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A Conversation with Ken Duncan: Expanding ‘The Iron Giant’

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Earlier this year Duncan Studio was approached by Warner Bros. to expand on Brad Bird’s classic animated feature The Iron Giant by bringing to life two additional sequences that had previously only existed in storyboard form. The studio was personally chosen to take on the task by Brad himself due to several key artists from the original film being on staff, as well as studio head Ken Duncan’s strong reputation within the industry. Among the returning crew were animation supervisors Chris Sauve and Wendy Perdue resuming lead animation duties for key characters Dean and Annie, along with Dennis Venizelos and Michel Gagné reprising their roles as background supervisor and effects animation respectively.
The original film received nine Annie Awards when it was released in 1999 and, following a recent festival run, this week saw the first theatrical screening of The Iron Giant: Signature Edition including Duncan Studio’s additional minutes of footage. This Sunday the extended version will receive encore screenings at select cinemas throughout the US with an eventual plan for a home-media release in the near future. We’re delighted to bring Skwigly readers a chat with Ken Duncan about his role in bringing new life to this classic film.

When were you first approached about The Iron Giant: Signature Edition and how long did it all take?

We were approached by Warner Brothers around March this year. They wondered if we still did “that old, 2D-animation style” and we said we could, so ended up taking on the project. Initially I wasn’t sure if we would do it because they didn’t tell us if Brad was involved or not and I would have been very worried about taking on that classic film without him being involved at all. When we were told that he was going to direct the pieces we were very, very happy about that. Of course everybody here really wanted to work on the original film back in the day and actually some of the crew that we have here at our studio actually did. Chris Sauve, the lead animator of the ‘Dean’ character on the original film has been with us here for about eight years, so it was natural that he would oversee that character.

So how developed were the scenes that have been put in? Were they fully storyboarded?

They were, there was a DVD release here in the States a few years ago with some supplemental material including some were some scenes that were storyboarded but never created because they didn’t have the time or the money back in 1999. Brad had always wanted those sequences in the film, so they were storyboarded, but because they didn’t have a lot of money they were very tied-down storyboards that only really gave you an indication of what the camera angles were, so a lot of it for us was emulating that stuff and then of course finessing it in compositing.

How involved was Brad and that group of people who worked on the original film?

Well, another person who worked on the original film was Wendy Perdue; she did the ‘Annie’ character so we brought her on board. The background artist from the original film came aboard, so we got the team together and then Brad came down from San Francisco. We had a day where we went through every bit of the scenes and talked about what the desires were for Brad. He’s great because he can tell the back-story. That’s the great thing about these sequences is that they fit into the film really well because they were designed when the original film was created; they’re not add-on sequences, they’re really crucial to the story and they add to the original story. He was able to communicate the reasons for the sequences.

The Iron Giant: Signature Edition (Dir. Brad Bird)

The Iron Giant: Signature Edition (Dir. Brad Bird)

The new sequences add up to about two minutes, don’t they?

Yes, we had hoped we could have done more actually. Yes, two minutes total and when you see the whole film – even for us – it was hard to see what we had actually done because we do feel that they’ve integrated into the original film very well.

The original film is already an amazingly well-rounded and well-told story, do you think that the new sequences add to the original in terms of story or do you think it’s just really good to see it as Brad envisioned originally?

It does add a bit more character development. There’s a scene with Dean and Annie that adds another dimension, a bit more detail to their personalities. The other sequence, which I’m not really able to talk about in detail, really does add a little bit more information for the audience.  It’s just really great to see the film again, it’s been remastered and looks amazing, the sound is mixed amazingly. It’s just a really great film that just happens to be animated.

‘Remastered’ is a word that keeps getting thrown about – was there any work to be done on the original film?

It’s been cleaned-up a bit and the colours have been tweaked so it looks really rich in the version that I saw on the big screen. I saw it a couple of weeks ago. Funnily enough, because everything’s scanned digitally and all our stuff ends up being digital, we had to add film-grain to our sequences to match the look of the original film.

The Iron Giant: Signature Edition (Dir. Brad Bird)

The Iron Giant: Signature Edition (Dir. Brad Bird)

The original film came out in 1999 so there’s a massive technology difference between then and now.

Exactly! Even the backgrounds back in the day were painted on paper – this time they were painted digitally but to emulate the look of the original film – and everything is put together and composited digitally. The danger for us was the desire to add lighting and compositing and add all these other bells and whistles that we can do now that would have detracted from the look of the original film. We really tried to focus on making it look original and I really, really think that when people see it that it’ll really be hard visually to tell that they are new sequences.

Do you know what stimulated Warner Brothers to add these two minutes of film?

I really don’t know actually. That I didn’t bother to ask. I think it was Chris deFaria who is the top producer of the animation division, he actually has respect for the art form and probably wanted to do something right by the film. I think they were going to re-release the DVD, so this was a nice, special thing to do for it.
It’s funny because Warner Brothers didn’t have easy access to the original assets to the film, so some of the crew that we had from the original project had their own archives of model sheets and things like that. It was very, very handy for us.

The Iron Giant: Signature Edition will receive special encore screenings this Sunday October 4th at select cinemas across the US ahead of an upcoming release on various digital platforms and home media. For more on the work of Duncan Studio visit them at

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