Roundtable: 5 Top Animators on the Good and Bad of Celebrity Voices and Creative Input From Their Own Kids

The masterminds behind "Frozen," "Despicable Me 2," "Monsters University," "The Croods" and "Epic" on how star voices are great for marketing a film, but creatively, the character comes first -- and how the director's son saved the "Avatar"-like look of "Epic."

When you all watched Gravity, did you consider it an animated movie?

MELEDANDRI: I think it is. We're actually recording Sandy Bullock today for an animated film [The Minions], and as you listen to her describe the process of making Gravity, you could call it a mixed-media film. But it's more animation than live action.

WEDGE: Gravity is an example; Life of Pi was an example. You can't make these movies any other way. You want to be immersed in a world you don't have any other access to. That kind of immersion is what animation does well.

Were the landscapes in Epic and The Croods inspired by Avatar?

BELSON: There was one set in particular early on in [Croods] that people said referenced [2009's] Avatar a lot. But we actually didn't sort of see it ourselves until after we made it and went, "Oh, right, that does bear a resemblance." We didn't see the similarities to Avatar until afterward, but we were perfectly pleased with those comparisons.

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WEDGE: We knew Avatar was out there, but actually Epic was in development, and we had story reels done when I saw Avatar for the first time. And I'll admit, my son was sitting next to me, and he said, "Dad, that's kind of how I pictured Epic." So we lived with it.

BUCK: That happened to us on [2007's] Surf's Up and [2006's] Happy Feet. We came out about six months after Happy Feet. All we knew was there was another movie with penguins in it. And so, when those comparisons happen, for us it wasn't so great because people felt like Surf's Up was just a sequel to those dancing penguins, and now they're surfing. So nobody wanted to see it.

BUCK: What always amazes me is when a reviewer will comment, "Clearly they took that from another film." I always think: "You just don't know the process. We don't move fast enough to steal."

Let's talk about costs. Why are animated films so expensive, even as software prices are coming down?

WEDGE: There's a business behind all of this, obviously. You have to make all your decisions about what you're going to spend and what you think you're going to make at the end of the day. Not only do the costs of the equipment come down and costs of licensing software come down, but also those things that you're paying for are much more sophisticated. The computers are 10 times faster than the last time you bought a computer, and the software is more fantastic than it was. My answer is, you can hold the line financially, and the films can get better for the same amount of money.

Chris Meledandri, you've managed to attract big audiences with movies that cost less than the industry average.

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MELEDANDRI: I think the answer to all of the challenges of making these movies starts with people. I have a phenomenal producing partner in Janet Healy, who is about the smartest animation producer I've ever worked with, and we set out to design a different system to making an animated film. It was driven by the desire to create an opportunity to embrace more risk. It was a very simple idea -- to figure out how to contain a budget, and our budgets are roughly $75 million. We took risks up and down the line in terms of giving people opportunities to do jobs they hadn't done before. So we started with this premise, which was to control costs, take greater risks. And there are many ironies, such as the fact that we now produce the films largely in Paris, which one does not think of as being a place to save costs.

Is 3D now entrenched for mainstream studio animated films?

WEDGE: I would say so, if the audience keeps coming. I don't know how you guys feel about it, but there is no better way to watch a movie, in my mind, than Imax 3D.

BELSON: It's so cool, and it's not just the in-your-face 3D. I love the depth, the way you feel like you were actually inside the set.

At what point during preproduction or production do you begin thinking about 3D and how you're going to use it?

BELSON: Right away. The 3D that usually isn't satisfying is when it is sort of an afterthought. You want to be thinking about it from early on.

BUCK: There's one thing I think we still need to work on with 3D, and that's the color. I think we lose some of that beautiful saturated color when it goes to 3D because of the glasses. That's something we still need to technically work on.

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