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Animation Roundtable: The Risk of Making Toons for All Ages and Why Hiring More Females Is “Crucial”

Whether they're exploring Taliban rule ('The Breadwinner') or the connections between the living and the dead ('Coco'), animated movies can be ambitious — and surprising. Six filmmakers discuss what happens when a years-in-the-making film suddenly becomes timely: "Everyone in Russia thought 'The Boss Baby' was a movie about Putin."

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Animated movies take years to make, which leaves a lot of time for unexpected surprises along the way. For Tom McGrath, 52, director of DreamWorks Animation’s The Boss Baby, his lead actor, Alec Baldwin, suddenly developed a fresh cultural currency as Saturday Night Live‘s Donald Trump. Lee Unkrich, 50, director of Pixar’s Coco, worried about how his young actor’s voice might change during the five-year production. And Chris McKay, 49, director of Warner Animation’s The Lego Batman Movie, “made some people uncomfortable” at the studio when his spoof-filled film opened just before the deadly serious Batman v. Superman. But they all agree that’s part of the pleasures and pitfalls of animation, as they talked shop with Nora Twomey, 46, director of GKIDS‘ The Breadwinner; Kyle Balda, 46, co-director of Illumination’s Despicable Me 3; and Lori Forte, producer of Blue Sky Studio’s Ferdinand, on Oct. 16 at L.A.’s Mack Sennett Studios.

It takes a long time to make these movies. Before the release of The Boss Baby, Alec Baldwin started playing Donald Trump on Saturday Night Live and Trump won the presidency. Did that impact the marketing at all?

TOM MCGRATH We had finished the movie before the election. So it was kind of a surprise to us. It was just like, “Well, Alec’s out there doing his thing.” But in no means was it saying we’re telling a movie about baby Trump. It was funny because during press tours, everyone in Russia thought it was a movie about Putin. When you start these things, you never know what’s going to be going on in the world, and you can fall into something that you could never foresee. Whether you like the president or not, that was the farthest thing from our mind in making the movie.

When is it pencils down? Have you ever had to make a very last-minute change on any of your movies?

LEE UNKRICH When we were posting Monsters, Inc., 9/11 happened, and we had a few moments in that film that felt, under the circumstances, not quite right anymore. And so we did do a mad scramble there at the end to completely redo a scene, just because it wasn’t sitting with us quite right. So it does happen now and then.

With The Lego Batman Movie opening so close to Batman v. Superman, were there any discussions about the relationship between those films?

CHRIS MCKAY We definitely made some people uncomfortable at Warner Bros., and there were conversations about jokes that we had in there. We made a joke about how Iron Man sucks and had to go make sure that Marvel was OK. That sort of thing. We had Warner Bros. characters, but we had characters from outside, too, so I kept the lawyers really busy.

When all of you are selecting your voice cast, how much do you consider an actor’s public persona?

MCKAY Quite a bit. You want to either play off something, or in the case of someone like Will Arnett, [the voice of Batman], you have somebody who is really good at doing damaged men and fragile men and poking holes in the superego kind of person.

When you were creating Will’s character, to what extent did you consider the way Ben Affleck or Christian Bale have portrayed Batman?

MCKAY There was a lot of discussions about that. When we did the first Lego Movie, the Ben Affleck version wasn’t out yet, but we were thinking about the way Batman’s been portrayed in every media and the idea of having this guy have this incredible ego and being able to poke a hole in it.


Tom, how did you come to cast Baldwin as the Boss Baby?

MCGRATH With Boss Baby in Marla Frazee’s book, I connected very personally because I had lived with my brother and thought I knew this relationship. So you think of the character first and then you find, once the character is pretty solidified, who would be the best voice for this character. Marla Frazee emailed [former DreamWorks Animation head] Jeffrey Katzenberg, myself and producer Ramsey Naito, and all said Alec Baldwin. It felt like a no-brainer, in a way. And when I talked to him about it, he had great insight, because he had lived with his brothers, and he connected with it. And so that was the selling point. And he likes to improvise. I’ve worked with him before. And so you know he always brings more than what’s on the page.

