Why do you think so many filmmakers allow that disconnect in their CGI-heavy movies?
From a practical standpoint, you’re probably not going to get a guy like Bill Murray [who voiced Garfield] to come to set every day. [Laughs.] You have to give them some leeway for the practicality of it all. But I think there are many directors who don’t quite understand animation and how it fits into live action. Any time there’s real-time synergy between the production and effects ends of a movie, you really do see it on screen.
The effects side of this movie wasn’t something that was an afterthought—our effects team was with us on set every single day. How the bear fit into this was a daily issue that we dealt with, with great care. So, in the simplest terms, I think it has to do with going into this with an understanding about how animated characters work.
It’s similar to how you can watch a 3D film and right away tell if it was converted into 3D after the fact, rather than being shot in that way from jump.
Yeah, and it was fun to do it this way. Doing all the motion capture live on set during production, right there just off camera, that’s something that I don’t think has been done, though I could be wrong. I think that’s one of the things that could hopefully set this movie apart as something that is able to really meld these two worlds together in a believable way.
Even though you come from an animation background, were there still elements of CGI that you had to learn from scratch while making Ted?
Absolutely, mainly with some of the environmental stuff. Really, there’s not that much of it in the movie. There are some shots where we actually had to build an environment, but not that many. The movie really does take place in real world Boston. But, yeah, I definitely learned a great deal about other types of effects shots, and how an actor working against a green screen is integrated into what is ultimately a CGI environment. I knew the basics, but there was a lot on a day-to-day basis that I absorbed that I did not know. Once you got outside of the world of character animation, I definitely had an on-set education as we moved through the production.
In Ted, there's a hilarious and really well-executed fight scene between Mark Wahlberg and the teddy bear—it looks impeccable, as if he was actually brawling with a stuffed animal. How difficult was it to execute such a tricky, CGI-versus-reality action sequence?
Oddly enough, that was, for me at least, one of the effects scenes that I was pretty comfortable with. I had a good sense of it and was on the same page as the effects team on how we’d integrate the bear into Mark’s fight moves. The physical task of shooting that whole scene was a challenge, because it’s very cut-heavy, but, at the same time, that’s an example of a situation where everyone involved gets the joke.
Our stunt coordinator, Scott Rogers, treated that scene as if it was a fight scene between two guys in one of the Bourne movies, and that was the goal from the get-go: This should be completely real and completely raw. There’s no music behind it, so it’s pretty realistic, despite the fact that there’s a teddy bear involved. The effects team was in sync with us; they understood that this character has to be a real person. There can be nothing cartoon-y about him outside of the way he looks. It was possible for it to be as good as it was because everyone understood what the joke was that we were trying to pull off.
That scene instantly brings to mind the infamous Peter-versus-the-chicken fights on Family Guy. Was part of the fun of making Ted to do some of the things you do on Family Guy in a new format?
Absolutely. With Peter and the chicken, you can have two characters hitting each other in the head with mallets, but with Ted, you have a realistic fist fight between two characters, so it was a matter of adding some reality into what we do with Peter and the chicken.
Those fights on Family Guy tend to become pretty absurd, with Ferris wheels, sinking ships, and what-not. So, yeah, this was certainly the next level of reality, and it really captures the essence of what makes the bear work, I hope, throughout the entire movie: that we treat him like just another actor. We don’t give him any special treatment just because he’s animated.
From Family Guy to Ted, your work is fearless, especially with regard to offending people. To what do you attribute that ballsy approach to comedy?
The only barometer you can use is whether you, yourself, are laughing or not. The jokes that are in the movie, and on Family Guy, are jokes that made me and the other writers laugh. It’s not shock for shock’s sake. You just hope that your instincts are valid. There’s always the danger of going too far. There have been episodes of Family Guy that had to be completely rewritten because there was overkill, and it numbs you if you go too far.
In terms of “going too far,” are there ever times when you’re writing or preparing a Family Guy episode and you stop and say to yourself, “Wow, we need to tone this one down”?
There are things that we know are going to generate controversy or make waves, and you just make the determination of whether the joke is funny enough or not to warrant the controversy that it’s going to cause. But there have been many jokes that have completely surprised me, as far as how they were received.
The Sarah Palin joke, for example, that caused all the flack from that Family Guy episode ["Extra Large Medium," season eight] was one I never expected to generate any kind of controversy. I thought the content of the episode at large might do that, but that’s a joke that totally caught me off guard. There have been many situations where jokes that seemed innocuous to us have generated heat among viewers or special interest groups, and I’m sure there will be a few of those in Ted. [Laughs.]