From James Bond to Jason Bourne, spy movies have been a staple of Hollywood for nearly a century, but not many of them have been suitable for children to watch.
So how do you make a movie that pays homage to those classic espionage thrillers while making it fun for kids? Turn your main character into a pigeon, of course.
That’s part of the premise behind “Spies in Disguise,” an animated film co-directed by Mohegan Lake’s Nick Bruno. The film by Blue Sky Studios was released Christmas Day and stars Will Smith as Lance Sterling, a smooth-talking secret agent, and Tom Holland of “Spider-Man” fame as Walter Beckett, a socially awkward gadget-making scientist.
Bruno, 39, graduated from Lakeland High School in 1998 with a passion for animation and moviemaking. He enjoyed playing baseball and basketball in the Shrub Oak Athletic Club. But, “at the same time, I was really into drawing. I liked to draw cartoon characters. I liked drawing caricatures of teachers. When I should have been paying attention, I was doodling on the side.”
Bruno said he was encouraged to follow his passion by his supportive parents. After seeing “Terminator 2,” a young Bruno told his dad, “I’d love to be able to work on movies like that.” His father replied, “Why don’t you?” There was no turning back.
“That simple question in my head made me realize it was a possibility,” Bruno said. “I started making movies in my back yard with a hand-held camera, running around the neighborhood.”
Several years later, he became interested in 3-D animation after seeing “Toy Story.” He enrolled at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, one of the few colleges that offered courses on the art form.
“I graduated there and thought I’d get a job right out of school,” Bruno said. “I couldn’t get in anywhere. It’s just a such a tough industry to crack into.”
Struggling to break into the competitive industry, Bruno began working at various pizza places, at the Jefferson Valley Mall, and for a lawyer in Carmel. All the while, he was honing his animation skills at home.
Around that time, the locally based Blue Sky Studios released its first feature film, “Ice Age.” He began modeling his work around what he saw in the film.
“I was determined to get my work to look like it belonged in the film,” Bruno said.
Deciding it was time to go back to school, Bruno enrolled in the graduate program at New York University, which he chose in part for its history of hosting prominent guest speakers. Sure enough, his class hosted Mark Walling, an animator who was working at Blue Sky Studios on a movie called “Robots.” Bruno introduced himself to Walling, who eventually got him a job at Blue Sky.
As Bruno soon learned, making an animated film is a very involved and lengthy process. “Spies in Disguise,” for example, took close to four-and-a-half years to complete.
“It’s like a giant relay race,” Bruno said. “You have several different departments that each perform a task.” The stages include scriptwriting, storyboarding, rough drawings, set building, and animation, which is done by “550 of some of the world’s greatest artists” based in Armonk and Greenwich, Conn.
“I thought for sure I’d be in California,” Bruno said of his movie career. “But I’m 25 minutes from home.”
Bruno started his career at Blue Sky as an animator for “Ice Age: The Meltdown,” a sequel to the movie he mimicked several years earlier. Since then, he’s worked on various shorts and feature films, including “Rio,” “The Peanuts Movie” and “Horton Hears a Who!”
“Spies in Disguise” is his directorial debut.
“To be honest, it’s a little scary at first,” Bruno said. “You have to provide not just the vision for the film, but your job is to talk it into existence.”
The voice recording process for the film took Bruno and his co-director, Tony Quane, around the world to prominent cities on several different continents, including Los Angeles, Montreal, London and Cartagena, Colombia.
“We go wherever [the actors] are,” Bruno said. Sometimes, they recorded in nice studios. Other times, they recorded in hotel rooms or in Will Smith’s trailer on the set of his upcoming movie, “Bad Boys 3.”
The voice recording is done before animation.
“I worked directly with Will Smith and Tom Holland and the rest of the cast,” Bruno said. “We’ll record the script as is, look for different ideas.”
Bruno said the character of Lance Sterling was written with Will Smith in mind. He admitted to being “intimidated” by the actor, who was a “hero” of his while growing up.
“When you have him in the room for the first time, it’s terrifying,” Bruno said. “This guy has years of experience. They say don’t meet your heroes, but it does not apply to this guy. He’s a ton of fun to work with. He really is brilliant at what he does.”
In creating “Spies in Disguise,” Bruno and Quane faced a unique challenge: “How do we create a character that stands shoulder to shoulder with James Bond, Ethan Hunt (‘Mission: Impossible’) and James Bourne” while be appealing to both kids and their parents?
“At the end of the day, you can only make a movie that you have fun watching and have fun making,” Bruno said. “If we’re having fun, I believe that fun will show up on the screen. I wanted it to be sincere. I have three kids. If I take my kids to see this movie, I want to enjoy it, too.”
Bruno suspected that for many kids, “Spies and Disguise” might serve as their introduction to the spy film genre. The spoiler-free message of the film, he said, is about “coming together.”
Blue Sky Studios, a subsidiary of 20th Century Fox, was acquired by Disney last year. About three-quarters through the production process, his new employers said “Spies in Disguise” would be released Christmas Day.
“Which was great, but also it was going to be up against ‘Star Wars’,” Bruno said, jokingly.
A first-time director for a film with a $100-million budget, Bruno said there was some pressure to deliver a film that is both a commercial and critical success. But, he said, “You can never predict what people are going to do or say.” Ultimately, he aimed to make a movie that was both “powerful and funny.”
“Does it say something? Is there a reason why we’re making it?”
The film has been a critical success, currently holding a 75 percent critics rating and a 91 percent audience rating on the website
Rotten Tomatoes. The critics’ consensus reads: “A cheerfully undemanding animated adventure that’s elevated by its voice cast, ‘Spies in Disguise’ is funny, fast-paced, and family-friendly enough to satisfy.”