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SYFY WIRE Interviews

Cinesite artists illuminate Titan's The Addams Family: The Art of the Animated Movie

By Jeff Spry
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The Addams Family, that creepy and kooky, mysterious and spooky clan first cooked up in classic The New Yorker cartoons by illustrator Charles Addams, has a fresh CGI feature film adaptation out just in time for Halloween. Directed by Sausage Party helmers Conrad Vernon and Greg Tiernan and starring the voice talents of Oscar Isaac (Star Wars: The Last Jedi), Charlize Theron (Mad Max: Fury Road), Finn Wolfhard (Stranger Things), and many more, The Addams Family opened this weekend with a respectable $30 million debut.

To capitalize on the Halloweentime fun and dig into the creative processes of the animators at Vancouver-based Cinesite Studios, Titan Books is releasing a new concept art book titled The Addams Family: The Art of the Animated Movie on October 22, complete with a foreword by directors Vernon and Tiernan and informative text courtesy of Animation Magazine journalist Ramin Zahed.

Addams Family Cover

This new CG-animated comedy chronicles the ghoulish exploits of the infamous Addams family — parents Gomez (Isaac) and Morticia (Theron), kids Wednesday (Chloë Grace Moretz) and Pugsley (Wolfhard), Uncle Fester (Nick Kroll), Grandma (Bette Midler), Cousin Itt (Snoop Dogg), their loyal butler Lurch (Conrad Vernon), and helping hand Thing — whose spirited lives start to unravel when they encounter an overzealous home-improvement reality TV host. All the while, they're also preparing for their extended family to arrive for a traditional rite of passage.

The Art of the Animated Movie is a 168-page hardback companion book packed with concept designs, storyboards, filmmaker notes, and production art, all presented beside comments from the artists, illustrators, animators, and directors.

SYFY WIRE spoke to three of Cinesite's creative team leaders, Production Designer Patricia Atchison, Senior Environment Designer Chris Souza, and Senior Character Designer Nicole Garber, who helped bring this fantastically demented family to life. We learned about how Addams' original drawings inspired their character design, the studio's detailed worldbuilding process, and the creators' favorite Addams relatives, all of which are showcased inside Titan's upcoming concept art book.

After the chat, pay a call on this gloomy group in our exclusive look inside the making of the film in the full gallery below.

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What were your associations with the Addams Family prior to tackling this project?

Patricia Atchison: I remember the Addams Family TV show when I was a kid. The live-action movies came out in the '90s when I was a teenager, and I saw them all. It was always a huge property, and when Greg Tiernan called me in to ask me to come on board, as soon as he said "Addams Family," I said, "Where do I apply?"

They're just such an iconic family. It's been 20 years and we're introducing them to a brand-new generation, and that's one of the most fun parts of working on it.

There are a lot of people out there that don't know what Charles Addams' original drawings of the characters look like. Craig Kellman worked with Conrad and Greg on Sausage Party, so they had a working relationship already before I came on board, and he based the characters on the original Charles Addams artwork. And that inspired a lot of the look and shape language of the movie based on Craig's stylized interpretations.

Chris Souza: I have incredibly fond memories of watching the original Addams Family TV show with my mom. We've always loved it. I personally didn't know there were New Yorker cartoons, and feel like I was left out of the loop on that one. Most of my influences came from the black-and-white TV show and the Addams Family movie with Raul Julia and Christopher Lloyd.

Nicole Garber: Basically my experience with the Addams Family was watching the '90s movies and being obsessed with all the characters. I dressed up as Morticia and Wednesday multiple times for multiple Halloweens because I loved them so much. So it was really cool to be part of this.

I think I wanted to be a witch when I was little, so that dark spookiness was really cool.

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How did directors Conrad Vernon and Greg Tiernan convey the projected tone and art style of The Addams Family to Cinesite?

Atchison: Greg and Conrad had a lot of confidence in our team. They were constantly surprised and happy with everything our team put out and the direction we all took it. One of the most fun aspects of working on a children's animated show is that we got to do one that was dark and desaturated.

