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THE CONCEPT : fall sneaks

Think: Jerry. Bee suit.

Two crews of animators, a high-tech videoconferencing hookup and a whole lot of Seinfeld help create a film with a real buzz.

September 09, 2007|Sheigh Crabtree | Times Staff Writer

Not only is Jerry Seinfeld well versed in the mysterious vanishing bee situation, he claims to know the root cause.
"The thing is," Seinfeld says in a hushed voice at DreamWorks Animation in Glendale, "we're not even supposed to talk about it. But DreamWorks is behind all that. It's a publicity stunt. We vacuumed out all the hives all over the world. We're just trying to get bees in the news! Free publicity is the way we look at it."
As if Seinfeld and DreamWorks need any free publicity. In two months, the world will see the droll television star's first foray into computer-animated comedy when "Bee Movie" opens on Nov. 2.
For more than two years, Seinfeld has funneled his distinct brand of observational commentary into Barry B. Benson, who is one part leading man, one part flying insect. The recent college graduate, dressed in a black and gold sweater and sneakers, is in search of something more than a factory job at Honex producing honey. His curiosity leads him out of the hive into the big city, where he happens upon Vanessa (Renée Zellweger), a kind florist, then becomes embroiled in an inter-species lawsuit.

Seinfeld co-wrote "at least a hundred versions" of the "Bee Movie" script. He also produced the film and, via a million-dollar razzle-dazzle videoconferencing system set up in his Manhattan offices, the comic acted out every one of Barry's lines in front of 50 to 75 animators in Glendale and in Redwood City.

The two animation crews recorded and documented Seinfeld's every line reading, tick and cutup. Then they translated and enhanced it all into a 1,400-shot computer-generated comedy, with plentiful notes and changes from the comedian along the way.

"We just thought of Barry as Jerry in a bee suit," animator Antony Gray says. "But it takes a lot to reproduce Jerry's expressions. There are hundreds and hundreds of animation controls in Barry's face," says Gray, who has joined Seinfeld on this late August day.

"I would make faces or I would do gestures, I would make poses," Seinfeld says. Although he concedes that his mere presence on the video monitor, looming over them in the room, freaked a few animators out.

"I couldn't understand in the beginning why I was having so much trouble communicating," he says. "I guess that image of me was a little '1984,' Orwellian. But after a while, it's like, 'C'mon, get over it. I'm just another guy.' "

Seinfeld certainly seems like just another casually dressed creative studio type as he walks through the halls of DreamWorks Animation, referring to individual animators by name, even citing certain animators' best shots in the movie. He also helped the team find the right balance between dialogue and expressiveness.

"Sometimes I would say to them, 'Let's not sell it too much with the face,' " Seinfeld says. "Let's let the line do the work here."

Other times, it was all about the drawing. There's a scene in Vanessa's apartment, for instance, in which she puts Barry under a glass to let him out the window. "Well," Seinfeld says, animator Sean McLaughlin "just created this look of wonder and affection in Barry that says, 'Who is this person? Why is she saving me and not killing me?' It's pure expression."

Capturing the instantaneous quality of the stand-up comedian's humor in a creative environment that notoriously involves hundreds of staffers, thousands of iterations and hours of background computer churn, would appear to be wholly counter to the way Seinfeld's brand of on-the-fly cracks and commentary blossoms.

"It was really crazy in that way," he concedes. "I'm used to stand-up, which is the most immediate. No middle man, just do it right here, right now. And computer animators do just the opposite. One is the shortest possible creative process and the other is the longest. I went crazy."

Which raises the question: Why not just put Seinfeld in a motion-capture suit, record him buzzing around like a bee on a stage for a few days and then send him on his way? Animators could simply take the essence of Seinfeld in all its data-point glory and pour it into a CG model of a bee, right? Well, not quite.

"Motion capture creeps me out a little bit," Seinfeld says. "By doing it the way we did this movie, there is more comedic interpretation in what the animators are doing and what we accomplished together," Seinfeld says. "That's what I like. Reality? I can do reality. That's why I came to them and said, 'Let's go beyond reality.' That's what's really fun about animation, is that you go way, way beyond."

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sheigh.crabtree@latimes.com

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