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This story first appeared in the Dec. 5 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
They hail from as far away as Mexico and Ireland, and they’ve imagined creatures with a wide range of physics-defying powers — dragons that soar through the skies, troll-like creatures who dwell underground and a squishy robot who can squeeze through tight spaces, to name a few — but the minds behind this year’s animation contenders all see eye to eye about one thing: Their films often are not given the artistic cred they merit.
This and other aspects of their unique craft were the subjects of a lively discussion Nov. 5 at The Fig House in Los Angeles, where the directors and producers behind some of 2014’s most engaging ‘toons were eager to compare notes on their varied projects, which all took years to bring to the screen. Tomm Moore, 37, director of the hand-drawn Song of the Sea, came the furthest, all the way from Dublin. Travis Knight, 41, who not only is the CEO of Laika but also served as both animator and producer on the stop-motion-animated The Boxtrolls, flew in from Hillsboro, Ore. Mexico-born director Jorge Gutierrez, 39, director of the Latin-inflected The Book of Life, traveled from his home in Dallas. The Hollywood contingent included Dan Lin, 41, producer of The Lego Movie; Bonnie Arnold, 58, producer of How to Train Your Dragon 2; and Don Hall, 45, director of Big Hero 6. Topics ranged from art (the quirks of voice casting — The Lego Movie discovered Christ Pratt before Guardians of the Galaxy did) to business (the pitfalls of audience testing and the debatable wisdom of making sequels) to the surprisingly intimate: the heartfelt stories that inspired each of their films.
Last year, Frozen became a worldwide phenomenon, with $1.3 billion in global box office. What lessons did you all take from that?
BONNIE ARNOLD Well, I’ve got my buzzword: That one was, “Go, girls.” I was excited to see female heroines and not just boy movies or new movies that appeal to boys. Because I do think there’s this crossover. And it makes you think more as a producer or director, or creator or filmmaker, of how to incorporate things that are going to appeal to both boys and girls.
DON HALL And, conversely, it wasn’t just a girl movie, either. To gross that much money and have that many people come see your film, it does have to appeal to a large swath of people. That was the big takeaway.
DAN LIN And also it’s a fresh spin on a familiar genre, the princess genre. And certainly having a great song really helps.
TOMM MOORE I was at a little airport in Belgium, and there was a little girl in the queue in front of me dressed as a princess, singing “Let It Go.” That’s a big phenomenon.
JORGE GUTIERREZ I remember thinking, “We’re so screwed.” It did so well and the pressure on everybody saying, “Where’s your ‘Let It Go’ song?”
ARNOLD That’s a little bit cyclical, too. My daughter, who’s now 20, grew up in that whole age of Beauty and the Beast and Little Mermaid, and then that seemed to fall out of favor a bit. But it comes back. Sometimes for animation, it’s a little bit harder for us to [jump] on the moment because some of our projects take three to four years to gestate and get made.
TRAVIS KNIGHT Three to four years? I wish. (Laughter.) I think it’s dangerous to try to figure out why it worked and why it didn’t. Sometimes, things just capture the zeitgeist. And certainly it’s not something that someone could re-create easily. And nor should they try. As animators and as filmmakers, the only thing that we can do is try to live up to the ethos of John Lennon: Just give us some truth. And try to sell something that’s emotionally true. And in the end, it has to be a personal thing, otherwise it’s hollow. And I think the filmmakers behind that movie, that’s exactly what they did.
Live-action movies, and especially the big tentpoles, increasingly are based on best-sellers, superheroes and other very well-known, marketable commodities. But most of you decided to work with either original material or somewhat obscure source material. What was the inspiration for each of your movies?
HALL For me, it was a simple conversation I had as I finished [directing] Winnie the Pooh. It was about delving into your childhood passions. I loved animation, and I loved comic books, and the idea of mashing those two things up was very enticing. I found this little gem at Marvel called Big Hero 6, which is a very obscure property. Ultimately, the story centered on loss. This kid loses his big brother, and the robot becomes a surrogate big brother and heals this kid’s broken heart.
KNIGHT I first came across Alan Snow‘s book Here Be Monsters!, which ultimately became the film The Boxtrolls 10 years ago, when we were developing Coraline, and those were the first two things that we liked and developed to become films. That’s why when you say “three to four years,” I smirk, because it’s been a nearly 10-year journey for us to make this as a movie. There was something about Alan Snow’s book that just captivated me. It was reminiscent of great children’s literature like Charles Dickens or Roald Dahl. He had a great biting sense of humor like you find in a Monty Python sketch. Coming on the heels of Coraline and ParaNorman, which were both contemporary stories and set in modern-day America, we wanted to do something that was different. It was me and our directors Tony Stacchi and Graham Annable — at the time, we were all fathers of young children. Anyone who works in film or animation knows that it comes at a cost; it takes you away from your loved ones for long stretches of time. So trying to find that balance in your work and your family life is very difficult. And we infused that into the narrative of the film, and it became a story about that generational thing between parents and their children.
