Willoughby Wonka! The sad story of animating Terry Crews with real candy

Foreshadow Films and the stop motion secrets behind Melanoff's Sad Story.

Netflix has been on a hot streak with animation recently, giving us everything from the anime of new Ghost in the Shell to stoner-curios like Midnite Gospel. The best of the bunch though is The Willoughbys, an anarchic family film that somehow blends Ricky Gervais, Lemony Snicket, Wes Anderson, Home Alone and Roald Dahl all into one.

Released in the spring, the film came back into radar recently with the release of a bonus short by the name of Melanoff's Sad Story, a peek into the back story of confectioner hero Melanoff, as voiced by Terry Crews.  

Unlike the CGI employed in The Willoughbys, Melanoff's Sad Story was animated entirely in stop motion by Canada's Foreshadow Films. We spoke to Heath Affolter from the studio to find out how the short was brought to wonderful life; with the recent announcement of Chicken Run 2 coming to Netflix, perhaps Aardman may soon be given a 'chicken run' for its money by Foreshadow! 

The sequence was cut-down from its original length during post-production, so how does it feel to have it out there in full?

It's a real treat to finally get to share it with everyone. We produced it in the summer of 2018 and the film was released on Netflix in April 2020, so we've had to sit quietly about it for a while. Luckily, as animators we've been trained to be patient!

What was the biggest challenge here? Perhaps nailing that unique 'made of candy' look?

We tried to use as much real candy as possible on set, not only because it makes for a more realistic and delicious look, but also because buying candy is cheaper than making fake 'real-looking candy'... plus we can eat the pieces we don't use!

But for the puppets, real candy wouldn't work because we're constantly touching and moving the puppet, and each part of the costume needs to be an exact size to work with the proportions of the design. So much of that candy was 3D printed, which means each part needs a blueprint design, needs to be modelled in software, printed, painted and fastened to the puppet. 

As for the sets, the bigger they are, the more expensive they are, and if a one-foot-tall puppet is supposed to be in a enormous valley made of jello mountains and lolly pop trees, the set would have to be HUGE, so sometimes we have to composite the character into the set in post so the set can be made smaller, with real candy.

Somehow, with enough thought, research and planning, we always seems to figure out a way to make things work.

Why was stop motion used here instead of the CGI behind The Willoughbys?

Melanoff is a candy-maker, so director Kris Pearn (who LOVES stop-motion, and worked at Aardman) thought it would be an entertaining break from the style of the rest of the film, to have the sequence look like it was all made of real candy. Melanoff narrates the fantastical cut-away, so it makes sense that in his mind he sees everything as candy.

Stop-motion has a charm about it that no other form of animation can quite capture. That hand-crafted look, people just love. They can tell it's real, and kinda feel it more than hand-drawn or CGI. They know at some point in time this little world really existed, and most people have a better understanding of how stop motion is made, so that understanding leads to a bigger appreciation. They even love seeing the little mistakes: the set bumps, the fur moving around. It's pretty much the only animation medium where mistakes are celebrated. 

Which part of the sequence are you most proud of?

The puppets look amazing and spot on from the awesome designs Kyle McQueen (production designer) created. They were a collaboration of several artists working closely under Jon Affolter's leadership.

Jon custom built the ball and socket rig, filled out the body with foam, made the costume with leather, cloth, silicone moulds, needle felting, 3D printing, and then all the eyes and mouths for each expression and in-between were designed, modelled, 3D printed, and painted.

I also love the shots inside Melanoff's factory. It's such a slick looking location and the dramatic-but-colourful lighting Thomas Affolter was able to create just looks eye-popping. We were able to build that set to scale with the puppets so everything in those shots are 'in-camera', as compared to some of the exterior shots, where the characters are composited into the set.

That set was 12’x20’ with a trap door in the middle of it so the animator could pop up and make him walk around in the wide shot. That mushroom cloud of candy turned out pretty rad, too. I think originally the crew wasn't sure we'd be able to pull it off because it just looked too crazy with too many moving parts. I think they kind of expected us to just give them something along the same lines, but simpler.

However, by just breaking down the FX and planning it carefully we were able to get it almost exactly like Kyle's concept art. 

Stream The Willoughbys now on Netflix; enjoy Melanoff's Sad Story free on the Netflix Futures YouTube channel.

Related: Terry Crews and other sexual violence survivors tell their stories in animated #MeToo PSAs

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