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This article first appeared in the Dec. awards issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
They never receive as much attention as live-action directors, but the seven filmmakers invited to participate in The Hollywood Reporter’s Animation Roundtable have racked up nearly $2?billion (and counting) in worldwide box office in 2011. The filmmakers — Stephen J. Anderson, 41 (Winnie the Pooh); animation supervisor Jamie Beard, 32 (The Adventures of Tintin); John Lasseter, 54 (Cars 2); Chris Miller, 43 (Puss in Boots); Jennifer Yuh Nelson, 39 (Kung Fu Panda 2); Carlos Saldanha, 43 (Rio); and Gore Verbinski, 47 (Rango) — gathered Nov. 3 in the Director’s Lounge at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
THR: What makes a great animation filmmaker?
Chris Miller: A great director of animation has to approach the work with a big sense of collaboration. There are so many people involved — there were 400 artists working on Puss in Boots. You have to keep an open heart and mind at all times because good ideas can come from anywhere. The trick is funneling those ideas into one singular point of view.
Stephen J. Anderson: People ask us all the time, “What does an animation director do?” I say that our job is to eliminate fear from the room so that everybody can come in and feel free to say anything. There are no bad ideas.
John Lasseter: Stay focused with the story. There’s tremendous pressure to get things into production. A lot of times you need to be brave enough to say, “No, the story isn’t good enough yet,” and work and rework and rework the story in the storyboards until it’s great because no amount of great animation will save a bad story.
THR: Gore, coming from the live-action film world, what was the biggest challenge for you on an animated project?
Gore Verbinski: The biggest difference for me was there are no gifts. In live action, you orchestrate chaos and you’re poised with a butterfly net, and you’re looking for some moment of truth — like something where the actor didn’t anticipate that reaction or something — and you catch it as it’s done. In animation, we have to fabricate that.
Miller: That’s a huge trick, keeping things spontaneous in the most contrived situation imaginable, where you’ve got to create every leaf, every grain of sand.
Verbinski: It’s actually a more pure form of storytelling because you don’t compartmentalize preproduction, production and postproduction the same way. It was the hardest job that I’ve ever done and the most joyous.
THR: Jamie, is motion-capture animation, or is it another art form?
Jamie Beard: It’s an evolution of animation. Steven Spielberg is a live-action filmmaker first and foremost but one who has a huge respect for and is a fan of animation. Motion-capture is able to be a kind of a storyboard, in a live-action sense, and then we, as animators, go in afterwards and work on that.
THR: But if Tintin gets nominated for an Oscar and wins, Spielberg will be up there accepting an award even though he wasn’t involved in the animation in the traditional sense. Is that fair?
Beard: Steven was very much involved [in the animation process], even though he was on the set directing the actors like he does on a live-action film. We were constantly having a dialogue with him about the animation. We showed him our dailies, showed him how we were developing the characters, their faces, how they were performing. It wasn’t a case that Steven stepped aside and then the animators stepped in.
Jennifer Yuh Nelson: Motion-capture can be misleading in that people think that we just put dots on someone, and then you slap it in the computer and that’s it. But if it’s heavily manipulated, it is essentially animated. In the case of Panda, there was no way we could do mo-cap. You can’t get someone to perform like Viper — you’d have to break every bone in their body. That’s one of the reasons why we didn’t mo-cap martial artists doing these moves. We made a conscious choice to not anthropomorphize a lot of the action. It was a completely different place with a completely different set of characters you cannot replicate in real life. With an actual animated shot, you can do something that’s physically impossible in the real world. That’s really freeing.
THR: So many animated films are done in 3D, but Rango was not. Why?
Verbinski: It was a financial decision to not convert it. There was a little discussion about doing 3D on the cheap, and I just didn’t want to do that. I was happy to keep it in 2D.
THR: How has 3D changed the animation filmmaking process?
Miller: As long as you’re using it to tell the story, you can get the most out of any moment in the film just by simply dialing up the 3D of a particular magical or tense moment in a scene. You can really deliver an immersive experience. A few times in Puss, we actually brought the frame in just a little bit and put a black border around the edge so we could leak some of the action off the edge of the frame, even if it was just a hat or a shoulder or milk that’s coming out. But it was always done in support of a story element.
THR: Jennifer, there were headlines this year when you became the highest-grossing female director of all time. It raised the issue that there are a lot fewer women in animation than in some other areas of the business. Why is that?
