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The creator of Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius has already taken his imagination up, up, up into space, so it's kind of fitting that the movie he made as his follow-up should point in the exact opposite direction—down, down, down into the very soil we walk upon.
The Ant Bully, based on a book by John Nickle, concerns a boy named Lucas who is picked on by the neighborhood bully, and who vents his frustrations by picking on the ant colony in his backyard. The ants don't take kindly to this, so they devise a way to shrink the boy down to their size—an experience that teaches Lucas a lesson or two.
Director John A. Davis got his start in stop-motion animation, but it wasn't long before he caught the digital bug. In 1997, he wrote and directed Santa vs. the Snowman, a TV special that was later expanded for IMAX 3D theatres; and in 1999, he served as the animation director for another Christmas special, Matt Groening's Olive, the Other Reindeer. And then came Jimmy Neutron, which was one of the first three films to be nominated for the Oscar for Best Animated Feature. (The others were Shrek, which won, and Monsters, Inc.)
We talked to Davis about his history in animation, other bug movies, and, of course, The Ant Bully.
I read that you came to digital animation from stop-motion?John A. Davis: Yeah, I had a keen interest in stop-motion, which is what led me to start making films when I was a kid. I saw an animated film called Icarus, a clay animation short, and while I was watching it, I had a little revelation: "Oh, I know how they're doing this!" When I got home, I got my parents' home-movie camera and started animating my action figures. Move 'em a little bit, take a frame, move 'em a little bit more, take a frame, get the film back, and I was really excited. "Wow, they're dancing around on their own!" I was just sort of hooked.I just sort of kept going, and majored in film in college, and started my own business in 1987 with Keith Alcorn, DNA Productions out of my apartment in Dallas.Was DNA involved in digital animation from the beginning?Davis: I was shooting a lot of 2-D cel-type animation, and also a lot of motion graphics and stuff that was really big in the '80s. My partner, Keith, had an art background, so he would draw and design characters and I would do the camerawork. And I continued to do some stop-motion animation and build miniatures in my garage. But when CG started to come on the scene, I saw it as a way to do better stop-motion, because I was always limited by what I could build in my garage and how many lights I could afford to rent. With CG, I had unlimited real estate and as many lights as I wanted.It's been eight years since Antz and A Bug's Life. When you decided to make this story, was there any concern about retreading that ground?Davis: Absolutely. The project started after Jimmy Neutron came out. I was looking for the next project. Tom Hanks was reading the book [The Ant Bully] to his son Truman one night, and he thought, Hey, this might make a good movie. He was a fan of Neutron, and he sent the book to me to see if I had a take on it. I thought about it for a few days, and thought, Aw, I've seen a couple of CG ants movies recently, maybe I could do it with bees or roaches or something."But really, the needs of the story dictated that it was really best told by ants, because they perfectly demonstrate the co-operation and sense of community. I thought, Well, this story is vastly different than the other stories, and really, it had more in common with The Incredible Shrinking Man or Honey I Shrunk the Kids. And I thought if I was going to do it, how would I build this book into a film? I started thinking about all the lessons Lucas would learn, the story, and some of the set-pieces and action, and I started getting excited. I started thinking how cool it would be to build this ant world and depict it as this sort of advanced, somewhat alien civilization that we know nothing about that lives right under our feet.Lucas learns some valuable lessons. How important was it to get those themes into the story, for you?Davis: I think there needs to be a point to every film, a moral lesson that the audience can take away. At the same time, I don't like to oversimplify it or shove it down their throat—it really needs to be implicit in the story. It was important to have the themes and lessons of Lucas's journey come out of the story, without feeling like you're talking down to the audience. So I was really careful to try to balance that, to make it clear that kids understand and parents understand what the story's about, and what Lucas's journey is. Kids are sharp. They pick up on everything, so you don't need to oversimplify things for them. And in our early test screenings, it was clear that they totally got it, and really responded well to the story.The press kit says you made some revisions based on the feedback you got from some of those kids?Davis: Yeah, in the book, at the end of the story, the bully that had been picking on Lucas is suddenly shrunk down by the ants also, to teach him a lesson. At first, I was staying kind of true to that. But then I invited the crew to bring some of their children up to watch it, and one of the kids said, "Oh, yeah, that's cool, now Lucas is the bully," or something like that, and I thought, "Whoa, that's the wrong message!" If Lucas was party to the other kid being shrunk down and didn't do anything to stop it, then suddenly he was being the bully himself, that was definitely the wrong message. So I redid the ending, and it was really more about Lucas being more proactive and displaying what he learned from his time with the ants, and kind of uniting the other kids to stand together against this bully.Do you make these movies because of the animation itself, and children just happen to be the easiest market? Or are you proactively interested in making, shall we say, "family films"?Davis: I definitely have an interest in family films. I haven't really had a story that I'm passionate to tell that is R-rated or extremely adult. I like this childlike sense of wonder about things. As you grow up, people get a little cynical, and I've always kind of nurtured that sense of wonder about things in myself, and I think that attracts me to projects like that. Although I never really set out to make films for children specifically, it just sort of naturally happened. And the next film that I'm going to be doing is actually a live-action film, and it will still be for a family audience, but the protagonist will be older, a teenage young adult.You graduated from Southern Methodist University, so I have to ask, can you talk about your religious background, if any?
Davis: I was raised going to a Methodist church. I'm a spiritual guy, but to honest, I don't really affiliate with any one denomination any more. I sort of have my own thing. But again, kind of going back to my sense of wonder at things, I constantly like to dote on the origins of, like, where did all this come from? I like freaking myself out by thinking about it.
But one thing I will point out: there are some interesting themes and images in the film, because I really enjoyed developing this ant culture and their beliefs. If you're an ant, the exterminator must be like the Devil, so he's got his red suit. And they have a belief in a higher ant being, the Ant Mother, which is like the mother of all the colonies. It just really helps to kind of flesh them out. Again, the images of good and evil are part of what makes them feel like a total society, to me. So that might be kind of interesting for you.