Greta Thunberg, Jon Batiste and a schoolgirl in China were some of the inspirations behind the protagonists in this year’s crop of animated features. These were just a few of the secrets shared at The Hollywood Reporter‘s Dec. 15 Animation Roundtable by Pete Docter, director of Disney/Pixar’s Soul; Glen Keane, director of Netflix’s Over the Moon; Tomm Moore, co-director of Wolfwalkers from Cartoon Saloon, Apple TV+ and GKIDS; Kori Rae, producer of Disney/Pixar’s Onward; Gitanjali Rao, director of Netflix’s Bombay Rose; and Mark Swift, producer of DreamWorks Animation and Universal’s The Croods: A New Age. Speaking of this unprecedented year, the animation pros also addressed diversity efforts and the impact of COVID-19 on the industry. As Docter puts it: “We made this movie to be seen on a big screen.”
Glen, en route to becoming a Disney legend, you designed Ariel in The Little Mermaid and were supervising animator on title characters in Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin. What makes a great animated character?
GLEN KEANE I think the best characters are characters that you can relate to. You see in them something of yourself, and those are the ones that audiences connect with. Even though these characters are imaginary, I have this strange belief that when you are designing an animated character, you are designing a character that’s actually existing before you do the work on it. They reveal themselves to you. Our characters, we want them to touch the audience, to break that wall [so] that they are not on the screen — they are in your life.
Would each of you talk about the protagonist in your movie?
KORI RAE [Onward was inspired by] a true story of director Dan Scanlon. It’s not necessarily Dan, but a lot of Ian’s traits — the shy, awkward teenager — did kind of come from him. It was tricky to find [an actor] who had the great acting chops we needed as well as that innocence and charm. As soon as we got Tom Holland, the character really took off, and he was able to bring so much to the character.
MARK SWIFT The Bettermans [another family that the Croods encounter] live in isolation in a tree house and they don’t come across anyone else, and so we started to think, “What would that mean if you lived in isolation?” When we got the original script, there was a love triangle going on between Dawn [Betterman] and Eep [Crood, and a third character, Guy]. We questioned, “If you were the only girl in the world and then suddenly you met another girl, what would your reaction be?” Would it be one of, “Oh, I think I’m going to be jealous,” or would it be one of an excitement at finding a friend and having friendship? So we went in [the latter] direction with them, which we felt was a more positive outlook for that family.
TOMM MOORE [In Wolfwalkers,] Robyn was originally a boy, and that wasn’t working. Why would he be stopped from being a hunter? We hit on the point after the first draft that it needed to be a little girl. Just for fun, I drew my wife as a child, and it clicked. I could imagine my wife as a fierce and determined young woman going against the grain of what society was telling her she could or couldn’t do. Before that, I didn’t really know who Robyn was. And then I knew, and I thought about a young Jane Goodall or even Greta Thunberg and these kind of determined young women.
GITANJALI RAO [Bombay Rose protagonist] Kamala was somebody I had seen, not as an individual, but a lot of women that I would see when I traveled in local trains in Bombay. There would be these young girls selling trinkets and flower garlands. The [love interest] was always that other boy I would see when I would be stuck in the traffic jam. I realized as I was making the film that the boy and his vulnerability … was actually something that the audiences related to much more than the girl, who was very sure of herself and who knew right from wrong. And I had people at the end of the film asking me questions like, “Did your hero have to die?” Because he dies at the end of the film and the love is unrequited.
RAO But it’s like a Romeo and Juliet, right? You have to die for a film to be an epic love story. But then I realized that although she’s a protagonist, what I have managed to achieve is a look at this boy from her point of view, a young vulnerable male from a female point of view. So there is a scene in which he is taking a bath by the sea and he takes off his shirt, and the producer, when she saw the film, said, “Oh, he’s so sexy!” And I said, “I never thought of it like that,” but yes, he was. And then we pushed it, because you never see the man as a sexy being in an animated film. So I said, “OK, let me try this.” It worked to the point that when he died, people were very sad because he was a sexy young man who died. I think somewhere the characters clicked with the audience, just by being honest to them.
For Bombay Rose, you wrote, directed, designed and edited the film. How unusual is it in India to take on all those roles?
RAO In India we don’t have any kind of financing for animation, so if I wanted to make a film, which I wanted to do back in the 1990s, the only way I could do it was if I animated it myself, which is how I was making my short films. Then when I made a feature film, I did find the financing and work with the studio, but by then my style had become so personal, I could do all those roles and have a team assisting me with it.
We’re making 900 live-action films in a year in this country, and maybe four or five of them are animation, which is 0.05 percent. I found a French co-production, which is when my country decided, “Oh, it must be good if the French are interested.” That’s where I got the Indian finance and managed to make the film.