Nelson: I really don’t know. It’s baffling because it’s been made a big thing. But for me and everyone on the movie, it’s such a nonissue. In fact, when this started becoming talked about, one of the animators grabbed me in the cafeteria and said, “Congratulations, but I’m kind of pissed off about the whole thing.” I said, “Why are you pissed off about it?” He said: “Because I don’t think of you as a woman. I just think of you as a director.” I thought that was wonderful. I gave him a hug. That was, I guess, a womanly thing to do.
THR: Other than princess-type movies, there are few female-driven animated films. Are animated features lacking a female perspective?
Nelson: I didn’t come onto Panda 2 and say, “I’m going to make a female movie.” I just wanted to make a movie. If it’s got a good story and characters, it should appeal to everyone.
THR: Pixar is making Brave, its first movie with a female lead protagonist. Why did it take so long?
Lasseter: Pixar is a filmmaker-driven studio, which means that all the ideas come from the hearts of the filmmakers themselves. We’re very excited about it being the first female lead. It’s also our first period film and our first fairy tale. It just was the right story at the right time.
Carlos Saldanha: If the story asks for a female protagonist, you should do it. But if it doesn’t, why try to jam that in?
THR: How much do you think of an international audience when you are in the development process?
Lasseter: When we made our first Toy Story, we were just concentrating on making a great film. Then I got to see it translated in a lot of languages. I realized, “Ooh, that joke didn’t work at all.” When you have a story point that is a play on the misunderstanding of an English word, it’s hard to get those things to translate. So from A Bug’s Life on, I kept telling everybody, “Let’s tell the story visually.” Our films are translated into 42 languages. You want audiences in foreign countries to get swept away, too.
THR: There seems to have been backlash against the pop-culture references and topical humor that the Shrek films brought to the forefront. Is that why there aren’t any in Puss in Boots?
Miller: I prefer that any kind of comedy come from the situations, the character and the story. For me, those pop-culture moments snap me out of the movie. They also date a film.
Anderson: For Winnie the Pooh, that was one thing people expected us to do. They assumed: “Oh, they’re doing a new Winnie the Pooh for 2011. They’re going to try updating it. They’re going to try to make Winnie the Pooh hipper.”
Miller: Winnie the Pooh with a sideways baseball cap would be great. (Laughter.)
Lasseter: Early when I was working on my first film, Toy Story, my partner at Pixar, Steve Jobs, and I were talking. He said: “You know, at Apple, when I make a computer, the life span of it is maybe three years at the most. At five years, it’s literally a doorstop. John, if you do your job right, this could last forever.”
THR: A lot has been written about Jobs’ impact on Pixar. What was your personal relationship like?
Lasseter: We were very close. He was a great collaborator and gave great notes. He wouldn’t see the films every week like we did, so he was that fresh set of eyes that came in and helped us.
THR: What is his legacy in the animated-film business?
Lasseter: When he bought our group from Lucasfilm in February 1986, we were originally a computer company, but we had a small group doing computer-animation research. He believed in that. He let us do the short films, and he knew that our dream was to do a feature film with this medium one day. The technology just wasn’t there yet. But what’s so nice about being up in the San Francisco area is having one foot in Silicon Valley and then one foot in Hollywood filmmaking. Up there, it’s a culture where no one tells you: “Oh, you can’t do that. That’s not the way it’s done.” Up there, it’s like, “Give it a try.” If you can think about it as this culture of entrepreneurialism, he was the ultimate entrepreneur.
THR: What has been your most challenging moment?
Nelson: Working on these films, because they take three to four years, is like cleaning a room. You start in the beginning and, oh, it’s going to be great. And then you get halfway through, and you realize it’s messier than when you started. Then you finally start putting things back in the closet, and it’s OK. But that murky middle part is when everyone’s tired and starting to second-guess things. You have to maintain faith in the idea that you had.
Miller: I always like that murkiness. It’s such a marathon, so during production, any influx of chaos, despair or darkness always seemed to feed creativity. Usually the freshest or most spontaneous stuff came out of those periods.
Saldanha: We had a crew screening of Rio. I wasn’t ready to show it, but it was around Christmastime and everybody was going away for vacation. It was brutal. The crew put their lives into this project. They trust that you’re going to do a good job with it. I got over 300 pages of notes. People just really hated it. When I came back from the holiday break, I sat down with everybody and said: “Look, guys, this is just the beginning. We’re going to make this work.” At the end of six months, we screened again, and everybody was in love with it and on board. It gave them the fuel to get going on the last few months of production.
Beard: Tintin took five years. We definitely had those dark moments. But then people start getting inspired again and the momentum builds, and then the train is going again.
Miller: And then it stalls again. (Laughter.)
Saldanha: I never find myself comfortable saying: “Oh, we’re in great shape. We’re going to be done on time, and everything’s going to work beautifully.” You have that feeling it might work, but you’re always concerned that it might not.
