January 3, 2007

Much Ado About Dodos

Two USC Filmmakers And A Flock Of Extinct Birds Put The Debate On Evolution And Intelligent Design In Focus

By James Tella, Communications and Public Relations

The dodo, that famously dumb and dead bird, has been brought back from extinction in a feature film garnering praise everywhere it plays since its world premiere at the 2006 Tribeca Film Festival in New York City. Now, the acclaimed film will have a special USC screening on February 10, 2007 at the Norris Theatre.

Flock of Dodos: The Evolution-Intelligent Design Circus
by writer/director biologist turned filmmaker Randy Olson ’97, presents the debate between evolutionists and intelligent design proponents and, without taking one side or the other, enables viewers to ponder “which group is the real flock of dodos?”
Evolutionists playing poker are turned into birds in the feature film Flock of Dodos.

Olson, who holds an M.F.A. in production and taught biology part-time at USC, knew his topic needed something extra. “The very subject can be very tedious, very academic and extremely contentious,” he said. “So the very first thing my producer and I did was start to think of all the fun things we could do to lighten this film up.”

Enter the dodo, drawn to life by Tom Sito, an adjunct faculty instructor in the School of Cinematic Arts' John C. Hench Division of Animation & Digital Arts. A 30-year animation veteran with hits including Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988) and Shrek (2001), Sito is hailed by Animation World Network as “one of the key players in the Disney Animation Revival” for his work on the studio’s classics The Little Mermaid (1989), Beauty and the Beast (1991) and The Lion King (1994). He was referred to Olson by his sound engineer who also works for Sito’s company, Gang of Seven Animation.

“Tom is the heart and soul of the whole film,” Olson said. “He’s gone way above and beyond the call of duty. We spent three hours over lunch with a sketch pad and he came up with all the animation.”

“Besides looking stupid, dodos have a great design,” explained Sito who returned his colleague’s accolades saying Olson’s collaborative attitude and teamwork made his role easier. “Randy’s all inclusive. He listens to everything even when some of those notes are tearing the film to shreds. I admire that.”

Since one of the tenets of natural selection is the idea that species that don’t change become extinct, Olson felt the animation of the dodo was pivotal in making his film. And much the same way Disney artist Ward Kimball created a little green man called “Jiminy Cricket,” the dodos drawn by Sito, which run around doing nothing in Olson’s film, bear little resemblance to their namesake.

“You have to make the icon your own,” Sito remarked, explaining that the bird’s simple design and color pattern were deliberate since there was no plan to marry the images into the visuals. “This was a fun, mushy character to throw around.”

Through Olson’s direction and Sito’s animation, the film helps address the fundamental issue of separation of church and state that could have been as difficult to present as performing a pirouette on the head of a pin. Yet, perhaps because of their foolishness, the dodos are getting the film noticed and sparking discussions from critics and audiences on both sides of the issue. In fact, Olson said, the dodo’s appearance throughout the movie means everything in getting his message across.

“On a subliminal level, it makes it more fun and broadens its appeal. The animation is making people pay more attention.”

Sito agreed, saying that when animation is used correctly, it can effect powerful change. “Randy’s film does just what Walt Disney said and that is ‘to entertain and hope that people learned something, rather than educate people and hope they were entertained.’”

Olson’s movie has also caught the attention of famed producer Jeff Dowd (the inspiration for Jeff Bridges’ character “The Dude” in The Big Lebowski) who has signed on to help sell Flock of Dodos. In the meantime, the inundation of requests for screenings is resulting in a year-long travel schedule for the USC grad.

And what’s next for the two filmmakers? Olson looks at his partner and laughs.

“I’ve got this idea about a hermit crab.”