In the new film Spies in Disguise, spy Lance Sterling (Will Smith) is the greatest spy in the world. Hunting down bad guys with panache, slight arrogance, and every high tech weapon imaginable, he is thrown off his pedestal when he is set up for a crime. Now forced to team up with passive tech guru Walter Beckett (Tom Holland), more focused on safety and feelings than tech brilliance, Lance must learn to work with others and that the world is not as black and white as it seems. Also, he gets turned into a pigeon throughout the process.
I sat down with Directors Nick Bruno and Troy Quane to discuss the process of animating Washington D.C., working on their first animated feature and the complex lessons embedded in the film’s message.
I was doing research on both of you and you guys are like very experienced and seasoned animators, but this is your first directing venture. How was it jumping in and adapting this short film into a full-length feature film?
Troy Quane: It was amazing. It was such a great experience. Like you said, we’ve worked on so many films and you can’t help every film you work on you go, “Oh, I would’ve done this, or Oh, I wish I could cause I would’ve done that.” And then all of a sudden someone says, “All right, do it.” It’s exciting and it’s amazing. And we got to make a spy movie, which is like our favorite type of movie. How cool is that? We get big action set pieces, adventure, car chases. But then the other side of it is we love comedy. We love to laugh and make each other laugh. So we also got to make a buddy comedy. This odd couple of Lance Sterling, the world’s greatest spy and Walter Beckett, this gadget guy, who do not see eye to eye at all, going on this adventure. So all the comedy comes from that, and then on top of all that, we decided to turn him into a pigeon, which is just insanity. So it was great. It lets you take all of that experience you’ve had, all those things you’ve seen, the ideas you’ve had and put them forward and to a film and into a story you love.
Nick Bruno: Yeah. Listen, I totally agree with all that stuff. The only thing I would add to that is, you know, when you first start, you’re excited and you’re also a little nervous, right? Cause you’re like, “I’m making a spy movie and I hope this is good.” And you know, we really want to be good at what we do and it’s been an amazing learning experience. You know, you work for four years on a film, it comes out and after a couple of weeks it’s, it’s gone. Well, hopefully not gone. It’s really about the experience and who you work with. And I feel incredibly lucky to have been working with Troy. It’s a great partnership.
T.Q.: I love you man.
N.B.: Thank you, dude. I love you too. And the people at Blue Sky Studios, it’s like whenever you’re nervous, you know, if you’re surrounded yourself with amazing people, it’s amazing what shows up on the screen and I feel very proud of what everyone’s accomplished on this film.
This actually leads perfectly into my next question. Thank you for making my job easier! I feel like it’s easier when you’re about to do something new if you’re doing it with someone else. Talk a little bit about your guys’ relationship and how it was to work on the film together.
N.B.: You know, what’s interesting is when we started, we had never met each other before this. We had both read the beginnings of the script respectively. And you know, we both liked the idea that it’s a spy movie and it had a lot of potential for humor in there, but there were also the seeds of a very important message. And I think it’s that message that brought us together as being the guys that were going to make this film. How in a world that doesn’t trust each other, like the world of espionage, it’s really about putting your opposing philosophies away and learning to work as a team and teamwork can really save the world. And knowing that this might be a kid’s first spy movie, it was like, “Man, there’s a big responsibility to say something important with that.” I feel very proud of that message.
T.Q.: Yeah. I mean it’s amazing to meet someone, cause it’s nerve-wracking. Directing a movie is about having a vision or having something personal to say. So to find someone who you share all those things with was as amazing. Cause we have a friend, a mutual friend who kind of knew me, knew him and knew that to that we would work well together. But I think we came together even better than anticipated. I mean we share the same sense of humor, the same story instincts. We’re both animators. So performance-wise we have very similar tastes and it’s a long journey and it’s nice to have someone you know, you really respect and have fun with to go on that journey with it. It really was life imitating art, in the sense of teamwork and coming together. A lot of times directors, especially in animation when they are paired together, it’s “Nick’s from animation. I’m from story, so you go handle all this half, and I’ll go handle this half and we’ll see you at the premiere.” But that’s not how we worked at all. We did everything hand in hand. I mean literally, although some days, but we really did do everything together all the way through. I think the movie feels more seamless because of that.
