SMU alumni James V. Hart ’69 and William Joyce ’81 started a conversation in 1999 that wound up as Epic, their animated fantasy-adventure film that opened in theaters in the spring and is now available on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital HD.
[UPDATE: William Joyce '81 will play a special role in 2013 SMU Homecoming festivities. At a Year of the Library event Oct. 25, he will talk about his work and sign copies of his two latest books. On Oct. 26, he will add grand marshal of the SMU Homecoming Parade to his already impressive résumé.]
“This all started with grown men admitting they believed in fairies and chasing fireflies and sharing a love for Vikings and Robin Hood and great adventures,” says Hart.
Inspired by Joyce’s children’s book The Leaf Men and the Brave Good Bugs, the action-packed story centers on a battle between forces that work to keep the natural word alive – leaf men, fairies and wisecracking slugs – and those who try to destroy it – the Boggans, a sinister collection of rat-coated creatures. The struggle plays out in a hidden forest realm. Adding a human element is the evolving relationship of Professor Bomba, a bumbling researcher tracking down tangible proof that the miniature world exists, and his estranged teenage daughter, M.K.
Characters are voiced by such stars as Beyoncé Knowles, Amanda Seyfried, Christopher Waltz, Colin Farrell and Jason Sudeikis, among others.
Epic’s stunning animation is the latest work of director Chris Wedge and Blue Sky Studios, a leader in the industry of high-resolution, computer-generated character animation and rendering. Among the studio’s best-known features are the Ice Age series, Rio and Robots. Wedge, one of the studio’s founders, co-created Robots with Joyce, who also served as a producer and production designer. Joyce was also the production designer for Epic.
Joyce, who earned a bachelor of fine arts degree from Meadows and received the SMU Distinguished Alumni Award in 2004, is perhaps best known for his illustrated children’s books, including Rolie Polie Olie, which was adapted as an animated television series for which he won three Emmy awards.
In 2009, Joyce and partners established Moonbot Studios in his hometown of Shreveport, Louisiana. Their 14-minute film, The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore, based on a story by Joyce, won a 2012 Oscar for Best Animated Short Film. The company has grown from four employees to 54 and now includes a division that develops apps, e-books, games and other interactive media. He will publish two new books in October: The Mischievians and The Sandman and the War of Dreams, the fourth volume in his Guardians of Childhood adventure series.
Although their paths never crossed at SMU, Joyce says Hart’s screenplays for the movies Hook and Bram Stroker’s Dracula caught his attention. “I decided I really want to work with this guy; he’s amazing. But, it took us five years to finally get together,” he says, despite the fact they had the same agent. “We hit it off immediately.”
Hart earned a bachelor’s degree in social science from SMU’s Dedman College but spent his senior year immersed in arts studies at Meadows. He started out in the movie business as a producer but switched to writing, a talent he discovered as an undergraduate at SMU.
“The first time anyone told me I was a writer was in an English class at SMU,” says Hart, who received SMU’s first Literati Award in 2010.
He has written more than 15 screenplays, and in 2005, he wrote the novel Capt. Hook, the Adventures of a Notorious Youth, which depicts Peter Pan’s nemesis long before they meet.
During a question-and-answer period that followed the movie screening, the alumni discussed their “epic” experience:
On casting: “It’s one of the scariest parts of the process because you have an idea of who you want … for the most part, we got the actors we wanted.”
On inspirations: “For the character of Ronan, we had classic Hollywood heroes in mind, Robert Mitchum, John Wayne …” “the illustrations of N.C. Wyeth …” “Kidnapped and Treasure Island …” “When we started talking about it in 1999, we wanted to make a Robin Hood movie …” “We are both fathers of daughters (and sons), so we were very comfortable and familiar with the father-daughter dynamic.”
On skeptics: “When we were pitching the idea, [potential backers] were most resistant to the idea of having a teenage girl as the protagonist. They didn’t believe you could make a big animated movie with a teenage girl as the lead.”
On the filmmaking process: “Notes were often very helpful. Our first draft was four hours long, and I think we ended up with a better movie than we started out with. It’s really a collaborative art … Animators are writers who use pictures instead of words.”
On Epic: “It represents a big chunk of our lives and a big chunk of the things we love.”
– Patricia Ward