A Bug’s Life – Director’s Commentary Review

A Bug's Life Screencap

Almost every Pixar movie has its beginnings rooted in a research trip that takes the development team on some amazing (or wacky) excursion to a faraway place. But for A Bug’s Life, the team didn’t go on any lavish research trips – they actually just stepped outside the studio, laid underneath planters, and studied the transparency and shadows of the foliage to get a perspective of life as a bug. Lee Unkrich, Andrew Stanton, and John Lasseter recounted that hilarious story and many, many more throughout the director’s commentary track for, A Bug’s Life.

Released on November 25, 1998, A Bug’s Life was Pixar’s second studio film and their first feature after taking the company public.

A Bug's Life Screencap Flik

John noted that the first shot of A Bug’s Life was very important as the team wanted to take the audience from a world in which they knew (the human world), all the way down to a bug’s point of view. The team wanted to do this in one, slow, zooming shot from our standing perspective to a bugs’ standing perspective. This made this shot one of the most difficult of the entire film and was left all the way to the end of production.

The team wanted the intro to Flik to show the audience that he was the biggest geek you could possibly imagine. When Flik is shown with his invention, it was Art Director/Designer Bob Pauley who came up with the plausibility of how this machine would actually work – which makes this scene so believable.

Andrew Stanton stated that the scene (below) with the ants scurrying into the anthill is his favorite shot in the film.

The introduction of the grasshoppers was re-created numerous times to add intensity to the scene to make them extremely memorable – after all, the audience was not going to see them again until the second half of the film, so their power had to be “felt”. After several recreations, the imagery of the grasshopper’s feet coming through the ceiling with shafts of light was just powerful enough to evoke the fear the ants had of these characters. 

To add to this intensity, Thumper, the crazed grasshopper was actually voiced by mixing a series of sounds from apes and other primates.

Bob Peterson came up with the sketch of Flik dressed as a proud explorer (below) with his walking stick, leaf blanket, and of course, his oversized explorer hat. (Personal side note – This is one of the happiest moments in this film, you can’t help but root for Flik in this scene.)

John Lasseter was inspired by a trip to the Grand Canyon as a child and remembered when he walked up to the edge and how it took his breath away – that image stayed with him and inspired the explorer shot shown above.

The voice of Heimlich was voiced by Head of Story, Joe Ranft. Ranft actually did the scratch voice and while other voice actors did tests – it was Ranft who won the role in the end, as his Heimlich was (as John said) PERFECT!

After creating the Tuck and Roll characters, Andrew Stanton mentioned that his parents had found a drawing of his from second grade that looked extremely similar to the characters that he had just created – seems he was always destined to become a great storyteller and artist!

A Bug’s Life was the first movie that started the tradition of hiding the Pizza Planet Truck in each film. When the team created this trailer, they said they always assumed that this is where the Pizza Planet delivery guy would live.

A Bug's Life Screencap Pizza Planet Easter Egg

Andrew Stanton and John Lasseter voiced the flies near the bug zapper. Stanton – “No Harry NO, don’t look at the light!” – Lasseter, “I can’t help it, it’s so beautiful”.

A Bug's Life Screencap Easter Egg

When Flik enters the bug city for the first time, the team wanted it to seem like he was a ‘county’ bug getting off the bus into an overwhelming city that mirrored the actual Times Square in New York.

Notice the names on the boxes – those are the names of the teams’ children. You can also see an advertisement for The Lion King on Broadway (which was placed in the same place you would find it in Times Square at that time).

Did you notice the Pizza Planet Mega Gulp cup (shown above)?

In the crowd scene, the team had to come up with a way to animate thousands of ants that were moving and thinking independently of each other (they couldn’t have the group of ants all acting the same, each one had to have its own personality or the believability and quality of the scene would be questioned). A program was created to change the scale of each ant from their eyes, legs, body shapes, and so on.  The animators would then animate their allotted group of ants and then combine them all together to make what turned out to be a truly realistic crowd appearance of ants.

A funny side note that the team mentioned was that there was one ant, a girl ant named Holly that kept getting cut from scenes. The team was laughing as they recounted trying to find a spot for Holly, but no matter what they did she never was right for the scene – Poor Holly.

