In a year of such diverse achievement in animation, it seems a particular shame that only three films will compete for best animated picture at the Oscars. The Hollywood Reporter gathered six contenders vying for those coveted nominations — Bonnie Arnold (producer, How to Train Your Dragon), Roy Conli (producer, Tangled), Bob Last (producer, The Illusionist), Tom McGrath (director, Megamind), Chris Meledandri (producer, Despicable Me) and Lee Unkrich (director, Toy Story 3) — for THR‘s first-ever animation roundtable Nov. 12 at Siren Studios in Hollywood.
The Hollywood Reporter: No animated film has won the best picture Oscar. Is that fair?
Chris Meledandri: The very fact that there is a category for best animated film is a way for the Academy not to think of an animated film for best picture. There is an unstated contradiction in people’s minds. Obviously, when Toy Story got that nod for screenplay, that was really startling for everybody because the Academy just wasn’t used to it.
Lee Unkrich: Hopefully, if people go to see a movie and are profoundly affected by it — wildly entertained, moved — they can put all of that aside. They can just recognize that this is cinema.
Bonnie Arnold: Maybe this year it’ll change.
THR: What is the biggest challenge facing animation today?
Arnold: It’s continuing to tell good stories that appeal to a broad audience. That’s actually harder sometimes than doing a niche film, when you know exactly who your audience is and you know the age range.
Meledandri: No matter what happens with technology or whether you’re in traditional animation or stop-motion or CG, the biggest challenge always is story. The flow of making the movie is usually determined by how your story is coming together, and when your story is straining and you can’t quite get your hands around it, your entire production is straining.
Unkrich: Hasn’t that been the case for thousands of years? People like to talk about the technology because it can be sexy, but at the end of the day, it doesn’t help you to tell a good story.
Bob Last: In Europe, we have a slightly different perspective. The biggest challenge is, without a doubt, money.
THR: Some of Bob’s films, like The Triplets of Belleville, seem more adult-oriented. There are graphic novel adaptations, but why hasn’t animation caught on as a purely adult medium?
Tom McGrath: It is categorized as a babysitter, of sorts, for kids. When your movie goes out on DVD, it’s categorized in the toy market.
Roy Conli: In Europe, it’s much more open to an adult medium.
Unkrich: Europe and Asia, for that matter. I’ve thought a lot about why that is because we get that a lot. People say, “You’re making movies for kids,” and I’m quick to say, “No, we are trying to make movies for everybody.” I think a big part of it was television in the late ’60s and ’70s. A lot of things, like the Warner Bros. cartoons, were really made for everybody. They were made for adults; they were made to be on the front of feature films. Then they started showing up on TV, and for my generation, we grew up on animation on television. Over the decades, it became seen as something that is just for kids, which is unfortunate.
Meledandri: One thing that we have to take into consideration is that there has been primetime animation on television that is clearly pulling in older audiences, whether it’s The Simpsons or Family Guy. I think it has a lot more to do with who it is that’s making animated films right now in this country. I don’t think that any of us approach this from a point of view that we’re making movies for children — we’re making movies that we are going to enjoy. If Lee decided that he was going to make a film that was going to skew more adult, that film would find its audience.
THR: Lee, is there an adult-oriented project you’ve dreamed of making but you know, realistically, you can’t?
Unkrich: It’s not that I realistically can’t make it; it’s whether it would be made at Pixar. At Pixar, our goal, very much like DreamWorks, is to try to make films that appeal to everybody. And, as Bonnie mentioned, that’s the hardest thing to do. There’s no doubt that we could make any kind of targeted, more adult-oriented film, and we could probably make a really good film.
THR: So what’s a project you’d like to make?
Unkrich: There’s a lot out there, and it’s true that I have narrowed the focus of the kinds of things I’ve thought about making because of the studio that I’m at. But I’m also very happy at that studio, and ultimately it’s most rewarding for me to go out into the world knowing that so many people have seen the film and loved it, from little kids to their grandparents. I’ll probably do things later in my career that are not for kids.
McGrath: You could say Avataris an adult animated film — it really is. The lines are blurring now on what makes an animated film. There was a time when all studios wanted to do was make live-action versions of animated cartoons. Now animation is sneaking in through the back door. Avataris one of the most successful films of all time. It’s not considered animation, but it really is. As much as the actors did perform in it, there were animators keyframing it.
