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June 2004
Garfield: An Interview with Jim Davis

By Todd Gilchrist

Garfield: An Interview with Jim Davis

Twenty-six years ago Jim Davis created Garfield, a talking cat with an incisive with and an insatiable appetite for lasagna. This week, his creation arrives in theatres nationwide in "Garfield: The Movie", a family comedy that will have kids rolling in the aisles for years to some. Davis recently spoke to blackfilm.com about the evolution process of Garfield from comic strip to silver screen, and about keeping a familiar character fresh after two and a half decades.


How hard was it for find a 90-minute story for a comic strip and short cartoon character?

Jim: Actually, it's like taking one comic strip, stretching it out and throwing a little music in there. That's about it. We started with a very simple story, very classic Garfield. We wanted him to have a journey from the beginning to the end of the story. And it would simply take what he does best and that's basically rule the world. He's cock of the walk, in control of his own destiny in a comfortable rhythm and we rocked his world. The best way to do it is go back to the basics and give him the dog, the perfect foil. Because, for humor you need conflict and that's what Odie represents. We wanted to show the viewer something they rarely see and that's the compassionate side of Garfield. You really had the realization that he really did like Odie and it was sort of a sibling rivalry kind of thing, sort of like a brother. He was willing to take action, willing to do something about it. So, I'd worked with [screenwriters] Joel Cohen and Alec Sokolow for about a week at our studio going through all of our primetime specials coming up with a treatment and then, from there, once we had the clothesline, it was just a matter of hanging the gags on it which is really oversimplifying it. My function for the movie was serving as a technical advisor. I'm the surgeon on the set of "E.R." 'Garfield would do this and he wouldn't do that'.


Why did it take so long to for Garfield to make it to the big screen?

Jim: Actually it was very quick in that it didn't end up in development hell. I was sitting in [Fox Chairman] Tom Rothman's office and he pointed to the volleyball in the corner from "Castaway" and he said that movie took seven years to make. Comparatively speaking we were fast-tracked because I think there was a demand for family-type fare and we were there at the right time. We worked on the treatment for the movie in May we made it through the first draft in August, to the fifth draft in November and in February we were in production. The biggest block of time has been animating Garfield. We were done with principal and secondary photography a year ago.


I meant, why so long for the character to make it to the big screen?

Jim: Oh, I never wanted to do traditional animation for one reason, it would be tough to out-Disney Disney. It's only human nature to compare every animated feature to Disney. Frankly, they have the big talent and the big budget so I found it intimidating to do something in that theater. So when computer generated imaging came along, at first it was a little bit stiff. Actually, I worked with Rhythm and Hues five years ago on a Plymouth Voyager commercial were Garfield is a stuck-on-you cat and, for 30 seconds, it took five computers five weeks to crunch all of the animation, and that's for TV. When I saw "Toy Story" I knew that it was coming into its own but those were toys with articulated features and it was easy to animated. When "Monsters Inc." came out, for the first time I saw really fluid movement. For the first time I knew we had the processing power to do the kind of movement that Garfield dictated, the way he moves so the computers were there and then the phone rang and it was Davis Entertainment. Like a fool, I say 'so what have you done?' 'Oh, "Predator", "Grumpy Old Men", "Doctor Dolittle",' I'm like 'okay, okay I get it'. So we had a great producer with a track record with doing great family entertainment. John Davis and I talked for some time and I told him, if we could put a great creative team together the rest of the project would take care of itself. I would be comfortable that my cat would be taken care of. So, within a week, he had me on the phone with Alec Sokolow and Joel Cohen. They've since done "Cheaper by the Dozen" after "Toy Story". John said 'these are the hottest writers in Hollywood to which Joel said 'We don't even return our own wives' calls'. Right then I knew I had a couple of guys I could really work with and they are great, funny guys. And Rhythm and Hues has done a lot of the great animation. Director of Photography Dean Cundey did "Jurassic Park" and we had Peter Hewitt, a director who was really comfortable at figuring out this kind of technical challenge working with a digital cat in a real world. We had all the players there to make it happen and of course lightning struck. When we were talking voice we had only one person in mind. It had to be Bill Murray. Otherwise we were going to do for a sound-alike like the late Lorenzo Music because there is something very tough about Garfield's delivery and only Bill Murray has it, as far as I'm concerned, among major stars, is the ability to throw a line away but do it with great comedic timing. Make you laugh if it's said in a lazy way which is very rare. Lorenzo could do it, plus Bill brings the attitude.


