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“It’s All Imagination Coming to Life”: Jennifer Lee, Josh Cooley and the Animation Roundtable

Dean DeBlois, Jill Culton and Jinko Gotoh join the conversation on finding the right voice talent, progress on the diversity front and why there’s never been a better time to put an imaginative spin on reality.

Given the realm in which they operate, it stands to reason that animators would have their own unique take on reality. The real world, to the five multihyphenates on THR’s Animation Roundtable, is merely a starting point for a creative process that allows for virtually anything the imagination can conjure. It’s what allows Olaf the snowman to talk (not to mention sing) in Frozen 2, the sequel to Disney’s 2013 blockbuster directed by Jennifer Lee, 48 (with Chris Buck). It’s how a spork comes to life in Disney/Pixar’s Toy Story 4, the latest installment of the beloved franchise, directed by Josh Cooley, 40. Netflix’s Christmas title Klaus — the streamer’s first original animated feature, produced by Jinko Gotoh, 62 — may be based in a real climate (the Arctic), but that’s where any similarity to the real world ends (unless, of course, Santa Claus truly lives and works in a snowy village called Smeerensburg). Similarly, Mount Everest figures prominently in Abominable, the tale of a wayward yeti from director Jill Culton, 51. And animation veteran Dean DeBlois, 49, takes the traditional coming-of-age story to imaginative new heights (literally) with How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World, the second sequel to the 2010 hit about a young Viking, Hiccup, and his devoted dragon. The world of animation was brought to life in a different way on Sept.?26 at the Warwick in Hollywood for a wide-ranging discussion about finding the right voice talent, progress on the diversity front and why there’s never been a better time to put an imaginative spin on reality.

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What character in your stories do each of you most identify with?

JOSH COOLEY We added this new character named Forky, who is a spork that comes to life. We were brainstorming this idea and I went home and pitched it to my wife — I said, “But he doesn’t know the rules of the world.” And she went, “Oh, that’s you. You are trying to figure this out. Your first time directing.” At first I was like, “No, it’s not.” And then I was like, “Oh yeah, I guess so.” It started off kind of as a joke. But then we realized it actually has more to it because he is so innocent and naive that he can just take things as face value. And it actually forced a way to explain what it meant to be a toy.

JINKO GOTOH For me it’s Margu, the little Sami girl. She doesn’t speak a word of English. I came to the U.S. when I was 8 years old. All I spoke was Japanese. So I really connect with Margu because she ends up in Smeerensburg. Same situation.

DEAN DEBLOIS For me it’s always been Hiccup. I think he is a character that, even as he has aged through the three films, is always overcompensating and always trying to assimilate. I spent a lot of time kind of drawing and writing on my own, and kind of hiding aspects of myself from being discovered. I feel like I connect with that character.

JILL CULTON The character I relate to the most in this movie is the main character, Yi. She is a 16-year-old girl who grows up in China. She is more of a tomboy than anything else. And I grew up in Ventura, in a little seaside town where I was a surfer and a skateboarder and put on whatever clothes felt comfortable. And a lot of the movies I grew up on were princess movies and stuff. So I was really impassioned to write a character that was more like myself and to give myself the role model I always wished I had. She is very adventurous, but she kind of leaps before she looks, and sometimes that gets her into trouble, which was again a lot like me growing up.

JENNIFER LEE I am definitely an Anna. They say you are an Anna or an Elsa. Anna feels everything way too much. But in a great way that makes her fully engaged in life. I don’t give up on people easily. For better or worse. Neither does Anna. [And she] sort of acts before she thinks.

I’d like to talk about the casting for some of these films. Dean, how did you come to cast F. Murray Abraham as your villain, Grimmel?

DEBLOIS The casting of F. Murray Abraham was unique. We landed on a design before we really landed on the personality and the function of the character. So it meant that the modelers were able to take a wonderful design and not only sculpt it but also put it in the hands of the supervising animator, Rani Naamani. While he was playing with the rig and just putting him through the tests, he was also listening to all sorts of voices that inspired him. And he came to us with F. Murray Abraham. In fact he had animated a test based on a clip from a television show where Murray is playing this distant uncle. He convinced us that he should be the voice actor for the role. It really helped us when we contacted Murray to say, “Look, we did this animated test. What do you think?” And he was immediately on board. It’s not normally done that way. Usually we have this whole casting process, but thanks to Rani we took the shortcut.