THR: Bonnie, I was stunned that Roger Deakins was the cinematographer on How to Train Your Dragon. How did that come about?
Arnold: We were looking for someone to sort of help us create this world, which in How to Train Your Dragon‘s instance was a North Sea kind of world. The directors were looking for something different in terms of the look, and the movies we kept referencing happened to be on Roger’s list of movies that he had lit (including No Country for Old Men and Fargo). We also knew that he had done some consulting on WALL-E.
Unkrich: I know, from the little work we did with Roger on WALL-E and what he did with you — I think a lot of other filmmakers look at what we’re doing, and it’s a big mystery to them. They don’t know how we make the movies, but the moment you give someone like Roger a glimpse behind the scenes, they see that what we’re doing is really very close to what they’re doing in a lot of ways. When I came to Pixar way back when on the first Toy Story, which Bonnie produced, I didn’t come from an animation background; I was an editor, and what attracted me immediately was that what they were doing was so close to what I knew in the live-action world, just purely from a creative perspective. From the lens choice to cutting and staging — it was very much like we were making a virtual live-action film.
Arnold: When we did Toy Story, there was no movie that had ever been cut on [digital nonlinear editing technology] Avid. I kept saying to Pixar: “Why are we trying to do this, too? Aren’t we trying to do enough new stuff?” They insisted that if we were going to be making this film digitally, we needed to cut it digitally, and Lee had experience cutting digitally with commercials and stuff. Literally, that’s how we found Lee — again, because we were trying to do everything new and different.
THR: Is there a tough compromise you had to make on your films?
McGrath:You do have to juggle a little bit. There’s a scene in Megamind where rain was really important, and to do that I had to lose dust from some other scene. Everything has a price tag on it.
Meledandri: Our budget for Despicable Mewas $69 million. Even at Fox, with the Ice Age movies and Dr. Seuss movies, we were still relatively in that same range in between where Bob is (around $20 million) and where DreamWorks and Pixar is. But for us, every day is a process of compromise because the filmmakers are living within limitations that are unavoidable in order to hit those kinds of numbers. I never had the opportunity to work with budgets as luxurious as some of the others have, but I always assumed that even when you’re in a more luxurious budget that you’re still operating …
Arnold: There’s a box you have to live with. Time is always a big thing. There’s a release date. John Lasseter always said, “Movies are never finished, they’re just released.”
Unkrich: But these are good things. No matter what your budget is, you have to have some limitations because it gives rise to great and better creativity.
THR: Chris, you made Despicable Me in France. Why?
Meledandri: We animated the movie in France. Part of the premise I had in starting this new company (Illumination) was that we would not build a bricks-and-mortar studio. I knew where to find storyboard artists; I knew where to find Carter Goodrich, our character designer. I knew where to find modelers, but the one piece I hadn’t addressed was, “Where am I going to find 45 animators who are going to actually act this movie and breathe the life into these characters?” I knew that in California and in the United States, being a new company, there was no way I was going to be able to compete with these established companies. Why would 45 people in the United States leave these tremendous companies to work on this film? So I deferred that for as long as I possibly could, and then I realized I needed to start thinking about who’s going to actually animate this movie. Fortunately, through Janet Healy, who I brought aboard as my fellow producer, I had met these guys in France at a small company called McGuff. Once Janet went in, looked at the whole operation and came back and said, “I think we can construct around what they have,” I had solved that problem I conveniently deferred.
THR: So it wasn’t the budget? You shot there because that’s where the talent was?
Meledandri: Yes. There are some savings in France, but you don’t go to France to save money. It’s a great talent place.
Last: When we were setting up The Illusionist, it was perceived as a film coming out of Europe, but we looked at making it anywhere. Going back to that earlier question, the performing talent, which in this case were animators, is in fact probably the biggest challenge, after having a story that’s worth telling. There was no single place that we could find where we could have gotten enough performance animators.
THR: Roy, you actually spent time in Paris for Disney. Why did they send you there?
Conli: This is back in the heyday of the hand-drawn craze. (Laughs.) Trust me, it was a craze. We had done Aladdin, we had done Beauty and the Beast and Lion King was just about to come out, and Disney wanted to start doing one film a year. In order to do that, you needed a talent base that was actually able to sustain that quality. It just so happens that we found a studio just outside of Paris in a little town, Maltoy, where the Brixee brothers — who were two phenomenal storyboard artists and directors in their own right — had developed this amazing studio. So I pulled the cherry card, and I got to go over and ran it for three years, with Hunchback of Notre Dame as the first film coming out of there. And Tarzan — Bonnie was doing Tarzan. I ended up staying there three years. Why leave Paris?