Glen, how did you find inspiration for Over the Moon?
KEANE [To make this film], it was very important to go to China. We visited a school, and there’s this one little girl sitting in the front row of this classroom, and I had my sketchbook. I’m always just drawing, and when I looked at her, I was like, “That’s [protagonist] Fei Fei,” and I did this little sketch. It was that little girl and it was the voice of [actor] Cathy Ang, who really inspired so much of the inside of the character coming out, and it was [writer] Audrey Wells’ beautiful description of this girl who faces a crisis in her life. But what I really connected with was how smart this girl was. She knows math, science, physics and technology on one side, and she’s a lot like her dad, and then on the other side her mom fills her with these stories of imagination and she sees what no one else can see and believes what others don’t believe. I really connected with this character and wanted to animate from the inside out as I was taught: Don’t animate what the character is doing, animate what the character is thinking and feeling.
PETE DOCTER When we decided to make our main character [in Soul], Joe Gardner, a jazz musician, one of our consultants said that you could more accurately call jazz Black improvisational music. It was really a contribution from the African American community, and so we thought, “Well, the right thing to do here is to make this character Black.” We didn’t set out to make the first African American character in a Pixar film; we got into it by way of some of these other decisions. But then I quickly realized, “I am way over my head, I don’t know enough about what it is to grow up Black in Queens as a jazz musician,” so we really needed a lot of help. [Co-writer and co-director] Kemp Powers was the first guy to come on. And Jon Batiste. As much as Jamie Foxx is the voice of Joe, Jon is the hands and kind of soul of Joe. In fact, there are a couple of lines in the script where he’s talking to his class about a formative experience as a kid of going to a jazz club. It’s that fall-in-love moment, when you first saw what sets you on this trajectory for the rest of your life. I ended up talking to Jon Batiste and said, “Tell me about what is a formative moment that you remember of going to see a musician.” And he just talked and I wrote it all down, and that’s kind of what is in the script.
There still hasn’t been much diversity in feature animation, particularly in the leadership roles of directing and producing.
DOCTER I remember Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston [two of Disney’s Nine Old Men, core animators of iconic characters who began working at the studio during the 1930s] saying it takes about 12 years to start to learn to do good animation, and from there you start to grow. It’s a slow learning process, so you can’t just grab somebody from square one and throw them in the deep end. We’ve been definitely conscious at Pixar. For the last five to six years, it’s been a very concerted effort.
MOORE Here in [Ireland’s] Cartoon Saloon and Lighthouse Studios, in terms of gender, we found ourselves at 60 percent female and 1 percent who prefer not to conform to a certain gender, and then everyone else was male, which is amazing to me. When we started the studio, [co-founder Nora Twomey] was the only woman in the studio for a while. Now most of the leadership on her new feature [the upcoming My Father’s Dragon] is female.
In terms of other kinds of diversity, I think there’s further to go, [including that] there should be more older people and more disabled people able to make a living in animation.
SWIFT For DreamWorks and Universal, like all the major studios, it’s a huge focus, and I think it’s the right thing to do, to try to increase diversity. But the other thing is, it’s a business decision as well, because the world is very diverse and you want storytellers who come from that background to be able to tell those stories — because then you get movies that represent and that do great business. So it’s the right thing to do, but it’s also a smart thing to do. It’s a huge focus here at DreamWorks.
Do you see shorts programs having impact in this area?
DOCTER Yeah, that’s for sure for us. SparkShorts has been really beneficial in giving voice to people who wouldn’t normally have a chance, and in particular because the stakes are lower, you know. It’s not the huge budgets [of] feature films.
MOORE That’s something that we focused on. And a lot of the younger talent, they’re bringing different perspectives in the shorts, and it’s a great place for them to get the confidence to pitch feature and series ideas.
Artist members of the LGBT community and other diverse backgrounds are able to come up through shorts much quicker.
Glen, would you talk about your experience on the short Dear Basketball?
KEANE The wonderful thing to me about animation is that it opens you to all sorts of paths. That’s what Dear Basketball was for me. With Kobe [Bryant] inviting me into the NBA, it was interesting. Our first conversation, we were trying to find our common ground, as I told him: “You’ve got the worst basketball player on earth animating you.” As we talked, we realized that our common ground was Beethoven. I had animated Beast’s transformation [in Beauty and the Beast] to Beethoven’s Ninth. I found that Beethoven really spoke to me as an artist, to the emotions and the human experience, and Kobe’s eyes lit up and he said, “What, I played the sixth game of the championship from 2009 against the Nuggets to Beethoven’s Fifth!” If you look at him walking onto the court, he’s got the headphones on, listening to Beethoven’s Fifth as he’s about to go out there.