There was a lot of comparison to Hotel Transylvania, but even if you watch that movie it's still very bright and colorful, so it was great to be able to create a world where the Addams Family lives in dilapidated elegance. They had a lot of vision of how they wanted the house to look and feel like. When it came to lighting at the end, we all come from children's television and are always faced with directors and clients saying it's too dark, brighten it, and they actually made it darker! Which was really fun.

Souza: The novelty of working on something that was visually quite darker, even though we were keeping the humor sensibilities still light, it was nice being able to take things to a visually dramatic and somber place. Especially in establishing the Addams world versus the more modern world of Assimilation, where we really got to play with the contrast between the two and there was a lot of support by the directors for maintaining that contrast.

So we were encouraged to go dark, desaturated with the Addams Family property and do completely the opposite when we went outside. I'm an environment designer, so the lighting sensibilities were probably most relevant to me.

Garber: I mostly worked on characters, so it was cool listening in on meetings with the directors and hearing their take on character design. It was really fun to work on the show, because the shapes were very simplified, yet they had so much character, so it was fun to explore that with the secondary characters too.

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How did you hope to instill that signature Addams style, yet create something fresh for this CGI take?

Atchison: A lot of us felt an immense amount of pressure to get it right while putting a new spin on it and making all audiences happy. We did a lot of research into Charles Addams' original New Yorker cartoons and comics and picked out iconic furniture pieces like Morticia's chair, and some of the furniture in the foyer, and Gomez's reclining leather chair. The house is very different from the television show as to what's in there, and we were definitely limited by production a little bit.

It was more making sure we were continually going back to the original artwork and infusing as much of it as possible. Like the witch's broom tree swing, the street signs in Pugsley's bedroom, and hope that people will recognize that.

The one little easter egg that'll be fun for people to find is Cousin What, a dark silhouetted figure that was in the background of a lot of Charles Addams' art. You can't not have fun with Charles Addams' artwork, and his drawings speak to a lot of people.

Souza: The exterior of the house was my main job on the show, and it took a long time to get there. We had a rough design nailed down pretty early, but adding all those little details and keeping that Addams flair, like having the broken fountain in the front yard with the lion, which both ties into the family's pet lion and the MGM logo, came later.

I tried at other times to look at the comics for set pieces we could include. There were various things around the yard, like the vulture feeder outside Wednesday's window, which was a wooden platform with some bones on it. I turned that into a vulture birdbath that was a giant stone bowl filled with bones that were integrated into the body part garden, which was in another of Charles Addams' cartoons, where Fester is plugging in IVs to these rows of seeds for little noses, eyes, and ears.

We found things, even if it was just a background element in the comics, to pay homage to the imagination of Charles Addams. Even though his backgrounds are quickly sketched, they're rich with so much stuff and filled with weird, weird things. With all the crazy new possibilities with 3D, we had the opportunity to reimagine these characters not just as charcoal or pencil drawings, but we could add real texture and lighting quality to their garments, skin, and their hair.

Garber: The portraits that are hanging in the hallways, a lot of them were inspired by the Charles Addams illustrations. Going back to character design, and using that shape language that Charles Addams had, the bell shape of Uncle Fester, and even the background characters, everything was very simplified, no joints on the arms, which was really challenging but also so fun to draw.

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Which characters are you most partial to from the old TV series and your new movie?

Atchison: I think they're all my favorites in some ways, but I think Wednesday Addams is my favorite, from long ago and also the new movie. She's so unique-looking as a character design, and the voice actor, Chloë Grace Moretz, just nails Wednesday. Everything that comes out of her mouth is so iconically Wednesday. Her deadpan face and her attitude.

The skill level of the whole Cinesite team through every single department was unbelievable. They were so confident and talented.

Souza: I have always been partial to Fester. So unrelatably goofy but still lovable. He's always had the best jokes. Yep, I'm a Fester man all the way.

Garber: I think in the '90s movies my three top characters are Gomez, Fester, and Wednesday. Gomez, I'm pretty sure I had a crush on him.

In our movie I have to go with Wednesday. I love her so much. She's so expressive with having zero expression. Her poses are just perfectly straight. It's the coolest thing. It was so rewarding being a part of The Addams Family, and helping to shape it visually was amazing.