Josh, how did you get Keanu Reeves as Duke Caboom in Toy Story 4?

COOLEY We [initially] didn’t know that Keanu even had a motorcycle company; we didn’t put that together until we met with him. But he came up to Pixar just to meet us and get a pitch of the story and the character. We were having lunch and he is like, “He’s an action figure, right?” He starts doing these poses and going “Huh! Hooh! Huh!” Right there at the table. It was hilarious. I didn’t expect it at all, and he just kept going to the point where he was standing up on the table going, “I am Duke Caboom!” (Laughter.) And it was like, well, he is Duke Caboom. Everybody in the atrium was kind of like, “Is that Keanu Reeves standing up on the table?” But he totally helped craft that character in that very first meeting. I was just going, “Please say yes to this role,” because now I can’t see it any other way. He was a joy to work with. We had a lot of fun yelling and screaming throughout the sessions.

Josh, how did you come to cast Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele as stuffed animals, Ducky and Bunny?

COOLEY I loved the idea of doing carnival toys. I thought that carnival toys kind of have the worst existence out of any of the toys because they are basically bait for children to spend money. So that gives them an edge already. They can be bitter. They can have a viewpoint on the world that’s totally different from any other toy’s. Key and Peele were our first choice. And we would always record them together. Watching them was like watching two people read each other’s minds. One person would say something and it was definitely a setup for, like, three jokes in advance. And they would always bring everything back to the point of the scene. It was like an embarrassment of riches. This movie would be four hours long if we used everything. It was all so great.

CULTON Chloe Bennet was our Yi character. She has kind of a gruff voice for a female — I love that about her. It fits that tomboy attitude. And the really interesting thing about her as well is that she not only grew up kind of a tomboy — she had six brothers — but she is half Shanghainese. She grew up in Shanghai with her grandma. She related to this character so much that, along the way, we got to a really emotional, pivotal scene in the movie and she and I really workshopped together. We recorded the sequence quite a few times, and then I just grabbed the script and threw it away and said, “Just tell the story, you know the story.” And she teared up and fumbled with her words, and I was crying and she was crying. Those are magic moments when those things happen, because the performance is so real and it’s coming from someone who really embodies that character on a deeper level.

GOTOH I love that part of that process when the actors just really get into the character. The same thing happened with Jason Schwartzman and Rashida Jones on Klaus. It was a challenge because we did the film in Madrid. So after the first session where [director Sergio Pablos] was actually here in [Los Angeles] recording with Jason and Rashida, as well as J.K. Simmons, who plays Klaus, everything [after that] was done remotely. [Sergio] would be doing this at night, from about 8 p.m. until midnight [in Madrid].

CULTON I think everyone here is excited to see Klaus just because it’s a 2D film [meaning that its production involved “traditional” animation rather than 3D computer animation] and we all grew up that way.

GOTOH It was a real challenge because when Sergio said, “Let’s go sell this movie,” I said we should be really careful. I said we can’t say “traditional” animation.

COOLEY Really?

GOTOH Because I think, unfortunately, 2D films hadn’t been doing so well over the past 10 years. So I said, “If we are not careful, the minute people find out it’s a traditional animated film, they are going to get scared.” But we had this little test that the studio had done. And it doesn’t look like it’s 2D animation because of the way we light it and the texture. When we went out with the test, people go, “How did you guys do this in CG?” This is when we say, “No, this is traditional.”

LEE It’s so interesting. I hear such the opposite now, in a good way. I think when there was one style of hand-drawn, that’s when you get tired. But the artistry out there is incredible. We are doing a lot of exploration, particularly in shortform, to learn how to combine technologies. I think there is a hunger — maybe not for it to be exactly what it was 20 years ago, when people were fading away from it — but more just to reinvent it for what is it now.