The scene where the kids did their “play” was one of the first scenes animated by Joe Ranft. His son Jordie Ranft (Jordan) was the child ant who explained the leaf mural. As a side note – Jordan also voiced Tad, one of Nemo’s schoolmates in the film Finding Nemo.

The team mentioned that Joe Ranft would always pick one little scene that he would find particularly interesting to him – then noted that he would storyboard it in a way that “just comes alive”. The above scene with the circus bugs discovering why they came to the ant village as revealed in a little kids’ “play” was just genius and almost identical to the original storyboards.

Early in the development of A Bug’s Life, the team knew they wanted to use CinemaScope (or, widescreen), as it would be a great way to show off the bug’s world. The only curse to CinemaScope was having to fill the frame up with so many characters. On average there are seven characters per shot for the entire length of the film which made it harder to animate.

The “building the bird” sequence was originally seventeen minutes long! The scene was more about the circus bugs, but the team changed up the story to make it about their title character, Flik, instead.

A Bug's Life Screencap Flik

One of Andrew Stanton and John Lasseters’ favorite moments in storyboarding A Bug’s Life was the idea of the ants surfing on leaves that had fallen off the trees — a scene that they both agreed turned out great. The leaves changing on the tree showed the passage of time, which is always important in storytelling (as we learned about while attending the Pixar Masterclass Tour).

Hopper’s hideout (shown above) was originally set in an old rotten tree log. It was Storyboard Artist Bud Luckey that suggested a ‘south of the border’ hideout, as in all old westerns the “bad guys” were always south of the border.

When the team came up with the idea of using an old sombrero with a thatched-like roof, it instantly elevated the hideout into a tropical resort-like atmosphere. Lee Unkrich gave an interesting back story that the team came up with regarding this hideout, he stated that they thought the hideout was owned by a little mosquito family, and every year they get taken over by this grasshopper gang and they just have to go along with it.

After the scene where Flik and Princess Atta’s antennas get tangled, you’ll notice Tuck and Roll’s antennas (shown above) creating a heart shape – Stanton pointed this out for “all the film geeks out there”.

Believe it or not, it was noted that the millipedes that pull P.T. Flea’s circus train were actually the most difficult characters to animate.

Did you notice the hidden items on the cookie box? KC Jr. Cookies are a nod to Casey Junior from Dumbo. The J. Grant Bakery noted on the box is also a reference to Dumbo as it is for Joe Grant one of the authors of Dumbo as well as a Director at Disney. We wouldn’t eat these cookies – did you also see that Boron is an ingredient?

Bill Cone came up with the idea of having the grasshopper gang reappear in the ant village set amongst a thick layer of fog – Thus allowing your imagination to run wild as you hear the grasshoppers approaching, not to mention the dimensionality of them as they walk out of the fog.

The two grasshoppers (shown above) were voiced by Julia Louis Dryfus’ husband and Pixarian Jeff Pidgeon (who also voiced the Aliens in Toy Story).

A Bug's Life Screencap

As the circus wagon pulls into the shadows you’ll notice how it stays in the shadows until Dot finds Flik and helps him restore his faith to help the ant colony. When this happens you’ll also notice that the sun is now shining on the circus wagon. It is very subtle, but it’s just another way Pixar reinforces emotion with lighting.

Andrew Stanton tells how he was excited to create and design a cookie box the way he always wanted them as kids. With perforated edges on the sides of the box so you could link more boxes together to create a longer train – and of course rolling wheels!

The screenshot above (the bird) is John Lasseter’s favorite shot in the film (he didn’t elaborate, he just mentioned it really quickly when the scene happened).

The scene with Flik being flown through the trees was actually one model that was used over and over again in the scene. The team flew the characters approximately forty times back and forth in the scene.

A Bug's Life Screencap

The Molt gag was something that was very important to John Lasseter – it was a lot of work but it was something that he really wanted to have in the film.

The “rain scene” was something that the Technical staff said they could not do, however, Bill Reeves and the entire technical crew really pulled together and were able to “push through” and create something amazing.

A Bug's Life Screencap

Did you know that A Bug’s Life was the first Pixar film that had out-takes at the ending?

The team also referenced that the crew does an annual dramatic reading of A Bug’s Life. I wonder if this still takes place?

The A Bug’s Life director’s commentary track was filled with amazing amounts of Pixar insights and was a blast to listen to – we can’t wait to listen to more!

A Bug's Life Screencap The End

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