The Croods: A New Age was the first studio animated feature to open in theaters amid the pandemic. How has that fared?
SWIFT In certain parts of the country, they have felt it’s safe and OK, and obviously drive-ins have been going. I’m pleased that some people are going to experience it that way. I’m also happy that we’re releasing it on demand so that families around America and hopefully the world will be able to access it in whatever way they can. Because right now, I think, we all just want people to be able to have a couple of hours of happiness and fun time as a family. Experiencing a movie is a great way to do that.
Soul‘s theatrical release moved to Disney+. Pete, would you discuss that strategy?
DOCTER The studio [was] analyzing where we are every week, how many theaters are open, and whatnot. We were initially supposed to come out June 19, and it moved to November. It was eventually just a decision made by the studio to release on streaming because of the market just not being there, with not enough people going.
Disney+ is a great way for people to see it around the world. I will echo Mark’s sentiments of “Hey, we made this movie to be seen on a big screen.” It’s somewhat tragic to think this is our first of 23 features that we’ve done that won’t debut that way. I hope someday we’ll have some sort of release so that people can see the amazing work that everyone did, because there’s some really stellar visuals. All I will say is, Please, please don’t watch it on your iPhone. At least a 12-inch. At least.
KEANE I really echo what you’ve just said. It’s kind of like this year is this amazing art museum, where all these incredible paintings have been hidden. There could be a time, when this pandemic is over, when theaters embrace all the creative work that’s been done and celebrate with huge releases around the world.
RAE I’m one of the lucky ones. [Onward] got, I think, eight days in the theaters before everything shut down. But I totally agree with Glen that it would just feel so great to get it on the big screen, even just a little longer.
DOCTER I think I fell in love with animation in the theater, but I sucked it into my soul in home video, and I think a lot of kids are the same way, that you watch these things over and over. All the animators that are coming in now are so mind-blowingly good because they had access to this. Whenever they wanted, they could just look up Bugs Bunny. I think that access has given a depth to the craft that we didn’t have in previous generations.
How is everyone feeling about the future of theatrical exhibition?
MOORE I was talking to a friend about this the other day. [Theaters are] open here in Ireland, and Wolfwalkers is playing in a cinema that we both went to the last time she was here. It is a gorgeous cinema because it’s old-fashioned, I guess 1950s. They just decided to do it up and make it this event place with really nice food and drinks. You go in and sit on these big cozy seats and there’s a little blanket and stuff if you want it, and it’s just an experience. It’s really a nice night out, like going to a good play or something like that. I’d like that to be the future. I’d love if it cinema became something that was really celebrated.
DOCTER When you look back in history after the 1918 pandemic, there was a big resurgence of film, and I think a lot of it really catered to, “This is an experience, you don’t get this anywhere else.” Hopefully, that could happen again.
RAO [In India,] we are one of the biggest film-watching-in-theaters publics in the world, but the pandemic has changed a lot of things. And especially where I come from, in a big city, there are multiplexes and they’re very expensive, so they have opened, but nobody’s going back to them. It is so much cheaper to be sitting at home, four or five people in the family watching the films and not having to pay for your parking, the shopping mall, the food that you eat, because we are a culture which has these three-hour-long films with an interval in between where we go and get our popcorn and coffee and come back.
I don’t think it’s going to be as easy for us to come back with the theaters as it is going to be for, let’s say, Europe, because of the culture.
The first show in the cinemas would start at 4:50 a.m., when the factory night shift ends and they want to keep awake and watch a film. For us, the close of the cinemas has been extremely huge, but also it’s been one of the strangest lockdowns ever, so people have forgotten entertainment completely. So it’s going to be a little more tragic in third-world countries.
For those of you who had to finish your movies during the pandemic, what’s been most difficult about shifting to remote working?
DOCTER We still had the last seven weeks of production. We did most of it all together, but then the last seven weeks were when we were told to evacuate, and miraculously the systems group at work came up with an idea to send people home with these small boxes called the Teradici, which, as I understand it, [offer] remote control. So you have all the power of your computer, which lives over there at work, and I just have this portable box. We were able to finish animation, effects, lighting and one or two other things, all remotely and pretty efficiently.
SWIFT We were about 50 percent finished when the pandemic happened, and within a few days we were back up running dailies sessions, with everyone joining in via Zoom-type meetings. I think probably the biggest challenge is the color on a big screen, because your monitors don’t exactly represent what it will be on the big screen, so we had a couple of people who were allowed to come into work and view it on a big screen.
All of us were on the tail end of finishing our movies. I think it’s a little bit of a different experience for the people who were starting up movies. [Sharing ideas] is not quite as organic in a Zoom-type meeting.