Jennifer, while you were working on Frozen 2, you were promoted to chief creative officer at Disney Animation. Would you talk about what it’s been like to step into that new role?

LEE Sure, it was quite an adventure to jump into the role of CCO, mainly because we were in production on Wreck-It Ralph 2 and on Frozen 2. But the best part for me was I work with an incredible team of directors and a studio that stays together film to film. So we just really hunkered down for the work. It was probably the busiest year-plus of my life. With Frozen 2 wrapped, I am having more and more fun helping on the next film, looking ahead, and we are developing a lot of new talent. I am in the new honeymoon phase, which is where I actually get to do that job.

Are you seeing more diversity and inclusion in animation?

DEBLOIS Yeah. Jinko has been leading the charge, gender parity by 2025 [a Women in Animation awareness campaign]. It’s great. I have noticed in doing talks at schools that the balance within the classrooms has changed. It must be at least 75 percent, if not more, female now. And a great number of Asian students as well.

GOTOH Yeah, we are pretty much close to 50-50 gender parity on Klaus, and it happened by accident. I am very proud about it. We didn’t force it. It became that way. And we are about 260 people on the crew. We represent 22 countries and 15 languages.


COOLEY That’s awesome.

GOTOH It’s pretty international. And I am so proud because I have always wanted animation to become more international, and Klaus does really represent that. The world is changing. Like Dean says, a lot more Asian students study animation. And definitely more girls all around the world study animation.

LEE What we found is, particularly when I came in, the rooms were becoming more and more diverse. But creative leadership wasn’t yet. Things take years. But we all started really talking about the effect it has to have a creative leader. If you are a woman in the room or you are diverse in the room and you see someone represented who is like you, you speak more. You contribute more.

Looking at the talent pool, the talent is there. The ability and the skills are there. So for us what’s been a big thing is to look at the leadership roles being more diverse in terms of skills, in terms of gender, in terms of international diversity and people of color. Because our films are stronger. Our rooms are balanced. We get the stronger storytellers. But also with that leadership, it encourages others. So that’s been a huge effort for us. Just shifting the way we look at that from old traditional models to some new ways. It has not affected quality in a bad way. It has affected it in a fantastic way.

In the case of Frozen 2 and Toy Story 4, both of these films were in the works when John Lasseter parted ways with the studio. How did each of you navigate your stories and production during those periods?

COOLEY The great thing about Pixar is that a lot of the original group is still there, including Joe Ranft and Pete [Docter] and Andrew [Stanton] and Lee [Unkrich], I’d include Jeff Pidgeon in that. Pixar was created on kind of the shoulders of Toy Story. So there was a lot of support all around.

LEE I think in a very similar way, our entire crew from Frozen was back. So for us it was like, we have done this. We can’t guarantee it’s not going to be really hard — they are all hard — but we are in this together as we have always been.

Other changes that took place in the animation landscape this year included John Lasseter joining Skydance Animation. Jinko, you are the vp of Women in Animation, which spoke out against that decision. Would you elaborate on WIA’s stance?

GOTOH Well, we didn’t speak against it. We want to be cognizant and make sure that we have supportive, healthy companies and safe places for people to work. And so I think we were concerned. But again, we want to support all the women and the men at Skydance. I mean, that was a business decision that Skydance made. And we reached out and wanted to make sure that we could support the people there.

Klaus is Netflix’s first original animated feature. What was it like to make this film under the very new umbrella?

GOTOH When we went out to sell the film in 2016 [Netflix’s animation unit wasn’t] in place. We actually sold it to an executive in original features. The executive looked at us and said, “You know, you guys are the experts. Just go make this movie.” Sergio had a small studio in Madrid at the time, and we literally had to build a studio to make this movie. It’s been a bit of a Wild, Wild West kind of situation. But Netflix is so supportive of the creative process, and they have just been a tremendous support in getting this movie done.

Earlier this year, the animation world suffered a tragedy in Japan with the arson attack at Kyoto Animation. Would you reflect on how the community is responding and recovering?

