The WABAC Machine: Rob Minkoff on Mr. Peabody and Sherman

The co-director of The Lion King talks about his next 3D animated feature, based on the time-traveling 'Rocky and Bullwinkle' characters.

Fred Topelby Fred Topel

Dreamworks Animation previewed their 2013 film slate on the 20th Century Fox Lot, to inaugurate their new distribution relationship with Fox and their commitment to three films a year. The first film they previewed is actually their last release of 2013 (November 1), Mr. Peabody and Sherman based on the characters from “The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show.” A teaser trailer showed Mr. Peabody and Sherman in 3D watching 2D episodes of the show. Ty Burrell provides the voice of the time traveling dog, and young actor Max Charles is his “son” Sherman.

The film deals with Sherman’s first day at school and rivalry with classmate Penny Peterson. Sherman’s firsthand knowledge of history contradicts some of the teachers, and some cute historical gags include Sherman’s fondness for Gandhi and Penny as Cleopatra in Ancient Egypt. When Sherman loses Penny in the past with the WABAC machine, Mr. Sherman and he have to go save her, and director Rob Minkoff promised many different time periods. We saw Egypt, the Trojan War and the French Revolution. After the presentation we got a walk-and-talk exclusive with Minkoff.

CraveOnline: Was it important to send Mr. Peabody and Sherman to a number of different time periods, because some time travel stories get focused in one era and lose the wonder of unlimited possibilities?

Rob Minkoff: Yes, it was actually, I think from the very earliest conversation about the movie, the idea of going to more than one. We’re looking at different kinds of time travel movies. Obviously, you’re right, Back to the Future sort of goes to one place and a lot of them do, but we really wanted to take advantage of this opportunity to do a bit of a tour, travelogue, to various different times and places.

Is there danger on the other end that you could go too many places?

I don’t think we do go to too many places.

Right, but how did you find the balance?

I think we were always just trying to figure out what would be the right places, how to tell the story. There’s obviously two things going on. There’s the travel and the adventure of all of that but really the primary story is between the characters, between Peabody and Sherman and their developing relationship.

Are these any places they’ve been to in the “Rocky and Bullwinkle” show before?

Some of them, yeah, but we’re not really repeating any business or material from the show so it’s really all new and different.

After your experience doing the live-action movie The Forbidden Kingdom, was it important to you to get back into animation?

You know, people would always ask about that in that way, had I left animation and I never really thought of myself as having left it. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time and as I’ve said, I got the rights to this project such a long time ago, I’ve been hoping to get it made. It’s just taken this long to get it to where it is today. Animation is sort of my first love and I’m very happy to be doing something again.

Does this combine a lot of things you’ve done before, like Stuart Little was kind of live-action animation, and you’ve done traditional animation?

Yeah, perhaps but it’s sort of unique in that it’s the first 3D CGI fully created world movie that I’ve done, because even Stuart Little we were just creating the characters, not really the world that they were in. So it’s kind of different. I think it’s exciting.

The previous Jay Ward movies they’ve done, it seemed their instinct was to go live-action. Why do you think they shied away from animation and why is it right for animation now?

It was actually my idea to do an animated film. I’m not sure why they would’ve shied [away]. It was just sort of the fashion. When it first came to me actually, I think there was some presumption that it might be done in live-action, and then I said I didn’t really want to do it in live-action because they were such characters grounded in animation and I really felt like that would be the best way to bring them back to life.

Is the teaser we saw a scene in the movie?

No. I kept getting asked by people, “How are you going to go from ‘Rocky & Bullwinkle,’ the Sherman and Peabody that we know, from the show to a 3D movie?” I thought it would be great to show them in the same scene so you really get the understanding of the characters and that world.

In the movie, do your Sherman and Peabody know that they’ve had an animated series in the past?

In the teaser, they do, obviously. Mr. Peabody does, but it’s not really a thing in the film.

Given it’s a family film for young audiences, can you still have fun with time paradoxes and explaining that the future can change?

Yes, we do have a bit of that in the film, without giving too much away. We do have a bit of the idea that there are very specific rules about time travel and if you do things inappropriately it can lead to complications and problems.

What was your concept of the WABAC machine in 3D?

In the WABAC machine in the original, there was the door which we have, but then the door opens up to reveal what we have as our machine. It’s not just a portal that takes you from one place to another but it’s actually a vehicle that can actually move from one place to another.

This week everyone is starting to talk about 48 frames per second with The Hobbit screening. Do you have any opinion on using 48fps for animation?

Oh my God, you know I haven’t seen The Hobbit yet. The real problem I suppose in animation is it’s already quite expensive to do. You’re creating, it’s not like if you’re shooting live-action in which you can just make the camera go faster. You’d have to literally create, render every frame. It would be so astronomically expensive to do that. I’m sure in The Hobbit, any shots that are done in visual effects are also that much more expensive, but I don't know. I haven’t seen it yet.

That’s a good point. There could be a demand at some point that you have to do 48, but could it be affordable?

You could render a scene with more than 48 frames, absolutely. You’d just have the computer do it but each frame is just ridiculously expensive. Thousands of dollars per frame.

Right, and just doubling the frames wouldn’t be animating double the movement necessarily.

I don't know technically exactly what the difference would be, but if you’re shooting a live-action scene in 48 frames, it’s just the film is moving faster through the camera, or the refresh rate on the video is going to be faster. Still, you’re still shooting the same action. You’re just capturing it 48 times a second as opposed to 24 times a second. So in animation I suppose there would be an equivalency to that but no one’s ever really proposed that as an idea. I’m not sure if that’s the next frontier. Maybe it is.

The Lion King went to 3D. Is there another step for The Lion King you can imagine, any further edition of that?

Oh my gosh, I don't know. Did you see the 3D? It was very successful. It worked out really well and it kind of had its own unique look and feel because it wasn’t really the animated movie we saw and we remember, yet it sort of felt like the same but gave you that immersive experience which I think is great. That’s kind of what we were going for even in the 2D film, but I’m not sure if there will be another, another, another. I guess it’s possible. Have you seen the Broadway show? That’s sort of another iteration of it. It’s pretty amazing.

Fred Topel is a staff writer at CraveOnline. Follow him on Twitter at @FredTopel