Hollywood's top animators — Pete Docter ('Inside Out'), Charlie Kaufman ('Anomalisa'), Peter Sohn ('The Good Dinosaur'), Steve Martino ('The Peanuts Movie'), Roger Allers ('Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet') and Richard Starzak ('Shaun the Sheep Movie') — discuss which emotion was cut from Pixar's Oscar frontrunner and how to approach the ratings board (when an animated film lands an R-rating).
This story first appeared in a special awards season issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
In the immortal words of Roger Rabbit, "We toons may act idiotic, but we're not stupid." The same certainly could be said for the best of this year's animated feature films. As their creators gathered to talk shop on Nov. 6 at Siren Studios in Los Angeles, there was a lot to discuss, since their movies couldn't be more different — in both style and substance, ambition and accomplishment.
Pixar's Inside Out, which the Oscar-winning Pete Docter, 47, directed with Ronnie Del Carmen, takes moviegoers inside the candy-colored mind of an 11-year-old girl, where primal emotions jockey for supremacy. The Good Dinosaur, also from Pixar and directed by Peter Sohn, 38, is as big as all outdoors as it follows a young apatosaurus on a journey toward maturity. The Peanuts Movie, from Fox's Blue Sky Studios with Steve Martino, 56, at the helm, brings Charles M. Schulz's wise-beyond-their-years kids into today's more rounded CG world. For Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet, released by GKids, Roger Allers, 66, supervised nine other animation directors, who helped him bring a selection of the Lebanese poet's work to life. And, as if to prove just how flexible stop-motion animation can be, Aardman's Shaun the Sheep Movie, which Richard Starzak, 56, directed with Mark Burton, turns a barnyard animal into a veritable Buster Keaton, while Paramount's Anomalisa, on which Charlie Kaufman, 57, partnered with Duke Johnson, tells the very adult, R-rated story of a traveling salesman's one-night stand. Eager to question one another, the directors also freely offered up secrets: exactly what was cut from Inside Out, how they approach the ratings board and, oh yeah, which cartoon characters they themselves secretly dream of being.
From left: Pete Docter, Peter Sohn, Steve Martino, Charlie Kaufman, Richard Starzak and Roger Allers were photographed Nov. 6 at Siren Studios in Los Angeles.
What are your biggest fears when you're in the middle of the years-long production that animation requires?
SOHN [On The Good Dinosaur], it's that we didn't have a lot of time. This film was made in under two years. And so, once I got on board, there was not a lot of time to think about the fear or think about anything other than how to help raise this kid as best as you can. And I can't tell you how, but just through osmosis when making this thing, many of my fears have gone into the main character.
STARZAK I blindly said I wanted to make a modern-day silent movie [with Shaun the Sheep]. And even my producers said, "I think that's crazy. I don't think it's going to work." And to be honest, I didn't think it was going to work either. I didn't fully believe it was going to work. That was the sort of fear that I like. You need to put yourself out there a little bit. You need to push yourself. And I quite like that fear of "Is this going to work?"
MARTINO I think some of the best moments on any film I've worked on are when the box seemed small. In other words, we're going to limit ourselves to this and work within those constraints. And out of that sometimes comes the best results. People kind of rise to the occasion in a way that they wouldn't when you know you can do anything you want.
Charlie, did you put any kind of constraints on yourself in creating Anomalisa?
DOCTER There's a Steve Martin book where he doesn't use the letter A in any word or something like that. [In The Pleasure of My Company, the main character tries to avoid using the letter E.]
KAUFMAN I always use the letter A. That's my constraint. (Laughs.) No, I actually try to give myself free rein to sort of not know where it's going and allow it to go where it goes. It's sometimes a very scary process for me, but I feel like when I'm starting on something and I have the germ of an idea, I can't possibly know what the largeness of the idea is. So I'm going to start not knowing and sort of see where it goes. I like working that way. But it does feel like a tightrope thing, and it does feel like failure is imminent always.
