Over the Hedge becomes first computer generated comic strip

The cast of Over the Hedge
T. Lewis and Michael Fry with the cast of “Over the Hedge.” ‘ DreamWork SKG Animation. Used by permission. All Rights Reserved.

Regardless of how well the “Over the Hedge” movie does this upcoming weekend, Michael Fry and co-creator T. Lewis will claim one honor that no other comic strip can boast: “Over the Hedge” will be the first comic strip to be made into a fully computer generated major motion picture.

The movie has actually been in the works for over a decade, but in the beginning it was Fox Studios, not DreamWorks, who tried to take it to the big screen. The comic strip was launched in 1995 to just over 60 newspapers and by 1996, the movie was being pitched to several studios by Jim Cox, a film writer and producer, who had spotted the comic strip in the LA Times. Fox and DreamWorks expressed the most interest, but it was Fox who presented the better deal and Michael and Jim began writing the script. Fox’s vision for the film was a mix of live action actors with

Over the Hedge Art(Left to right) RJ the raccoon (BRUCE WILLIS), Verne the turtle (GARRY SHANDLING), Hammy the squirrel (STEVE CARELL) make a run for it with their snacks, accompanied by Ozzie the possum (WILLIAM SHATNER), Heather the possum (AVRIL LAVIGNE), Lou the porcupine (EUGENE LEVY), Penelope the porcupine (CATHERINE O’HARA), and Stella the skunk (WANDA SYKES) on top Gladys’ (ALLISON JANNEY) car. All images courtesy DreamWorks Animation SKG.

computer generated animals like the recent “Scooby Doo” (2002) and “Garfield: The Movie” (2004).

But working with Fox soon became frustrating. The movie never picked up momentum and internally it was losing its champions. After four years of withering, the project was killed. According to T., when the decision was made to work with Fox, Jeffery Katzenberg – one of the three founders of DreamWorks SKG prophetically stated, “Fox will never make the movie and when they fail, we will make it.” And so it did.

Once the movie got to DreamWorks in 2000, Katzenberg placed it on fast track. Because of copyright and other legalities, a new script had to be written. Michael and Jim took the movie’s setting back to a prequel to the strip where all the characters meet for the first time allowing the audience, who may not have read the strip before, to be introduced to the characters and how they became friends.

The move from newspaper to film wasn’t seamless. T.’s fine brush and pen style just didn’t work in a 3D animation world. The characters – once static black and white images in the newspaper now had the liberty to move and be much more expressive. It is with this new freedom that one will see the most divergence from the original strip. According to T., RJ, the main character of strip and film is, “much less cynical and restrained” and is much more animated in personality.

Both Michael and T. agree that DreamWorks did an exceptional job at keeping the characters true to their comic strip origins – which was a priority for Michael. DreamWorks was careful to include them throughout the production and as Michael adds, “[DreamWorks production crew] were great students of the strip. If they were not fans before they became fans; They really captured the spirit of the it.” Both creators were brought in at various times to help in the production. T. help design additional secondary characters and Michael was brought back in to tighten up the script toward the end.

Looking past the buzz and excitement of the movie, Michael and T. are still cartoonist at heart and know that once the hoopla of the movie dies down, they still have a strip that will long live the movie. During the 2005 NCS convention in Scottsdale AZ, the creators got in front of the executives at United Media, their syndicate, to discuss the movie’s release and the unique opportunity it afforded them to promote the strip again to newspapers. The duo was later brought back to New York to present the movie project to the United Media sales staff. For the staff and executives the reality of this project was becoming clear. Though many strips are optioned for television and film, this movie was not only real, but also being made real by animation powerhouse. To promote the movie, DreamWorks will spend around $40 Million to get people into the theaters. United Media created a marketing campaign to ride the movies coat-tails.

Over the Hedge spot artThe mischievous raccoon RJ (BRUCE WILLIS) comes up with a plan to use the hyperactive squirrel Hammy (STEVE CARELL) to rob a group of Trail Guide Gals. All images courtesy DreamWorks Animation SKG.

This spring, according to Mary Anne Grimes, Executive Director at United Media, the syndicate has been promoting “Over the Hedge” anew via the usual channels (print and electronic marketing, personal sales visits, etc.) and will soon be launching a new “Over the Hedgeweb site. A new book called “Over the Hedge: Stuffed Animals” has been printed and available since the first of March. In the last two months, the comic strip has added about 25 new newspapers to their client list including the New York Daily News, Las Vegas Review and the Denver Post. The hope is that if the movie does well, more newspapers will pick up the strip to associate themselves with the success of the film.

As far as the quirkly little strip, the movie has also had an impact it. Michael explains that the exposure to 200 other writers working on the film and then seeing the characters alive and moving has been the source of many new ideas. T. says working on the movie has also been a positive impact on the strip. “It has refined my ardor for the strip because it is being scrutinized more,” he says.

Over the Hedge” opens this Friday.