GOTOH When the tragedy happened, I reached out to my friends in Kyoto and my friends in Tokyo, and, surprisingly enough, a lot of them didn’t know. I think this was a situation where we in the industry here in Hollywood knew sooner than they actually knew what was happening. It’s hard for me, being Japanese, and one of the things I have also wanted to do before I retire is to really try to support that industry in Japan. Because the Japanese animation industry, especially the anime industry, is a very poor industry. I mean, it’s a big industry, but the labor laws, the pay scale — it’s not a very good place. I am hoping that this incident will actually change it and make things better. There has been tremendous support from everywhere around the world. I think within the first 24 hours, 30 hours, over a million dollars got raised. So I think there is a lot of support. And hopefully we will see the industry change in Japan.

The Hidden World and Abominable were going forward when Comcast acquired DreamWorks Animation and Jeffrey Katzenberg was moving on. Dean and Jill, could you talk about how you navigated your projects during the change at the studio?

DEBLOIS The leadership changed five times during the making of the movie. And with every new leadership change comes a new sensibility that you need to incorporate, and you can find yourself making changes, and sometimes for the better. Sometimes you have your arguments. When Comcast came into the mix, they appointed Universal as our point people, namely Donna Langley up top. I found myself to be nervous going in, but very reassured coming out of her office. She grew up with the movie Born Free. And that was one of the tonal targets for How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World. So I felt as though she was a support from the start. I think once we set our minds on the movie we were making, we just kind of relied upon one another on the day-to-day making of the movie. I really trust my creative team. Everybody kind of reigns dominion over their individual departments. They trust me with a lot of the storytelling. And we try to keep ourselves to task of not repeating ourselves. Trying to deliver something that is daring and filled with wonder. So we didn’t really have to look too far beyond ourselves for that guidance. We just had our own mission. The studio and the changes of leadership, they all allowed us to continue down that path.

CULTON I had a little bit of a similar situation that Dean did. Every time there is new leadership, I think they have a certain idea about what the film could be. I also had a little bit of a different situation, where my film Abominable is a co-production with Pearl Studio in China. So we had that voice and then the kind of changing voices coming through NBCUniversal. But I have to say, I felt very encouraged and very supported when Universal came in. They didn’t want to knock the pins completely down, which they could have. They loved the story that we were already telling. And so they got on board with it. And I have to say [DreamWorks Animation president] Margie Cohn and [chief creative officer of film] Kristin Lowe have been incredibly smart women to work with. Kristin has worked with Donna for so many years as her kind of second in command, and she had come to all our screenings previously. So I felt really great with her taking over as the head of features. She is so smart.

With the release of Jon Favreau’s The Lion King, there has been a lot of discussion about what defines an animated feature. Do you consider Lion King to be an animated movie?

LEE No, I think it’s about intent. I mean, we don’t create animation to make realistic worlds. We want believable worlds, worlds that transport you. There is always a style to what we do that takes you beyond the realism of our lives. And the goal of Lion King, I mean it’s from an animated film and there is no question of the difference. I think it’s the intent — wanting to enjoy creating a sense of realism out of real animals. And emoting them in a way that is again going toward realism. But I am madly in love with animation, and there is no expression like the animated expression. And it’s hard to do. Every single thing in our worlds is created from nothing. It’s all imagination coming to life. That’s what makes animation animation. I don’t think they cross at all.

COOLEY I kind of agree. I mean, if you look at Endgame — how much CG is in that? It’s a ton. So is that animated? I don’t know. I don’t consider it to be. Over the years, animation and live action are getting closer and closer. And now it’s completely crossed over with Lion King and Jungle Book, and all those films. I don’t think we should have to categorize it. But I think you are right. I think it’s the intent of it. And yeah, that [Lion King] was obviously going for “This is real.”

