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Helmers of this year’s top animated features talk about the hurdles they overcame.
“Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs”
Directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller say the forecast wasn’t always so rosy for “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs.”
“There were different times during the movie where major structural things were not resonating or working for people, and we had to slow down production and really get back in and start tinkering with it again,” Miller says. “There’s 500 people working on the movie, so a lot of jobs are at stake.”
Working through it required a strong and honest assessment of the film’s progress to that point. “There was more than one time where we did a screening where there were lots of laughs, lots of movie magic, followed by an afternoon of lots and lots of criticism (by everyone from the storyboard artists to the producers) — well-intended, but brutal,” Lord says.
That’s where the pair’s sitcom writing background came in handy, as they were used to the pressures of the writers’ room. “We learned not to be too precious about our words,” Lord says.
Executing the deceptively simple and graphic look director Henry Selick was seeking for the Other World in “Coraline” was particularly difficult and a couple of production designers were unable to conquer it.
“We called it the art crisis,” Selick says. “Everyone rolled up their sleeves and said, ‘Let’s experiment, let’s try different materials.’ ”
A contest was held among the crew to design a tree that felt right. “One guy came up with the tree that set the style for all the others,” Selick says. “We used Japanese papers to form the foliage, and we had one breakthrough after another.”
Selick deputized some of his set designers to art-direct the movie and build on the momentum of the tree breakthrough. “Gradually, it sort of seeped through the whole project.”
“Monsters vs. Aliens”
Directors Rob Letterman and Conrad Vernon say there was a lot riding on “Monsters vs. Aliens,” the first film that DreamWorks Animation was making from the start in stereoscopic 3D.
“When we started, there was no plan to do it in 3D,” Letterman says. “We tried to do it as big as we could in 2D, to really push the envelope for the studio in that way. Then we got the word that it was going to be in 3D, and suddenly it became even more complicated. There was a moment where we got really nervous about how daunting that was.”
“We’d gone over to Lightstorm, James Cameron’s company, to see a presentation,” he adds. “Jon Landau, his producer, said: ‘Jim Cameron doesn’t think about it like that; he just makes the movie. If you just tell your story, it’ll work out.’ From that moment on, we just took that at face value and started telling the story and it all came into place.”
“Fantastic Mr. Fox”
While there were concerns about the production using real fur on the puppets in “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” director Wes Anderson says other issues, like making certain characters walk uphill in a believable fashion, proved more problematic.
“Almost all the animals were quite agreeable to being animated,” he notes. “But a character like our main farmer, that seemed like a more familiar kind of puppet for everyone to be working with. We really, really struggled with that puppet.”
When scenes with the farmer weren’t working, Anderson discarded them and sent his crew back to the drawing board for a new puppet design. The solution? “He smokes all through the movie,” Anderson says. “One reason he smokes is he doesn’t speak that well. It was finding a way to adapt to the limitations of that puppet.”
“The Princess and the Frog”
One of the last and most difficult decisions on “The Princess and the Frog” was casting the voice of Prince Naveen, a role that directors John Musker and Ron Clements ultimately gave to Bruno Campos. The character had gone through many permutations, from a stately English prince to a more obviously foreign royal, and ultimately a decision had to be made.
“It came down to three actors, and we had a tough time choosing between them,” Clements says. “John Lasseter’s idea was to get together a group of women working on the movie and have them listen to the actors. We all felt it was important that his voice had a certain romantic appeal.”
“And they unanimously voted for Bruno (Campos), who were leaning slightly toward anyway,” Musker says.
After successfully pitching the idea for “Up,” finding the right look for the story became the biggest challenge, director Pete Docter says.
“You could never believe (a house) would fly — except in animation,” Docter says. “We really tried to stylize the characters so you’d believe the story we were telling. And that was tricky because a lot of computer programs start with basically reality.”
The balloons also required a lot of work to get them right in the computer. “You’ve got up to 20,000 individual balloons that all bump into each other and move in the wind and they’re all tied with strings,” Docter says. “But we needed it to be directable, so we needed to be able to say, ‘Can you enlarge them all 20%?’ and all kinds of changes like that to make it look right, even though it wasn’t scientifically accurate.”
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