Were you worried about having a real dog as Odie instead of animating him?

Jim: No. Odie doesn't talk so all the dog had to do was basically look sweet and we always animate a tongue in there if we had to. Actually there were two dogs, a brother and a sister and the brother did the close-ups, the face shots, the beauty shots and the sister did all the performing, the dancing. She was the talent.


How hard was it to get Bill Murray to do it?

Jim: From what I understand, once they found himä he wasn't kidding at the Golden Globes, he had fired his agent. He doesn't have an agent but he has a lawyer. That's how we located him. They asked him about doing a voice. Bear in mind, I don't think he's ever done a voice over. There were a few beats, as I understand it, and he said 'I get it' and that was it. The first recording session was in New York City and the pick up lines were in Naples, Italy where he was on the set of a movie at the time. He was very professional and very creative. He took a good basic script and we used a lot of ad-libs and the animation came back re-scripted. His ad-libs during the dance. He was wonderful.


What's the advantage of waiting so long to make the movie?

Jim: The beauty of doing a movie about a character who is twenty-five years old, we don't have to establish the character at the top of the movie. We can get right into the business of establishing a plot. So we don't have to introduce. That job's done as soon as people walk in and of course, hearing Bill's voice on top of it and his voice fits like a glove with Garfield's attitude anyway.


Has technology changed the way you do the cartoon strip?

Jim: Yes. Not how I illustrate it. We do it the old-fashioned way. We pencil it first in blue pencil, ink it and hand-letter it and everything like that. From that point on through, it's scanned into the computer and we color it electronically which is great because the old way you had to color the Sunday strips, we had a choice of 64 colors, period. Garfield was one of the three oranges to choose from. Now we can do airbrush quality. We can do any kind of color to get any hind of mood in, we can color our dailies too which we do electronically and then everything is sent out on the wire to the syndicate. Since the syndicate gets electronically linked they can immediately zap it overseas to get it translated and now we're able to come out the same day in Spanish and now we're adding more languages as we go. Online you'll be able to toggle it so you can read it in English and Spanish today and next French and German.


How far in advance do you work?

Jim: I work about a year in advance because I like to write for Christmas at Christmas. I like to work in the season for when the strip is appearing. The artwork goes in about three or four months in advance. That gives everybody time to get it translated. I work on the writing well ahead of the artwork because I like to mix and match the gags every week. I don't really talk about it much but I don't like people to be able to figure out a Garfield gag every day when they open the paper. I stir up the kinds of gags. I'll do two or three physical gags. One editor, and old comics editor from a syndicate said 'the secret young man, to a successful strip, is to have your character get hit over the head at least once a week' and it works.


How do you keep it fresh for yourself?

Jim: Garfield has to make me laugh first when I write for him. When I write, it's almost like a meditative state. I actually see him. I really hear him in my head. I can consciously put him into a situation. What he does with it is of his own volition. I can send him up a tree. I can send him camping and then I watch. I sit back and I watch and when he does something funny, I back up three frames and cut it off. So, he has to make me laugh first. I'm an editor. I don't write, in that sense. I watch. And, the one thing I think I do well, I have a sense of what's funny, what's entertaining. I can see a gag or hear a joke and go 'that'll make a lot of people laugh'. When I'm in that state, when he makes me laugh, then I know it's an original gag and when you're dealing with eating and sleeping, you have a really broad area to cover.


You know you're having an hallucination watching Garfield?

Jim: I've never used that word but it's the same thing because I can tell you what he'd say. I can see him. Once time they wired me up doing one of these things and my heart rate was 120. I was in what they call a beta state. Toes tapping and sweating but I'm sitting still. It's odd.


How proprietary are you with Garfield?

Jim: After I've passed on I won't care whether he goes on or not, but I've always maintained that when I'm ready to retire, hopefully I'd know when that time comes around. If somebody's funny. If someone is really writing well and could keep him going and keep him entertaining, more power to him because that's why Garfield is there.


