Making Jimmy Neutron
An interview with John Davis, Director and creator of Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius
Interview by Frank Moldstad

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John DavisSometimes it really pays to clean out your garage.

The way that Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius came to the Silver Screen is a story right out of Hollywood. John Davis was getting ready to move to a new house more than 10 years ago when he found an old script and a storyboard he’d written called Runaway Rocket Boy. By 1995, he had produced a 40-second animated short from the script that screened at SIGGRAPH and won two Wavey awards for Best Character Animation and Best in Show.

An ensuing article about Runaway Rocket Boy in the now-defunct magazine Video Toaster User caught the eye of writer/producer/director Steve Oedekerk (Ace Ventura), who contacted Davis about developing the product as a television series. With Keith Alcorn, co-founder with Davis of the Dallas-based animation house DNA Productions, they expanded and polished the short and retitled it The Adventures of Johnny Quasar.

For behind-the-scenes video interviews with the animation crew at DNA Productions, click here.
That fall, they pitched the idea to executives at Nickelodeon, who loved the concept and the future-retro look Alcorn had designed. So the team produced a 13-minute pilot episode, presented it to Nickelodeon and ended up with not only a series, but a feature film deal as well. In late 1999, Davis and Oedekerk started writing a film script, now called Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius. Animation work began shortly afterward at DNA Productions. All told, it took about two years to make the movie once Nickelodeon gave them the green light, a tight deadline for an entirely CG movie.
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Jimmy Neutron and his robot dog Goddard. (Click image for larger view.)
Jimmy Neutron is the story of how a nerdy boy genius and his robot dog save the earth from evil aliens who kidnap all the adults in the world. The aliens, called Yokians, are slimy green egg-shaped beings who have evolved beyond the need for bodies. They fly around in a chicken ship and worship a god named Poultra. The movie opened December 21st, 2001, and a regular Nickelodeon series is scheduled to begin airing in the fall of 2002.

Davis, who directed and shared producing and screenwriting credits, is proud of the fact that the movie was produced entirely with off-the-shelf tools, principally Newtek's LightWave 3D and project:messiah 1.5, a 3D program from pmG Worldwide LLC. RenderBOXX machines from BOXX Technologies were used for rendering. DNA Productions is not nearly on the scale of Disney or Pixar, but the rich 3D animation in Jimmy Neutron has the quality of anything put out by the big studios. We talked to John Davis on the eve of the Jimmy Neutron’s release about the production process and the challenges faced by DNA Productions’ animation team.

Digital Media Net: Jimmy Neutron is not realistic animation, but it’s a striking 3D look. What challenges did you face to make this as 3D as possible, but not realistic?

Jimmy and his family. (Click image for larger view.)
Davis: It is tough at times, because with 3D it’s actually easier to make it more realistic than it is cartoony, because ergonomics is such an issue. In 2D you can cheat all over the place by drawing things—you can draw it and there it is. But in 3D, you really are limited by the physical nature of the characters. You can cheat some, but not nearly to the extent you can in 2D. So, the more cartoony you make your characters, the more problematic it is in terms of having them be able to do normal things like simply walking through a doorway. If your head is too wide -- like Mom’s hair -- you can’t get through the doorway. And that’s just a minor example. All the characters have these huge heads and little bodies. For Jimmy, with a little body that makes his legs so short, well, he couldn’t reach the doorknob of the door in the house. With things like that, you can make the door small. But then suddenly it looks weird, it doesn’t look like a normal door. So there’s a cheat that you have to do just to get around in the world. And if you were to use more realistic proportions, you wouldn’t have that problem nearly as much.

Jimmy's dumb Dad. (Click image for larger view.)
DMN: It’s like a big puzzle. Did you have blind alleys you went down and then discovered you had to retool because of something like the chairs being the wrong size for the characters?

Davis: Yeah, we had a little bit of that. Things like chairs are pretty easy, but with things like character fixes, then that can be another thing. With the Dad, for instance, we had an issue with his hands – they were just incredibly huge. They looked good at the time, but once we got into using him and those other characters, somebody said that’s all you look at is his h-u-g-e hands! So, OK, we need to go back and tone those down a bit. But most of the time, we just tried to be really cautious. We didn’t have a lot of time, and it really is a tightrope walk to push the cartoonyness of it, but keep it to where things can still relate to each other in terms of furniture and characters sitting in things and reaching things.

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