DOCTER All those books that you read about scriptwriting, they say know exactly your structure, know where you're headed.
ALLERS I totally disagree with that. To me the whole thing is a process of discovery.
Animated movies often go through big changes on the drawing board. How hard is it to drop ideas you might have spent months developing?
DOCTER There's all those things you find along the way that you sort of fall in love with. But ultimately it's always: What's going to best tell your main character's story? In the case of Pride, that character [who at one time was part of Inside Out] ended up saying a lot of the words that we actually wanted to give to Joy. She was kind of stealing some of Joy's role in the movie, so she had to go.
SOHN (To Docter) That was a huge lesson for me when I was working with you on Up. As a story artist, you come up with something and you fall in love it. But then because of the story objectives, you lose it. And I think it was you who said that if it's a great idea, it'll come back.
“There was worry that kids wouldn’t get it,” Docter says of Inside Out. “But audiences have shown us that not only do they get it, but they are affected by it.”
Pixar postponed the release of The Good Dinosaur for a year to make changes. Peter, what was that process like?
SOHN Bob Peterson, the original director of The Good Dinosaur, pitched this idea of taking this boy and dog story and flipping it where the boy is the dinosaur and the dog is this little human boy. And everyone got on board with that idea. I helped him develop that for several years, but then the story got very complicated, and I got the chance to take over. The first thing I wanted to do was go back to that original boy-and-dog story. There was a lot developed in those three years, so there were these babies that you have to let go. It was really rough, for sure. But at the same time you just knew that this baby was kind of sick. [So it was like,] let me bring in all the doctors that are necessary to help here.
Steve, how is working on an adaptation different from working on an original, since instead of inventing a world, you had 50 years of comic strips to draw from?
MARTINO I've worked on other films where what drives the action is some big event. Aliens are going to come down to steal the planet. There are real life-and-death stakes that you understand in a life-and-death way. But what I love about what Charles Schulz had done is that when you're a kid and you're wondering whether somebody likes you, it feels like life and death. To be able to take that and give it that same sense of stakes felt so refreshing to me. I didn't have to bring a villain into the story. The villain is our day-to-day struggles that we have, just kind of magnified. And that's what Charlie Brown's always been, you know. He's been a magnified version of failure — and trying again. We did so much of our storyboarding work right in the office where Charles Schulz drew the comic strip. Working with Craig Schulz, the son of Charles Schulz, and [Craig's] son Bryan kept us close to the source material. There was something about being in the room together that allowed us to push one another, and I think it was being in a room together that allowed us to kind of find that path.
“I wanted to make a film that parents, grandparents and kids could like, the whole family could go see,” says The Peanuts Movie’s Martino.
Richard, Shaun the Sheep also is an established character. What was required to take him from TV to the big screen?
STARZAK In the first [Shaun the Sheep TV] series, we'd made a couple of episodes that are like little mini features. They had a kind of story structure that felt like a three-act structure and unexpected twists and turns. So I kept talking about a feature. But over in the U.K., we tend to think if you've got a children's series and you make a film, the film is the death knell of the series. I thought it was a very cynical way of thinking, because I thought [a movie] had a lot of potential.
MARTINO I got that a lot, because Peanuts always lived in a shorter form. There are those who said, "Well, can you create a story that has that kind of drive?"
STARZAK I know children have got limited concentration time if the film doesn't engage them all the way through. And I wondered whether having no dialogue would actually tire them out because you have to concentrate a lot harder. I think you have to watch the screen a lot more intently.
ALLERS I think dialogue can tire them out, quite frankly.
"Pixar is a great support system for a first-time director,” says The Good Dinosaur’s Sohn. “The other directors there have been on this journey before.”
With all your films, do you find yourself paring back on dialogue because you can do so much visually?
DOCTER For us it's definitely a process. You start with more. And whenever you can, you cut back. We even have developed this kind of run-through that imagines there is no dialogue. Just through the acting, through the camera, through the staging, are we communicating the point of the thing?
