After receiving an Oscar nomination for his animated short Head Over Heels in 2013, Timothy Reckart has quickly found himself in animation’s upper echelon, making his feature directorial debut this year with Sony Picture Animation’s faith-based animated adventure, The Star.
Originally developed at the Henson Company in the late ’90s—when Reckart was in junior high—The Star sat on a shelf for years until it’s time finally came, with its young director turning around the film in record time. With a cast including Steven Yeun, Keegan-Michael Key, Gina Rodriguez and All the Money in the World‘s Christopher Plummer as King Herod, The Star tells the timeless story of the nativity, but from the point of view of the animals involved.
While he is a person of faith, Reckart never set out to make faith-based films—but when he signed on to The Star, the director was compelled by a vision for how to make a film that would be accessible to a broader audience, a vision shared by producer DeVon Franklin. Below, Reckart discusses his transition from stop-motion to the world of computer-generated animation and how he turned around a studio animated feature in less than two years.
It’s been a long journey for The Star. What made this the right moment to release this film?
The way DeVon Franklin puts it is, “You can try to get a project to go, but a lot of times they just don’t go until it’s their time,” and this time, the pieces all fell together. I had a meeting with DeVon and we both really liked each other. I liked the way that he looks at doing faith-based movies. I think too often, faith ends up being the crutch that people use to plaster over an otherwise maybe substandard film. I have never had any interest in doing that. But then, neither does DeVon and neither did Tony [Vinciquerra, Sony Pictures CEO].
They wanted to make a movie that could pull people in from outside the faith community, too. So all of that, put together with the fact that telling the nativity story from the point of view of the animals actually affords me, the filmmaker, a kind of creative license. The Bible doesn’t tell us what the animals are doing, so there was an opportunity to really do an original story.
What was your approach in figuring out your visual style for the film?
I was coming from never having done CG. All of my animation background prior to this was in stop-motion, so the thing I was really interested in getting was a rich textural aspect to the world—the type of thing that comes for free in stop-motion, because if you want fur, you just put fur on the character.
Reverse engineering from the fact that I wanted the world to feel tactile, and textural, we decided to go with a semi-realistic approach to the animals. For the character designs, we tried to go for something that was anatomically inspired, but still expressive.
When it came to the world of the film, we did a lot of research into the archeology and the history of the time of Jesus and the Roman Empire. One fun thing that we realized was that in this colonial context, there would have been buildings of a Roman Architectural style, and buildings of a more Israelite Jewish architectural style, so part of what we were trying to do was show how strong or how weak the Roman presence in the city was by using that architectural thinking.
I think the bigger thing was we wanted to make sure the movie didn’t feel dusty and brown, the way that we’re used to seeing this kind of world. The big insight that we worked off of was the fact that these buildings weren’t two thousand years old, two thousand years ago. They all had a fresh coat of paint on. It kind of gave us a way to make the world more colorful.
Certain images in The Star seem to pop out as if they’re three-dimensional.
I think a big piece of it is just the way that you move the camera, and moving the camera as though you’re making a live-action film, which is again something I kind of inherited from a stop-motion background. I’ve never been in 2D, so I tend to think in terms of 3D, live-action camera language. Whereas, I suppose some animation directors approach things with a more flat two-dimensional style.
What were the first steps taken on this film when it finally got the green light?
We had a really short schedule because from the time we picked up those old Henson drafts, back in January of 2016, we knew our release date was this year. What that meant was we had a little less than two years to make the movie from start to finish, which is insanely short for an animated film.
Basically, we worked continually in tandem. We were doing storyboards while we were writing script pages; as soon as a scene was scripted, it was out to the storyboard team. We did three different story screenings, which was really done in record time. Some movies have to do dozens of screenings before you’re finally ready to make the movie, but we didn’t have that kind of time. So, once we felt like we had it paced out and the story was pretty clear, we kind of locked and went into polish phase.
How did the film’s voice cast come together?
We put together our cast list—our first choice, second choice, third choice. Obviously, our first choice, we’re really shooting for the moon. We thought, “Okay, maybe we can get Oprah, maybe we can get Tyler Perry,” assuming we’d get some no’s. But actually, we got so many more yeses than we really anticipated, so we didn’t have to go too deep into our bench of choices.
One thing that’s interesting is the sheer number of characters in this movie. Part of the reason we could have so many amazing celebrities in the movie is just that we had to cast that many parts. It started to be a thing of, Are we going to be able to distinguish this person’s voice from that person’s voice? I started to think of it as a little bit of an opera, making sure that we had our tenor, a baritone, our bass, and if we already had our bass, maybe not doubling up on that, so that we would have different layers and you would be able to tell who was talking even if the character wasn’t on screen.
The Star features some visually complicated scenes. How did you go about charting those out?
You can only get so far in storyboards, especially when representing 3D movement through a space. So once that is kind of locked in, the next phase is going to layout, where they use a low poly version of the set and a virtual camera to create a pre-vis of the movie. We didn’t do that with every shot, but for the parts that were more complicated, especially from a production point of view, because that’s not only about planning out camera moves—that’s also about planning out, how much of the city do we actually need to build in order to achieve this sequence?
What was your approach when it came to mining visual gags or ideas?
We took a number of different tacks. We did a writers’ roundtable at one point for comedy ideas. We also did really fruitful work with the storyboard artists, doing a storyboard brainstorm session where we screened the movie for a bunch of storyboard artists and got around a table and went through the movie, five minutes at a time, inviting people to throw out gags, many of which were never going to make it in the movie because they would change the rating. But that kind of atmosphere really yields a lot of fun ideas, and a lot of times, it makes the whole thing funnier.
But then there was also the thing of just ad-libbing by the actors. The nice thing was we got them early enough that we were able to fold a lot of the actor ad-libs into the story screenings, and then be able to write lines from the characters that were sharing that scene where they could respond. Because we’re recording them each individually, it’s not necessarily going to be the case that you actually have the ability to have people respond to an ad-lib. But we were lucky, and we did.
How did Mariah Carey’s original song for the film, “The Star,” come together?
We knew that we wanted the movie to be in large part musically driven. It’s not a musical, but we wanted to include Christmas music in the movie, and ideally to help tell the story. From the very beginning in our screenings, we were using temp music—slotting, “Well, here’s where we want to use ‘What Child Is This’, and here’s where we want to use ‘Children Go Where I Send You.’”
We found out Mariah was interested and it was like, which area is going to be the most fruitful for an original title song? The place where her song fits, originally there was some other pre-existing Christmas carol, but what we were able to do with the temp music was set a toe for the kind of epic scope of that part of the thing. I think that was a good jumping-off point for Mariah and Marc Shaiman to write their song. It helped evoke the mood we wanted for that part of the movie, but obviously it was a completely originally melody, and the great thing about what they put together is that it’s continually responding to what’s in the picture, lyrically speaking.
The Star is your first feature. Did you face a learning curve in making the film?
The biggest thing really was the CG pipeline, which is very different from stop-motion, and took some adjustment. I was just continually learning on the job. The executive staff at Sony was always really supportive; actually, I’d been having meetings with [Sony Pictures Animation SVP of Creative] Jenny Marchick since my short film was nominated, and she’s the one that ultimately brought me on to the project. They just had a lot of faith in me to actually carry the movie off. It was painful sometimes, but I never felt like I was pushing a boulder up a hill alone. I couldn’t have done it without the film’s producer, Jenni Magee-Cook, and I always felt like I had the rest of the team there pushing with me.