Are you training an apprentice now? Will there be someone to carry on?

Jim: We have two or three assistants who can all help who draw the character as well as I do. They all contribute gags. I do all the editing. They submit things. I do the lions share and all the final stuff. It's hard to day if there will be. There's no one now but it's very personal and subjective. It's hard to get your fingers on it.


Any thoughts of working some U.S. Acres gags into the film?

Jim: It you look very closely at Garfield strips once a year, once every two years, Roy the rooster pokes his head in when he visiting the farm somewhere. Roy can not leave the strip. He refused to leave the U.S. Acres strip. He was looking for an agent when the strip ended. But, I never gave it any conscious thought. I think inside jokes in movies are funny as long as they don't distract from the storyline. "Shrek 2", if you look closely, there's a scene where Shrek, Donkey and Puss in Boots are all depressed and it looks as though they've lost their quest and they're sitting at a bar. They go down the bar and Puss is drinking and says 'I hate Mondays' which is what Garfield says right at the top of the Garfield movie. I hear Antonio Banderas was driving down Sunset Boulevard a couple of weeks ago and he saw Garfield on the billboard and thought it was Puss in Boots and he was so proud, all puffed up and then he got closer and saw it was Garfield.


How much did you have to say about what he looked like in the film?

Jim: Chris Bailey is the director of animation for the movie. My assistant on the strip is Bret Coe. Chris and his wife Denise gave Bret and Mona their wedding rehearsal party. The animation community isn't very large. We built is basically on the skeletal structure of an actual cat. The challenge was, I never looked at a real cat when I designed Garfield so therefore he has opposable thumbs so he can drink coffee. His ears are together and his eyes are mouth are obviously super-sized so we hung the Garfield head and body on a real skeleton and once we had that, we had to make decisions we don't have to worry about on the comic strip. When Garfield is angry, his teeth are pointy. When he's caught with his hand in the cookie jar, his teeth are square. When he's silly, his teeth are rounded. Nobody questions that in the comic strip. We had to pick one for CGI so we have him half human, half cat teeth. Then we scanned that into the computer, digitized it and started to work with the animators at Rhythm and Hues so I spent time with the 200 plus people there talking about the kinetics of how he gets from point A to point B. What kinds of expressions he would use in given situations. (Re: his fat tummy swinging when he walks). We dialed the fluidity up and down until it would swing just right when he'd walk. Sometimes, when he'd run though, the computer would go crazy. It was really awkward looking. There are more decisions to make in that animation than you would ever believe. Like the animation of the hair. It reacts to wind. It reacts to his weight, it reacts to movement, the hair will even matt together. It was all I the computer. Absolutely amazing!


Was there ever a discussion to make the other cats CGI? Was it budgetary concern?

Jim: I'm sure that had something to do with it. However John Davis had learned a lot from doing "Dr. Doolittle". There was less CGI in the second "Dr. Doolittle"' than the first one because they learned how to shoot the animals. The thing they did in this movie, they ran a lot of footage until those happy little things happen that can be incorporated into the script. Garfield wouldn't have it any other way that he's the only CGI cat. We actually tried to find a cat big enough. We did find a big cat for the movie but he had so many scenes, so many things he physically had to do, it was a lot more efficient to just start from scratch and just do it all CGI.


But Nermal is a grey tabby and now he's a Siamese.

Jim: And of course Arlene is gray in the movie and she's pink in the comic strip..like there's a pink cat. We didn't want to paint any of the animals. We made a conscious decision to keep the reality level very high, using real animals was going to help keep it there. And look at the color palette we have in the movie too. A lot of earth tones, pastels. Garfield stood out as a result and also loves Liz's outfits.


Odie doesn't look anything like Odie in the strip either.

Jim: No, but he's sweet and dumb so he captures the essence of Odie as we did with Garfield in capturing the attitude. That was the big challenge.


What is the breed for Odie, a Jack Russell?

Jim: Yeah, well, he's half dachsund, half terrier. I don't think he's pure Jack Russell. There were two of them. Chloe and what was the boy's name. They wanted a really sweet face though that could handle a close up and give that blank state that he does. That's what we needed.


