The Filmmakers Behind This Year's Awards Contenders in Animation Share Their Secrets

9:51 AM 12/16/2016

by THR Staff

From how 'Moana' brought a tattoo to life to how a few indies became major awards contenders, this year's top animation filmmakers explain how they pulled it off.

'Trolls' and 'Kubo and the Two Strings'
'Trolls' and 'Kubo and the Two Strings'
  • How Filmmakers Turned Anna Kendrick, Justin Timberlake Into 'Trolls'

    Courtesy of DreamWorks Animation

    No one would ever mistake Justin Timberlake and Anna Kendrick for a couple of trolls, but since they voice the lead characters in DreamWorks Animation's Trolls, which Fox will release Nov. 4, the filmmakers had to consider their offscreen personalities.

    The film is based on the well-known doll franchise introduced in 1959 by Danish woodcutter Thomas Dam — and that provided the film's creative team with a relatively blank slate. "All we had was these little characters with colorful hair; there were no defined characters," says director Mike Mitchell, who worked on DWA's Shrek Forever After.

    Production designer Kendal Cronkhite-Shaindlin says a decision was made to maintain the handmade "ugly-cute" look of the dolls with the "stubby, rounded shape and asymmetrical teeth and mouth."

    Poppy, the protagonist who is voiced by Kendrick, emerged as a wildly optimistic princess who becomes the Trolls Village leader. But, says co-director Walt Dohrn, "we wanted to go against the traditional idea of beauty or what a princess was, and Anna didn't want to play her as a traditional princess, either."

    Read the full story here

  • How 'Moana's' Animators Brought a Tattoo to Life

    Courtesy of Disney

    In Disney's Moana — the movie scored an impressive $81.1 million during the Thanksgiving weekend — the 16-year-old title character goes on a journey with the demigod Maui. Taken from Polynesian mythology and voiced by Dwayne Johnson, Maui is an imposing figure, but he's almost upstaged by tiny Mini Maui, a kind of sentient tattoo that comes to life on Maui's impressively muscled and decorated body.

    "Somewhere in the process, Mini Maui started to emerge, almost as a Jiminy Cricket alter ego; the tattoo can't speak, but he can communicate with Maui," explains John Musker, who directed with Ron Clements, of the telltale tat's development. "Maui's full of himself, and here is someone who could poke fun at him — literally poke him." The two directors, responsible for such Disney classics as The Little Mermaid and Aladdin, are making their first foray in a near-fully computer-animated feature with Moana, but for Mini Maui, they decided to return to their roots and create a hand-drawn character. So they recruited the legendary Eric Goldberg, best known as the lead animator of the Genie in Aladdin, to serve as Mini Maui's animation supervisor.

    Read the full story here.

  • How 'Kubo and the Two Strings' Merged Stop-Motion Animation and 3D Printing

    Focus Features

    Stop-motion animation is a time-honored art: Humans have been molding figures out of clay and filming them one frame at a time since the dawn of cinema. But last summer, while visiting Laika studios outside Portland, Ore., I encountered a stop-motion puppet so advanced — not to mention so huge — that simply lifting one of its boney fingers was nearly as complex as a lunar launch.

    At 400 pounds, standing 16 feet high, with an arm span of 23 feet, the enormous skeletal monster in Kubo and the Two Strings is believed to be the largest, most complicated stop-motion puppet ever built. As I wandered through Laika's soundstages, where Kubo painstakingly was shot over a period of two years before its release in August, I kept running into all sorts of scary monsters — like that 11-foot-tall one-eyed creature that still keeps me up at night. Most stop-motion sets are universes in miniature, with tiny towns built on workshop tabletops — and that's also taking place on these stages. But mostly I felt like a mouse in a world of giants.

    "There were all kinds of red flags to making this movie," says 43-year-old Travis Knight — son of Nike founder Phil Knight — who took time off from his day job as president and CEO of Laika to shoot Kubo, which has been nominated for a Golden Globe award, as his directorial debut. "It was the most demanding experience of my life. It was like shooting a stop-motion David Lean movie."

