kelley abbey



happy feet

Kelley choreographed the fabulous animated feature film HAPPY FEET and was the principal motion capture performer. She physically played the roles of Gloria [voice of Brittany Murphy], Norma Jean [voice of Nicole Kidman], Ramon [voice of Robin Williams] ... and many many more great characters!

Released on Boxing Day 2006, Happy Feet was a box office sensation, winning an Oscar for Best Animated Feature Film, as well as 12 other major motion picture awards and 16 other celebrated nominations.

kelley says

I worked on Happy Feet the film for 4 years!! Yes I was a penguin for 4 years!!

What some people don’t know about the movie is that every penguin you see is a person’s performance. The motion, being drama and dance is captured by the technology called motion capture and fed into the 3D digital world. It is then surfaced and facially animated and put in a realistic environment by CGI.

I had many jobs on Happy Feet. I choreographed it and also ran penguin school teaching the musical theatre performers how to be penguins and put them into character development for drama and dance. I was assisted by Leanne Cherny who has also assisted me on past shows like Fame and Footloose.

I also was one of the principle motion capture performers playing the characters of Gloria, Norma Jean, Ramon, and Mrs Astrakan ... and many more.

I had the great opportunity of working very closely with the Director George Miller, who inspires you to be thorough in your research and motivation and leads you to want to be the best storyteller of dance that you can be. I loved working with him and the entire team including writer/co-director Judy Morris.

I also got to work with renowned tap dancer or should I say jazz musician Savion Glover, which was an absolute highlight. He is known as the fastest tap dancer in the world!! I got to play ‘Gloria’ opposite to his ‘Mumble’ in tap pas de deuxs. I never knew my feet could move that fast!! He was great to work with and an absolute inspiration.

Well ... Happy Feet won the Bafta, Golden Globe and then the illustrious Oscar!!
It was unbelievable how tap dancing penguins swept the world!
I also got honoured in the feature film category at the Choreography Media Honours for work from 2004-2006. It was held at the Director’s Guild in Los Angeles and I was the only Australian to be honoured at these awards. They were hosted by Paula  Abdul!

Needless to say I am very proud of my work on Happy Feet ...
I give good penguin!!!!!

happy feet
Mumble and the crew

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Kelley in rehearsal with Savion Glover

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Kelley in a motion capture suit behind the scenes with director George Miller


happy feet Foot in several camps

It's not a job description you'll find in the careers pages but it has given Kelley Abbey one of the biggest breaks of her life. The choreographer usually teaches performers dance: this time she was showing them how to be penguins.

Abbey spent 3 1/2 years working with Australian director George Miller on the animated film Happy Feet, which, with its cast of thousands of dancing and singing penguins, has won an Oscar nomination.

"Yes, I taught people how to be penguins," Abbey says. "We set up a 'penguin school' and put the performers into dance and drama rehearsals wearing motion capture sensor suits. We had sequences with thousands of penguins dancing at once, and I could only do 15 at a time, so when you do the maths it was like a huge big jigsaw."

With the logistics of the animation and Miller's notorious perfectionism - "That's a perfect take, let's do it again" is his common refrain - making the film was a painstaking process.

"I've seen the film quite a few times and it's amazing to see the animation on top of what we've done, plus all the facial animation. It's quite beautiful," Abbey says.

Abbey, who also worked with Hugh Jackman on The Boy From Oz, intends setting off for Hollywood soon on the back of Happy Feet. "I'll see what opens up for me there," she says. "It's a ruthless industry, but I've been doing this for a long time so I'm prepared."
The Daily Telegraph - 12 February 2007

happy feet Happy Feet

The many musical numbers are brilliantly choreographed and orchestrated through some of the best motion capture ever employed in a cartoon.

For the tap dancing, why not go to a virtuoso, Savion Glover, to 'play' Mumble to dazzling effect through motion capture? Choreographer Kelley Abbey works with other dancers in groups so that the screen fills up with thousands of dancing penguins, seemingly with their own distinctive styles.
Hollywood Reporter - 13 November 2006

happy feet
Happy Feet

The must-see movie - one of the most wonderful in years. A miracle of originality and imagination.
Gene Shalit - Today - 2006

happy feet
One small step for a dancer

In what has to be one of the strangest requests he's ever gotten, Savion Glover was asked to attend penguin school... and he did.

