How Monsters vs. Aliens morphed tiny Reese into Ginormica

Contributed by
Dec 14, 2012, 3:54 PM EST

Conrad Vernon, one of the directors of the 3-D animated sci-fi spoof movie Monsters vs. Aliens, told reporters that Reese Witherspoon's diminutive proportions made her perfect to play the film's main character, Ginormica.

DreamWorks Animation chief Jeffrey Katzenberg sent the filmmakers an email that Reese had come in and was talking about doing an animated film, Vernon said in a news conference last week. "I immediately shined to that idea and said that's kind of perfect casting for us," Vernon said. "It would be great for little Reese to play this gigantic woman and become empowered, and because she has a very big personality."

In Monsters vs. Aliens, Witherspoon plays Susan, a bride who is struck by a meteor on her wedding day and transformed into a 49-foot-11-inch-tall "monster" named Ginormica. Vernon said he sold Witherspoon on the role by explaining she wouldn't play second fiddle to any male counterpart. "We met with her and pitched her the idea that this story was about a woman being empowered, not just another girlfriend who was the sage advisor," he said. "She really loved this role, and so it was kind of on both sides wanting to work together."

Vernon and producer Lisa Stewart spoke in Los Angeles to promote Monsters vs. Aliens, which opens today. The following is an edited version of their press conference.

Was it important to have a female protagonist for this film, or was it just incidental? As Reese Witherspoon observed, there aren't a lot of animated or even sci-fi films that feature central female protagonists.

Stewart: It was organic to have the character of Susan, aka Ginormica, sort of be the protagonist, because she's the sort of normal girl at the start of the movie. She's the ordinary girl thrown into the extraordinary situation, so as an audience it seemed very natural to follow her point of view throughout the story.

Vernon: We needed a window into this crazy world, and we could have gone with Dr. Cockroach [Hugh Laurie], but he was nuts and actually liked being a cockroach, so there's not a lot of relatability there. So Susan kind of stepped forward as the obvious choice, and it was great that there hadn't been a lot of really strong female leads in these movies, so it was a double win there.

Do you construct the entire cast and then determine who will sort of be the "lead" among the ensemble, or did you create Susan and then assemble the other characters around her?

Stewart: We assembled sort of our archetype of characters, and then it became very obvious that the human-based character would be the protagonist.

We understand that you actually photographed a real girl stomping through a model city. How did that work, and how did that help develop ideas for the film?

Vernon: The first thing that we were thinking was, here's a woman who as soon as she turns 49 feet, 11 inches tall, they take her down and throw her into a prison that is built for her size. So all of a sudden she's released into San Francisco, which is a very tight-knit city, and she's not going to be used to her size.

So what we did was we actually took one of our sculptors, actually built a foam-core version of San Francisco, one street, and put the cars and the light posts and the trees all the way down the street, and we took one of our taller animators, Lena Anderson, and we said, "You're kind of freaked out, you're scared, there's a gigantic robot chasing you, just cautiously walking down the street." As we were shooting her, she was literally stomping on trees, snapping them in half and going, "Oops, sorry!" We were like, "Keep going!" Because that was exactly what we wanted. So she was knocking buildings over, stepping on cars. So that kind of clumsiness about someone's new body size was something we captured and gave to the animators.

How difficult or easy was it to create a sense of forced perspective for Susan and these gigantic creatures?

Vernon: We didn't have to do any sort of forced perspective tricks because she literally is that tall. But there was a lot of time when we were saying to ourselves, "Does she look like a regular-sized woman in a miniaturized world, or does she look like a giant woman in a regular-sized world?" We definitely had to put in visual cues and tweak the camera to make sure that we knew that she was 50 feet tall and get the scale right. That was a big challenge throughout this. So, yeah, putting in visual clues, but that was another reason that we made the world not real cartoony and gave it a real texture. If you look at the buildings, there's a slight skew and a slight tweak, but the textures are all very realistic, so you can believe in the world and recognize it as a big city. So when she walks through there, you remember she's 49 feet, 11 inches tall, and that's not a miniature set.