Bron Animation is the latest Canadian studio to enter the feature animation game with its upcoming project The Willoughbys. Kris Pearn (Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2) is directing, with Cory Evans as co-director.

The Willoughbys is based on the children’s book by Lois Lowry and tells the story of a set of children, with horrible parents, who decide to orphan themselves. The film is told from the point of view of a cat to be voiced by Ricky Gervais.

Cartoon Brew learned more about Bron Animation, and how Pearn and Evans are tackling the film.

Bron and animation in Canada

Bron has studios in Burnaby (near Vancouver) and Duncan, British Columbia, as well as a third location in London, Ontario. After being founded in 2010, Bron Studios has gone on to produce mostly live-action projects, including films Birth of a Nation and Fences. Meanwhile, its animation division has delivered three specials under the Mighty Mighty Monsters banner and is finishing work on its first animated feature, Henchmen.

Canadian-born Pearn, who gained significant experience in United States studios, told Cartoon Brew he is amazed at the transformation of the Canadian animation industry, including at studios like Bron. “When I first came back to work in British Columbia,” Pearn said, “I was with Sony and I was shocked at how international my crew was. And I think that, to me, is the key to growing a really stable industry – getting a lot of ideas from around the world.”

Artists at work at Bron.
Artists at work at Bron.

“What’s interesting about our country is that it seems like it’s splintering off into a lot of specialties,” added Pearn. “You’ve got a lot of vfx and some tv here in Vancouver, a lot of tv in Toronto, and then Montreal is pretty much all features and video games. Depending on where you want to live and what kind of climate you want, you can emigrate to Canada and do pretty well.”

What is The Willoughbys?

Lois Lowry’s book, The Willoughbys, centers on a family with old ideas in a modern city, where two selfish parents raise four children. “Our take,” said Pearn, “is that these four kids are raised by books and the newest book in the house was written in 1901. So they have got a lot of old-fashioned ideas.”

One day an orphan is left at the gate of this family – a modern baby who does not do things the old way. “The second that this chaos hits their lives, everything changes,” said Pearn. “So their parents make them get rid of their baby and on that journey, they come up with the idea that being an orphan is actually better than their situation and their lives would improve if they became orphans. So they decide to orphan themselves. And upon orphaning themselves by getting rid of their parents – and there’s a comedy twist to that – they get a big collision with the modern world. And they suddenly realize that orphaning in the modern world isn’t what it’s cracked up to be in books.”

Concept art for The Willoughbys.
Concept art for The Willoughbys.

Pearn and his co-director Evans are keen to make The Willoughbys a coming-of-age story, something in a similar vein to The Goonies and Stand By Me. “These are movies from the 80s when I grew up, but instead of the kids running away, they make their parents run away,” said Evans.

Production approach

Bron is not disclosing a release date for The Willoughbys right now, but recently announced that additional signed talent includes Maya Rudolph, Terry Crews, Martin Short, Jane Krakowski, and Seán Cullen. They also mentioned that pre-production is well underway in modelling, previs, animation, and rig development, as well as early look development.

Pearn has been on The Willoughbys for about a year and a half. Partnering with Evans, the two have been leading a major design phase, incorporating early art by Pete Oswald (production designer on Angry Birds) and character designs from Craig Kellman (Hotel Transylvania 2, Sausage Party). Sausage Party production designer Kyle McQueen is also on board.

The directors are approaching the work via a ‘divide and conquer’ method, says Evans. “We have a short timeline that we’re working inside of; it’s very intense. In the day we might split off into different rooms. We try and get as much forward momentum on the film in one day as we possibly can. I think having the two of us is really allowing us to do that.”

Bron concept art.
Bron concept art.

Pearn and Evans both mentioned that the film does not have a large budget (Bron told Cartoon Brew that funding of The Willoughbys is a hybrid of private and public investment) but the filmmakers still wanted to make bold choices with character designs and with the final animation look. Interestingly, this is leaning towards a stop-motion feel.

“We have to make something that fits into the market that doesn’t feel like Pixar and Dreamworks,” said Pearn. “And one that has its own tone and has its own sense of itself. So we really looked at a lot of the stop-motion projects of the world. The Pearce Sisters [directed by Luis Cook at Aardman] was also one that was super influential early on. And I really loved the Buddy the Elf special [Elf: Buddy’s Musical Christmas] that Craig Kellman did the character designs for, which has all those characters with the stop-motion look.”

Animation is planned to commence some time this summer. “We had a screening about two months ago and we’re in our second push in animatics,” said Pearn. “In terms of the production cycle, it’s a bit different than what I’m used to coming from the big $100 million battleship projects, where there’s always a money tap and there’s more time. But it’s sort of exciting that we get to move fast and it’s sort of a hybrid between the feature experience and the tv experience, which I’m really, really enjoying.”

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