DEBLOIS Well, you can see the limitation in the very overt decision to pursue realism. Naturalism inhibits their ability to lend caricature to the characters. That’s the great power of animation — you can caricature emotion. You can caricature expression and movement in ways that make it more real than some of their live-action counterparts. I think if you lean too heavily into the realism, you find yourself bound by those constraints. You know, the mouth doesn’t open that way. The eyes don’t express in that way. And so there is a sense of restriction and limitation and it feels a bit stifled. I hold sort of another opinion about the whole remake fascination. Because I think studios with that reach and that power and that kind of funding, it feels like a missed opportunity to go back and kind of just remake.

LEE I try to be flattered. (Laughter.) They love the story so much. That’s how — I mean, I am in the same company that does it a lot. But I think I made peace with it that way. It’s the strength of the storytelling, the inspiration of animation that [makes] people love the stories and want to see them told in a different way. But the clarity is: It’s a different way. The artistry of animation is still a part of everything we do. They have completely different goals, in my opinion.

COOLEY I actually think that the look of those movies is going to start heading back toward the stylized looks. We get so close to realism, and then where do you go? More real. Spider-Verse is a great example of a story that used so many different techniques just to have a different look and to tell a great story. I am actually really excited about that. Because that means you can play even more in that world of imagination and make-believe.

LEE We have an animator who is a director now, who is working on a watercolor style — something so beautiful and so not real life. But you are completely transported.

What emerging talent have you met that has inspired you or that you see breaking new ground in animation?

LEE Pixar and Disney have similar [shorts] programs. Anyone in the building can create these shorts. We give you all the resources. And being able to do that, [we’re] starting to see where people are going. We will pair them with technologists so they can create something we didn’t have existing before.

GOTOH What’s really changed the playing field is that there are so many tools. Twenty years ago, 10 years ago, you needed a whole studio tech department to write code. But today, you know, you can get it off the shelf.

CULTON There is also MoonRay — Dean and I both got to use that. That is a proprietary software at DreamWorks that they developed to do renders that really give you way more detail for less weight, quote-unquote, on the computer. And it’s amazing what that technology did for just detail, and a lush look. My film has a lot of nature in it and furry characters that would not look that way had we not kept developing software in-house. So it’s new styles that are emerging, but it’s also kind of building on the software that you already have to keep it moving forward.

DEBLOIS Yeah, [MoonRay] was a big, big upgrade to our backend system. Because it was a bottleneck. This opened up the backend and gave us really amazing results, and really fast.

LEE I think you have brought up something that is our next challenge — particularly, as we get into direct-to-consumer — is price points. Because animation is decadently, beautifully expensive as well. To render the last sequence we rendered in Frozen 2, I can’t even tell you the hundreds of computers it took just to do three seconds of some of the layers. The more efficient you can be in technology — but without limits — that’s ideal.

GOTOH There is going to be the ability for so much content to be produced. If you get the right artist behind it, they can really exploit that technology. And they will take it to a place where they are going to be doing these longform shows at a fraction of the cost of these big studio films.

CULTON There is kind of room for everyone now. Which is an exciting Wild West frontier. But, as you said, we still have to keep working on the technology. And then the streaming platforms are just opening up for all different kinds of storytelling. It’s opening up for diversity on so many levels.

LEE I think we underestimate the audience for animation. We make the assumption that it’s kids. What we all know with streaming is the biggest thing being watched is animation.

GOTOH I think for a while, especially with these big tentpole films, we got kind of pigeonholed to be a genre rather than a medium. But now I think because of the fact that we have these platforms, we can truly become a medium where we can tell different types of stories and not be pigeonholed to just family entertainment.

DEBLOIS What’s really interesting is that this moment has intersected with what feels like the ability within animation technologically to produce anything you can imagine. There are no longer limitations. It’s an interesting spot to be in.

COOLEY At the very beginning of Toy Story 4, I knew the antiques store was a location I wanted to do. And they went, “We are not sure if we can make an antiques store.” Because there’s 10,000 items inside the store that would have to be shaded and lit and rendered and everything. And so we did some tests early on, with our new renderer. They were like, “Oh yeah, we can do it now.” I’m going, “Great, thank you. Thanks for letting me freak out for a month.”

Interview edited for length and clarity.

This story first appeared in a December stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.