August 12, 2016

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by Ian Failes, Spark CG Society
August 12, 2016

How Vancouver Animation Studio Nitrogen Got Sausage Party Started

Sausage Party is an R-rated romp inside the lives of supermarket foods as they wage war against humans. Adults-only animated features with wide releases are rare beasts, but creators Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg are perhaps hoping to buck that trend. If they do so, they’ll have also broken without one of the major animation studios.

Instead, independently owned Vancouver-based outfit Nitrogen Studios — which actually has a long history in production — was behind the animation. Nitrogen CCO Greg Tiernan, who directed the film with Conrad Vernon, and Nitrogen CEO and line producer Nicole Stinn, discuss the best, and, er, wurst, sides of making Sausage Party.

© 2016 Sony Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

Preparing the sausage

Nitrogen, which has been around since 2003, is most well known for its work on the CG animated series Thomas & Friends. That’s a far cry from Sausage Party, but the children’s project had pushed the studio to more than 140 artists at one point. It was actually during production on Thomas & Friends back in 2009 that Tiernan first heard about Sausage Party.

“Conrad was already involved and he came up to visit us at the studio — actually he was up here for a SPARK ANIMATION presentation on his film Monsters v. Aliens, and he said, ‘I’m working on this great idea, I don’t know if we’ll ever get it off the ground with this movie with Seth Rogen about sausages that want to fuck buns.’ And we said at the time, ‘If you ever need any help with that just let us know.’ And, maybe eight months later we got a call from him saying, ‘You know that crazy sausage movie idea is actually gaining some traction, do you guys want in?’”

Nitrogen certainly did want in. The idea was compelling — a movie about the secret life of food. “It’s a pretty horrible existence they live in, really,” comments Tiernan. “They’re in ignorance of the fact that as soon as they get bought by the shoppers they get ritually slaughtered, massacred, and devoured.”

It would take around seven years to flesh out ideas, develop (and change) the script and make the film. Rogen and Goldberg well well-versed in live-action but animation was a new beast. “Their process for live-action filmmaking is lots of coverage, lots of on rewriting lines on set,” outlines Stinn. “They really find actors to work with that they bring something to the table in terms of their ideas and the same thing happened with this production.”

“But what was really fabulous,” she adds, “was they took the input from us and really embraced the storyboarding phase. It was maybe a little bit more traditional in that our guys could get in there and get the gags in. So we really helped shape the story that way.”

© 2016 Sony Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

Shaping the sausage

One of the biggest challenges for Nitrogen, notes Tiernan, was that the entire art direction, production, design and animation of Sausage Party was left up to him and Vernon and the team at Nitrogen. “The script would say, ‘This takes place in a supermarket’, and so we had to come up with that and all the locations they visit. We decided that we had to make this supermarket feel as if it is the entire world to these foods and products. So we’d have isles that were like Mumbai or New Delhi, and then you’d be in Hong Kong or Shanghai.”

In order to meet the needs of production on the film, Nitrogen was already in a bigger location off the back of its Thomas & Friends work, and had a working pipeline. “We’ve remained an off-the-shelf studio,” says Stinn. “Our dollars are really spent with everything going on to the screen instead of a big R&D effort.”

Nitrogen had a core crew it could rely on, although it was also expanded as necessary. “Everyone was so excited about working on Sausage Party,” continues Stinn. “This is a dream, this is a once-in-a-lifetime project. Everyone just put their heart and soul into it, and they know what this means for the industry and for the world and what this could open up for in content. and, you know, we cannot say enough amazing things about the crew.”

Vancouver also turned out to be an incredibly suitable place to be producing the film, given its rising tide of visual effects and animation talent. However, Tiernan notes that “right in the middle of the production there was an awful lot of poaching going on between a lot of the bigger players. We’re a medium-sized independent animation studio but we were working on what was one of the biggest films in Vancouver at the time in size, and ramping up to around 170 on the crew.”

Both Tiernan and Stinn have watched Vancouver’s creative industries explode in recent years and all the challenges that can be part of rapid growth. “I do feel that there’s a lot of productions and the talent pool isn’t big enough yet to be able to fill all those places,” says Tiernan. “I think once that balances out all the production houses will be in a lot more comfortable positions and it will make it somewhat easier for all of us as producers and studio owners to get the project done for our clients, and for our own IP.”

© 2016 Sony Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

Cooking the sausage

Nitrogen’s point of difference in making this film, suggests Tiernan, was to adopt the very adult material — a lot of swearing, sexual jokes and even that orgy scene — in a very real way, by making the look of the film somewhat darker than a typical animated feature. “Everybody was like, ‘We don’t see any Easter egg colours in this movie, you know the usual, everything super bright!’ But we made a conscious decision to make it darker. We tried to do everything as a live-action movie that happens to be animated.”

Style-wise, Sausage Party’s characters were still imagined as classic cartoons in the vein of older Warner Bros or even Popeye style animation. “We thought,” recalls Tiernan, “let’s give these food characters white gloves and big floppy feet and rubber hose arms and legs, and we instructed our animators to really explore and soak up as much of that great 30s, 40s and early 50s animation as they could.”

“We maintained those 2D traditional looks as much as we could,” adds Stinn. “Just because it’s done in the computer and in CG doesn’t mean you can’t bring some of that 2D sensibility into this and that’s some of the stuff that the audience is going to be seeing that will make you feel like this is a little bit different somehow.”

Nitrogen’s team also had plenty of opportunity to provide input on story and even characters. This included the characters of Twink, a twinkie, and Gum, a Stephen Hawking-inspired piece of chewing gum. Both were both voiced by one of the studio’s storyboard artists, Scott Underwood, after he impressed the creators with his pitches.

Gum has what is possibly one of the biggest scene-stealing shots in the film via an ode to a certain 1990s terminator film. But there are plenty of other classic moments, including the orgy finale and several scenes that were conceived and storyboarded but did not make it into the film.

“The Mexican aisle was probably boarded about like twelve times,” outlines Tiernan. “Bill Hader’s role as El Guaco was almost like a second villain and there was this entire sequence with him being mean to Teresa (Salma Hayek) and her mother. But then with Nick Kroll’s Douche, it felt like there were maybe too many bad guys.”

“There is a fabulous transition that was cut,” states Stinn. “It killed — it killed in the screenings. When you go into the Indian aisle, you're transitioning into that aisle and there’s a cow walking along and at one point there was a great transition from a Phil Collins song that then went into a ‘take a look at my cow’ joke. But it came down to music rights and it had to be cut.”

Ultimately, Sausage Party seems to be surprising audiences with both its exaggerated and raunchy humour, but also its musings on religion and the concept of existence. Stinn and Tiernan are excited about being part of a project that has dared to tackle such deep topics while offering up an alternative animation experience. “We want people to come out of the theatre and say,” hopes Tiernan, “‘Wow, I wasn’t expecting that!’”

© 2016 Sony Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

Ian Failes Ian Failes is a Sydney-based writer specializing in visual effects and animation. He also collects memorabilia from the film Speed. Follow him at @vfxblog.

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