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Ken Duncan Talks About Creating New Scenes for ‘The Iron Giant: Signature Edition’

The Iron Giant: Signature Edition, director Brad Bird’s remastered masterpiece of war, peace, and paranoia, returns to theaters this Wednesday and Sunday, with new scenes courtesy of Duncan Studio.

The two scenes total approximately two minutes, meticulously reconstructed from the original film’s storyboards, although Disney alum and Duncan Studio head Ken Duncan wished they could have been longer. Indeed, after working with the gracious and concise Bird, an animator’s director if there ever was one, Duncan wishes they could do an entire film together.

“I come from character animation, where there is nothing better than doing a feature film focusing on character animation,” Duncan told Cartoon Brew. “And working with a director who understands character, and is supervising from the standpoint of how a character should work, isn’t always pleasant. Sometimes it doesn’t even result in a good film. But working with Brad was pretty amazing.”

Duncan also worked with veterans of the original film, including some — like animation supervisor Chris Sauve, who reprised his role animating Dean and brought his original model sheets for the job — who have been working with Duncan Studio for years. Duncan and Suave joined Annie’s supervising animator Wendy Perdue, effects animator Michel Gagné, original background department head Dennis Venizelos, animator Sandro Cleuzo, and a crew of about 20 in upgrading The Iron Giant for its signature edition iteration.

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“When the opportunity arose to produce new scenes originally planned for The Iron Giant, my first thought was Duncan Studio,” said Bird in a press statement. “Beyond the fact that Ken Duncan himself is a brilliant animator, his staff was blessed with several veterans of the original Iron Giant team, which helped immeasurably in our effort to have the new scenes blend in seamlessly with our original footage.”

I spoke with Duncan by phone about how his studio’s work on The Iron Giant: Signature Edition came to pass, and why hand-drawn animation, after years of laboring beneath CG’s towering shadow, is on the comeback trail.

Cartoon Brew: Congratulations on being part of a timeless classic.

Ken Duncan: It feels pretty cool. Who would’ve thought? I enjoyed the film when I first saw it, and I never thought I’d be part of it so many years later. It’s pretty awesome, especially to work with Brad Bird.

Cartoon Brew: So how did it happen?

Ken Duncan: A producer at WB called us one day and asked us if we still did that old-fashioned hand-drawn animation, and I said we did. [Laughs] Then he mentioned that there were two sequences that were to be added to The Iron Giant, and were we interested in it, and I said, “Of course!” I was kind of taken aback by it, so I hung up without asking if Brad Bird was involved.

Upon reflection, I thought that I wouldn’t do it if he wasn’t; there was no way I would do them, if he didn’t want them to be done. On a future call, we were told that Brad for sure was going to be involved, and in fact would be directing them. Everything worked out, so we put together a crew. We had a couple people here at the studio who had worked on the original, but we had to bring in a few more.

Cartoon Brew: How long ago did this project bubble up?

Ken Duncan: I think it [started] around March, [and the production] was around March to July.

Cartoon Brew: Is there anything you can tell Cartoon Brew about the new scenes?

Ken Duncan: I would love to, but all I can tell you is that there is a sequence between Dean and Annie, which is very short but adds an extra dimension to their characters. And there is another one involving the Iron Giant’s dream, where you find out some more information about [the Giant] as well.

Cartoon Brew: These were previously existing scenes that didn’t make the film?

Ken Duncan: That’s right. In an earlier DVD release of the film, there was some supplemental material featuring several sequences that were never finished, but we didn’t do those. There were also a couple others which were storyboarded, that Brad felt would make the story stronger if they were in the film. And the way they were boarded back then, because they didn’t have a lot of time or money, was to try and put as much information into the storyboard as possible. Those were the two sequences that we did.

The cool thing is that when Brad launched us, he would talk to us about why they were boarded in the first place, and how they should work into the story. It’s not like someone thought of these cool new ideas to add into the film after the fact. They were important to Brad for the story in the first place, so he’s getting the film to where he wanted it to be 15 years ago.

Cartoon Brew: How do they fit into the wider arc of the story, or the characters themselves?

Ken Duncan: Actually, there’s a bit of abstraction in the Iron Giant’s dream sequence, and I think Brad cool with that. But the one between Annie and Dean is kind of obvious, in terms of how it works into the story. But he tried to explain to us, as far as how it works from a character standpoint, and within the story itself.

Cartoon Brew: How much did you talk with Brad about the film itself, and some of the technical issues with bringing it back?

Ken Duncan: Well, once we got the crew together, he actually came down to the studio for a good part of the day to help launch us on every shot. The cool thing is that Michel Gagné, who worked on the original film, did the effects with us, and Chris Sauve, who supervised Dean and also did some storyboarding on the original film, works at my studio. So even if Brad wasn’t here with us every minute, those two were so intimate with the original film and what Brad was thinking that they had answers for anyone who had questions. We could also consult Tony Fucile, who is up at Pixar and checked out our stuff every one or two weeks. Putting together a team that was well-versed on the film was very important.

