Eat Your Heart Out: Director Mark Dindal Serves Cinemas the Lasagna-Loving Fat Cat in THE GARFIELD MOVIE

Courtesy of Sony Pictures

The world’s most famous orange tabby is heading back to the big screen this summer, appearing in a fully animated theatrical adventure for the first time ever. For over 45 years, Garfield has been indulging in all the major creature comforts sans guilt or shame. His desire to overeat, oversleep, and generally be lazy has forged a personality and alter ego that readers have been applauding and identifying with for decades. The cat’s creator, Jim Davis, grew up surrounded by strays on his childhood farm in Indiana. He began his career as an assistant cartoonist under Tumbleweeds writer and artist T.K. Ryan. Following Davis’ infamous initial attempt at his own comic strip about a bug named Gnorm Gnat, he squashed the character to turn his attention to designing an insatiable cat. Davis had noticed the comic scene was heavily dominated by dogs and spent a year developing Garfield, who is named after Davis’ grandfather.

On June 19, 1978, Garfield made his comic strip debut in 41 U.S. newspapers. When the Chicago Sun-Times dropped the new strip months after its debut, the paper found themselves bombarded by reader phone calls and letters demanding Garfield’s return. Today, more than 2,000 newspapers print Garfield worldwide. Ever since that debut, Davis has been copying his own expressions for Garfield and his bumbling owner, Jon Arbuckle. Davis actually had the same drama teacher as another Indiana legend, screen icon James Dean. A collection of Davis’ awards and artwork can be found at The James Dean Museum in Fairmount, Indiana, not far from the former Paws Inc. complex where Davis created the celebrated weekly strip for most of its 45-year history. At 78 years young, Davis serves as the executive producer and art director of Garfield’s latest adventure, The Garfield Movie.

The film’s director, Mark Dindal, learned his trade from animation veterans at CalArts before beginning his career in effects animation at age 19 on The Fox and the Hound. He eventually worked his way up to the role of visual effects supervisor, running the department for 1989’s effects-laden The Little Mermaid. That leadership role gave Dindal insight into all phases of animation production and postproduction, leading to his first directing opportunity overseeing the animated newsreel featured in The Rocketeer. With a distinct cartoon sensibility, Dindal went to Turner Feature Animation for his directorial debut, Cats Don’t Dance, a film that also featured Dindal’s first voice acting role as spoiled Darla Dimple’s gigantic butler, Max. As it turns out, the production ran out of money and his voice wound up in the final film. It’s a tradition that Dindal continued in subsequent work when he returned to the mouse house for The Emperor’s New Groove and the studio’s first full foray in computer animation, Chicken Little. This summer it’s love at first bite as Dindal directs the food-focused, Monday-hating indoor cat in a wild outdoor adventure. Hungry for details, Boxoffice Pro chews the fat with director Mark Dindal about the Sony Pictures’ release and Garfield’s enduring and endearing cynicism.

From your feature directing debut, Cats Don’t Dance, to voicing Kitty Yzma in The Emperor’s New Groove and now your latest film, The Garfield Movie, you have a real affinity for felines.

[Laughs.] It’s funny, I think certain things just kind of keep recurring in one’s career.

Garfield has been on the big screen before, but this is the first time we’ve seen him in a fully animated film. A lot of moviegoers may not be aware that animation, even computer animation, takes quite a long time.

Yeah, because you are crafting the movie one frame at a time. This particular film has been five and a half years for me. The pandemic obviously created more of a delay, as it did with all films, but I’ve been on a couple of films that have been five years in the making, so it’s not unusual. With animation, you go through a lot of iterations of the story. You try out new things in the storyboard and story reel process. Ultimately when you put that story reel up and look at it, you see what works and what doesn’t. Sometimes you have to go back and adjust an entire act, but that’s the process. That’s what it’s always been for 100 years.

You’ve experienced major changes in animation over your career, but the heart and soul of the work remains the same.

Right, and even with the transition from traditional animation to computer graphics (CG), the medium was different, but all of the steps of the process were exactly the same from a directorial point of view. You’re still doing all of the same things in creating the characters and the story.

What were the origins of this animated project and its evolution over the past five and a half years?

When I started there was a script that had been in development for a couple of years. The basic idea of Garfield meeting his father for the first time was always there; that’s what I was really interested in. I thought that the potential for humor and emotion in that relationship was really promising. I was very excited about that. From that point, we worked with the script to storyboard the film. As I said, we make a story reel, which is basically the still drawings cut initially to temporary dialogue. Then we eventually get the actors in there as well. It’s an evolution of seeing an idea that started as words on paper become visuals that come to life. Over that process, discoveries are made. It’s the nature of animation. We find better ways to tell all of the story points; even though sometimes—and this is not unusual—you’ll do a scene 20 times over again.

Is that one of the major advantages and challenges of computer animation? The ability to adjust each “take” until the scene is right?

I’ve heard other productions have done a scene over as much as 40 or 50 times. You just have to be in the right frame of mind. You’re on an expedition, a journey of discovery. I don’t think, “Oh my gosh, we’ve done this 25 times. When are we going to get it right?” Each time, what I’m looking for is what we weren’t aware of before, what we didn’t realize. Then you see a new version and think, “Oh! That’s a better way to play this moment.” You take that little bit and you add it to the next go-around. Each time you do it, it just strengthens the idea. It could be very disheartening if you look at it as a failure. It’s a discovery. That’s the way I’ve always looked at it. Then it can be fun, because you think, “What are we going to learn this time around?” Sometimes you learn that the version before was better [Laughs], but that’s valuable. You’re making a movie one frame at a time so you have to be in a different mindset, otherwise it could be a less pleasant journey, but I’ve never looked at it that way.