The tale begins with Happy Feet director George Miller who was convinced the only way to tell the story of Mumble, a plump seabird with a terrible singing voice but a gift for tap dance, was to cast the virtuoso hoofer.

It took a filmmaker with confidence in digital technology to think to record the exhuberant performances of a Tony Award winning tap dancer and channel them into a small computer-generated penguin shaped like a football.

Glover stepped up to the challenge, literally, attending penguin school with 15 other dancers where choreographer Kelley Abbey taught them how to curtail their natural range of motion and move like flightless birds with stumpy legs and little flippers.

In keeping with the movie's theme of dancing to the beat of your own drum, Abbey taught the dancers musical numbers that fused percussive dance styles from around the globe, including Zulu, gum boot [South African tap dance], riverdance [Irish step dancing], Navajo and Samoan slap dance, flamenco, hip-hop and breakdance.

Once Glover learned the group choreography and crafted his solos, capturing the essence of his dance moves and transferring them into the digital realm became the job of hundreds of artists and technicians based at Animal Logic Studios in Australia.

For Glover's primary performances, the crew used motion capture technology, a recording process that required him to tap dance on a small stage under 60 lights in a black bodysuit that had 40 reflective sensors near his joints. As Glover performed, the light from his reflectors was recorded by an array of 60 cameras and turned into data.

One thing Miller says he's learned in the four years it took to make Happy Feet is that "the very essence of an artist is never destroyed. It's no different from live action in that everyone has to bring their artistry to bear."

As Abbey puts it: "Every one of those tens of thousands of little penguins is an individual life force. I can still see who's who onscreen."
Los Angeles Times - 12 November 2006

kelley abbey Happy Feet - It's All in the Dance

Perhaps no musical element was as integral to advancing the story as dance, which is the essence of Mumble’s own Heartsong. Miller says, “When we decided to make a film about a dancing penguin, I couldn’t expect the digital artists to animate brilliant dancing. After all, a dancer, like an animator, acquires their skills over a lifetime. So the best way to make the penguins dance was through motion capture.”

Miller believed Savion Glover was just the man to lead Mumble’s tap revolution. “Given that Mumble is a virtuoso tap dancer, who better than Savion to play him? Savion’s inimitable dancing was motion captured for Mumble’s tapping in the main dance sequences in the movie. He’s a dazzling percussionist,” states the filmmaker. “His rhythms are so complex and sophisticated. Tap dancing is music you make with your body, and Savion is a virtuoso. You can play him anything and he’ll improvise to it. At one point, we played him a helicopter and he mimicked the sound with his feet. He was moving so quickly, he was faster than the camera could record…or than I could see with my naked eye. He is quite extraordinary.”

“I truly believe that kids are going to see this tap dancing penguin and say, ‘That’s too cool.’ George Miller is bringing back tap, and I’m just grateful to be a part of that,” says Glover. “I’m not the only one; I know there are many great hoofers looking down on George right now and saying, ‘Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.’” Judy Morris backs up Savion’s belief. “The composer’s little son was completely entranced when he saw Savion at work, and ever since he’s been tap dancing like crazy.”

Warren Coleman recounts just how extraordinary Glover is. “At the start of every motion capture take, the performers stand still to be ‘snapped’ by the computers. But at times we could hear a ‘brrrrrr’ noise… It sounded like a tiny machine-gun. The sound technician desperately tried to find its source so we could start capturing. He checked the air-conditioner, computers, sound equipment, everything. But then it would disappear and we could start. It was only later that Savion let us in on his little practical joke. He had actually been tapping, with foot movements so tiny and fast that no one could detect them even up close, under powerful lights. He had us all completely stumped, particularly the sound guy.”

Working with Sydney-based visual effects house Animal Logic, Miller initiated the use of motion capture technology as a means to allow him to film real actors and dancers and have their performances translated into their on-screen penguin counterparts. Motion capture uses many cameras shooting from different directions, but rather than recording an image, the camera captures information from many small reflectors attached to a body-hugging suit. The recorded motion data is then applied to a pre-designed character model within specialized computers.