Cartoon Brew: What did your employees who worked on the original film tell you about what it was like to make it back then?

Ken Duncan: It’s funny, because Chris, for instance, has been with me for around eight years, and we’ve talked on and off about what it was like during that time. What it was like to work with Brad, who is very concise and great at explaining what he wants. So I had heard about Brad for many years, and to actually get to experience working with him was wonderful. If things weren’t working exactly as they should, Brad was very gracious and cool about explaining why.

We were only doing two minutes of animation for him, but I would love to do a full film with him. You know, I come from character animation, where there is nothing better than doing a feature film focusing on character animation. And working with a director who understands character, and is supervising from the standpoint of how a character should work, isn’t always pleasant; sometimes it doesn’t even result in a good film. But working with Brad was pretty amazing.

Cartoon Brew: So the new scenes in The Iron Giant: Signature Edition total about two minutes?

Ken Duncan: I think initially they said four minutes. But then when they timed the storyboards, it turned out to be two. We hoped for more!

Duncan Studios' "Iron Giant" crew (in no order): Sandro Cleuzo, Chris Sauve, Wendy Perdue, Keith Osborn, Timothy Allen, Michel Gagne, Rick Farmiloe, Phil Vigil, Juliet Duncan, Emily Jiuliano, Debbie Forster, Jennie Langley, Shannon Sauve, Dan Tanaka, Bruce Zick, Dennis Venizelos, Jason Stovall, Ryan Langelier, Charlene Logan Kelly, Dan Larsen, Barbara Hamane, Sarah King, Alma Glick, Kathy Baur, Tina Angermeir, Dietz Ichishita, Cynthia French, Ray Moralis, Bethany Harnois, Jennifer Newfield, Alice Lin-White, Shawn Eddie. (Photo via Duncan Studios Facebook page)
Duncan Studios’ “Iron Giant” crew (in no order): Sandro Cleuzo, Chris Sauve, Wendy Perdue, Keith Osborn, Timothy Allen, Michel Gagne, Rick Farmiloe, Phil Vigil, Juliet Duncan, Emily Jiuliano, Debbie Forster, Jennie Langley, Shannon Sauve, Dan Tanaka, Bruce Zick, Dennis Venizelos, Jason Stovall, Ryan Langelier, Charlene Logan Kelly, Dan Larsen, Barbara Hamane, Sarah King, Alma Glick, Kathy Baur, Tina Angermeir, Dietz Ichishita, Cynthia French, Ray Moralis, Bethany Harnois, Jennifer Newfield, Alice Lin-White, Shawn Eddie. (Photo via Duncan Studios Facebook page)

Cartoon Brew: Did you have a sense that The Iron Giant would grow in importance and relevance back when you first saw it?

Ken Duncan: While I can’t predict the future, when I saw the film at the time, while I was at Disney, it had this independent spirit. Brad wasn’t doing a traditional myth or fairy tale, per se; he was making a great film that also focused on characters and their relationships. And at the time, there were a lot of animators I knew who wished they could work on something else besides myths and fairy tales, so they were amazed by the film. We thought it was great for animation, because it was something unique, which is what we’re always looking for in animation. Well, at least I am.

Cartoon Brew: I remember it feeling so strange that the theaters were empty but everyone who was in there was crying. The Iron Giant is The Velvet Underground of animation.

Ken Duncan: [Laughs] Exactly! When I read that it was coming back, I went online to grab some tickets. But when I went back to get some more, by noon they were sold out. It’s encouraging to see that fans are coming out to watch it.

Cartoon Brew: Did you have any conversation with WB about extending the release, if the clamor was great enough?

Ken Duncan: No, there was no conversation about that with me, but my feeling is that, yeah, if it does really well, it would be awesome if they tried to have a wider or longer release. I think it would be cool for the sake of the film. I mean, it’s awesome that they’re doing this in the first place. I think the new regime at WB under Chris deFaria has an appreciation for animation. It’s cool that they did this, because they really didn’t have to.

Cartoon Brew: Have you been involved with the Blu-ray release?

Ken Duncan: They shot some video of us when Brad was here and we were working on it, so I think they’re putting together a documentary on it.

Cartoon Brew: The animation industry took off on a CGI tangent after The Iron Giant, but now 2D is coming back around.

Ken Duncan: I keep saying this, but I find more and more young people to be curious about 2D, and even accepting of it, maybe because they’ve seen so much CG. I personally feel that 2D, especially with a mixture of technology, can provide different looks and explore acting styles. In my opinion, it still has a way to go. It’s kind of sad that 2D died, as they say, just as the technology was getting better and giving animators different tools to use.

Cartoon Brew: Yeah, I think films like Song of the Sea are illustrating how powerful a mix of 2D and technology can be.

Ken Duncan: Exactly. Hand-drawn animation is an open door, as far as what can be done. Why not use it for detective stories, or horror films? The problem is that producers and distributors are usually skittish about working with something that is so unique. They want to see something that has been done already.