Tomm, you turned to Irish folklore?
MOORE The way it started with Song of the Sea is something like Travis’ story. My son was 10; he’s 18 now, in college. Shows you how long these things take. It’s just glacial. But we were in Dingle on the West Coast of Ireland on holiday, just at the start of the production of The Secret of Kells, and I was sketching on the beach. My son saw some seals that had been killed. The lady whom we were renting the cottage from told us that local fishermen had started to kill seals because they were blaming them for the fallen fish stocks, even though [it was] fairly unlikely it was the seals’ fault. But she said that wouldn’t have happened years ago. There was this belief in selkies: People believed that seals could be the souls of people who have been lost at sea. It got me thinking about the fact that folklore and nature and wildlife were very interconnected. While I was working on The Secret of Kells, this other story was forming. So it kind of became almost like a spiritual sequel. I named [the main character] Ben, after my son. It was that bittersweet thing of an inverse Roman candle where my son was getting taller than me as I was still drawing this 10-year-old version of him.
Bonnie, you produced a sequel, but what inspired the original How to Train Your Dragon?
ARNOLD The [Dragon] films are based on a series of books by Cressida Cowell, a British author. And there are 12 books in the series. But very early on, we decided on a combination of storytelling. Sometimes the book is the movie, and sometimes it’s not exactly. So the Dragon films are definitely a departure from the book. The first film was very successful; we were very fortunate. And Jeffrey Katzenberg, who runs DreamWorks Animation, came to Dean [DeBlois] and was talking to him about doing a sequel. But Dean, who was the writer and director on the film, said the only way that he would consider doing a sequel is if he could go somewhere different with it. And he came back and pitched the idea of it being a trilogy, this three-part story of the coming of age of Hiccup and [his dragon] Toothless. He took some bold risks like aging the characters up five years; Hiccup and his gang are five years older. And I have to say also Dean lost his dad at the age of 20, which is how old Hiccup is in the film. And so, again, it was something personal.
Personal connections seem to be a theme here. Jorge, was that also true of The Book of Life?
GUTIERREZ I’ve had this thing for 14 years. Day of the Dead is something really special to me. I was married on Day of the Dead. I lost a lot of people; when I was a kid, I lost my friend. And so Day of the Dead was the way I stayed in contact with him. And so eventually I said I want to give this gift to the world. Mexico in the news is known for really violent, ugly things. I wanted to remind the world there’s beauty in our country. Every place told me no. Everybody slammed the door in my face. After a while, a studio in Texas, Reel FX, got behind the movie, took a big chance on it. And then Guillermo del Toro became our producer. It was not an easy film to get made. It’s about Day of the Dead; most people who are not of Mexican descent think of Day of the Dead as zombies. Or they think it’s a horror movie. And then there’s a bullfighting element in the movie. I mean, we could not have made it harder on ourselves. And then the look of it is so different. All the things that people now like about the movie were the exact things that made people not want to make the movie. … The movie is very much inspired by Orpheus, and I love storytelling. It’s my first movie, so I figured I might never get to do another one. And the movie became about making the movie. Like this journey of this artist whom this town turns on, and no one believes in him. And he has to go into this magical world to succeed. It’s very ironic I had to leave Mexico to make a movie about Mexico. Even though [it’s] a big movie, it’s super personal to me. I still cry every time I watch it. The biggest thing in the movie for me was, I got to see it in Mexico City with my father. And he’s an architect. And so my going into cartoons was kind of a bad thing for him. He didn’t consider it a true art form. He’s very conservative. And so we’re at the premiere; this is the first time he sees it. He’s sitting next to me, and he puts his hand on my arm. And every time there’s a big emotional moment, he squeezes my arm. And at the end of the movie, he looks over and says, “Jorge, this is the best conversation we’ve ever had.” And I (mimics flooding tears) just lost it. And so just for that, it was worth it.
Dan, when Warner Bros. announced it was making a movie about Legos, a lot of people raised their eyebrows. How did you figure out what it was going to be about?
LIN It took a while. I was inspired by playing with Legos; my son at the time was 5. And it took us five years to make the movie. He’s kind of a free-form builder. He wasn’t following instructions; [he was] building really cool inventions of his own. But also I saw that when he was putting bricks together, he saw a much greater adventure than what was in front of him. And we captured that experience in an animated movie. Chris Miller and Phil Lord, the writer-directors of the movie, said to me, “Dan, we don’t want to make a toy commercial.” And I said, “What approach would you do?” They’re like, “OK, Dan, if we made this movie, this is what we would do: use Lego as an art form the way people paint; the way people use clay. And then let’s tell it as a love story. It’s a love story between us and the Lego-playing experience when we were kids.”