One thing that I loved was when Walter says, “People are people,” the idea that people are not all good or evil. You don’t see that in kids’ movies or kids’ media in general. Often characters are portrayed as all black, all white, good, evil, the lines are drawn. Why is this message really important for kids right now to get?
T.Q.: Cause it’s I think it’s really where the world is right now. Put kids’ media side. It’s in adult media. I mean it’s, “you’re bad, we’re good.” And unless you switch the perspective around and then you realize they have the same perspective on anything. And that’s why it just felt like the right idea for this movie. And it’s a complex idea for sure. But you realize there are no real villains. Everyone’s a hero of their own story. Everyone’s doing something because they feel it’s the right idea. And that’s why it was really important for Lance, our hero, that you get to have fun with him at the beginning and cheer for him. Cause he’s the good guy, and then “Ooh, boo there’s the bad guy.” But then at one point, you twist it around and you realize these two characters are really just opposite sides of the same coin. And the only thing that separates them is a point of view. Walter, when he says, “there’s no good people, there’s no bad people.” He’s not saying there’s not bad in the world that we have to deal with. There is, but when you break it down and realize that everyone is a person and that person’s connected to another person, so many more of our problems go away instantly and then we can just focus on the important things that are left. When you have kids, you see them when they’re young and they don’t come with misconceptions, they’re just kids and they see other kids and there are no dividing lines. Those develop as they get older. And I think there’s something really refreshing, some people say naive, but I think there’s something refreshing in Walter, who has maintained that and realizes that we have fewer differences than we’d like to admit. We tend to create our own differences. I think Walter being true to his convictions is a different type of courage and I hope kids will go see this movie wanting to be Lance Sterling and hopefully come out wanting to be more like Walter.
Oh, man. I taught English and History for sixth and eighth-graders and I always told them that the people who we conceive as bad from history, thought they were doing the right thing at that time. I think this is such a wonderful and refreshing message to have in a kid’s movie. We are sitting here talking in Washington D.C. and D.C. is heavily featured in the film. Talk me through the animation process of creating Washington DC.
N.B.: When we first started the film, we decided instead of just guessing what D.C. really is, we decided to come down here. We spent a couple of days just walking around, getting, not just a feel for the landmarks, like actually experiencing them and just also just the people and the entire geography of the entire place, going to the spy museum. It really is so important to do our research because with this movie we didn’t want it to be a spoof. We didn’t want it to be a cartoon. You know, we’re turning a man into a pigeon, which is ridiculous as it is. So we really wanted to have a grounding to our universe and you know, while we were down here we thought it be really cool to set this spy agency underneath the reflecting pool. My kids actually asked me after the movie, “Is there really something under there?”
T.Q.: The hidden in plain sight, which the idea of the pigeon, right? Like is that a pigeon? Is that a spy? Is that just the reflecting pool? It really was finding all those details, the fire hydrants and the light posts and making sure that it felt unique. And same with Venice, because we didn’t want to just say, “All right, we create a city and this is D.C. And now we’re going to change all the signs to Italian and now its Venice.” We want to make sure that they each had a personality and a character, cause that’s the fun of these spy movies. You feel like you’re going somewhere different. You feel the personality and the character of the environment as much as the characters within it.
The one thing you’ve got wrong was the traffic, the traffic’s awful here.
N.B.: I know! It’s hard to have a car chase with traffic so we cleared out the streets.
If it was realistic the spies would just be bumper to bumper for two hours, and no one wants to watch that.
T.Q.: It would just be a pigeon running on the street!