MARTINO We found that — definitely. You overwrite because when you have a script page, you will make certain that the point is getting across. And so it's there in every bit of dialogue. And then when you start to bring the characters to life, you realize that's totally communicated in the action that's there on the screen. And you can pull lines back and you know less is more. Having worked with Scrat [in the Ice Age movies] and now working with Snoopy and Woodstock, that's the most fun.
SOHN That's like the DNA of animation. You just start with the flipbook, that magic of having drawings come to life.
Charlie, Anomalisa was adapted from a radio play you wrote. Did you find you had to add visuals?
KAUFMAN Every visual joke in the movie was invented for the movie except visual jokes that are referenced in the dialogue. So anything that's just completely silent is made up for that purpose. We probably added a good 20 minutes to the film and condensed dialogue that was in the play. But I like dialogue.
I mean, I'm a writer, so I guess I like it; I'm fond of it. But I also think that there's something cool about taking these things, which are obviously not real, and grounding them with very realistic performances by actors. It sort of cements something in. It's probably not for everything, but for the type of world we were trying to create, it sort of seemed to serve us.
Roger, in the case of your film, you were working with Gibran's poetry, but you create a lot of visual imagery to illustrate the poems. Did you have any worries that some of the imagery might become too abstract?
ALLERS I always thought, "This is really risky. Maybe nobody will like this. Or maybe people will like only certain parts of it." I did my best to try to make a story that invited [audiences] in and let them discover these things with this child. There's almost no story in the book. The book is so simple. It's just this guy who's been somewhere. He can't leave. And he sees a boat. And he goes and he talks to some people on the way. And he gets on the boat and he goes. So that was basically it. I wanted to preserve that, but open it up. The child [the little girl who follows him through town] was the guide to bring children in. And you hope that then they can make the journey. And because it's colorful and because there's music, you'll go along with it and kind of subversively you get to pour philosophy in their ears, and maybe it'll excite them. I hope kids get excited about it or interested in it. But it was a challenging balance.
"The quality we went for is a realistic, nuanced but dreamlike and somewhat surreal world,” says Kaufman of his first animated movie, Anomalisa.
You worked at Disney for 17 years, directing movies like The Lion King. What was it like being off on your own, making an independent feature?
ALLERS It's an eye-opener when you do a little independent film. There's no budget for advertising. There's no — anything. Having worked at Disney and Sony, there's this enormous machine in place that knows what it's doing and boom! [Your movie] is on the sides of buses and it's up on billboards and playing on television.
You did have one secret weapon in Salma Hayek, who produced the movie and took it from Cannes to Toronto.
ALLERS She is a force of nature. And she whirls around with the world. And she's great in that way, for sure. And she was that way during the production as well, drawing people into the project. She knew [composer] Gabrielle Yared and some of the musicians. She would ask Damien Rice, "Damien, can you write me a song?"
DOCTER It seems like there's usually a connector person. For us, Bill Hader was the first guy we cast. And he connected us to a lot of other actors and writers.
“The fun” in taking the character of Shaun the Sheep to the big screen, says Starzak, “was digging deeper into the characters and making them bigger onscreen than they are on TV.”
These projects take so long to produce, how much room is there for improvisation along the way?
DOCTER Most of the actors in our film came from that [sort of] background, so they were able to just go. Oftentimes, Amy Poehler told us that's what they'd do on her shows, which we tried to do as well. It's like you hit the script until you know you have it. And then you just say, "Well, let's do a fun run." Just goof around and play. Do anything you want. It can go as long as you want. Most of the time, weirdly, you end up using the written stuff because, though it seems fresh and interesting when it's improvised, it's actually long and not very clever.
ALLERS On The Prophet, with certain actors, they are more prone to doing improvisation. Like John Rhys-Davies, he is really a fun guy. And he had a small role. So he had more freedom in what he could do. But also Salma Hayek, who had a pivotal role, she did a lot of improvisation. If we did a scene, and there's something about it that doesn't feel right, then you go back in and you go, "OK, let's try this." And one of the things I'm always used to — and I'm sure everybody around the room probably does it, too — is because you're usually recording the scene just with one actor, often I put myself in the room, and I'm the other actor.