How much do you think about international box office and reaching a wider audience when you’re making these films?
GUTIERREZ In the beginning, I thought, “There is no market. There is no interest in this subject matter. There is no audience for [a] Latino theme story.” Now I get asked, “Did you know that the Latin American market was going to explode?” And I just got lucky. That’s the only reason this movie got made — because that audience is exploding, and they were hungry to see themselves.
MOORE [International] was a big part of the writing process. We had to make sure that this wasn’t only for Irish kids, you know? We took the liberty to twist the story a little bit to make sure that it was right for this moment and talking to kids of this generation.
Travis, The Boxtrolls has a very British inflection to it. Did you feel pressure to make it more universal?
KNIGHT The sensibility is very much rooted in Dickens and things like Monty Python, which does get into kind of the entrenched class system and all that kind of stuff. But it felt like we would be doing the story a disservice to set it in some other place just for the possibility that it might be more universal. As Tomm and Jorge were saying, I think the most personal works are the most universal works.
ARNOLD It feels like these days, with all this communication, this social networking or whatever, good news travels. Dragon 2 is playing all over the world and in places where you wouldn’t expect.
Dan, your movie is full of pop culture and pop culture references. Warners has a big investment in its live-action Batman franchise. How did you approach Warners and DC to let you show a somewhat comical Batman figure in the Lego world?
LIN We approached both Warners and Christopher Nolan. And myself, Chris Miller and Phil Lord, we pitched a different kind of Batman. We said, “You guys have your live-action Batman, we have what we called the Lego Batman. A Batman that’s very self-aware. That is, you know, a bit of a jerk at times.” As soon as they understood there are different universes, that worked out OK. But that was a big challenge going to all the different rightsholders, saying, “This is how we’re going to take your character and Lego-ize it.”
Was Who Framed Roger Rabbit an inspiration?
LIN It definitely was. Roger Rabbit was the inspiration for the whole movie, to be honest, with all the different cameos.
What’s the status of The Lego Batman Movie?
LIN It’s deep in production. It comes out in 2017. And Will Arnett is going to come back [as the voice of Batman].
As someone who has been producing live-action movies, what was the learning curve like shifting into animation?
LIN The time that it takes to make one of these is unbelievable. In live action, things happen a lot more quickly. The ability to rework a movie is very different [for] animation than in live action. We had a whole version of the movie that completely failed, and we threw it out. And I was freaking out, and Chris and Phil were just like, “Dan, we gotta hang in there. This is not like live action.” In animation, you don’t finish the movie. You literally just release the movie. In live action, we really do finish the movie. I was shocked at how much until the very end you can change an animated movie. The difference between seeing animated movies six months before release and then the final product is radically different.
ARNOLD That’s because in animation, you edit the movie first. And then you shoot it. That’s the advantage.
HALL The storyboarding process [is] where the movie can change drastically. We were doing story screenings about every three months. So you’re able to watch it internally as a group with your colleagues. And then go upstairs and say, “OK, what didn’t work?” Most of it. “And what did?” OK, hold on to that little thing.
Do you arrange your schedule so there’s some footage finished early on that can be used for marketing?
KNIGHT That’s always an ongoing debate. Can we pull things up in the schedule to shoot things that we need to use in our trailer or commercial? Sometimes you can, sometimes you can’t.
MOORE There was one scene I was so sure was going to be in the movie. We put it into production. And we were in the middle of animating it, and then in the next room we were having the story meeting with the writer, and we realized that scene was gone. So it became the conceptual trailer that we released; it’s not even in there.
How do you test animated films when the animation isn’t fully completed?
LIN We give [the audience] all the warnings: “Hey, the movie’s not done. You’re going to see a lot of gray scale.” And then the comments come back: “Why isn’t the animation done? Why isn’t it in color?”
ARNOLD Having done the first Toy Story movie, I remember Buzz and Woody looking like two Popsicle sticks. There’s no way you could have done any kind of testing on that. Now, previz [rough computer-generated versions used in planning] has gotten so sophisticated-looking that a lot of people get it confused and think it’s final animation. So I think it is tricky to know when to test because I think you can get a lot of false positives when you go out too soon.
MOORE Sometimes when you show the whole movie in storyboards, and it gets a good reaction, you go, “Shall we even animate?” (Laughter.)
KNIGHT I’ve never tested a film. We have limited physical assets, and our budgets are relatively meager in the animation world. So for us, testing would be self-flagellation. Even if we got good feedback, there’s nothing we could do about it because we can’t change.