MOORE Yeah, I was going to say exactly what Mark was saying. [There’s a kind of interaction] that happens in the workshop of being all together in the room, where you see what people are good at and you keep an eye out and say, “Oh, they’ll be good for this department later.” The kind of thing you’re going to miss out on as long as this continues. [For example,] Sandra Anderson, who’s in charge of all our model sheets, she’s really, really talented. When she was an intern, I was just walking past her desk and I said, ‘”Did you draw that? You draw the characters really good.” And she ended up fast-tracking to being a model sheet person and then a supervisor.
KEANE I think that in order for this kind of production to take place, Zoom has to really grow and there has to be a whole other set of, I don’t know, accessibility and ease of people working together. I don’t want to say that it can’t happen. It just needs to grow from what this is right now.
For those of you who had to record your voice talent, how did that work?
MOORE We had a song [sung by Aurora] and we had recorded the orchestra and wanted to have the session with her with the Irish traditional musicians. It was literally the week of lockdown that she was scheduled to come over and record it. So we had to do it over Zoom, and I mean, it worked really well! She’s amazing, and she had the whole setup and everything she needed. So I can’t really say it didn’t work out, but I didn’t get to meet a pop star, because I wanted to meet her. (Laughs.)
DOCTER We have such an international cast that we ended up recording most of our stuff [remotely] even though we didn’t have to at that time. It seems like the process favors certain actors. Like Tom Hanks is a guy you can see as he’s reading it, the whole movie is taking place in his head. Other actors are much more reactive, they need someone else to read against. So I think this particular system that we’re in now where we’re recording people in their closets really favors people with very active imaginations, who can create that whole reality for themselves. We were lucky that most of our cast was able to do that quite well.
SWIFT We were still doing pickups. There were seven or eight lines for everyone, so every one of our cast — Peter Dinklage, Nic Cage, Ryan Reynolds — had to record in their house, in a room that worked the best. And yeah, it was a challenge for some, but others, they were easy and fantastic at it. It really showed which of the actors had some kind of IT chops. We were sending them microphones and recording devices, and some people recorded from the closet, in the kitchen. We could hear everything and we had to rerecord and rerecord to be able to get the quality we needed. But it was fun in a way.
Pete, you mentioned that you had to record talent who was in New Zealand. When this period is over, do you see a scenario where some of these remote tools will continue to be used in order to reduce travel, or were there other advantages you found?
DOCTER Yeah, most likely. I mean, it is surprising, you know, we used to fly ourselves everywhere for certain meetings and you’d say, “Well, could you do it remotely?” And it just didn’t seem possible. Now, of course, we have to, and so it’s surprising how often it does work. That said, I still think we’re drafting off the coattails of years of working together, you know, at Pixar, and so we have these productions [in the works], like Tomm was saying. The next film up for us is called Luca. It’s directed by Enrico Casarosa. They started and will complete animation entirely from home, and it’s only possible because all these animators have come from Soul and from Toy Story 4 and other films working together on this one and that. They shared camaraderie and brain-wave sharing, which happens. I really feel bad for anybody who is starting who’s new and doesn’t have that already, you know, having spent time in the same room.
Have your experiences during this pandemic prompted ideas for new animated stories that we might see in the coming years?
RAE Dan and I have been in development during the whole pandemic. It’s been interesting to come up with original new ideas remotely and via Zoom. There’s aspects of it that have been cool, but, I don’t know, maybe I’m just a dinosaur, but I just miss seeing people in the hallway and talking to them about a specific part of an idea and getting some feedback. There’s some of that nuance that you get in the building that is still lacking.
KEANE What you’re saying, Kori, has inspired me for an idea that I’m developing that is about valuing the things that you took for granted before — the little things, about just bumping into people, you know, in the shopping mall, how your kids can connect with each other, a couple walking dogs being able to stand and talk. It’s the little things that become really, really valuable and important.
MOORE I think that’s really beautiful. On the other side, I did a piece with Greenpeace at the start of all this about deforestation in the Amazon, and I went down such a rabbit hole of how interconnected we all are and how much habitat destruction and species extinction is contributing to pandemic, climate crisis and all those things. So I definitely think that’s a direction we need to focus on as storytellers and keep raising the consciousness around how we ended up in this crazy mess as we’re falling out of balance with the biosphere.
RAO I agree with Tomm: It’s more than the challenge to the negative which propels at a time like this. I have managed to make two short films based on the pandemic and on the political situation in the country, but I was hoping to actually finish the idea for my next feature film during this time. But it’s simply too isolating to be able to think of a film which has hope at the end of it as a theme. So it’s natural for me to take up the time with making an animated film. But to come up with an idea for the next one, I think life needs to be a little more positive, for me personally, to be able to think creatively and constructively — and that it has not been for most of us this year.
This story first appeared in a January stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.