well. We did the same thing where were designed five or six different shelves, or five or six different display stands and stuff like that. And then we just kind of tweaked them left and right, and put them together in a different ways in order to populate the store. We also stocked the shelves with different colored items so that they kind of reflected the country they're supposed to be in. For instance, in the Asian aisle, we made it look like Chinatown by stocking shelves with a lot of red and green product and dimming the lighting down. In the aisle where Frank and Brenda are, it's are supposed to be a Fourth of July-type thing, so we did a lot of red, white & blue characters on the shelves that made it look like old colonial homes. We thought about all that stuff so the environments would look different but we could reuse them efficiently.”

It being the end of the year, how do you see the Oscar race in the Animation category?

“I honestly don't know how it comes about. I do know in the past there have been - this isn't just my opinion, this is just fact, reported in The Hollywood Reporter and Variety, that people don't watch the animated films when they vote on them? I just don't even know how to really judge that. As far as the nominations are concerned, I know people go out and run campaigns, and they have these breakfasts for people. I don't know how all this comes about as far as what gets nominated and what doesn't, what gets voted and wins, and all that kind of stuff. I just know that there have been films that have pushed the envelope that have won in the past. I know that Shrek won, which was a big step for a first-time film from DreamWorks to win the Academy. I know that Rango won one year, which was a huge difference in the in the way things look and feel. There are times when an animated film that has been really different and new has won, and there have been times when it felt like this was throwing another bone to Pixar or DreamWorks or whoever, so it seems like another big studio has swept it away again. I don't think there's any sort of big conspiracy or anything like that. I just don't know exactly how that works.”

Who produced the animation?

“It was Nitrogen Studios up in Canada. My co-director Greg Tiernan owns the studio with his wife Nicole Stinn. I have known them for a number of years, and before Sony even picked up Sausage Party to make — before they even signed on — we had found Nitrogen Studios to do the animation. It was the live action side — Columbia Pictures — that actually did the film, financed and market and distributed.”

Is it a two- or three-year project to come up with a feature-length film of this quality?  

“Well, production-wise, yes, it was two-and-a-half years. It was another five-and-a-half to actually get it sold, because no one knew what the hell we were doing. They didn't understand it. We're were caught in this weird limbo between live action studios who said, ‘We don't understand, nor do we want to get involved in animation,’ and the animation companies saying, ‘We don't want to tarnish our brand with an R-rated movie.’” 

What's next for you?

“I actually have something in development. At the moment I'm helping out Sony Animation with the Emoji movie (Emojimovie: Express Yourself) that they just announced. I am doing that in the interim while pitching a TV show with Annapurna Pictures, who produced Sausage Party. I have another project that I'm pushing in the TV realm and then I have a couple of live-action things in the works. I'm looking to not remake — and want to make this clear — ‘reimagine’ The Toxic Avenger movie. That was just announced that I would be on to direct. I don't ever want to touch the original movie because it's so great and people have such a great memory of what it was, but to take a character do something different. It sounded like fun to me. There are a couple of other things that I have going on. Right now I'm at Sony Pictures helping out with the Emoji movie in the interim.”