  • K.C.

    Oh my gosh they included the dream sequence!!! That was my favorite deleted scene ever and I always thought they should have kept it! Ugh… so happy.

  • K.C.

    Oh my gosh they included the dream sequence!!! That was my favorite deleted scene ever and I always thought they should have kept it! Ugh… so happy.

  • Timothy McKenzie

    I am definitely going to see The Iron Giant tomorrow night at the Colombia Mall in my native Maryland! I Just Can’t Wait!

    And Thank God for Brad Bird for pulling off all the stops to make this animated classic!

  • Keith Blackmore

    Vancouver’s SPARK ANIMATION FESTIVAL 2015 is very pleased to announce a very special panel on Friday October 23 at 5:00 PM with Ken Duncan, Michel Gagne, Wendy Perdue and Dennis Venizelos entitled, Getting Under the Hood; Revisiting The Iron Giant.

    It will be followed by the screening of the Iron Giant Signature Edition at 7:00PM.

    Check out our website for tickets for this and other festival highlights. http://sparkfx.ca/festivals/information.php?SPARKANIMATION2015-C

  • Keith Blackmore

    Vancouver’s SPARK ANIMATION FESTIVAL 2015 is very pleased to announce a very special panel on Friday October 23 at 5:00 PM with Ken Duncan, Michel Gagne, Wendy Perdue and Dennis Venizelos entitled, Getting Under the Hood; Revisiting The Iron Giant.

    It will be followed by the screening of the Iron Giant Signature Edition at 7:00PM.

    Check out our website for tickets for this and other festival highlights. http://sparkfx.ca/festivals/information.php?SPARKANIMATION2015-C

  • Beamish Kinowerks

    I’m very skeptical of revisionism like this

  • Beamish Kinowerks

    I’m very skeptical of revisionism like this

    • Kyle_Maloney

      As long as its optional I don’t see a problem with it.

    • Kyle_Maloney

      As long as its optional I don’t see a problem with it.

      • Mesterius

        That’s the question: will a 1080p transfer of the original 1999 cut be included as bonus material on the “Signature Edition” Blu-ray? I really hope so. While I’m excited about these new scenes, the original film remains the original film – historically important in its own right. So I personally hope that this revisionism is, as you say, optional. The originally released version of the film deserves the HD treatment too.

  • It’s really amazing to be a part of a tremendous classic, and to work with Brad Bird! I know that will inspire them to continue their passion and craft.

  • RickyButler89

    so refreshing to see a crew photo that isn’t just a group of 20 year old male AM students

    • Fried

      Is that really what you wanted to focus on out of the whole article? Not to discuss whether you’ve seen the special edition or if you think the new dream sequence takes away from some air of mystery to the original or even speculation on whether you think 2D might come back in a few years because of recent interest in artists which might influence studios but instead…
      “Boy, that photo sure is diverse. My progressiveness is satisfied — for now.”

      • joshua hardy carroll

        The Maypo ad was more than just a hark back to better times–it was an homage to John Hubley’s remarkable animation style. Nothing in that movie was unplanned, and the replacing of it with a generic plug for a movie that totally tanked doesn’t have the same value. http://www.homestatfarm.com/MemoryLane/TheTaleofMarkyMaypo/tabid/3083/Default.aspx

      • joshua hardy carroll

        The Maypo ad was more than just a hark back to better times–it was an homage to John Hubley’s remarkable animation style. Nothing in that movie was unplanned, and the replacing of it with a generic plug for a movie that totally tanked doesn’t have the same value. http://www.homestatfarm.com/MemoryLane/TheTaleofMarkyMaypo/tabid/3083/Default.aspx

        • Hunson Abadeer

          To be fair, the Tomorrowland segment was going to be in the original movie, but they couldn’t get the rights from Disney, so they settled with the Maypo ad.

  • Ryan Barrett

    I’m very skeptical to pay $14 to see two minutes of extra animation added to a film I’ve seen countless times. Theater experience be damned.

  • pez

    great interview . can’t wait to see it tonight in burbank

  • Yo

    I saw it, and it was great. I knew the scenes they were adding. But I was nervous about the dream sequence. But it was so abstract, that it didn’t really tell a narrative, or change the direction of the story at all. It was also a really beautifully animated scene.

  • Mister Twister

    I think the diner conversation fits seamlessly. Even forgot it wasn’t there in the first version!

    And. . . seeing Michel’s magic on the big screen. . . Even for less than a minute, it was more than worth it. Cannot wait for his first actual feature in a year or so.

  • joshua hardy carroll

    I was one of the fortunate few who saw this in theaters during its original theater run, so I was really excited. It did not disappoint. I’ve known about these added sequences since the original DVD release. They were seamless additions and did much to deepen the Dean character. The one change that I disagreed with was changing the Maypo ad on the Hughes TV set to one shilling Tomorrowland. Considering the embarrassing performance of that movie, it was a poor choice and somewhat dilutes the film’s integrity. I hope they change it back for the Blu-ray release.