    The film tells the story of a young boy, Kubo (voiced by Game of Thrones' Art Parkinson), who wanders through a magical ancient Japanese kingdom searching for clues about his dead father's life as a famous samurai warrior. Along the way, he picks up a couple of sidekicks, a talking monkey (Charlize Theron) and an equally verbose beetle (Matthew McConaughey), and gets into scraps with the evil twin Sisters (Rooney Mara doing both siblings' voices) and their terrifying father, the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes). "It's a story about loss and healing and forgiveness," is how Knight sees it. "It's about how loving someone or something can make you vulnerable, but also give you strength."

    Read the full story here.

  • How 'My Life as a Zucchini' Became a Major Awards Contender


    No, it's not about a vegetable. My Life as a Zucchini (Ma vie de Courgette) actually is a stop-motion animated film about a boy who moves into a foster facility after the sudden death of his mother. This Switzerland-France co-production is hoping to stake a claim in the animated film category at the Golden Globes and at the Oscars, and it also is Switzerland's official submission for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' best foreign-language film. With a rare 100 percent score on Rotten Tomatoes, it has started to collect accolades, including both the grand prize and the audience award at the prestigious Annecy International Animation Film Festival.

    Based on Gilles Paris' Autobiography of a Courgette, which noted screenwriter Celine Sciamma (writer-director of Girlhood and Tomboy) adapted, the film is the debut feature from Swiss director Claude Barras, who describes it as an "homage to neglected and mistreated children who do the best they can to survive and live with their wounds. Zucchini, our hero, has been through many difficult times and, after having lost his mother, he believes he is alone in the world." At a foster care center, though, he finds a new group of friends he can rely on. Explains Barras, movies often portray orphanages as "dark and depressing. I wanted to show an orphanage that protects kids rather than abuses them."

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  • How Director Mark Osborne Gave the 'The Little Prince' a Modern Update

    Courtesy of Cannes

    Mark Osborne had to overcome plenty of obstacles to bring his independent animated retelling of The Little Prince to the screen — from convincing top talent to board the project to building a stop-motion operation. The director turned down an offer to helm the rather raunchy Seth Rogen animated comedy Sausage Party in order to see The Little Prince take flight. And he even survived what could have been an eleventh-hour disaster when Paramount, the movie's original domestic distributor, decided not to handle the movie's release.

    But then Netflix stepped in. The Little Prince, Osborne's adaptation of the 1943 classic by Antoine de Saint-Exupery, originally debuted in Cannes back in May 2015, going on to win a Cesar Award in France as best animated film before it finally arrived in a handful of U.S. theaters Aug. 5 while also making its debut on the streaming service.

    Read the full story here.

  • How 'Zootopia' Tackled Fear Mongering

    Courtesy of Disney

    Walt Disney Animation Studios began work on Oscar contender Zootopia five years ago, but in a recent conversation with The Hollywood Reporter, directors Byron Howard and Rich Moore and producer Clark Spencer admitted that they never dreamed that it would emerge as one of the year’s most socially relevant films.

    Zootopia — which topped $1 billion at the global box office and is now targeting the Oscars — follows aspiring police officer Judy Hopps (voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin) and is set in a fun, colorful metropolis where a melting pot of animals co-exist in harmony. But beneath this happy exterior, the film’s antagonist cunningly uses fear to turn prey and predators against one another, in order to ascend to a position of power. With this story, the filmmakers aimed to create a highly entertaining and moving contemporary film that also tackles the issues of discrimination, bias and fear mongering.

    “I think one of the reasons the film has resonated so deeply around the world [is that] everybody found their lens into the movie,” said Spencer. “It wasn’t all the same. It’s a huge political year here in the U.S., in Europe they have the refugees coming in, and in Asia there are other [issues].”

    Read the full story here.

  • How the 'The Red Turtle' Became an Animated Feature Contender

    Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival

    The Red Turtle got a boost in the awards race when the nominations for the Annie Awards for animation were announced.

    The mostly hand-drawn indie animated film, which contains no dialog, earned five nominations in the feature categories. To put that in context, only Disney's Zootopia, Laika's Kubo and the Two Strings and Disney's Moana earned more. The Red Turtle was nominated in the categories for best animated independent feature, as well as best direction, writing, animated effects and music.

    In the directing category, The Red Turtle's writer-director Micahel Dudok de Wit is nominated alongside the directors of Zootopia and Kubo and the Two Strings, along with indies My Life as a Zucchini and Your Name. In writing, The Red Turtle joins a field that also includes Zootopia, Kubo and Zucchini.

    Read the full story here