On “Happy Feet,” motion capture was pushed to the technological limit to allow Miller to direct multiple performers on the capture floor in their suits, while their penguin characters appeared on a computer screen—in real time. “Our crew took this to a new level,” notes Miller. “I was actually able to see the actors moving instantly as penguins on the monitor while they performed. It gave me the freedom to get exactly what I needed on stage. I was able to direct the performers to move a little more or a little less to match what is appropriate for a penguin’s range of motion.”

“The process of making this movie was amazing,” says Glover. “It’s all about instant gratification. There I was on stage, wearing this suit with all these little reflectors all over it, and then Mumble was right there on the computer screen. You could actually see me as Mumble.” Though tap dancing was chosen to give Mumble his individual style of expression, the filmmakers also wanted to represent other forms of dance in the movie, so Miller recruited choreographer Kelley Abbey. “Kelley has done everything. She’s the top stage and music video choreographer in Australia and is also an extraordinary performer. In the film, she dances and performs the dramatic moves for several characters, including Norma Jean, Gloria and Ramon.”

“There were some really interesting challenges on this film,” states Abbey. “Dancers are meant to move, we flow, but penguins are basically shaped like a football with feet.”

Learning to move like a penguin was a required part of every performer’s training on the film, so Abbey instituted compulsory “penguin school.” However, before she could train anyone else on how to move like a penguin, Abbey had to learn to do so herself. “I watched documentaries; I had to know what was best for several species of the bird.”

The choreographer’s explorations in movement and dance actually revealed the opposite of what most would expect. “When people think of penguins, they think about turned out feet, sort of like Charlie Chaplin,” states Abbey. “But in reality, a penguin’s walk is more parallel, almost turned in. They don’t have a hip access point, so all of their real movement comes from their neck.”

“Penguins do have knees but they are well inside their bodies. Kelley Abbey emphasized the penguin-like quality of the dancing and the dancers ‘penguinized’ their moves,” the director explains.

Another valuable resource was Dr. Gary Miller, a renowned Antarctic bird and penguin expert who gave pointers during early penguin lessons on how, for instance, the beak of an Emperor Penguin outlines a ‘figure 8’ as they waddle-walk.

“The casting of dancers was key to the motion capture process for the dance, as well as the drama scenes,” Coleman comments. “Because of the way we built up a scene by blending the best parts of many different motion capture takes, the dancers’ keen sense of where they were relative to each other helped us put it all together. And because our dancers came from a musical theatre background, their movement was always expressive…always telling a story.” Abbey states, “Savion adds another dimension to the movie. He’s so unique. He’s always expressing himself with his feet. When Savion enters the building, you know it. You can hear him!”

The collaboration was a success on both sides. “Kelley’s no longer human,” jokes Glover. “She became a penguin on this movie. Working with her was great. She guided me, she had my back…I actually started calling her ‘my right-hand penguin.’” To achieve the larger dance sequences, Abbey and her dancers would employ many different styles of dance. “In the finale of the movie, when everyone finally lets themselves go, the penguins are expressing themselves in different ways, so we have some flamenco, some tango, some riverdancing. Then there’s Zulu, gumboot, Navajo and Samoan slap dancing,” details Abbey. “When the penguins come together in this universal language of dance, it becomes part of the larger message of the film.”

The belief that there is value in the diversity of artistic forms of expression was a unifying idea on-set. “As dancers, we need to be thankful for our musicians, our lyricists, and our songwriters,” attests Glover. “I think music and dance are some of the most important cultural investments we have. I don’t care what type of a person you are; everyone has a song that makes them say, ‘This is me, this is how I feel.’ It moves them. Whether you’re a singer, a dancer or something else entirely, music is rhythm, it’s our heartbeat. Music is life.”
Hollywood - November 2006

happy feet Homegrown Happy Feet

SO convincing is the animated Antarctic landscape and digitally created colony of penguins that few moviegoers watching Happy Feet on Boxing Day would ever have suspected it was all created in Sydney.

It took four years and an army of production staff to bring the international blockbuster to life – a project that took shape in the offices of Animal Logic in Fox Studios.
Creating the central character of Mumble – a tap-dancing penguin – was in itself an arduous process for the 300-strong Animal Logic team.
American Savion Glover – widely considered the world's best tap dancer – flew from New York to film the dancing sequences, choreographed by Australian Kelley Abbey.

