OscarWrap: The directors of some of the year’s best animated films explain the techniques and ideas behind their work
This story originally appeared in the Nominations/SAG/Golden Globes issue of TheWrap magazine.
They take place inside a girl’s head, or in the halls of a sterile Cleveland hotel. On an Earth where the dinosaurs never died out, or on a farm where the sheep are the smart ones. In the words of a celebrated poet, or in no words at all.
If it’s hard to pin down this year’s crop of animated films, that’s because they’re a little bit of everything: crowd-pleasing blockbusters, cerebral art movies and everything in between.
This year, 16 films qualified in the Oscar race for Best Animated Feature. Assuming that voters like them enough to give them high scores, that means we’ll see a full slate of five nominees for the fifth year in a row, and the sixth time in seven years.
In the annual animation section from our Oscar magazine, we look at the challenges of a vibrant art form, and watch as scenes from several of the year’s top contenders are constructed from pencils to pixels.
Visualizing the world inside a young girl’s mind was a great idea but a daunting task for director Pete Docter and the Pixar team who made “Inside Out.”
“John Lasseter said he loved the idea but he knew it was going to be hard,” said Docter, whose previous films include ‘Monsters Inc.’ and the Oscar-winning ‘Up.’ “Weirdly, I didn’t know that. I just thought it would be a lot of fun to design the world–but within about four or five months I was realizing, ‘This is not going to be easy.’
“The idea is one thing, but an idea is just whistling on the steps of Carnegie Hall. You have to put in a lot of time to get it to a point where it means something. It really took us three and a half years before we were able to lock in the specifics of how we could design this world.”
One of the trickiest parts was creating the main characters, who are the embodiment of different emotions: Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear and Disgust. “Early on,” said Docter, “I thought it would be great if these guys looked the way these emotions feel to us. Instead of making them out of flesh and blood and cloth, can we find some way to visualize energy?”
The solution was to make the edges of the characters sparkly and evanescent, “particles in space” giving off energy. “That was the art department working hand and hand with the technical team,” said Docter. “It was easily said and hard to do.”
Over the course of designing a mind, Docter said he also learned that he had to be judicious. “In the end, we realized that we didn’t have to design a world that accommodated everything that goes on in somebody’s mind,” he said. “We just needed to design one that worked for the story we were telling.” –SP
It’s not often that the characters in stop-motion animation are supposed to look human, but that was the case with Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson’s “Anomalisa,” an odd and touching film that went to great lengths for a kind of twisted realism.
“The puppets are based on real people,” said animation supervisor Dan Driscoll. “And once you put an inanimate object into human proportions, it moves in a way that doesn’t look right. It will scream at you. Finding a natural performance and not a Looney Tunes way of showing emotion was very challenging.”
The voices of Jennifer Jason Leigh, David Thewlis and Tom Noonan were recorded first, and the animators matched every syllable and vowel sound with the corresponding facial expression. “Everything you see in the entire world of the film has to be thought up, designed and fabricated by hand,” Johnson said.
“You forget these are static objects that don’t possess any real life or soul, and they somehow seem to be infused with a soulfulness.”
And then there was the sex scene, a challenge for live-action filmmakers and a painstaking chore in stop-motion. “It took six months to shoot,” writer-director Kaufman said. “It required a lot of complicated maneuvering in the puppets undressing and the covers being moved and the puppets interacting sexually in a way that these hardbodied puppets are not designed to do. A lot of stuff had to be figured out in terms of physics.” –BV
BOY AND THE WORLD
Alê Abreu’s “Boy and the World” started in the simplest of ways: a small drawing of a boy that the director found in one of his sketchbooks while planning an animated documentary about 500 years of Latin American history.
“I had the feeling he was waving to me, and calling me to discover his history,” said Abreu, who abandoned the doc to chart the boy’s journey from innocence to the chaos of modern life.The result is one of the most low-tech but striking of the category’s entries.
Completely animated by the Brazilian director on computer and then painstakingly transferred to paper, the film is a wordless, surreal story that uses different styles to illustrate the collision between spirituality and technology. “The little boy starts from the abstract, spiritual world represented by white paper, and as he enters the world I added features, drawings and textures,” said Abreu.
“The world created by human beings started covering the spiritual world, with collages from newspapers and magazines covering the canvas, until the moment when live-action images completely destroy the animation space, and the possibility to dream.”
While Abreu said he’ll never again do every drawing himself, he is committed to the promise of animation. “To me, [live-action] movies are rooted in the power of words,” he said, “but animation can convey what cannot be said with words.” –SP
THE GOOD DINOSAUR
Mother Nature isn’t just a driving force in Pixar’s latest, “The Good Dinosaur.” “Nature was something we wanted to push as a character in the film,” director Peter Sohn said.
The movie follows Arlo, a young dinosaur who gets washed down river away from his family during a
“By the time Arlo is with the human boy, he learned to become more comfortable within nature as well,” Sohn said. “The river becomes a kind of yellow brick road for his journey back home.” In fact, the river mirrors Arlo’s emotions as he treks through landscapes inspired by Oregon and Wyoming.
“When Arlo is following the river and he is going through tough times, the river can be whitewatery,” said Soh. “And when he comes closer to Spot and more comfortable with nature, the river becomes peaceful and like glass. We put a lot of attention into creating a world that supports Arlo’s journey.”
For example, every blade of grass was carefully defined, and the particular movements of the thousands of birds were meticulously built out.