THR: You all know one another. Are there rivalries?
Arnold: There are healthy rivalries. It’s like being on a baseball team or football team. Lee and I worked together on Toy Story. Roy and I worked on Tarzan. I know Chris.
THR: How much has the emergence of the DreamWorks-Pixar rivalry changed the business? Clearly, it put a premium on talent.
Arnold: I think that is on some sort of higher level than what we are working with. Yes, it was a financial issue, but to me it gave the people that work in the business another place to go and work on movies they like to work on.
Conli: That’s what’s great about animation: It’s collegial, and it’s all about collaboration. Any good animated film is good for animation.
Unkrich: I used to say that the biggest curse of working at Pixar is I didn’t get to enjoy the new Pixar film. (Laughs.) And it was great when DreamWorks and other companies started doing CG animation because I could finally go out and watch a film that I had absolutely nothing to do with and enjoy it.
Arnold: We always screen the new Pixar films at our studio, and people enjoy it and have fun.
THR: How involved is Steve Jobs in Pixar these days?
Unkrich: Steve is not really anymore. When he sold Pixar, he’s no longer officially part of Pixar, but because Pixar was purchased for so much money, that made Steve the single largest individual shareholder of Disney. He’s on the board of directors at Disney, and he’s still involved at a very high level with what we are up to. They have regular meetings, and it’s always nice having Steve there. We loved having Steve at the studio, and I actually miss him.
Unkrich: It’s Steve. He’s brilliant. He’s a visionary. He has a way of walking into the room and just kind of cutting away at a lot of garbage and focusing on the one thing that needs to be focused on. It was really nice having that clarity. We have to work a little harder to try and get there now.
THR: Where outside the U.S. is the best work being done?
Meledandri: I don’t think it’s relegated to one country. We’ve talked a lot about what is happening in France. There is wonderful stop-motion work being done in England.
Conli: Czech Republic has amazing artists right now –in the short format because from an economic standpoint, to do stop-motion on a large scale is amazingly expensive.
THR: At our Producers Roundtable, everyone said that in 30 years this will be regarded as the great era of animation.
Meledandri: It is, unquestionably. Ten years ago, when we made the first Ice Age, I think there were two CG movies that came out in that year. This year, maybe there are 14 or 15. The marketplace just keeps expanding for these movies. Going back to your question about competition, there’s room in the marketplace for all these movies because as long as these movies are really good and satisfying to the audience, it expands. The perception that one company’s success was going to mean that another company was suffering — that’s been dispelled.
McGrath: I came from the ’80s, when there was no work, and then Who Framed Roger Rabbit kind of changed everything. Then Pixar just exploded the medium, and my hat’s off to those guys. For me, the rivalry is ridiculous. I went to school with [WALL-E director] Andy Stanton; I went to school with [Up director] Pete Docter and [Toy Story art director] Ralph Eggleston. These are all my friends. … People try to pit us against each other, [but] I love seeing Andy’s movies or Pete’s movies.
THR: Film puts the American culture stamp on the world. Is that going to change if animators from other countries influence your work?
Arnold: I think that’s already happened.
Meledandri: In our movie, we have an idea from a Spaniard. One director is American; one director is French. We have two composers: One of them is Brazilian, and one of them is American.
Arnold: I don’t think you can take away the effect of Walt Disney and what that core thing had on generations of artists.
Last: It still defines animation. I would have to agree that this is kind of a Golden Age. I got a call from China a few weeks back, and they have been looking at Kung Fu Panda and saying, “Kung Fu Panda is a Chinese story; why aren’t we doing it?” So I think you are going to see more ambitious attempts coming from the East to address the global market with their stories. In a way, the recent animation work, unlike other Hollywood movies, feels more global.
THR: Has Pixar changed Disney more, or vice versa?
Unkrich: Pixar has definitely changed Disney more, mostly because John Lasseter and Ed Catmull are now running feature animation. They took a lot of what was working for us up at Pixar and tried to bring that collaborative spirit down to Disney feature animation.
Conli: It’s a complete joy because you now have an executive that’s a filmmaker. Definitely John’s spirit and Ed’s spirit infused the place with a lot of new energy.