Glover and an ensemble of dancers performed their tap routines in motion-capture suits, allowing their performances to be digitised for the artists to use as a template.
When it came to the close-ups, the animators were required to instill every one of the penguins with their own facial expressions and characteristics.

"The animators become actors and out of that comes these unique characters," Animal Logic managing director Zareh Nalbandian said.
Hollywood A-listers Robin Williams, Elijah Wood, Brittany Murphy, Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman provided voices for the characters.
Daily Telegraph - December 2006

happy feet Happy Feet captures the spirit of the wild

Viewers weary of the increasing similarity of most animated films have a tonic at hand in Happy Feet. Likely to be affectionately dubbed 'March of the Penguins the Musical', George Miller's long-in-the-works dive into full-blown computer animation drapes a relatively conventional story, about a young penguin's struggles over being 'different', in striking visuals, invigorating songs and lively characterisations.

Although the film might prove a bit too different for a minority of parents, general reaction figures to be one of jaw-dropping amazement, sparking merry box office through the holidays and further abundance in home entertainment incarnations.

The widescreen frame can barely contain the vast landscapes, as well as a bulging cast of happy-footed 'extras' that would have turned Busby Berkeley green with envy. The most ambitious and successful use of the motion-capture technique to date.
Variety - November 2006

happy feet Hollywood warms to the penguin parade

A snow storm, five cute penguins and a long line of celebrities caused havoc on Hollywood Boulevard when the Australian director George Miller staged the world premiere for his new film, Happy Feet. The $111 million animated musical comedy is a showcase of Australian acting and filmmaking talent.

Sunday's premiere was grand even by Hollywood standards, with the usual red carpet switched to ice white and wind machines blowing fake snow in the air. Five penguins, enticed by an animal trainer with a bucket of fish, waddled down the white carpet and posed, almost on cue, for the world's media.

Happy Feet, which opens in cinemas here on Boxing Day, is a landmark film for Australia as the nation's first 3D animated feature film.
The Sydney Morning Herald - 14 November 2006

happy feet Miller's dancing penguins put Bond on ice

Australian director George Miller and his troupe of fluffy singing and tap-dancing emporer penguins have topped the US box office, knocking off James Bond and sending Borat back to Kazakhstan.

Miller's animated musical comedy Happy Feet earned $A55 million at US and Canadian cinemas at the weekend to claim the top spot. The coveted first place is a triumph for the Australian film industry and Miller.

Happy Feet is the first full-length animated feature film produced in Australia.
The Daily Telegraph - 21 November 2006

happy feet Awards Countdown - Best Animated Feature - Happy Feet

The last animated release of 2006 is a comedy musical about a penguin who cannot sing but can tap dance and is cast out of the community for being too different. Directed and co-written by George Miller, the film features a pop song score from the likes of Prince, Chrissie Hynde, KD Lang and Pink, and a voice cast led by Elijah Wood, Hugh Jackman, Nicole Kidman, Robin Williams, Brittany Murphy, Anthony LaPaglia and Hugo Weaving.

Nomination chances: The last animated release of the year could well be remembered by a majority of the voters as one of the best.
Screen International - November 2006

happy feet A happy feat as Miller grabs glory

Penguins tap-danced their way to Oscar gold for Australia at the Academy Awards yesterday. Animated extravaganza Happy Feet gave Sydney director George Miller his first Academy Award.

Happy Feet was made at Sydney's Fox Studios wit a largely Australian crew of more than 500.
Daily Telegraph - 27 February 2007

happy feet Oscars go to the men in penguin suits

The penguins marched on yesterday's 79th Academy Awards, bringing Australian director George Miller his first Oscar. "I never thought I would be holding an Oscar for animation," Miller said backstage at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood after being handed the award by actress Cameron Diaz.

Cars, by the animation juggernaut Pixar, had been expected to take the award, but was bumped by Mumbles, a dancing penguin.
The Australian - 27 February 2007

happy feet The King and Queen of Hollywood

Australia's George Miller was a kid who believed in dreams. With a lucky coin and a penguin in his tuxedo pocket for good fortune, the prolific Australian filmmaker broke his Oscar hoodoo with the animated blockbuster Happy Feet. His bunch of dancing penguins won Miller his first Oscar.
The Sydney Morning Herald - 27 February 2007