Surly Squirrel’s Rise to Blockbuster Status

Alumni / Jan 17, 2014 / Christine Szustaczek
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When Sheridan graduate Peter Lepeniotis created the animated short film Surly Squirrel in 2005, little did he know that one day, his squirrel with an attitude would be at the heart of a feature length film starring the likes of Liam Neeson, Will Arnett, Katherine Heigl and Brendan Fraser.

The Nut Job, a story about a belligerent squirrel that organizes a bank-style heist on a nut shop to help him atone for earlier evils, opens in North America on January 17. As director and co-writer, Lepeniotis gave me the inside scoop on making the film and shared some of his favourite memories.

According to Lepeniotis, a director needs to maintain a steadfast commitment to the overall vision for a film. “You have to believe in the moral of the story and carry it through the two-three years that it takes to bring a film to completion.” Lepeniotis spoke of the hundreds of people it takes to create an animated blockbuster, many of whom work on disjointed pieces for only one, three or six month stints.  “As director, you have to ensure that the sequences unfold as you intended while preserving the themes.”

Having the co-writer credit meant that Lepeniotis also had a say in selecting the film’s actors.  “I thought we’d get some local Canadian talent and I’d have been happy with that as long as the story worked, but the guys at Toonbox kept saying let’s make this a big movie.  Our branches in LA and Korea kept throwing names at me, but I always envisioned Will Arnett as Surly.  Thankfully when he read the script he said he loved it and that he wanted to be part of the film.”

Lepeniotis flew to LA and New York to record the voice sequences one by one, over the span of about a year.  “I remember being jealous of live action films. They have all their actors on set at the same time.”  In the interim, progress continued at the studio in Toronto to animate the non-dialogue scenes.

The upshot for Lepeniotis was the opportunity to interact with the stars.  “A lot of the time, they’d ask me to read with them, because they needed to bounce off their lines with someone. It’s funny how I’d feed off them and they’d feed off me and we’d get it just right.  It blew me away to watch them transform themselves, stay in character and come up with their own lines. That was really exciting.”

Lepeniotis also recalls Liam Neeson’s dedication to professionalism. “Here’s this gigantic actor and yet he’d say to me ‘What exactly do you see here?  How do you envision this? Where’s this character coming from?’   It definitely helped having written the script.  I knew the lines really well and I understood what the motivations were of the characters.”

In addition to Lepeniotis, Sheridan grads Daryl Graham and Morgan Ginsberg worked on the film as Director of Animation and Supervising Animator.  “While I did the broad strokes, they took care of the details, helping to facilitate my vision and ensure that the animation was up to great standard.”

At the end of the day however, the greatest satisfaction for Lepeniotis came from the breakthrough moments when people working on the film bought into his vision.  “A lot of it is in your head. You have various discussions or debates because people don’t immediately understand why certain scenes are cut as they are or why the characters say what they do. When it all unfolds and everyone gets it, that’s the biggest thrill for me as director – knowing that the story is living and breathing a life of its own and no longer something you have to explain.”


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  • […] More of Lepeniotis’ favourite behind-the-scene moments on the making of the film can be found in this story: […]