What? Zack Snyder isn’t doing a movie filled with graphic sex and violence? Yes, the director of 300 and Watchmen has taken a step into the family friendly genre of animation with his latest film Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole. The film is based on the children’s books of the same name that were written by Kathryn Lasky. Not only is he stepping into new territory by doing a family film, but Legend of the Guardians also marks his first encounter with 3D.

Unlike a lot of filmmakers, Snyder didn’t sign on to do a 3D movie just because it’s “all the rage.” He did it because he thought the story would genuinely be better if it was told in the format. When the director appeared at the Los Angeles press day for the film he spoke about the challenges he encountered making Legend of the Guardians, and his inspiration for buckling down and doing a kids movie. He also discussed the differences between directing an actor’s performance (in live action) and just directing their voices in an animated feature. It’s not as easy as you think…

What made you want to make an animated film and one specifically based on this property, Legend of the Guardians?

Zack Snyder: For me, I wanted to make an adventure film like Star Wars or Narnia or Lord of the Rings or something like that, that I personally as a child would enjoy. I guess the whole thing for me was that I wanted to take what Kathryn [Lasky] wrote in the books and treat it seriously because I knew this was going to be a kid’s fantasy film and the last thing I wanted to do is – I don’t want to say belittle but – smirk at their fantasy that they believe is 100% real and they take 100% seriously. Far be it from me to make, I don’t want to say a joke but,  like ‘Oh! Owls are wearing helmets! Hilarious!’

The thing that makes it strong is that I’m just like ‘No, that’s real. That’s the way I want to approach it.’ So, the byproduct of that maybe being that the battles are intense or that the reality of the consequences is real. I wanted that to be so that it’s immersive, so the kids, at the end, are like ‘Oh my gosh, that happened!’ Look, I was a huge fan of Star Wars. I love that sort of Joseph Campbellean hero’s mythic journey and I really wanted that experience in the movie.

What’s the differences between directing a live action performance on set and a voice recording in a booth?

ZS: Working with the actors, these guys have done an amazing job and actually the process of when you record just a voice, in some ways it’s a lot faster and a lot easier. I won’t say easier because it’s all from their points of view. They still have to do all the work that they would do. But I think that because you don’t have a camera and there’s no crew around and really it’s just a microphone and a conversation, it’s a slightly different process and that way I think you can get at a lot more ideas quicker. And that part is rewarding and fun and it also gives us, when we were putting the performances together, or the film itself, the voice.

I felt like there was a little bit more variety because a lot of times with a non-camera performance there’s something about the look or that one take where maybe the words were not exactly as they were written or not exactly at the idea but there was something in the performance that was so compelling that you’re like ‘Okay, I got it. That’s the take. It’s got to be that take. There’s no other way around it.’ It’s interesting in an animated film how, just like building the pictures, it’s amazing how obsessive you get over single words. You’re actually listening to every word — ‘The way you said ‘the’ was odd’ — in a way you would never do with a photographed performance because you just don’t.

Was the 3D tough for you to tackle or was it easier than you thought it would be?

ZS: First of all, I’d say [the work] these guys at Animal Logic have done was pretty groundbreaking. Grant and I were saying it’s everyone’s first 3D movie but I think everyone endeavoring from the beginning to say ‘We’ve seen the other 3D movies and they’re awesome…ish.’ We were talking about how there are rules. They say you can only make a 3D movie certain ways and you can only make certain shots. I felt like what we did is we really made this 3D movie in a cinematic way. We tried not to change the language of the movie for the 3D but we tried to get the 3D to enhance the language of the movie. The 3D isn’t used in a gimmicky way but it does deepen the world. I really believe that, especially in a fantasy film which this is, it really is a fantasy film.

I was looking on the internet and it’s listed under sci fi which is kind of cool. I liked that it was in a sci fi category as well. But then it’s a real fantasy film so you really are going on an adventure to another world literally. We were saying we used all this landscape of Australia to create the world but in a lot of ways when you make an animated movie you get nothing for free. You’ve got to endeavor then to include anything that you see is an effort and a choice. There’s no ‘Oh, we got lucky with those clouds.’ I think that the cool thing about the 3D in this case was that it makes the world more immersive. It helps support the fantasy aspect of the film in the sense that you don’t have to work to believe in the world as much maybe if the 3D is working correctly.

Is it hard to balance a project that will keep your Watchmen and 300 fans happy as well as this new younger kid audience?

ZS: Who are these kids? [Laughs] No, I’m just kidding. I honestly didn’t think about it that way because the truth is we started working on the movie about 3 years ago. Before we started shooting Watchmen, we were working on this movie so it doesn’t really fit in the chronology exactly, like ‘Okay, you’ve made all these hardcore movies, so what are you going to do?’ Honestly, I didn’t really think about it, like I had any fans. I didn’t feel like I had anyone to disappoint. Our approach was really just to try and love the story and try and make some awesome pictures that supported the story and whatever language it chose, that was the language that it was told in, and again, I didn’t think about it in a chronological filmography kind of way.

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Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole debuts in theaters on September 24th.