GUTIERREZ I love testing. I mean, I threw up the first time we screened it. It was like, “I think this joke’s going to work.” And then, silence. And then some stuff that got big laughs was stuff that even I was surprised by. And so there were all these magical things that kept happening.
When does the conversation about sequels start?
HALL They haven’t happened for us yet, to be honest with you, because we just finished the film 17 days ago. If [my co-director] Chris [Williams] and I both agree that we want to do it, [then we will] because it’s really in the director’s hands at Disney. It’s never really a corporate-driven-type thing.
Travis, from your reaction, it looks as if you’re not a fan of sequels.
KNIGHT I just think that as a whole, sequels are killing our industry. When you go back to when I was a kid, the kind of films that I grew up watching were original ideas, bold voices, really challenging material. We don’t see a lot of that anymore. We live in an era of reboots and remakes and sequels and prequels; where old presents are rewrapped and offered up as new gifts. … It’s not to say that you can’t tell a compelling story in a sequel; you certainly can. We have Godfather and Empire Strikes Back and How to Train Your Dragon 2. But if you think about storytelling generally, your film should be the most significant, most poignant moment of your hero’s life. And so the sequel automatically is a diminishment of that. As artists, we have to look at it and say, “Is this good for us in the long run as an industry to continue to churn out these same things?” We get to an end of a trilogy, and then we restart that; we reboot it in another way. And at some point, we just become an echo chamber. Some stories are big and require a big canvas. And I think some stories should never have a sequel. And that’s why we will never do a sequel.
LIN I look at it as a fan, though, as a kid growing up after I saw the first Indiana Jones, the first one [Raiders of the Lost Ark]; I wanted more.
KNIGHT Yeah, but you know what? The Temple of Doom sucked. (Laughter.) As did The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and The Last Crusade. They should have stopped at one film.
MOORE Well, my favorite movie is Rocky. And I think it’s such a pity that it’s not the only Rocky.
But, Travis, isn’t that philosophy problematic for investors, who want a sure thing?
KNIGHT Yes, it’s stupid. It’s a dumb philosophy. It makes no sense. I recognize that. But I think we as filmmakers need to challenge the conventional wisdom, the prevailing orthodoxy, and be champions for new ideas, new voices, new films.
Let’s shift the conversation and talk about voice casting. You’ve all worked with an array of really talented actors this year. Some of them are well known and some aren’t. When you’re casting, do you meet with actors? Or do you listen to tapes of their voices? How do you separate an actor’s face and personality from the voice that we’ll be hearing coming through the character?
LIN We’ll have listening sessions to figure out who’s the right tone, who brings the right sense of humor. But you have lots of plug-in surprises with The Lego Movie. Chris Pratt, the world knew him in TV but didn’t really know him in features. This process takes a long time, but we cast him three or four years ago. The character is an ordinary person who goes on this extraordinary journey. And I think [after his starring role in Guardians of the Galaxy] the whole world is now seeing Chris Pratt going on this extraordinary journey. So I think that’s really exciting.
ARNOLD We were lucky enough to be included in the [Oscar] nominations in 2011 for the first Dragon. [At the ceremony] I went over to get something to drink, and Dean comes to me, “I just ran into Cate Blanchett. And I’m writing [the mother] part for her, and I just pitched her the thing on the way to the bathroom.”
GUTIERREZ We have the largest Hispanic cast in the history of animation. But at the same time, I personally didn’t want to scare white people into thinking it was just for Latin people. Channing Tatum, when I pitched him the movie, I told him, “You’re going to have the suaveness of Argentina and the smoothness of Brazil and the machismo of Mexico. You’re going to be Captain Latin America.” At the end, he took me aside and said, “Jorge, you know I’m not Mexican.” (Laughter.)
MOORE The casting was a dream because the Oscar nomination [for my first movie, The Secret of Kells] really opened doors, and nobody said no. Our biggest challenge was the same one as the last movie; it’s always the same when you have to cast a kid. But we were lucky enough [to know] David Rawle, who was in the TV series Moone Boy, and we were doing the animation for that series. He was like the most talented 11-year-old actor in Ireland.
When you look at all of the Oscar categories, do you feel there are categories where animated films are overlooked?
GUTIERREZ Art direction.
MOORE But isn’t it weird that Gravity and Avatar aren’t animated films? They’re not considered animated films, but there’s so much animation in them.
ARNOLD To me, animation is a technique to tell the story. I wish sometimes we weren’t as relegated to the kiddie table, as I feel like we are.
THR‘s signature discussions with the top awards contenders continue throughout the season. Watch the full videos on THR.com or THR.com/iPad, or tune in to the A&E network Dec. 28 to watch the Actor and Actress Roundtables.
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