Interview: Ken Duncan On Creating New Scenes for The Iron Giant

The Iron Giant: Signature Edition, director Brad Bird’s remastered masterpiece of war, peace, and paranoia, returns at last to theaters, with new scenes courtesy of Duncan Studio.

“Working with a director who understands character, and is supervising from the standpoint of how a character should work, isn’t always pleasant,” Duncan told me. “Sometimes it doesn’t even result in a good film. But working with Brad was pretty amazing.”

Duncan also worked with veterans of the original film, including some — like animation supervisor Chris Sauve, who reprised his role animating Dean and brought his original model sheets for the job — who have been working with Duncan Studio for years. Duncan and Suave joined Annie’s supervising animator Wendy Perdue, effects animator Michel Gagné, original background department head Dennis Venizelos, animator Sandro Cleuzo, and a crew of about 20 in upgrading The Iron Giant for its signature edition iteration.

“When the opportunity arose to produce new scenes originally planned for The Iron Giant, my first thought was Duncan Studio,” said Bird in a press statement. “Beyond the fact that Ken Duncan himself is a brilliant animator, his staff was blessed with several veterans of the original Iron Giant team, which helped immeasurably in our effort to have the new scenes blend in seamlessly with our original footage.”

I spoke with Duncan by phone about how his studio’s work on The Iron Giant: Signature Edition came to pass, and why hand-drawn animation, after years of laboring beneath CG’s towering shadow, is on the comeback trail.

Congratulations on being part of a timeless classic.

Ken Duncan: It feels pretty cool. Who would’ve thought? I enjoyed the film when I first saw it, and I never thought I’d be part of it so many years later. It’s pretty awesome, especially to work with Brad Bird.

So how did it happen?

Ken Duncan: A producer at WB called us one day and asked us if we still did that old-fashioned hand-drawn animation, and I said we did. [Laughs] Then he mentioned that there were two sequences that were to be added to The Iron Giant, and were we interested in it, and I said, “Of course!” I was kind of taken aback by it, so I hung up without asking if Brad Bird was involved.

Upon reflection, I thought that I wouldn’t do it if he wasn’t; there was no way I would do them, if he didn’t want them to be done. On a future call, we were told that Brad for sure was going to be involved, and in fact would be directing them. Everything worked out, so we put together a crew. We had a couple people here at the studio who had worked on the original, but we had to bring in a few more.

How long ago did this project bubble up?

Ken Duncan: I think it [started] around March, [and the production] was around March to July.

Is there anything you can tell us about the new scenes?

Ken Duncan: I would love to, but all I can tell you is that there is a sequence between Dean and Annie, which is very short but adds an extra dimension to their characters. And there is another one involving the Iron Giant’s dream, where you find out some more information about [the Giant] as well.

These were previously existing scenes that didn’t make the film?

Ken Duncan: That’s right. In an earlier DVD release of the film, there was some supplemental material featuring several sequences that were never finished, but we didn’t do those. There were also a couple others which were storyboarded, that Brad felt would make the story stronger if they were in the film. And the way they were boarded back then, because they didn’t have a lot of time or money, was to try and put as much information into the storyboard as possible. Those were the two sequences that we did.

The cool thing is that when Brad launched us, he would talk to us about why they were boarded in the first place, and how they should work into the story. It’s not like someone thought of these cool new ideas to add into the film after the fact. They were important to Brad for the story in the first place, so he’s getting the film to where he wanted it to be 15 years ago.

How do they fit into the wider arc of the story, or the characters themselves?

Ken Duncan: Actually, there’s a bit of abstraction in the Iron Giant’s dream sequence, and I think Brad cool with that. But the one between Annie and Dean is kind of obvious, in terms of how it works into the story. But he tried to explain to us, as far as how it works from a character standpoint, and within the story itself.

How much did you talk with Brad about the film itself, and some of the technical issues with bringing it back?

Ken Duncan: Well, once we got the crew together, he actually came down to the studio for a good part of the day to help launch us on every shot. The cool thing is that Michel Gagné, who worked on the original film, did the effects with us, and Chris Sauve, who supervised Dean and also did some storyboarding on the original film, works at my studio. So even if Brad wasn’t here with us every minute, those two were so intimate with the original film and what Brad was thinking that they had answers for anyone who had questions. We could also consult Tony Fucile, who is up at Pixar and checked out our stuff every one or two weeks. Putting together a team that was well-versed on the film was very important.

What did your employees who worked on the original film tell you about what it was like to make it back then?

Ken Duncan: It’s funny, because Chris, for instance, has been with me for around eight years, and we’ve talked on and off about what it was like during that time. What it was like to work with Brad, who is very concise and great at explaining what he wants. So I had heard about Brad for many years, and to actually get to experience working with him was wonderful. If things weren’t working exactly as they should, Brad was very gracious and cool about explaining why.

We were only doing two minutes of animation for him, but I would love to do a full film with him. You know, I come from character animation, where there is nothing better than doing a feature film focusing on character animation. And working with a director who understands character, and is supervising from the standpoint of how a character should work, isn’t always pleasant; sometimes it doesn’t even result in a good film. But working with Brad was pretty amazing.

So the new scenes in The Iron Giant: Signature Edition total about two minutes?

Ken Duncan: I think initially they said four minutes. But then when they timed the storyboards, it turned out to be two. We hoped for more!

Did you have a sense that The Iron Giant would grow in importance and relevance back when you first saw it?

Ken Duncan: While I can’t predict the future, when I saw the film at the time, while I was at Disney, it had this independent spirit. Brad wasn’t doing a traditional myth or fairy tale, per se; he was making a great film that also focused on characters and their relationships. And at the time, there were a lot of animators I knew who wished they could work on something else besides myths and fairy tales, so they were amazed by the film. We thought it was great for animation, because it was something unique, which is what we’re always looking for in animation. Well, at least I am.

I remember it feeling so strange that the theaters were empty but everyone who was in there was crying. The Iron Giant is The Velvet Underground of animation.

Ken Duncan: [Laughs] Exactly! When I read that it was coming back, I went online to grab some tickets. But when I went back to get some more, by noon they were sold out. It’s encouraging to see that fans are coming out to watch it.

Did you have any conversation with WB about extending the release, if the clamor was great enough?

Ken Duncan: No, there was no conversation about that with me, but my feeling is that, yeah, if it does really well, it would be awesome if they tried to have a wider or longer release. I think it would be cool for the sake of the film. I mean, it’s awesome that they’re doing this in the first place. I think the new regime at WB under Chris deFaria has an appreciation for animation. It’s cool that they did this, because they really didn’t have to.

Have you been involved with the Blu-ray release?

Ken Duncan: They shot some video of us when Brad was here and we were working on it, so I think they’re putting together a documentary on it.

The animation industry took off on a CGI tangent after The Iron Giant, but now 2D is coming back around.

Ken Duncan: I keep saying this, but I find more and more young people to be curious about 2D, and even accepting of it, maybe because they’ve seen so much CG. I personally feel that 2D, especially with a mixture of technology, can provide different looks and explore acting styles. In my opinion, it still has a way to go. It’s kind of sad that 2D died, as they say, just as the technology was getting better and giving animators different tools to use.

Yeah, I think films like Song of the Sea are illustrating how powerful a mix of 2D and technology can be.

Ken Duncan: Exactly. Hand-drawn animation is an open door, as far as what can be done. Why not use it for detective stories, or horror films? The problem is that producers and distributors are usually skittish about working with something that is so unique. They want to see something that has been done already.

This article appeared at Cartoon Brew

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