Interview: “I Am Groot” Director Kirsten Lepore on Season 2 of the Show

On September 6th, another round of I Am Groot shorts will make their way to Disney+. Ahead of this, Benji had a chance to chat with director and executive producer Kirsten Lepore about season 2 of the series.

Benji Breitbart: So before we get into I Am Groot, can you talk a little bit about where your love of animation started?

Kirsten Lepore: I mean, I've been interested in animation since I was really young. I mean, since, really, I could pick up a pencil, because I was always drawing Ariel… I think since I was two or three. And then beyond just the Disney movies, I think that we all love, I got really into stop motion probably around fifth grade. My dad sort of let me use the family camcorder and start doing really, really basic stuff, animating jelly beans and clay and the types of stuff that most kids start with. Except I never gave it up and I just kept going and going and doing more and more of it and was super, super sucked in. And then, yeah, went to school twice for it.

Benji: Well, thank you for never giving it up. And thanks to your dad for supporting your passion because we get to benefit. So what I love about I Am Groot is it combines the world of the Guardians of the Galaxy, but definitely has an almost classic animated cartoon vibe to it. And you mesh those two styles seamlessly in a way that might not be as obvious on paper. When you were developing your ideas, how did you come to this sort of style that the shorts ended up being?

KL: I mean, thank you for that compliment, but also, yeah, I think that from the top down, they always had a sense that this would be probably a photorealistic CG-style show, something that felt like just an extension of the Guardians of the Galaxy world. It was sort of plucked right out of that world, and that was really appealing to me because I had only really done stop-motion animation before this project. This is really my first CG project I've ever directed. So that was kind of a fun, exciting challenge for me when I came on board to get to experiment with and to get to do.

Working in that space, it wasn't as … It still is more, I think closely related to maybe a stop-motion way of working than shooting live-action. It still is very much an animated pipeline, so it wasn't too much of a stretch for me or too much outside of my wheelhouse once I actually got in there and we started doing it. And it went really smoothly and we had fun, really trying to push the medium. And there's a lot of things you can do in CG that we tried to do that aren't as easy to do in stop-motion. All of the snow effects and the lights of the ice cream truck, things like that were … I always had that in the back of my head, how can we really push this medium and use it to its full advantage to bring the Groot world to life?

BB: And you have so many amazing ideas — was it hard to pick which episodes to do between the two seasons?

KL: So we basically came up with a huge sheet of 30 log lines. We did this for both seasons and it was just like me and our story editor and one of our producers and just sort of racking our brain trying to figure out, "Okay. Without even developing them too much, what would be some really funny situations to drop Groot into?" And so we would write these big documents of 30 log lines, and then the execs would get together and align and figure out which ones they were most excited about and circle them. So then we would get the document back and be like, "Okay, these are the five that we're doing." So we had to be excited about all 30 of them and ready to do any of them. And one of those that really stood out was the nose episode, which I always call it “Groot Gets a Nose” because that's what it was called in the … That was the working title forever.

That was something I had just jotted down in my sketchbook as just a total hair-brained idea. I was like, "What if Groot gets a nose?" And so we just wrote it on the log line almost as, "They're never going to go for this," kind of out there. And so when it came back circled, I was like, "Oh my God, I'm so excited. We actually get to see what this is going to look like." Yeah, so I had a lot of fun with that one.

BB: I love that episode because you think it's going to go one way and it goes a different way once you start playing it. But I also really love the ice cream truck episode because we can all relate to being a baby and just wanting that dollar to get the ice cream or whatever. But you had to do it in a sort of intergalactic way. And you did that several times in the series. It is universal themes, but it's done in sort of that Guardians of Galaxy universe. When it came to the visual design, how did you try and keep it consistent but yet universal?

KL: Yeah, good question. I mean, I think some of the design is already there and built in. A lot of times in the episode, for example, it takes place on the Quadrant, which is the ship that's already established and existing. And of course Groot is already there. And then in terms of designing it, yeah, it's sort of like how much fun can we have in this really, I guess kind of drab setting of the ship? And I think taking inspiration from the Guardians as well in that way was helpful because it's such a colorful movie. So that one in particular, we weren't really able to … I felt like we really drew on Guardians of the Galaxy world where it's sort of this thematic, colorful thing sort of carrying us throughout and being the literal beacon, attracting Groot in that way.

And then conceptually sort of designing those episodes, we're just always trying to subvert the expectation a little bit at every turn, make it … add that space flare, add that fun, unexpected touch. Because that's what kind of what makes the best comedy is when it goes the way that you don't expect. So we were always trying to one up ourselves in that way.

BB: I don't know if it's because, right before I watched this, I was binging the Silly Symphonies from the '30s. But I noticed that the score is prominent and your collaborator [composer Daniele Luppi] on this just did an amazing job of keeping it in universe, but still keeping it fun and cartoony. What was it like working with him?

KL: [Y]eah, he has been incredible. We worked on both seasons together and yeah, he is just a phenomenal composer. The composer decision, yeah, it was probably one of the most difficult decisions I think that I had to make back in season one for the show, just because I know how much of animation is sound and music. There's some kind of quote, I never remember who it's attributed to, that 70% of an animation is music and sound. So it's such a crucial thing not to be glossed over.

But yeah, we chose Daniele and he is just a master at capturing the sound of that early sound, that sound of the '60s, '70s that we get from the Guardians that we get from the mix tapes. But my concept that I wanted to push was how do we keep that era but make it not just limited to what's on the mix tape, which is mostly American music. How do we push that and make it like, what is the Galactic ‘60s or '70s sound? What is the world music sound in '60s, '70s? So yeah, we ended up with bossa nova influence things and African rhythms and then weird spacey, early electronic sounds, which are always kind of intergalactic-sounding. So bringing all those influences in. Daniele was the perfect person for it. He has amazing analog synths everywhere and is always nerding out about how he sent this thing through this analog processor to get this sound and just nails the vibe in the sound. And yeah, I could go on forever and I am. That collaboration was amazing. He's so talented.

BB: Well, and we got to wrap up, but now that you've had two batches of these shorts, how have you felt that this project has added to your artistry even moving forward? What have you learned from it?

KL: I mean, I feel like it's nice to have the CG card, I guess under my belt or something. It feels good to have been like, "Cool, I can do that." And I feel confident doing that, and it was a lot of fun doing that. The level of collaboration that you need on a CG project, it's different than a lot of other animation projects. I've done animation totally solo in my garage, and this is the opposite end of that. This is full collaborative, huge team, and I love it. It's really fulfilling and wonderful, and I think a nicer way to work, especially as I get older. I can't just be doing everything alone in my garage. So yeah, that feels really good. And that feels like kind of a nice evolution for the work.

BB: Well, congratulations. They're just such a perfect fun way to continue the Marvel fun, but in a whole new sort of package. We look forward to seeing what you do next.

I Am Groot Season 2 will begin streaming on Disney+ on September 6th.

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