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This story first appeared in the Jan. 10 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. The video was shot at the The Warwick in Hollywood.
Animated movies are big business: Universal and Illumination Entertainment’s Despicable Me 2, the highest-grossing toon of 2013, has taken in nearly $920 million worldwide; DreamWorks Animation found a new distributor in 20th Century Fox, beginning with its release of The Croods; and critics’ cheers for Frozen underscored the resurgence of Walt Disney Animation Studios. But while animation is a hugely competitive business, when THR invited some of the producers and directors behind the year’s toon hits to sit down together, the mood couldn’t have been more congenial. Taking part in the conversation were Chris Buck, 53, who directed Frozen with Jennifer Lee; Dan Scanlon, 37, director of Monsters University; Chris Wedge, 56, director of Fox and Blue Sky Studios’ Epic; Kristine Belson, 49, a producer on Croods; and Chris Meledandri, 54, Illumination CEO and a producer on Despicable Me 2 — having previously headed Fox Animation for eight years, he and Wedge are past collaborators. Animation isn’t just about making kids movies, they agreed — after all, look at Gravity. It’s practically an animated film itself.
The development process for animated movies takes so long. When do they actually get a green light?
CHRIS WEDGE: Can I tell you something? I don’t know what movie Chris [Meledandri] and I were working on, but I said, “When are they going to give us a green light on this thing?” And he said: “You’re working on the movie. A green light? You’re making the movie.”
CHRIS MELEDANDRI: We call that a rolling green light — it just sort of evolves. On our first movie, Ice Age, Chris [Wedge] was focused on this notion of this mythical green light. So on one of my trips back to Blue Sky Studios, I said: “OK. Well, we’re going to have a little meeting. We’re going to have a little ceremony.” So [Chris] had taken a lamp, and he had put some green cellophane around the bulb. And then we did the actual lighting of the greenlight ceremony, which I’ll never forget.
WEDGE: People cheered.
Dan, when did you know you were actually making Monsters University?
DAN SCANLON: There is no real moment. I mean, when it’s done and it’s out in theaters, you can sort of sigh a breath of relief and realize that it’s out there. But for us, with Monsters University, we got together as a group to talk about what another film might be but with the thought that if we can’t think of a great story, we won’t do it. So I guess it was more of a creative green light among all of us when we sort of found the heart of the film.
But at a certain point in the process, you are locked in to a release date.
WEDGE: The day you know you’ve got a date is when you feel like, “Oh, we’re making this movie.”
KRISTINE BELSON: I made a newbie mistake on The Croods: I didn’t think about which scenes we put through [the animation process] first in terms of marketing. You want to be smart about what comes out of the other end of that pipeline sooner. We put through all these incredibly dark nighttime scenes, which are great in the movie, but they are worthless in terms of marketing the film.
MELEDANDRI: What we have found is that working chronologically is always the best. The closer you can get to working through the movie, from the first scene forward, is the most organic process of putting these scenes through. It’s helpful, over this multiyear period, in keeping a sense of order.
CHRIS BUCK: We had our ending and the big climax, and we actually put that into production [first, on Frozen]. We knew it was a bear when it came to effects. We had a big blizzard at the end; everything was going be a nightmare for our effects department. Sometimes the first act is the last thing to go into production.
WEDGE: I always want to move through Act 1 as fast as we can because the meat of the movie is Act 2. That’s the reason there’s a poster on the wall; that’s the reason people are going. In the climax, action’s always going to be gigantic, so that goes into production early because they have to make all this stuff, and it won’t be ready on time. But nine times out of 10, you’re going back to Act 1 to set stuff up that you need to make your ending work.
How do you go about casting voice actors?
SCANLON: We usually start with the character on the page first — we don’t really have an actor in mind. We really try to develop who that character is and then maybe even start designing the look of the character, all before we find an actor.
But with Monsters, you knew you would have Billy Crystal and John Goodman. What were some of the casting surprises on that movie?
SCANLON: Helen Mirren — she plays Dean Hardscrabble. We hadn’t seen a scary female yet in this world, and we thought Helen would be the perfect teacher who everyone respects but also fears. She sat down with me on the first day and tried all different takes on the characters, all kinds of accents. When we were done, she said, “Well, if none of it’s any good, I’d be available on Thursday to do it again.”
Do you want audiences to recognize the famous name behind a voice?
WEDGE: The name, not the voice. The name works to market the movie, but the voice is your character. The best actors are the ones contributing to the character. I love watching an animated movie — just being lost in the character and not thinking about who it is, not recognizing who it is.
BELSON: The thing that made me happiest on The Croods was we cast Nicolas Cage as the father. It always made me happy when I would read reviews and people would say, “I started to forget after about five minutes that it was Nic Cage.” A lot of people already have a lot of opinions about Nic Cage, so I like that that disappears pretty quickly and you can just get lost in the character.
