The Animation Roundtable

DRAWING POWER (From left) Bob Last (The Illusionist), Lee Unkrich (Toy Story 3), Roy Conli (Tangled), Chris Meledandri (Despicable Me), Tom McGrath (Megamind) and Bonnie Arnold (How to Train Your Dragon).
Justin Stephens

Animation filmmakers are a tight-knit group of friends. But that didn’t stop a vigorous debate about art, the Pixar-DreamWorks rivalry and why someone from their field deserves a best picture Oscar.

In a year of such diverse achievement in animation, it seems a particular shame that only three films will compete for best animated picture at the Oscars. The Hollywood Reporter gathered six contenders vying for those coveted nominations -- Bonnie Arnold (producer, How to Train Your Dragon), Roy Conli (producer, Tangled), Bob Last (producer, The Illusionist), Tom McGrath (director, Megamind), Chris Meledandri (producer, Despicable Me) and Lee Unkrich (director, Toy Story 3) -- for THR's first-ever animation roundtable Nov. 12 at Siren Studios in Hollywood.

The Hollywood Reporter: No animated film has won the best picture Oscar. Is that fair?

Chris Meledandri: The very fact that there is a category for best animated film is a way for the Academy not to think of an animated film for best picture. There is an unstated contradiction in people's minds. Obviously, when Toy Story got that nod for screenplay, that was really startling for everybody because the Academy just wasn't used to it.

Lee Unkrich: Hopefully, if people go to see a movie and are profoundly affected by it -- wildly entertained, moved -- they can put all of that aside. They can just recognize that this is cinema.

Bonnie Arnold: Maybe this year it'll change.

THR: What is the biggest challenge facing animation today?

Arnold: It's continuing to tell good stories that appeal to a broad audience. That's actually harder sometimes than doing a niche film, when you know exactly who your audience is and you know the age range.

Meledandri: No matter what happens with technology or whether you're in traditional animation or stop-motion or CG, the biggest challenge always is story. The flow of making the movie is usually determined by how your story is coming together, and when your story is straining and you can't quite get your hands around it, your entire production is straining.

Unkrich: Hasn't that been the case for thousands of years? People like to talk about the technology because it can be sexy, but at the end of the day, it doesn't help you to tell a good story.

Bob Last: In Europe, we have a slightly different perspective. The biggest challenge is, without a doubt, money.

THR: Some of Bob's films, like The Triplets of Belleville, seem more adult-oriented. There are graphic novel adaptations, but why hasn't animation caught on as a purely adult medium?

Tom McGrath: It is categorized as a babysitter, of sorts, for kids. When your movie goes out on DVD, it's categorized in the toy market.

Roy Conli: In Europe, it's much more open to an adult medium.

Unkrich: Europe and Asia, for that matter. I've thought a lot about why that is because we get that a lot. People say, "You're making movies for kids," and I'm quick to say, "No, we are trying to make movies for everybody." I think a big part of it was television in the late '60s and '70s. A lot of things, like the Warner Bros. cartoons, were really made for everybody. They were made for adults; they were made to be on the front of feature films. Then they started showing up on TV, and for my generation, we grew up on animation on television. Over the decades, it became seen as something that is just for kids, which is unfortunate.

Meledandri: One thing that we have to take into consideration is that there has been primetime animation on television that is clearly pulling in older audiences, whether it's The Simpsons or Family Guy. I think it has a lot more to do with who it is that's making animated films right now in this country. I don't think that any of us approach this from a point of view that we're making movies for children -- we're making movies that we are going to enjoy. If Lee decided that he was going to make a film that was going to skew more adult, that film would find its audience.

THR: Lee, is there an adult-oriented project you've dreamed of making but you know, realistically, you can't?

Unkrich: It's not that I realistically can't make it; it's whether it would be made at Pixar. At Pixar, our goal, very much like DreamWorks, is to try to make films that appeal to everybody. And, as Bonnie mentioned, that's the hardest thing to do. There's no doubt that we could make any kind of targeted, more adult-oriented film, and we could probably make a really good film.

THR: So what's a project you'd like to make?

Unkrich: There's a lot out there, and it's true that I have narrowed the focus of the kinds of things I've thought about making because of the studio that I'm at. But I'm also very happy at that studio, and ultimately it's most rewarding for me to go out into the world knowing that so many people have seen the film and loved it, from little kids to their grandparents. I'll probably do things later in my career that are not for kids.

McGrath: You could say Avataris an adult animated film -- it really is. The lines are blurring now on what makes an animated film. There was a time when all studios wanted to do was make live-action versions of animated cartoons. Now animation is sneaking in through the back door. Avataris one of the most successful films of all time. It's not considered animation, but it really is. As much as the actors did perform in it, there were animators keyframing it.

THR: Bonnie, I was stunned that Roger Deakins was the cinematographer on How to Train Your Dragon. How did that come about?

Arnold: We were looking for someone to sort of help us create this world, which in How to Train Your Dragon's instance was a North Sea kind of world. The directors were looking for something different in terms of the look, and the movies we kept referencing happened to be on Roger's list of movies that he had lit (including No Country for Old Men and Fargo). We also knew that he had done some consulting on WALL-E.

Unkrich: I know, from the little work we did with Roger on WALL-E and what he did with you -- I think a lot of other filmmakers look at what we're doing, and it's a big mystery to them. They don't know how we make the movies, but the moment you give someone like Roger a glimpse behind the scenes, they see that what we're doing is really very close to what they're doing in a lot of ways. When I came to Pixar way back when on the first Toy Story, which Bonnie produced, I didn't come from an animation background; I was an editor, and what attracted me immediately was that what they were doing was so close to what I knew in the live-action world, just purely from a creative perspective. From the lens choice to cutting and staging -- it was very much like we were making a virtual live-action film.

Arnold: When we did Toy Story, there was no movie that had ever been cut on [digital nonlinear editing technology] Avid. I kept saying to Pixar: "Why are we trying to do this, too? Aren't we trying to do enough new stuff?" They insisted that if we were going to be making this film digitally, we needed to cut it digitally, and Lee had experience cutting digitally with commercials and stuff. Literally, that's how we found Lee -- again, because we were trying to do everything new and different.

THR: Is there a tough compromise you had to make on your films?

McGrath:You do have to juggle a little bit. There's a scene in Megamind where rain was really important, and to do that I had to lose dust from some other scene. Everything has a price tag on it.

Meledandri: Our budget for Despicable Mewas $69 million. Even at Fox, with the Ice Age movies and Dr. Seuss movies, we were still relatively in that same range in between where Bob is (around $20 million) and where DreamWorks and Pixar is. But for us, every day is a process of compromise because the filmmakers are living within limitations that are unavoidable in order to hit those kinds of numbers. I never had the opportunity to work with budgets as luxurious as some of the others have, but I always assumed that even when you're in a more luxurious budget that you're still operating ...

Arnold: There's a box you have to live with. Time is always a big thing. There's a release date. John Lasseter always said, "Movies are never finished, they're just released."

Unkrich: But these are good things. No matter what your budget is, you have to have some limitations because it gives rise to great and better creativity.

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