Director Pierre Perifel discuses his number one box office hit feature film debut The Bad Guys. Based on a screenplay by Etan Cohen, The Bad Guys presents a world where humans and talking animals co-exist. When a group of criminal animals are captured, they pretend to reform themselves while a new villain offers plans of his own. Here, in an interview with Awards Daily, director Perifel details the inspiration for the animation style for the film as well as how he wanted to change the way we see animated movies. He also dives into his love of the 2D form, how much animation is changing, and how excited he is to be a part of that change
Awards Daily: This is your first feature film. What was that experience like?
Pierre Perifel: It was absolutely incredible. I directed a short film just prior to doing The Bad Guys, I had directed it a while ago in France before arriving in the United States in 2008. So I never really thought about directing, and then I ended up directing this film and I had an absolute blast! Because you get to oversee everything and stay in touch with every department, every piece of the process, and I really liked it. Just gaining that skill of working on something of that length and scope was something that really interested me. Then I also had such a good connection to the material personally speaking, but also in terms of the genre and the characters in that genre. Both of those things made me enjoy the whole experience. Of course it is a massive undertaking but honestly it went great; everyone had a great time, myself included. I told the team that the mandate for everyone was just have fun and I think that’s what we all had. It was like let’s not take ourselves too seriously, let’s just do this as a team and make sure that all of us are comfortable doing it and having fun doing it. I think that alone changed everything, because everyone was so invested and wanted to give it their all and frankly the whole experience was pretty amazing. We had such a great time, even though COVID disrupted the team bonding kind of feeling it didn’t break the spirit of everybody, so it was a great experience for everyone. I couldn’t have asked for a better experience directing my first feature film. I think it shows on the screen as well.
AD: You mentioned having a connection to the material. What was the impetus to make a movie about this book series in particular?
Pierre Perifel: I had stumbled upon the first book on Damon Ross’s (a producer on the film) desk and it was just a cover of these animals in suits. First of all I thought that cover was just a cool idea, having animals gangster style. It was reminiscent of Tarantino and Scorsese films, and I immediately went to the idea of, What if this wolf was driving a car and was a bank robber? Then I open the book and it’s the big bad wolf wanting to go good and to me that was such a big idea because I immediately understood what was the reason behind it. So the combination of visuals and the redemption theme that immediately happens on the first page made me see truly what I could make with it. I really quickly started sketching stuff and did a quick trailer. And then we started laughing like kids and realized, this is fun. So that was an immediate connection, playing with the genre in animation and opening that up to younger kids, the heist/caper films, and that is how it started. Later on I just put my own personal story into the character of Wolf and then all that clicked together.
AD: You mentioned the sketch work you did as an animator. What was your input on the design of the characters and the look of the film in general?
Pierre Perifel: For a long time I wanted to do something different on screen. You can tell when you watch this movie that the influences are different than what you usually see in cinema animation. And that all comes from my own growing up in France with the French graphic novels, French animation community kind of style, and schools. But also in France there are a lot of influences from Japanese animation that arrived when I was a kid, much earlier than in the U.S. I was able to work with all this because it’s always been in me. I was always drawing a lot, and I’m classically trained in drawing, so that’s always been a part of me and my own culture. I really wanted to try to experiment with these styles on the big screen. Here in the U.S. I never really had the opportunity to do so because I wasn’t the director. When I was given that opportunity to do what I wanted to do, I was so lucky because the studio totally embraced that idea. From the beginning I told them I wanted to do something with graphic comics stylizing the characters that would be different and they were, like, okay, great. But the perfect storm was that Luc (Desmarchelier), the production designer of the film, was one of the first people attached to the project even before I jumped in to do some quick demos. Because he’s French we had this immediate cultural connection talking about exactly the same thing in the same language and he understood exactly what I wanted to do. The character designs and that look was really me wanting to do that. He totally understood and ran with the idea with his department. The results were better than I could even imagine. This impulse was just me and Luc wanting to do something different.
AD: I read in a previous interview that you’re a huge fan of 2D animation. What is it that appeals to you about that type of animation?
