Bruce Willis was in the recording studio nearly 20 times during the making of "Over the Hedge." Recording in the studio alone, he didn’t know how his voice work would fit with the other cast members, or how the overall story would ultimately be realized. "When I saw the first rough cut of the film, I was like, ‘This is hilarious!’" he said. "There are jokes in there for adults, and jokes in there for kids. So if you have kids — which I do, and I’m gonna take my kids …"
"I’m gonna kidnap some kids and take them," cast member Wanda Sykes interrupted. "The movie’s that good."
At a press conference, "Over the Hedge" cast and crew members discussed the difficulty in making animated films, and how the filmmakers and actors contribute to bringing the characters to life.
"Over the Hedge" tells the story of RJ (Willis), a raccoon who has incurred a debt with a bear (Nick Nolte) after attempting to steal his food reserves. RJ cons a group of woodland creatures into helping him, but those creatures have a problem of their own: While they were hibernating, suburbia has encroached upon the woods. The film has a remarkable voice cast that includes Garry Shandling, Steve Carell, William Shatner, and Avril Levigne.
The film pokes fun at the excesses of suburban life and Americans’ obsessions with consumption (particularly food consumption), but Willis said the primary focus of the story was to be entertaining.
"I think it was just to use suburbia and the suburban ‘overdoing it’ lifestyle as satire," he said. "We needed something to overcome. But more than anything I’ve ever done, it’s all about making people laugh."
"I write for me," Kirkpatrick said. "I write a movie I want to go see. I think the kiss of death is to write down to a kid. They are so smart."
"[Kids] can smell condescension a mile away," added Johnson. "You can smell when characters are being stupid for the point of the plot or for some convenience."
Working on an animated film presents challenges for the voice actors. The voice work was done in the studio without other actors; Johnson, Kirkpatrick, and other crew members voiced other characters’ lines. During recording sessions, a video camera was in the booth to record the actors’ facial expressions, which was then utilized by animators to flesh out and individualize the characters’ faces.
"This was a really hard process," Willis said. "It’s like you’re in an isolation tank. There’s no tools, there’s no props there’s no other actors there to play off of .You’re just doing you lines. You have no idea how Wanda was going to respond to the things I said, how Garry was going to respond to the things I said, what their characters were gonna do."
"It is a difficult process," said Sykes, who plays Stella, a brassy skunk. "This the first time I’ve ever had to really act. You’re stripped of everything, all the things you rely on, [like] facial expressions. You have to leave them at the door, basically."
Tim Johnson, who directed the film with Karey Kirkpatrick, said he looks for voice talent that will gel with both the material and the other actors.
"I call it the ‘music,’" he said. "[It’s about] finding the voices that individually have that music and listening to the range so that you have a variety of distinctive personalities in the cast. I’m so thrilled with the way each of them made the character for us, [and] I think they sound great as a group, as a chorus."
The voice actors were encouraged to do a lot of improvisation to find the heart and soul of their characters, said Shadnling, who plays an uptight turtle named Verne.
"[Kerry and Tim] were all supportive of the process," he said. "They were trying to find that character too."
Getting big names in an animated feature is important, not only because it is easier for the audience to identify with their characters, but also because of the talent they bring to a film, Johnson said.
"It’s driven in the way any picture, live or whatnot, is driven," he said. "It obviously helps [to have stars]. It gets people interested in the movie to see some people they’ve admired in other pictures. [But] honestly, it’s what they do for you as performers, it’s what they do as a voice.
"These people are not famous arbitrarily," Johnson said. "They’re famous because they’re really good."
For example, Nick Nolte, who plays a bear with a cavernous voice, did extensive research into his role.
"He showed up on the first day of the recording session, and he had a ream of paper on bear research," Kirkpatrick said. "Nick throws himself into every part with the same fervency."
But other actors were riffing on the personas they’ve created in other films.
"It’s kind of a caper film, and I’ve done a lot of serious caper films," Willis said. "It’s fun to make fun of some of the films I’ve done, and some of the characters I’ve played."
"Who else is going to give you an absolute rat, a selfish con man and make you like him?" Johnson said of Willis. "Bruce Willis was David Addison [from Willis’ TV show "moonlighting"] again for us. He was able to take a pretty selfish character, and right from the start, you’re on the ride, and you’re rooting for him to become a good guy and that’s Bruce’s charisma. He’s amazing."
Fortunately for the filmmakers, other players in the cast have gained a higher profile in the time since the film’s inception.
"We spent four years making this thing, so Steve Carrell’s career has leapt," Johnson said. ‘Wanda’s star has risen."
And a talented voice cast is very important to telling a story, given the constraints of the genre, said Producer Bonnie Arnold (whose credits include "Toy Story" and "Tarzan.")
"What I think is challenging is that most animated films are 75 to 85 minutes," she said. They’re short, [so] you have to really be economical. In 85 minutes you have to be able to tell a simple story pretty well told, [and] I felt that [the actors] were very much a part of helping to create who those characters were."
Johnson and Kirkpatrick said they have mixed feelings when a film is finally released.
"It’s so much about the process for us, and it has to be about that in animation because it takes so long," Kirkpatrick said.
"I like making movies; I hate releasing them,’" Johnson said. "There are these characters onscreen and the characters you work, and they’re yours. It’s like raising your kid and sending him to college and all of a suddenly they’re not yours anymore."
But Willis said it’s gratifying to see audiences respond to the work.
"It’s hard to make people laugh," he said. "It’s rewarding to hear an audience of kids laughing, and the adults laughing too."
Shandling said he’s looking for approval from a different audience.
"I hope that I captured the essence [of the turtle]," he said "The real test will be when turtles see the movie. [I hope] I can walk to the zoo and other turtles will look at me when I go by and give me a thumbs up."