Jim Davis has also talked about creating Garfield one frame at a time in the comic strip. What was your collaboration like?

To meet someone like Jim, who is a legendary comic strip artist, was just a thrill. He got to do the thing that I was always so fascinated by and interested in. To come up with a new gag in a new comic strip every day for that many years, it’s really something. I’ve only met him on Zoom, because it was during the pandemic, but we’ll meet in-person at the premiere. I just get a sense of a kindred spirit; someone who is fascinated by and interested in the same things that I am. You feel like you’re with your tribe, your community, and someone like you. There was one time we were talking and I could tell he was listening, but his eyes were also sort of scanning. He picked up a legal pad and started sketching. He was still talking, it wasn’t like he wasn’t engaged in the conversation. He said, “Well, maybe something like this!,” holding an old-school pencil sketch up to the Zoom screen and showing me the idea. It was really fun to talk with him and collaborate. His mind is really, really sharp. He would catch details that we had overlooked; really specific details, down to lines where the character is saying the door is coming up on the right, but it’s actually on the left. He is really focused and very much into visual storytelling, which I love. 

Garfield has always had great gags. Can you talk about finding Garfield’s specific sense of humor?

With an established character, there’s a personality out there that everyone knows. One of the things that does take a lot of time in animation when you’re working on an original story and character is that you’re still discovering that character and how they’ll behave in certain situations. Jim has really established who Garfield is and how he will behave. We would constantly go back to the comic strip reference to get a sense of that and remind ourselves. As with anything, if you’re focused on it 10-12 hours a day, I always feel you can fall into a little bit of a trance. It’s always good to go back and touch the stone and go, “Oh, no that’s right. It’s this.” It was wonderful to have those comic strips. We didn’t have to go searching for that reference and guidance, it was right there and available. Also our story artist Bob Scott actually worked with Jim at Paws Inc. on Garfield and the Garfield television specials, so he really knew the character quite well. As did his wife, Vicki, another one of our story artists, who also worked there. We had our own in-house artists who had really worked on the character closely with Jim.

What were your sessions like working with the voice cast?

The pandemic complicated that a little bit. We did some sessions with Chris Pratt [who voices Garfield], Samuel L. Jackson, Ving Rhames, and Brett Goldstein. All the others were actually over Zoom. It’s whatever way the actor likes to work, but if they need someone to bounce their lines off of, I’ll read the other side in my best version of how the other actor said it or how I’m imagining it will be said. Actors bring so much. Not that I’m surprised. It’s just amazing to see how they can say the simplest line with such intention and character. Every one of our actors was that way. We’ll do several takes so that we can find the right combination of their lines, so it sounds like they’re listening and responding to a line we may not get for months. It’s always amazing for me to see the final film—any animated film—because it sounds like they were together, when more likely than not, they weren’t.

Garfield has previously been on the small screen in animated shows and specials. How have you crafted the big screen experience for Garfield’s animated reintroduction to theaters?

The key element for me was this idea that Garfield would have an adventure and relationship with his father, who he didn’t know and had made assumptions about. What that gave us the opportunity for, was to explore that depth in his character. You’ve got to search for those places where you can go deeper into the character. Certainly with a character that’s been around over 45 years now, you want to see what you can reveal that hasn’t been covered. In our movie, he’s made some assumptions that he will come to learn the truth about as they’re on this journey together. That gave us quite a bit to go on.

The other element that I really liked is that, although in the comic strip Garfield might prank Odie, there are strips where he’ll get a little sentimental and give Odie a hug. You can tell that he appreciates him. It’s almost like a sibling relationship, an annoying little brother that deep down he loves. I believe the idea for Odie to actually be smarter than we all think was part of the original intention. Jim has always said that Odie’s default pose is with his tongue hanging out, drooling. You could assume, “OK, he’s not too bright,” but you find that’s also not true. I liked that possibility because it gave us opportunities in scenes for the least likely character to have the solution. Things like that create another facet or deeper quality to the characters that we really embraced for making this feature-length story.

Speaking of character qualities, we can’t talk about Garfield without talking about food. At the movie theater, what’s your favorite treat at the concession stand?

I think it’s popcorn and Twizzlers. There’s something about the smell of popcorn and those licorice sticks that makes the movie; that’s part of the experience. It’s probably like hotdogs at a baseball game.

Were your formative moviegoing experiences with animation?

I’m really grateful that I’ve had the opportunity to do something that I was fascinated by at a very early age and that it became my career. When I was a kid there weren’t many colored televisions. We had a black-and-white television for the longest time, and there was no home video. Animation came out at the time so few and far between. My grandmother took me to see The Sword in the Stone in a theater. To go to a theater and see an animated film—in color—at a young age was just magical. If there were two or three animated features a year, that was a lot. They were in the theater for maybe a month, and then they were gone. Some of those I didn’t see until the Disney reissue, which was every seven years or so. There were cartoons on television that I watched—Chuck Jones and Tex Avery.

I remember finding any sort of animation, even comic books and the daily comic strips, was like finding treasure to me. I think because it wasn’t readily available, it was so precious. I really cherished every moment because you couldn’t just stream something. There’s something special, even to this day, when you see something that you know is not living—a drawing, a CG model, or stop-motion. You know it’s not alive, but when it comes to life it has this magical quality. Even when I was three years old and I was watching The Sword in the Stone, I knew it wasn’t real, and yet, it felt like a real place and real characters. Whatever that thing is, I still retain it, and I’m happy that hasn’t left me. On this film, when I would see animation dailies for the first time, it would always make me laugh or move me. Something that did not have life has suddenly come alive.

Courtesy of Sony Pictures

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