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Much Ado About Dodos

04/27/06
Two USC filmmakers and a flock of extinct birds animate the debate on evolution versus intelligent design.
By James Tella
Evolutionists playing poker are turned into birds in the feature film "Flock of Dodos."

The dodo bird has been brought back from extinction in a feature film garnering praise and gaining momentum as it heads into its world premiere at the 2006 Tribeca Film Festival in New York City April 30.

“Flock of Dodos: The Evolution-Intelligent Design Circus,” by writer/director and 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?”

Olson, who earned an MFA in production from the USC School of Cinema-Television 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 USC School of Cinema-Television’s division of animation and digital arts.

A 30-year animation veteran of films such as “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” and “Shrek,” 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,” “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Lion King.” 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,” said Sito, who added that 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 legendary 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 said, 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 silliness, 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,” he said.

Sito agreed, saying that when animation is used correctly, it can affect 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.’”

With the press that the film is generating, Olson’s movie has caught the attention of producer Jeff Dowd (the inspiration for Jeff Bridges’ character “The Dude” in “The Big Lebowski”), who has signed on to help sell it.

In the meantime, requests for screenings are 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.”