Anderson: Even when it’s done, you’re looking at it going, “Oh my God, I wish I had changed that.”
THR: Do bad reviews hurt?
Saldanha: Positive is always good.
Nelson: I don’t think we can function as moviemakers if we think about whether we get good reviews at the end. You can never think of the alchemy of what people are going to be in the mood for when a movie comes out. We just have to make sure we make a movie we want to watch.
Anderson: And really focus on the feedback you get from the audience. I’m still getting e-mails and messages on Facebook from people talking about the movie I did in 2007 [Meet the Robinsons].
THR: John, critics were mixed on Cars 2. Given Pixar’s incredible run, did that disappoint you?
Lasseter: I make movies for the audience. I think of the audience every single day. It’s so important to entertain them and take them away. I don’t ever want to disappoint them.
THR: Do animated films cost too much?
Lasseter: They cost just right. (Laughter.)
THR: Well, you’re in an interesting position because you’re a filmmaker and you’re the head of studio.
Lasseter: The budget of a film is a certain number of people for a certain amount of time, right? As a filmmaker, you don’t want to waste their time. It’s very important to make sure that the economics of all this works because you don’t want to be making expensive films that don’t make any money — because if you do, you’re not going to be in business very long. None of us work for nonprofit organizations.
Verbinski: There are shackles with the budgets and the profit margins. You want to compete with what they’re doing at Pixar and DreamWorks. There’s a price tag with that just in terms of achieving that quality level. What happened to the Ralph Bakshis [the director of such adult-oriented animated movies as 1972’s Fritz the Cat] of the world? We’re all sitting here talking about family entertainment. Does animation have to be family entertainment? I think at that cost, yes. There’s the bull’s-eye you have to hit, but when you miss it by a little bit and you do something interesting, the bull’s-eye is going to move. Audiences want something new; they just can’t articulate what.
The business model for family entertainment is sated and very content, and there is a lot of really brilliant family entertainment, but I’d like to see animation that’s more niche.
Lasseter: You can also do that within the market for family entertainment.
Verbinski: Absolutely. Wall-E is a great …
Lasseter: Frankly, too, Toy Story, when it was done, we wrote a list. We started with what we didn’t want to make: We didn’t want it to be a breakout-song musical; we didn’t want it to be a fairy tale …
Verbinski: But could it be PG-13? Could it be R?
Lasseter: Why? Why do you have to do that?
Verbinski: You don’t have to. I’m just saying, could it be?
Lasseter: Well, it’s a filmmaker-driven art form. At Pixar and Disney, we have filmmakers that love to push the edge of the boundary but still make it OK for the kids to see.
Verbinski: What I’m saying is we could make animation that’s not for the kids to see, too. I don’t think you want to say, “Hey, bring your family to this movie that’s inappropriate.” But animation can be so much more if we let those boundaries loose. PG-13 can be action-adventure — you could make a PG-13 version of Treasure Island. I think there’s room.
THR: It sounds like you really want to make an R-rated animated film.
Verbinski: I want somebody to! The only limit in animation is your imagination. It would be nice to change the business model a little bit.
Saldanha: It’s a filmmaker-driven thing. If you have a great idea, and if you find support for it, it’s good. I would love to see an R-rated movie, but I don’t know if we need to have it.
Miller: It may be moving glacially, but I actually think the industry, in some ways, is moving toward that.
THR: Gore, how were budget conversations different on Rango than on your next movie, The Lone Ranger, where …
Lasseter: Don’t waste the rest of the time on budget! I’m making an executive decision! Let’s move on to creative. We don’t care. (Laughter.)
Verbinski: Thanks, John.
THR: In that case, is there a specific film moment that has inspired you?
Miller: As a kid, my biggest inspiration was the cutout shorts on Monty Python’s Flying Circus. I thought it was so strange and funny, and a little dirty. I probably shouldn’t have been sitting at the top of the stairs watching it …
Verbinski: Yeah, me too. Forbidden fruit. Seeing Sergio Leone Westerns at an inappropriate age and just going, “Whoa, what is that?” That was just mind-blowing.
Lasseter: Dumbo is my favorite animated film. It’s the incredible complexity of that story in the sense that the protagonist, Dumbo, doesn’t have a voice. The sequence where he goes to see his mom, and they can’t see each other — they can only touch the tips of their trunks — is so moving.
ABOUT THR’S ROUNDTABLE SERIES
The Hollywood Reporter’s annual Roundtable Series concludes with this issue’s animation panel. The series will return in the spring and shift to television talent with the season’s Emmy contenders in acting and writing categories.
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