Ricky Church chats with Space Jam Animation Director Tony Cervone about the film’s 25th anniversary…
This year marks a big milestone for the Looney Tunes. Not only do they have Space Jam: A New Legacy coming to theatres this summer, but this year is also the 25th anniversary of the original Space Jam which saw Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and the rest of the Tunes team up with NBA legend Michael Jordan in a basketball game against an amusement park tycoon who wanted to enslave the Tunes for his business.
Space Jam has now been released on 4K Ultra HD to coincide with its 25th anniversary and its sequel. To help celebrate the milestones, we chatted with Scoob! director Tony Cervone who served as Space Jam‘s Animation Director. We discussed the film’s wild premise, the legacy of Bugs Bunny and the rest of the Looney Tunes and the film’s place as the first ever production to be shot on a digital stage as a live-action/animation hybrid. Check it out our interview below…
Ricky Church: Space Jam turns 25 years old this year, which is crazy! That does not feel like it’s been that long. Looking back, what did you think of its initial pitch of a live-action/animation hybrid starring NBA legend Michael Jordan and cartoon legend Bugs Bunny?
Tony Cervone: Well, I mean it sounded pretty great to me! I was an enormous fan of both and I’m from Chicago so I was and am a huge Michael Jordan fan. So yeah, that sounded amazing to me. I had already been working on the Looney Tunes a little bit before Space Jam started, but the idea of doing something that was going to be such a high profile project was pretty exciting.
You were the film’s Animation Director. For those who don’t know, what can you tell us about that role?
I was the animation director along with Bruce Smith and the two of us covered and kind of led the troops on all of the animation. All of the steps and all of the processes from design, to storyboard, to animation, to painting and camera, we were involved in all of that. That was our domain on the movie.
Cool. Space Jam was, like you said, such a large production. How did you feel getting to work on a Looney Tunes feature film of this scale?
I was pretty excited to do it, but to be honest I think I was a little naïve back when I started. A little bit innocent about it because I had never worked on anything at this scale before. I didn’t know how enormous it was going to be. I was a little naïve and also even when it was done and when the movie was finished, I didn’t expect – no one expected to still be talking about this 25 years later! I mean, that is the most shocking part of Space Jam. It’s still kind of relevant. It’s still there and in some ways it’s more popular now than it ever has been.
Yeah. I’ll say for me that whenever I’m flipping through channels on the TV – not that anyone young right now knows what “flipping the channels” means – whenever I flip through the channels and I see Space Jam on, I’m going to tune into it just to see what part it’s at and I’m going to probably watch the rest of the thing! Like no matter how long it has left.
And it’s that kind of movie! It is that kind of movie. And honestly, I miss that part of flipping channels the most. Like coming across a movie you have on DVD on TNT and that you’re going to finish watching with commercials instead of getting up and putting the DVD in. I’m certainly guilty of that.
For sure. Now Bugs Bunny and the rest of the Looney Tunes, they’re such iconic characters who have been around for decades. What do you think is so appealing about Bugs and the crew to remain popular and have all these different animated shows?
Well, all of the characters, all the Looney Tunes are very different. They all have very distinct and different personalities, but I do think there’s a nostalgia factor and there is an ongoing history factor, but those only explain part of it. The other thing is there’s something about these character types that feels very iconic and then feels very relevant, especially to a new group of kids. Like the old cartoons are still pretty funny and the new cartoons are also pretty funny. They’re very durable characters that have undergone all kinds of evolution one way or another, but at their core they’re still very charming. I think there’s something kind of elementally fun about them. Like just Bugs always standing up for the little guy and always the character to confront a bully and put him in his place. I think that’s real now and it’s relevant now as it ever has been.
An interesting fact about Space Jam is since it was made in the mid-90s, this was actually the first film to be shot using a virtual studio at a time when that concept didn’t exist. What were the challenges you and the team faced on that front?
It was challenging in the fact that we didn’t even know what it was! Everything at that point was still kind of theoretical. Like, we think this is going to happen: if we shoot on a green screen and we put these tracking markers here, we could duplicate the camera information in a CG environment and we think it’s going to work, but until we started seeing it, it was all theoretical. When we did start seeing it, it was phenomenal and really kind of beyond what we imagined it to be. I’ve told people it’s the only thing I’ve ever worked on where even as someone who made the movie, I was sitting there going “I don’t know what I’m looking at. I don’t know how we did it. I don’t know how this is happening.” I mean I do now, but at that point in 1996 I did not. Honestly, very, very few people did. These are all things that are part of all modern filmmaking, all part of modern film language, digital film language. They did not exist five minutes before the making of Space Jam. It was exciting and in a historical sense very exciting to have been on the ground floor of something like that.
For sure. As I kind of said earlier you got to animate cartoon legends like Bugs, Daffy Duck and the other Looney Tunes, but then you’re also putting them alongside living legends like Michael Jordan and even Bill Murray gets a great role in this! Was it a bit surreal to put together a, for lack of a better word, crossover of animated and real icons?
Yeah. Roger Rabbit came before us and a lot of people who worked on Roger Rabbit worked on Space Jam. So there’s some common blood there. And remember like I was saying before, I was naïve to the fact of how big this movie is going to be. I certainly was not used to meeting Michael Jordan everyday, especially as a basketball fan that is not something I could shake very quickly! The same thing about Bill Murray. I love Bill Murray, I love everything that man’s ever done. It was really great just being in his presence for some time there and for working on something that kind of became an iconic Bill Murray role!
Now you’ve got a career in animation that has spanned over 30 years now. What is it about animation that you find so special?
The special thing about animation to me is that it creates some kind of shorthand that I think becomes emotional with the audience very quickly. What I mean by that is funny cartoons are still funny, you know. There’s something about animation where sad moments in a cartoon are sad no matter how many times you see them and funny moments are funny no matter how many times you see them. There’s something about animation that you let it in, you let it in deeper than you let other things and it sticks with you. I can remember all my favorite cartoons and what it felt like being a little kid watching. Watching my favorite cartoon doesn’t feel very different from being an adult watching the same things. So there’s some nice kind of continuity there.
Thank you to Tony Cervone for speaking with us!
Space Jam is now out on 4K Ultra HD now.
Ricky Church – Follow me on Twitter for more movie news and nerd talk.