German-born moviemaker Thor Freudenthal started his career in visual effects and animation, working on such films as Stuart Little (which was nominated for a Best Visual Effects Oscar in 2000). After directing several short films, he made his feature moviemaking debut with 2009’s kid-friendly Hotel for Dogs. His follow-up, the hugely profitable Diary of a Wimpy Kid, was released in 2010 and has spawned two sequels. Freudenthal’s latest project, Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters, is his most ambitious to date.
A sequel to 2010’s Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief (directed by Chris Columbus), Sea of Monsters is adapted from the popular Percy Jackson book series by Rick Riordan. The film continues the fantastical adventures of the title character (Logan Lerman; The Perks of Being a Wallflower), who is the demigod son of Poseidon and must embark on a perilous journey across the Sea of Monsters in order to retrieve the magical Golden Fleece. Co-starring Stanley Tucci, Nathan Fillion and Sean Bean—and presented in 3D—Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters promises to be a refreshingly fun time amidst the dog days of summer.
Just before the movie hits theaters on August 7, MM caught up with Freudenthal to discuss the challenges of making such an effects-driven film, as well as how he made the leap from visual effects designer to live-action director.
MM: Could you talk a bit about how you got your start in visual effects/animation?
Thor Freudenthal (TR): Ever since I could hold a pencil, I loved to draw. I loved graphic novels and comic strips. When I was in my teens, I got some of my own comics published in German magazines. It felt like the big time for me back then. But it also awakened an interest in animation. My Berlin art school had no animation instructors, but they did have an old Oxberry camera in the basement. So I taught myself the basics.
That led to a scholarship to attend CalArts in California, where I got more formal film and animation training. This was during the middle of an animation renaissance of sorts in the industry. Visual effects and animation companies were hiring like crazy at the time, so I got a job at Sony Pictures Imageworks as a concept artist and designer in the art department. Stuart Little was the first film I worked on.
MM: How did you make the transition from “visual effects artist” to “live action director?” Was becoming a feature director always your ultimate goal?
TR: Yes, doing features was always the dream. But it’s a long way from sitting in a corner drawing pictures. At some point, I started shooting short films on weekends with friends. I’ve also made some spec commercials along the way, spending a good chunk of the money I earned at Imageworks. That opened the doors to commercial production companies. I started shooting commercials freelance in both the US and my old home of Europe. Suddenly my official position was “director.” Doing spots was fun, and it got me into a routine of working a set. But features were still the goal. I had sold two screenplays I’d written along with a partner. However, they never got made.
MM: How did you get involved with directing Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters? What appealed to you about the project?
TR: I started reading the Percy Jackson books after I saw Chris Columbus’ film. I really loved how the series combined tongue-in-cheek humor, teenage angst and rip-roaring action-adventure. I hadn’t really seen that specific tone in anything else. Percy is as insecure as any teenager—but this gets amplified by his Olympian ancestry. Making Greek mythology collide with contemporary characters felt like it could be emotionally charged and funny. Capturing that became the driving force behind me taking on this project.
MM: Was it difficult making such an effects-driven movie? What was the biggest challenge you encountered while making Percy Jackson?
TR: Directing a big movie is like operating hundreds of levers of a very big machine. Everything involves a high level of detail in design and animation. You could get lost in all the elements that make up a sequence. The biggest challenge is to never lose sight of the most important part—characters and story. You don’t want the actors to become mere window-dressing to the spectacle. All sequences have to still be about them. You can never forget that while you’re talking with visual FX people about the color of a sky or the surface texture of a sea monster. In the end, the audience is looking at the actors first and foremost.
MM: Overall, how do you think your past career in visual effects has informed your work as a moviemaker?
TR: It’s informed my way of thinking dramatically. I’m very visual—so I still use drawings as a means of communicating ideas to the crew. And just like in animation, I think of a sequence as a series of images that should each serve a purpose. Having a background in animation hones economy in storytelling. In animation, each shot is so hard to create, it better have a good reason to be there. That’s how I break down scenes when I draw them out in my sketchbook. It’s a great exercise that allows for more flexibility with the actors on the set. I can incorporate their ideas and improvisations more easily because I’ve already done my homework on the scene.
MM: Any upcoming projects in the works you can tell us about? Being that all your films, so far, have been aimed at family audiences, would you like to continue in that vein or branch out and try something different down the road?
TR: With all the family movies I’ve done, I’ve never thought of them as being just “for kids.” Rather, I always try to tell the best story under the given circumstances, and give the movie an aesthetic that pleases me. Currently, I’m in talks on a few projects. And they are skewing older.
For more information about Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters, click here.
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