“Arlo and Spot are younger than most characters in Pixar movies, but they are going through a very adult-like journey where Arlo is looking to survive in the wilderness and Spot is helping Arlo through it,” said Sohn. “We’ve treated nature in this very visceral way, almost like an antagonist where it’s both beautiful and scary at the same time.” –BV
KAHLIL GIBRAN‘S THE PROPHET
Filmmakers often have to jump through hoops to secure the rights to valuable properties, but it’s unlikely that any of them faced the task that fell to Steve Hansen and Jenny Jacobs when they wanted to make a movie from Kahlil Gibran‘s “The Prophet.”
The celebrated poet willed the rights to his international bestseller to the village where he grew up in Lebanon, where those rights were administered by a committee whose members changed year to year.
But after years of trying, the producers landed “The Prophet,” which has now been turned into an animated film inspired by the approach of Disney’s classic “Fantasia.” With Salma Hayek also on board as a producer, eight different directors (or teams), including Paul and Gaetan Brizzi, Tomm Moore, Nina Paley and Bill Plympton, adapted Gibran’s poems in their own styles, while Roger Allers (“The Lion King”) wrote and directed a narrative that linked all the work together.
“Originally it was going to be 20 poems, one after the other, but Salma felt that was a lot to ask people to sit through,” said Allers. “She felt it needed a narrative, so it was my job to figure out a story that would let us move in and out of the poems gracefully.
“It was a big challenge being simple enough to allow fairly straightforward movement to the end of the film, and also justify why these poems were being recited along the way.” (A bonus: He was able to use versions of Gibran’s own paintings on the walls of his main character’s room.)
As for the other animators, he said, “the intention was to let them create their own vision, their own interpretation of the poems. I made a couple of suggestions to a few people, but I did so acknowledging that it was their film.” –SP
SHAUN THE SHEEP MOVIE
Talk about the silence of the lambs — the biggest challenge for the filmmakers of Aardman Animation’s “Shaun the Sheep Movie” was telling a rich story without dialogue.
“We worked a long time to find the right story to tell, and putting those ideas forward without dialogue was extremely challenging,” said Richard Starzak, who co-wrote and co-directed the movie with Mark Burton.
They based the film on wooly characters that were introduced in Aardman’s Oscar-winning 1995 Wallace and Gromit short “A Close Shave,” and later spun off into their own British television series by Aardman’s Nick Park. In lieu of dialogue, Starzak and Burton decided to focus on music as a narrative device, which proved to be an extremely daunting task.
“Because we haven’t got dialogue, music is important to set a mood,” said Burton. “It was one of the most difficult and diverse jobs because of the range of music, but also incorporating music from the original series.”
Creating an entire movie in stop-motion, a process by which “everything is real, the set is real, the characters are real, and everything is shot on set,” was no walk in the park either. But while a stop-motion film usually requires a two-year process, the creators of “Shaun the Sheep” only took 10 months, aided by the fact that many of their characters and some settings had already been created by Aardman.
“The great thing about stop frame is that everything exists,” said Burton. “Some people might think it’s old-fashioned, but it’s about the stories and the characters, and we hope people will carry on seeing them so we can continue making them.” –BV
THE PEANUTS MOVIE
“The Peanuts Movie” director Steve Martino had unlimited access to make his update of the beloved comic strip as authentic as possible–including a password that gave him access to a searchable database of 18,000 comics in the archives of Peanuts creator Charles M. Schulz.
“Whenever anybody had the desire to say, ‘I’m going to design such-and-such,’ I would remind them to go back to the source material,” said Martino. “Charles Schulz gave us the answers for everything.”
Working with the late cartoonist’s son, Craig, also helped Martino stay true to the source’s “wonderful pen line.” “Craig would be the first person I would share it with because he knows his father’s work very well, and he knows what Peanuts fans would be looking for,” Martino said.
“I thought computer animation would give us a richness to bring the world to life and invite the audience into that world, to make them believe it really exists. Every object put into the movie was based on the drawings that Charles created, and they had to be posed in the way that Charles presented them in the first place.”
Even when the animators created
“When I was developing my skills as an animator, I looked at Peanuts all the time because Schulz’s characters were simple but his characters’ expression were so great,” Martino added. “You knew how Snoopy felt, you knew how Charlie Brown felt. Schulz had such a great influence on my life as an artist and as someone who
likes to laugh.” –BV
When the Minions first showed up in “Despicable Me,” one of the keys to the characters was the fact that they were completely interchangeable. All-purpose henchmen in search of an evil master to serve, they had a slapstick appeal without any individual personalities.
But when Illumination Entertainment took note of the characters’ massive popularity and decided to make a movie that would put the diminutive sidekicks center stage, that one-personality-fits-all approach just didn’t work.
“When you think about the Minions, they’re kind of like one character, and you couldn’t pick them out of a crowd,” co-director Kyle Balda said. “In this movie, we tried to distinguish between them, so we created a family unit. Kevin is sort of the parental figure, Stuart plays guitar and Bob is the more innocent youth–the baby of the family. That opened up a lot of story opportunities.”
But the Minions also speak in a language all their own, which provided another challenge since they had to carry the film’s narrative. Co-director Pierre Coffin also provided the characters’ voices, and Balda said he’d take the descriptions of a scene in the script and “try to find a melody for the language, where you get the changes of emotions in the tone of his voice.”
It also helped that Coffin was always around: “Normally, you get a few sessions with voice actors spaced out over the production,” said Balda. “But with ‘Minions,’ the voice actor was always there — so if an animator had an idea for a change of emotion, Pierre could go back to his desk, do a little bit of vocalization and give it back to the animator on the same day.” –SP