G-Force director on living up to Disney

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Dec 14, 2012, 3:54 PM EST

As a purveyor of special effects, Hoyt Yeatman's film credits go back as far as Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and his subsequent work includes Blade Runner, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, The Abyss, The Rock and some 40 other movies.

But it wasn't until his 5-year-old son gave him the idea for the upcoming live-action/animated family movie G-Force that he decided to direct. And the fledgling filmmaker admits that he knew immediately that it would be a challenge transforming a kid's fantasy into a full-length feature.

"One of the challenges was to come up with characters that were cute and cool," Yeatman said in an exclusive telephone interview last week. "With the little guinea pigs, they're by definition pretty cute, and they were characters that many of us were familiar with as youngsters. But also from the scientific community, guinea pigs are guinea pigs, so we thought they would be a great candidate to talk about work and study. So I began to look deeper into the animals working with the government, and I was astonished to find how most of what we were talking about was [possible], other than, obviously, talking guinea pigs. As science fiction as much of that is, there was plenty to work from to come up with the idea of G-Force."

Disney describes G-Force this way:

A comedy adventure about the latest evolution of a covert government program to train animals to work in espionage. Armed with the latest high-tech spy equipment, these highly trained guinea pigs discover that the fate of the world is in their paws. Tapped for the G-Force are guinea pigs Darwin (voiced by Sam Rockwell), the squad leader determined to succeed at all costs; Blaster (Tracy Morgan), an outrageous weapons expert with tons of attitude and a love for all things extreme; and Juarez (Penelope Cruz), a sexy martial arts pro; plus the literal fly-on-the-wall reconnaissance expert, Mooch, and a star-nosed mole, Speckles (Nicolas Cage), the computer and information specialist.

Yeatman is a newcomer to the director's chair, but many of the film's stars were equally unfamiliar with the process of performing roles that would be animated later. "Sam Rockwell, Tracy Morgan and even Penelope Cruz had never done voice acting before," Yeatman said. "I have to say, Tracy took to it like a duck to water, while Sam, on the other hand, he had to kind of work with it for the first couple of times, and I think also gain some confidence that what I was asking for was going to work. What I mean by that is when you're talking in front of a microphone, it's amazing how much energy you have to put out into that mic; if you were to do that on camera, it would look silly, and for many times when he was performing, he was very subtle, and I had to say, 'This is all wonderful, but I'm not recording your face, I'm only getting your voice, so you have to put more energy into it than you would think.'"

One of the biggest challenges was finding the right balance between kid-friendly action and adult-level intensity. "That's always a difficult thing, because when a film is PG, really, it has to be almost a hard G, because you don't want to alienate the younger siblings when they go to the film," Yeatman said. "It's always kind of a fine line you're walking, because you want to have the moments where there's intensity and the characters are in jeopardy, but you always resolve that conflict in a very positive way." The director added that producer Jerry Bruckheimer was supportive in helping develop the film. But then there were the expectations that come with the Disney brand.

"Even the ending, we changed it a couple of times based on some screenings, because again, when you say Walt Disney Animation, it's not so much for kids, but it's the parents that come in with preconceived ideas or what that should be," Yeatman said. "And especially in the United States, when you say animation, you immediately gravitate toward kids. So if you begin to trounce too far off of the beaten path, you sometimes come into problems. But Jerry was extremely supportive, and their main focus was story: From a visual standpoint, they really left me alone, which is very commendable on his part. And his guidance is fantastic; he has a really unique sense of story, and I think that's why he's as successful as he is."

Because of its family-friendly bent, G-Force seems primed for plenty of spinoff opportunities. Yeatman admitted that he has plans for the franchise's future. "I have a number of ideas," he said. "I think the design of the characters lends themselves well to games, which they're obviously coming out with: games, toys, books. So I think it has huge potential. But, again, it's probably all based on the numbers; if it's accepted by the public and they like the concept, I'm sure there's potential for many other stories that go into that. I have quite a few up my sleeve, so hopefully with any luck it will turn into something and we'll do it." G-Force opens July 24.