SOHN It's not like we have a script that's super concrete when we start. So sometimes you are playing with certain characters that you're not really sure how they are formed yet. We have a lot of these "scratch actors," so that we can kind of try this, try that. And then some characters just are more formal. They are more locked down than other characters.
DOCTER We were able to get Amy Poehler and Phyllis Smith, who are two leads on Inside Out, together for a lot of the big scenes. And the energy level goes up. The little things — stammers and false starts and things that make it feel natural — are a big help.
Steve, you had to use child actors on Peanuts …
MARTINO They were great. And some of the best takes in the movie were the little mess-ups or little improvisational things. I had [Mariel Sheets, who plays Sally] try to add numbers together, and she just started making up words, and that's the most charming material that you can put into the film. I also find that our storyboarding process in a way is an improvisational run. We start with the pages and then the movie starts to take a life on. When we draw scenes, we get it into story reels, and it begins to speak back. And sometimes those lines that look great in the script and you thought were going be really solid, now you see characters moving and acting and it begins to shift a little. And then you react to that. It's a process of reacting to the material.
A question about ratings: Charlie, Anomalisa is rated R. Were you in any danger of getting an NC-17? Was there any back and forth with the ratings board?
KAUFMAN Nope. We submitted it. They said "R." We said "Thank you." We weren't sure when we went in. I don't know the rules — and I understand that I shouldn't say this — but they're not always hard and fast. You don't really know what you're going to get. We have a lot of cursing in the movie and we have sex and so on. We could have made it more graphic than we did.
Most studio animated movies are PG these days. Do you find yourself talking about what separates PG from PG-13?
SOHN On our film, we talked about it just because the film is about two young kids, a young dinosaur with this 6-year-old boy, surviving out there. In trying to make those threats real, there's some tense moments in the film where nature does its duty in terms of becoming an obstacle that can really scare young kids. So there were discussions about trying to find the balance of honoring what this film is about. It is about a kid understanding what his fears are and trying to get through it. So how much do you pull back on these things?
MARTINO Our film lands in G territory, which I'm really happy about, because Peanuts has always been that thing which is safe. This is going be fine for my kids. And there was never a discussion of, "Should we try to bump this up to PG so that we can get the teen audience," or anything like that.
“I got the book in college and it had a profound effect on me,” recalls Allers of his first encounter with The Prophet, which he directed for the screen.
Here's a final, off-the-wall question: If you could be any cartoon character, who would it be?
MARTINO Man, what just came right to my gut — Dopey just shot right in there. When I was a kid, I just loved Dopey. He was just so fun-loving, the embodiment of a child and seemed to just enjoy life.
ALLERS He just expressed everything he was feeling in the moment. Really pure.
DOCTER What shot into mine was Bugs Bunny. He was quick-witted, could outthink everybody.
STARZAK I'm afraid mine was Bugs Bunny as well, because he's just a kind of a bombproof character that I really enjoy. I think in real life I'm Daffy Duck. You know, obviously like, grumpy and never get what I want. Grr. So I'd love to have been Bugs Bunny for a week.
SOHN For me, it was [the Japanese anime character] Porco Rosso. Do you remember that? He's kind of like a fat pig guy, and he's free. I wouldn't mind being him, just flying and free and kind of feeling out the world.
ALLERS What came to my mind immediately was Captain Hook. I'd love to be a villain. You know, I'm always Mister Do-Good. I have to explore the dark side. And also he's just so big and funny. I'm obsessed with crocodiles, too.
KAUFMAN I don't know. Popeye? I don't know why. I like that animation. I like that [Max] Fleischer Popeye. Not the King Features Popeye.
DOCTER How's spinach work for ya?
KAUFMAN I like spinach. Uh, but I don't like canned spinach.