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Spies in Disguise: Masi Oka and the Directors on the Animated Film

Spies in Disguise opens in theaters on Christmas Day, and recently got a chance to attend a roundtable discussion with directors Troy Quane and Nick Bruno, as well as star Masi Oka (Heroes).

We learned all about how this is a love letter to spy movies, the worst thing Oka’s character, Kimura, has ever done, and the positive message of the film.

In Spies in Disguise, super spy Lance Sterling (Will Smith) and scientist Walter Beckett (Tom Holland) are almost exact opposites. Lance is smooth, suave and debonair. Walter is… not. But what Walter lacks in social skills, he makes up for in smarts and invention, creating the awesome gadgets Lance uses on his epic missions.

Spies in Disguise: Masi Oka and the Directors on the Animated Film

But when events take an unexpected turn, Walter and Lance suddenly have to rely on each other in a whole new way. And if this odd couple can’t learn to work as a team, the whole world is in peril.

Bruno spoke about how they based this on a few famous spy films. “We’d like to think of this movie as a love letter to all spy movies,” he said. “We know that for kids, this might be their first real spy movie, so we wanted to do it justice. So we did our research, and we went back. We watched all the Bonds, the Bournes, the Hunts, and all those guys.

And you know there’s definitely some homage to some other movies in there. But at the same time… we want to do something different and, because it’s a movie for kids, we felt there was a responsibility to say something about teamwork.”

Bruno added that they really enjoyed “going back and watching all the spy films,” particularly the title sequences. He explained, “We looked at some of the Saul Bass stuff, and some of their angularity, and their shape and their color language, and we just tried to find ways to get that DNA into the frame of the film.”

“But not necessarily make it a vintage throwback,” Quane added. “We really wanted to make it feel contemporary and current. [We asked ourselves], what were the aesthetic design principles we appreciate there, but making it feel current so it didn’t feel like a throwback.”

In the film, the message is very clear: hurting people makes them hurt other people, and violence isn’t always the answer. Walter comes up with gadgets like an inflatable hug and a glitter bomb, which Lance doesn’t quite appreciate at first. Of course, once he gets turned into a pigeon, things change.

Bruno told us about the message, saying, “It felt false to pretend that there wasn’t violence in the world. I mean, I think you turn on the news, and you know that that’s not the case. But we were really specific in how we’re using it, that we weren’t glorifying it. That it was mainly at the hands of the bad guys… there’s a better way than when we use violence to solve our issues. All we do is create more enemies. When we draw a line that puts people on the other side of that we have to reach across that line and bring people together.”

The pigeons are the highlight of Spies in Disguise, particularly Crazy Eyes, who has a lollipop stuck on his head and vomits all the time. Bruno spoke about their pigeon research. “Pigeons are those things that most people ignore or think of as gross, but they’re really phenomenal. That’s kind of where Walter’s genius comes into play as a spy, there’s no better thing to be than a pigeon… they’re in every major city around the world, people ignore them for the most part, but they’ve got all kinds of really cool sort of special abilities.

“Pigeons can fly really fast, up to 92.7 miles an hour; the only natural predator they have is a peregrine falcon, but pigeons can bank it almost 90 degrees, which is unbelievable. And we’ve watched YouTube videos with them, like drafting behind cars and traffic… they’ve got eyes on the side of their head so they can see almost 360 degrees, so nobody can sneak up behind you, which is a pretty cool thing if you’re a spy. They can see UV light.

“So the idea that they can possibly see infrared sensors and lasers. So there’s all these really cool fun things that are like these built-in gadgets… we had a lot of fun with that with the idea of being able to see someone’s face and your butt at the same time.”

Masi Oka told us about his mid-level boss character, Kimura, comparing him to a character in a Japanese Western. “He’s not really an action guy, per se,” he said. “He tells people what to do… there’s all these Japanese Jidaigeki, the Westerns of Japan, where you have the big boss Daimyō, that sits in the back and tells his henchmen, ‘Go! Go get him!’ That’s pretty much my inspiration. The guy who doesn’t do anything just watches all his henchmen, and of course, all the henchmen die, and he’s like, ‘Oh, OK. I’ll take care of it myself.’” He also described Kimura as a “teddy bear” and told us his “deepest, darkest secret is that he has peed in a pool.”