MELEDANDRI: We made a decision early on in the evolution of Despicable Me with Steve Carell to embrace him as a creative partner in building the character of Gru. His instinct was to do the character with an accent, which immediately meant that nobody seeing the film would recognize his voice because it doesn’t sound anything like Steve Carell. But what we found was that his contributions during the recording sessions were continually bringing us to new discoveries.
Chris Meledandri, you warned in the summer that Hollywood is turning out too many animated movies, that they run the risk of cannibalizing one another.
MELEDANDRI: We’re carrying — all of us — a legacy that needs to be protected. I think all of us know that when faced with trying to do too much of any one thing, there can be a degradation or a dilution of that quality. It is important for the overall health of the industry that going to an animated film continues to be something special, and I think all of us need to be cautious about how much production we put out there. The flip side of that is that the optimist in me says, if I look at any one of the films represented here today, I can say, “Wow.” I see innovation and creativity, and so to me, as long as we continue as an industry to raise the bar, then the issue of the number of films becomes less important.
WEDGE: There is another remedy for that: the perception of what animation is. In Epic, we tried to do an action-adventure movie. Animation can be more than the thing that the audience today, in 2013, expects it to be. Some of this may come about by taking more risks, and some of it will come about by bringing production costs down and being able to make lower-budget movies, more genre movies, knowing you’re making a movie for a smaller audience.
BELSON: Right — animation is not a genre but just a medium. Seth Rogen is going to make a lower-budget animated movie, you know? All my teenagers are going to see that, and it’s going to change and expand their perception of what the medium is.
When you all watched Gravity, did you consider it an animated movie?
MELEDANDRI: I think it is. We’re actually recording Sandy Bullock today for an animated film [The Minions], and as you listen to her describe the process of making Gravity, you could call it a mixed-media film. But it’s more animation than live action.
WEDGE: Gravity is an example; Life of Pi was an example. You can’t make these movies any other way. You want to be immersed in a world you don’t have any other access to. That kind of immersion is what animation does well.
Were the landscapes in Epic and The Croods inspired by Avatar?
BELSON: There was one set in particular early on in [Croods] that people said referenced [2009’s] Avatar a lot. But we actually didn’t sort of see it ourselves until after we made it and went, “Oh, right, that does bear a resemblance.” We didn’t see the similarities to Avatar until afterward, but we were perfectly pleased with those comparisons.
WEDGE: We knew Avatar was out there, but actually Epic was in development, and we had story reels done when I saw Avatar for the first time. And I’ll admit, my son was sitting next to me, and he said, “Dad, that’s kind of how I pictured Epic.” So we lived with it.
BUCK: That happened to us on [2007’s] Surf’s Up and [2006’s] Happy Feet. We came out about six months after Happy Feet. All we knew was there was another movie with penguins in it. And so, when those comparisons happen, for us it wasn’t so great because people felt like Surf’s Up was just a sequel to those dancing penguins, and now they’re surfing. So nobody wanted to see it.
BUCK: What always amazes me is when a reviewer will comment, “Clearly they took that from another film.” I always think: “You just don’t know the process. We don’t move fast enough to steal.”
Let’s talk about costs. Why are animated films so expensive, even as software prices are coming down?
WEDGE: There’s a business behind all of this, obviously. You have to make all your decisions about what you’re going to spend and what you think you’re going to make at the end of the day. Not only do the costs of the equipment come down and costs of licensing software come down, but also those things that you’re paying for are much more sophisticated. The computers are 10 times faster than the last time you bought a computer, and the software is more fantastic than it was. My answer is, you can hold the line financially, and the films can get better for the same amount of money.
Chris Meledandri, you’ve managed to attract big audiences with movies that cost less than the industry average.
MELEDANDRI: I think the answer to all of the challenges of making these movies starts with people. I have a phenomenal producing partner in Janet Healy, who is about the smartest animation producer I’ve ever worked with, and we set out to design a different system to making an animated film. It was driven by the desire to create an opportunity to embrace more risk. It was a very simple idea — to figure out how to contain a budget, and our budgets are roughly $75 million. We took risks up and down the line in terms of giving people opportunities to do jobs they hadn’t done before. So we started with this premise, which was to control costs, take greater risks. And there are many ironies, such as the fact that we now produce the films largely in Paris, which one does not think of as being a place to save costs.
Is 3D now entrenched for mainstream studio animated films?
WEDGE: I would say so, if the audience keeps coming. I don’t know how you guys feel about it, but there is no better way to watch a movie, in my mind, than Imax 3D.
BELSON: It’s so cool, and it’s not just the in-your-face 3D. I love the depth, the way you feel like you were actually inside the set.
At what point during preproduction or production do you begin thinking about 3D and how you’re going to use it?
BELSON: Right away. The 3D that usually isn’t satisfying is when it is sort of an afterthought. You want to be thinking about it from early on.
BUCK: There’s one thing I think we still need to work on with 3D, and that’s the color. I think we lose some of that beautiful saturated color when it goes to 3D because of the glasses. That’s something we still need to technically work on.
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