Oscars: 'Frozen,' 'Croods' Animators Reveal the Secrets Behind Their Breakout Characters
This story first appeared in the Feb. 28 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
The Croods: Grug
In an early version of The Croods, Grug, the character voiced by Nicolas Cage, was to have been in charge of a whole village. But the direction of the film shifted midway through its eight-year development when the filmmakers eliminated the village and focused The Croods on one family. "That's when Grug went from being a leader over many to just being a dad. Grug became a regular guy that any dad can relate to -- he stresses, he worries about his family," explains co-director Chris Sanders. "Cavemen are pure of heart," adds co-director Kirk De Micco. "He is not looking for a promotion at work. All he's looking for is a chance for his family to survive." The creative team gave Grug a lot of mass to show that he can be protective. "This is a guy who could literally carry his whole family on his shoulders," says De Micco. "We chose a simple costume because we wanted him to feel unsophisticated. On How to Train Your Dragon, we had a lot of breakthroughs in fur and hair, and we benefited from that mightily on The Croods." Adds Sanders, "The most important thing in casting Grug was to find a voice that was inherently sympathetic. Grug is constantly saying 'no' because he is worried about his family's safety, but there still is a vulnerability in his voice."
Ernest & Celestine: Celestine
Celestine, an orphaned mouse with a talent for drawing, lives below cobblestone streets in a village full of mice that fear bears. "She is a shy girl, but that doesn't mean she doesn't have her own ideas. Everyone tells her drawing is pointless, but she keeps drawing," says Benjamin Renner, one of the directors of Ernest & Celestine. Based on a Belgian book series by Gabrielle Vincent, the France-Belgium co-production, which GKids Films released in the U.S., has a hand-drawn, storybook look as Celestine forms an unlikely friendship with a bear named Ernest, who has a passion for music but can't find acceptance in his own village. "For me it's like Romeo and Juliet, but it's about friendship," says Renner. "When she meets Ernest, she becomes more independent," he explains. "At first she looks like Red Riding Hood, but her cape is not so red because we wanted her to [blend into the crowd]. When she meets Ernest, we dressed her with more lively colors. She is no longer just a shy girl. She is a child who wants to have friends. She changes during the course of the film."
The Wind Rises: Jiro
The Wind Rises, from Japan's master animator Hayao Miyazaki, tells the story of Jiro Horikoshi, designer of the Mitsubishi A5M and its famous successor, the World War II Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighter plane. But, says Miyazaki, "The character of Jiro in the movie is a fictional character and an amalgam inspired by two people of the same era: Jiro Horikoshi, the aeronautical engineer and the designer of the Zero fighter, and the author Tatsuo Hori. Although I have seen photographs of Jiro Horikoshi, I did not refer to them when creating the character Jiro. That said, I am very familiar with various books and materials about him, so I did expect to include his essence in my new character." As for the film's color palette, Miyazaki says, "The setting of the film is when my parents were young. My image of that era is one of grays and darkness. Still, even with misfortune, I believe that this was an era when people strove to live life to its fullest. I wanted to know how people of that era lived and to draw it. The most difficult challenge in making this film was that the production team was completely ignorant of how green Japan looked at that time, and of the era's manners and etiquette. Although it was not so long ago, Japan has changed dramatically."
Taking her cues from Hans Christian Andersen's The Snow Queen, on which Frozen is based, Elsa started out as more of a villain -- before she was transformed into a young girl who grows up with magical powers she can't control. "Elsa is driven by fear -- she is afraid to show herself and she is afraid to hurt her sister, Anna," explains Chris Buck, who directed the film with Jennifer Lee. "When we started, the movie was a little more of an action-adventure and the theme was more good versus evil. But everyone saw the potential in Elsa to be more than just a villain." She finally came into focus when composers Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez wrote and then created a demo version of the song "Let It Go." "We were floored," says Buck. "Suddenly you really felt for Elsa. The audience could understand her and root for her." And that, in turn, led to a change in how the creative team viewed Elsa visually. Originally, says Buck, "she had black spiky hair and light blue skin. She was older -- a little more typical of the Disney villains. She also had a living fur coat of ermines [a type of weasel]. She would snap her fingers and the ermines would crawl up her and form a coat."
Despicable Me 2: The Minions
Chris Renaud, who directed Despicable Me 2 with Pierre Coffin, says that when the franchise was created, the filmmakers wanted to find a way to make the bad guy, Gru, more appealing: "Instead of being surrounded by ogre-like henchmen, we thought it would be fun if the characters were more comedic, smaller and sort of like children. The way Gru talks to them, knows them by name, is nice to them -- and they love him -- it gives him some appeal." And so the chattering minions were born. "In the first storyboards, a lot of them were robots, like R2-D2s," says Renaud, who also acknowledges other Star Wars influences like the Jawas. The minions' goggles and coveralls were inspired by the jumpsuits worn by the villainous armed squad in the 1962 James Bond adventure Dr. No. In the sequel, some of the minions are further transformed into evil creatures by the film's true villain, whom Gru is pitted against. That idea came from a Warner Bros. cartoon in which Tweety Bird drinks a Jekyll and Hyde potion, which turns him into a monster. Says Renaud, "We shifted the minions' color -- what color is more evil than purple? -- and gave them the long arms, the hair, the teeth."
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