In your original strip, why did you decide that humans wouldn't understand what Garfield says?

Jim: I wanted to ride that real fine line between wanting to understand what the cat says, I think people honestly feel that cats think in English, that cats understand everything as they do but obviously they don't talk so I wanted to ride that line between here's what your cat is really thinking to give pet owners insight into what their pets are really thinking without giving it away, to have him really talk and Jon understand him, would have made it more of a fantasy. I always wanted to create a strip that could have cats, if they had opposable thumbs, would drink coffee if they could. Apparently Heathcliff, a cat in a comic strip panel, would fly planes and drive cars and be on a desert island and I didn't want to do that. I wanted to create a very real world and then go out to the fantasy from there. And, you'll notice that when Jon understands what Garfield is saying, it's something Garfield does with an action, not a word that communicates it.


The press kit said you were a terrible artist at the beginning. How did you get better?

Jim: Practice. Chuck Jones, the great animator of the Road Runner series said, every artist has a hundred thousand bad drawings in him and the sooner you get those hundred thousand out of the way, every drawing is going to be good. It's absolutely true. I've always maintained there is no such thing as art talent, but there is such a thing as skill. The skill is born from having an interest in, a love of, drawing. The more you enjoy it, the more you draw, the more you draw, the better you get. It's that simple.


You first strip was about bugs and it got squished. What happened with that?

Jim: I thought bugs lent themselves to various personalities; knats would be nice, spiders would be bad. I had Freddy the Fruit Fly. He always had two weeks to live. He was always down. He'd go in a restaurant and say 'charge it'. But nobody could relate to him. After five years of doing that I had this foot come out of the sky and just squash 'um. Suffice it to say I wouldn't be sitting here today if the bug strip had hit.


Do you have another strip idea in you?

Jim: I did U.S. Acres for a few years which worked well in syndication. Then I did Mr. Potatohead for a couple of years as well. It was something Bret wanted to do and Hasbro had come to us and so we did it for a couple of years and really had fun with it but circulation was not real high. Just a couple of hundred papers but it was really fun to do. It was really strange giving a personality and creating a family for a 50-year-old toy icon.


Do any of your kids draw?

Jim: My oldest son is an excellent artist but an interest in it as a career, I don't know yet. Actually he's becoming a Marine. He's a computer whiz.


Was there anything you wanted to do in the movie that you didn't get to?

Jim: It's so basic. What I like about it is probably the scale of the movie. It's a very Garfield-sized movie. What I mean by that, is it's not "Finding Nemo", it's not on a grand scale. It's not an kinetic as a Warner Brothers animation where it's so fast where you're having to sit on the edge of your seat to catch it all. I enjoy those kinds of movies but this has a Garfield pace and a Garfield scale to it. He wouldn't be going to outer space. The earth's not going to be threatened in this movie. It's done in very human terms but with enough sight gags, and enough humor and certainly, an appealing enough story to hold everyone's attention and to make them feel like it was worth their stay in the theater. That's what we wanted to accomplish so I was real pleased with that.


Did you just aim this toward kids?

Jim: No. It's PG was the rating we were interested in getting. If you're gonna be "G", you'd better be Disney. Otherwise the kids wouldn't be caught dead in the theater for a "G" movie and the theater owners are going to run you in matinee slots and put something PG or higher rated for the evening.


But I was thinking why not PG-13, a little edgier?

Jim: That's not Garfield's style. The kind of humor comes from the situational humor. We're very strong on that and then liberally sprinkle it with sight gags for the kids and the men who love The Three Stooges. Never-the-less, the kind of laugh that Garfield evokes is from a good place. I mean it's not an embarrassed laugh. It's not a cruel laugh. It's the kind of laugh that leaves you feeling better after you've laughed than before. A shared laugh.


But he keeps pushing Odie out of the chair?

Jim: That was a real fine line when he did the claw thing and the dog lands on a cushion. We had the animal people on the set and they were very pleased in the way we handled the animals. Even in the comic strip Odie doesn't get hit over the head with a baseball bat. He gets hit with softer things or if he hits the floor, it's out of the scene. There is a fine line between sight gags, physical humor and violence.

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