Pierre Perifel: I discovered animation pretty late but my entry point for it was 2D traditional animation. Actually Glen Keane was in France in 2000 for Tarzan and in the theater was his line and pencil testing playing as a promo and I was, like, what is this! You can see Tarzan sliding down the trees and it was magic. That was my entry point to animation and my exposure to the craft of animation. So I studied to be a classically trained drawer and animator. Therefore I worked on a lot of 2D animations in France and came to the U.S. to work on 3D and CG animation at DreamWorks with some of the animators I really admire and I was lucky to get to work with them. But 2D animation is my roots and I always felt like the studio started to drift toward something more realistic in their animation. A lot of news and video references, very subtle acting, which is fantastic by the way. But I always kind of missed the whimsical and stylizatied style that animation can bring you. So I wanted to bring that back into this project. We have strong graphic poses to communicate a lot. You do not need to micro animate everything, the pose tells you a lot. Therefore you can communicate in a much more appealing and charming way what you are thinking and how you want the characters to move, and therefore I pushed that for the whole animation team. I really wanted to see that in 3D and frankly it translated into the design of the characters. Just the eyes design, for instance, the eyes are just two little dots as opposed to a full-on rendered iris and pupil and cornea. I went for something much more stylized and simpler. Something that’s more caricatured in a way, but it is something that I like and is appealing and more my wheelhouse.
AD: In preparing for this interview I watched your short film Bilby and I was impressed by how funny it was with such a simple subject and such distinct animation. I was curious what the inspiration for the story and the style was?
Pierre Perifel: I do not know if you’re aware, but I was head of animation for a movie here at DreamWorks called Larrikins, and I had developed all the animation styles, created the cast of characters, led the whole animation team. Then for some reason the movie got canceled. On the heels of that cancellation the studio had a short film program, and a friend of mine who was an animator on that team thought we should do something with those characters we just created. We should use them to create a short film, so he came up with the idea of that story and that character. So it was his idea but what I did is I took his idea and created really precise story points with a film to make certain that the story was working. Then we could add that layer of fun and cuteness that you see in the end product. From this story point everything just evolved to what you see on screen, but the animation style was set by me for the feature, and we used that because we worked so hard on it. I am so proud of the film the three of us (JP Sans and Liron Topaz) created. JP Sans was my head of animation for The Bad Guys, and Liron Topaz was a supervising animator on The Bad Guys. The three of us directed this little film, and I think that’s the one that made me fall in love with directing.
AD: As an awards lover I always like to ask what it’s like to win a big award, so what was it like winning an Annie Award?
Pierre Perifel: (Laugh) That is a fantastic question. It is a very funny story. I had just arrived in the U.S. as part of the expats experience with my family but also to be part of a big American studio like Dreamworks and learn 3D animation. It turns out the first film I am cast on is a short film in 2D. It is traditional animation, and is a spin-off of Kung Fu Panda, a film that was mind-blowing for me. I adored the franchise. It’s all 2D animation and I’m beyond myself just to be able to do anything with some of the greatest studio animators that I know, basically my heroes. (Some of which are still working here.) So working on it I had a blast, and then we got nominated for the Annie Awards. I’ve been here six months at most and I win this. I am, like, I barely speak English, and I’m called on stage and I’m not even able to say thank you. I’m so dumbfounded. I was not expecting to win anything and the feeling that I had was not being able to put two words together, blushing, but also so proud at the same time and honored. But the feeling was that I’m being welcomed into this community of animation in the greatest way possible.
AD: Is there anything you want to leave our readers with?
Pierre Perifel: Having the opportunity and the honor to be directing The Bad Guys, I really hope people have a fun ride watching it and realize that animation is evolving, CGI animation specifically. We are going to see a new wave of new looks in new styles opening new doors. If it’s not the case I will be the one doing it, but I really think new filmmakers are going to be diving into the new range of possibilities. We can see and feel it coming and I think it’s super exciting. Classical rendering of computer graphic animation and the looks that we always see in movies from these big studios I think are fantastic, but I think people are screaming for something different. I am definitely looking forward to doing another movie that is opening new doors as well. I really hope people take Bad Guys as it is. It’s still a fun ride but something different, and to watch it in theaters because it’s an experience worth seeing just for the action alone that I’m particularly proud of. I hope people fall in love with these characters and let us keep experimenting with new franchises and new characters, stories, and styles. I think that’s where I’m getting really, really excited. Can we change or reinvent what we do with animation?
The Bad Guys is now available in theaters.