Face to Face: Birds of a Funky Feather
A conversation with Happy Feet Two choreographer Wade Robson
Beginning November 18, the South Pole will be grooving again, thanks to hundreds of penguins and Wade Robson’s fresh beat. Robson, who’s worked extensively for Britney Spears and *NSYNC and has won two Emmy awards for choreography on “So You Think You Can Dance,” brings a new flavor to Happy Feet Two: hip hop. Working alongside Aussie tap choreographer Dein Perry, Robson crafted the entire opening sequence—not only choreographing the moves, but also organizing the camera angles and co-producing the music.
In this Warner Brothers sequel, Mumble has a new son, Erik, who, it turns out, is not into dancing. Danger strikes Antarctica, and Mumble must save his penguin nation from impending doom, all the while convincing his son that dancing is, in fact, cool.
Dance Teacher spoke with Robson about “penguinizing” his choreography and exploring the virtual world of CGI motion capture technology.
DT: What was your reaction to being asked to choreograph Happy Feet Two?
WR: My wife and I knew we had a baby on the way, so I was thrilled to take on a children’s movie. Also, I’m from Brisbane, Australia, and it was the first time I’d gone back to do a professional gig. It was wonderful getting to know the Sydney dance community.
I don’t have a background in tap, but the idea was to bring in a new style and blend it with the tap. I was pretty excited to bring some dirty funk to the penguins’ movement. In the first few meetings, I did some simple motion-capture tests—I put the suit on and could see myself live, as a penguin. I experimented to get a feel for what kinds of movements worked, what was funny or cool. Basically, I started to get a little penguin movement training.
DT: Are there many limitations when choreographing for penguins?
WR: They can’t open their legs past shoulder width, kick their legs past a 45-degree angle, nor can they bend forward past 45 degrees. Your biggest assets are your flippers, neck and head—after a day of shooting, the dancers had very tired shoulders. It’s certainly challenging to find enough movement within that range.
DT: What were the challenges with CGI?
WR: You can capture up to seven people and watch the movement live at the same time, but we had 15 dancers, so there was a three- to five-minute rendering process before watching it. But penguins flock in large groups—there’s always hundreds and hundreds of them. Creating this effect wasn’t as simple as the dancers doing a phrase once and the animators multiplying it—that would look extremely computerized. It all becomes very technical with overlapping layers and volumes and more. There’s so much planning involved; imagining patterns, making drawings and spending one week to capture 30 seconds—and, of course, praying that the idea will work out.
DT: Did you have a goal in mind when desiging the moves?
DT: I followed my instincts and experimented in penguinizing what I’d do naturally. It was a process of morphing my moves to what reads on a penguin’s body and what was ultimately funniest.
In the trailer, there is a “Fluffy Back” sequence (instead of “Sexy Back”) that’s sung and danced by little, fluffy baby girl penguins. My initial thought was, “OK, this section is supposed to be cute, so I need to find cute, funny movement.” But I realized the little penguins are cute enough to begin with, and what makes it funnier is for them to kick ass and do something more serious with hard-hitting and sharp moves. They’re killing it, but they’re so cute. It was a really interesting contrast to keep in mind.
DT: Did you work with Savion Glover, who dances for Mumble?
DT: He came in a few days while I was there and busted out his parts for the opening. He’s absolutely incredible. We definitely work differently, though. I’m all about rehearsal and drilling stuff to get it perfect. And he just likes to go. For example, I’d set up this whole sequence and give him marks to hit and a structure to work within. He’d listen very intently. There’d be so much info, and I’d ask if he wanted to go over it again or walk through it. And he’d say, “Nah, let’s just do it. Let’s shoot.” And he’d do it—maybe not hit all of his marks, but it didn’t even matter because what he’d do was so freaking insane. So you just roll with it. DT
Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures