Space Jam: A new legacy in animation and design

Space Jam
(L-R: LEBRON JAMES and BUGS BUNNY in Warner Bros. Pictures’ animated/live-action adventure “SPACE JAM: A NEW LEGACY,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.)

Space Jam: A New Legacy opens today in theaters and is currently streaming on HBO Max. The sequel to the 25-year-old original starring Michael Jordan, presents a new-age take on the classic Tunes vs. Goons showdown.

According to the team behind the film which includes director Malcolm D. Lee (The Best Man, The Best Man Christmas) and producer Ryan Coogler (Creed, Black Panther, Creed 2), and star, LeBron James, this not only in the film’s high concept storyline and revitalized cast of characters, but also in the animation techniques utilized by the Warner Bros. filmmakers to bring the Tunes into the modern forefront.

“We have everything,” says LeBron James. “It’s live-action here, it’s CG animation there, there’s 2D in this sequence…There’s so much going on in the movie. I think it’s going to keep the audience of kids and their families off balance. I think that’s one of the greatest parts of the whole movie.”

Producer Coogler agrees, stating, “Malcolm (Director Malcolm D. Lee) and the whole team really take advantage of all of the cutting-edge filmmaking technology. Like LeBron says, we have motion capture, we have traditional 2D animation, and we have some of the craziest techniques that actually had to be developed for this film.”

The filmmakers felt a certain responsibility to the classic cast of cartoons and worked diligently to strike a balance between dynamic revival and respect for the original characters.

Space Jam
(L-r) LEBRON JAMES and Director MALCOLM D. LEE on the set of Warner Bros. Pictures’ animated/live-action adventure “SPACE JAM: A NEW LEGACY,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.

While the practical sets were built and captured primarily on the Warner Bros. Studios Lot, the challenge of bringing to life this behemoth of animation—the Warner 3000 server-verse and the multitude of content within—fell to veteran animation supervisor Spike Brandt and Devin Crane, who served as both co-animation supervisor and animation production designer on the film.

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(L-r) Producer MAVERICK CARTER and DON CHEADLE on the set of Warner Bros. Pictures’ animated/live-action adventure “SPACE JAM: A NEW LEGACY,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.

“I think it was important for us to capture the essence of each of these Tunes,” says Crane. “These characters have been around for a long time now, some of them 80 years plus, so it was important for me, almost as an ambassador for these characters, to make sure that we upheld the legacy. I grew up with all these characters as a little kid. It was important for me just to make sure that you could feel the history.”

Accomplishing this nostalgic update took “tons of research,” Crane recalled. “You start getting into your research and getting specific about things. You’re always looking for something new, trying to find stuff that hasn’t been done before. I think that’s the most fun part. You start doing paintings and working with your art teams and just throwing stuff out there, just to see what could be interesting, what could be new.”

He adds, “We’re looking at the shots and trying to pepper in all these Easter eggs and fun characters from throughout the Looney Tunes history and the H&B [Hanna Barbera] legacy, and there’s just stuff you’ve never got to work with before, like King Kong, Iron Giant, the Gremlins, the Flintstones… That makes it all the more fun.”

When it came to the actual animation, utilizing a combination of modern-day CG imaging technology and hand-drawn 2D animation, the filmmakers were able to create a world that feels both classic and cutting-edge. “The one thing we were really passionate about was making these Tunes feel real,” notes Crane.

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(L-r) Producer RYAN COOGLER on the set of Warner Bros. Pictures’ animated/live-action adventure “SPACE JAM: A NEW LEGACY,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.

“I think that all of these Tunes are real to us. Audiences have grown up with these characters, Bugs Bunny and Daffy and Porky…you know who they are. I think the insurmountable responsibility of that is making sure you don’t lose those personalities. It’s how they behave, how they stand, how they move. And then also making them feel real to each other, knowing that these aren’t just CGI characters or 2D characters. For them, they are real, and they’re living.”

Bringing Toons and Goons to Life

For the animators, perhaps the biggest challenge was the epic game between the Goons and the Toons, which Lee envisioned as the most outrageous and epic basketball game of all time. The Server-verse showdown between LeBron’s underdog Toon Squad and Al G’s more- than-stacked Goon Squad became a super sequence that showcases loads of on-court action, as well as a surrounding Toon World audience of characters from every corner of the Warner IP library.

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(L-r) DAFFY DUCK, TASMANIAN DEVIL, ELMER FUDD, GRANNY and (2nd row) WILE E. COYOTE in Warner Bros. Pictures’ animated/live-action adventure “SPACE JAM: A NEW LEGACY,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.

To create the stunning visual landscape required on and around the court, visual effects supervisor Grady Cofer and his team worked with production designers Clint Wallace and Akin McKenzie who, together, pulled out all the stops, building a huge court and surrounding it with green screen that they could then turn into the virtual game of the century.

The stage was essentially a massive mocap environment, approximately 120,000 cubic feet, with over 100 cameras set up in it. In filming all of the action that took place on that court, they were also downloading the motion of all the characters, all of the performers, with star LeBron James prominently captured upfront.

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Designing New Uniforms

One of the most memorable elements of the original Space Jam film are the iconic Tune Squad uniforms, which have become a staple at pick-up basketball games and sporting events since the film’s original release. In re-envisioning the Tune Squad’s new fit, the film’s producers knew they needed something special if they were to create something equally lasting.

Space Jam
LOLA BUNNY in Warner Bros. Pictures’ animated/live-action adventure “SPACE JAM: A NEW LEGACY,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.

Costume Designer Melissa Bruning relished the opportunity to take on the Tune Squad’s new look, bringing to the project a fresh perspective and confidence in the design elements of a world far different from the one we know when His Airness first teamed up with Bugs and the Tunes. “I would say there’s no sort of connection to the original look, except that it’s a basketball uniform. It’s an entirely new script, new talent, and the world has changed a lot since ‘96, especially in the world of basketball. Even down to the shoes, it’s a different animal then it was before.”

The Tunes’ new jerseys reflect a more modern aesthetic, one that grabs your attention with a popping color scheme that stands out, but at the same time harkens back to a classic piece of Warner Bros. iconography, the bright, spiraled facade in which Porky Pig would infamously declare, “That’s all folks!”

This combination makes for a true eye-catcher on screen. In their game-time gear, the Tune Squad resembles a bright beacon of looney-ness, a diverse-yet-cohesive unit. A team.

Space Jam

This design concept of diversity-meets-unity was a key point for Bruning. “I worked with animation a lot because it had to look good on all the Tunes, and the Tunes have very different colors in their “Tune skin.” Lola’s very peachy. Bugs is very gray, but what kind of gray do they want to use? Porky’s pinky. Gossamer’s red. So, whatever color we picked for LeBron, it also had to look good when all the Toons put it on.”

And while it may now be 2021, in basketball, shoes are still of the utmost importance, a tenet Bruning held onto throughout the film’s costume design phase. “I can make boots or Renaissance shoes, but I can’t make a sneaker,” she jokes.

Space Jam
(L-R Backs to Camera) SYLVESTER, DAFFY DUCK, LOLA BUNNY, (Center frame) LEBRON JAMES, and TWEETY BIRD in Warner Bros. Pictures’ animated/live-action adventure “SPACE JAM: A NEW LEGACY,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.

“Our relationship with Nike was vital. We needed shoes for all these All-Stars, for our photo doubles, for LeBron, and for our motion capture performers—those had to be in shoes covered with mo-cap fabric. All of that was provided by Nike. They worked closely with us, and without that collaboration…I don’t know many stores that have size 15, 16, 17, 18 sneakers!”

Bruning embraced the opportunity to reimagine what has become a fixture of the entertainment zeitgeist. “I like being a part of pop culture,” she says. “I like knowing that this is going to be something that people will remember. As I was shopping for this film I was still running across T-shirts and different things from the original film. I’m very excited to see a flood of everything we’ve worked on for the past three or four months come to light when this movie opens.”

Space Jam
(L-R) LOLA BUNNY and LEBRON JAMES in Warner Bros. Pictures’ animated/live-action adventure “SPACE JAM: A NEW LEGACY,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.

As for working with James, Bruning felt an immediate kinship, regardless of any height discrepancies. “I love LeBron. He’s the tallest friend I have,” she laughs with sincerity. “He’s great. His body is a bit like sculpture, so you can’t approach it in an ‘off the rack’ sort of way. Even as we do fitting, something fit on, say, a photo double, but it won’t fit LeBron the same way. So it was always very customized. He was always happy, had a smile on his face, was very professional, and was fun to work with.”

Space Jam
BUGS BUNNY in Warner Bros. Pictures’ animated/live-action adventure “SPACE JAM: A NEW LEGACY,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.

“I think that will be something that I will smile about a lot,” James surmises, “when I see kids walking around with either a Tune Squad jersey or a book bag, a Tune Squad T-Shirt with myself and Bugs on there. I just think that’s so cool because not only do they love what Melissa’s done on the screen, they want to take it further, like I did as a kid, and be a part of the craziness and the wackiness of the movie even after they leave the theater.”

Just as principal photography wrapped on the film, James stepped up to the cast and crew on set to sum up the collective energy and ethos behind the gargantuan production. For many, it felt like being in the locker room, post-win, with James giving a rousing victory speech that honored his teammates—the cast and crew—and revealed his gratitude.

Like so many who’d taken the journey with him, he likened it to a kid’s dream coming true and was hopeful that today’s generation of kids would watch and feel the same, respecting the gravity of the moment Lee had called for the final “cut.”

All seriousness aside—his costars are Looney, after all—James hopes audiences will experience “a lot of craziness, dizziness and laughing, with hysterical knee slappers and stomach holds you can expect from Bugs and all the Tunes. It’s exciting for me and my basketball family to be a part of this, but hopefully, families throughout the world will hop up on this fast-moving train and enjoy the ride.”

Carter asserts, “I believe when people see this movie they are choosing to laugh, to have a good time, but also enjoy that there’s a real story here, real issues being dealt with, but being dealt with in a very comedic and funny way. That is the job for us as storytellers, as comedians, directors, producers… We’re here to deliver messages, and even bring issues up that need to be discussed, but in a way that’s very entertaining and very heartfelt and make you laugh but also make you think.”

Space Jam
(L-R) LEBRON JAMES and TWEETY BIRD in Warner Bros. Pictures’ animated/live-action adventure “SPACE JAM: A NEW LEGACY,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release

Lee summarizes, “As filmmakers, as entertainers, what we hope for this film is that it will have a very broad reach so far as the global audience, both because of all the touchstones of Warner Bros. properties, like the Tunes and the other fun elements we dropped in, and also because it’s infinitely relatable. It’s a family movie at its heart, featuring a legendary sports figure in LeBron James, and with universal themes that everyone can relate to. Everybody has family, and everybody struggles with the differences within their family, but at the end of the day there’s love, there’s care, there’s acceptance.”