Lori, what made John Cena the right actor to play Ferdinand?

LORI FORTE To me, John embodies Ferdinand. He is this big, hulking wrestler. And you think that you should be scared of him, that’s he’s a brute, that he’s fierce — and he’s so the opposite. John has the sweetest heart. The first time we met him, he mentioned that he loved this character because he felt growing up that he was that character. He was bullied when he was a kid, and he was smaller, and so he decided to buff up and work out, and he’s done that his whole life, and basically people don’t bother him anymore. They don’t bully him. But I think the theme of our movie really is, you can’t judge a bull by its cover.

Lee, how did you discover the actor who would play Miguel?

UNKRICH It’s really hard to find kids who can act. I had to thread such a needle with Miguel because I needed a kid of a certain age. He needed to be Latino. He needed to be able to sing. I needed him to be about 12, but animated movies take so long to make, and I couldn’t have his voice change on me, right? And then, thankfully, one day, Anthony Gonzalez walked into our lives. We originally hired him just to do kind of temp scratch voice for our story reels. And one day we just turned to each other and said, “You know what, I think we found our Miguel.”

For The Breadwinner, the story of Parvana, a young girl growing up under the Taliban regime, how did you find your lead actress, Nora?

NORA TWOMEY One of our casting directors put up posters all around Afghan markets in Toronto. It was a co-production, so you have to spend your money in Ireland or Luxembourg or Canada. We had lots of people come in to try out for the part, and Saara Chaudry came in, and there really was just one Parvana.

In Despicable Me 3, Steve Carell plays a dual role as Gru and his twin brother, Dru. Kyle, why did you decide to have him voice both brothers, and how did you shape the second one so that they weren’t exactly the same?

KYLE BALDA There was no question that Steve was going to voice Dru because he brought so much to Gru. Trying to figure out who is this alter ego of Gru … He did so much to sculpt this other persona that is the polar opposite of who Gru is. Gru is really curmudgeonly and gruff about everything, and Dru is a really sunshiny guy and just very kind of bombastic and dynamic, but he also had all this privilege and all this approval that Gru never grew up with. It was just this nice juxtaposition between these two. I don’t think there’s any other way that we could have ever had that scene where the two brothers are pretending to be each other and they’re trying to bring out the best and worst qualities of each other’s character if it hadn’t come through Steve.

How did Angelina Jolie come on as an executive producer of The Breadwinner, and how did you work with her?

TWOMEY Two of our executive producers, Jehane Noujaim and Karim Amer, who made a live-action documentary called The Square about the uprising in Egypt, managed to get an early draft of the screenplay in front of her. We had some concept artwork done, and she read the script and looked at the artwork and signed on, basically. So I pretended that I was in Los Angeles on business, and I hopped on a plane from Ireland just so that I could turn up in a meeting. And, honestly, it was like the continuation of a conversation rather than the start of one. She knew exactly what we were attempting to do with the film. What was interesting is that the novel that the film is based on was published in 2000, and I was very mindful of the time period that had passed between 2000 and 2014, when we started making the movie, and so was she. She really guided and helped all through the process.

Animation can be used to tell any type of story, but films like The Breadwinner tend to be made more in the independent world. Why do you think that is?

TWOMEY There are studios around the world that have a passion for storytelling but want to make stories that don’t ordinarily get put out in front of young audiences or family audiences or older children. So with The Breadwinner, we [Ireland’s Cartoon Saloon] worked with a co-producer in Luxembourg who had worked on Song of the Sea. We worked with Aircraft Pictures in Toronto. The Irish Film Board, the tax break that we have in Ireland; the same with Luxembourg, its film fund; and the film funding [arm] in Canada, Telefilm, all allow different stories to be told. Stories about flawed characters living in extraordinary circumstances that you’re just not used to seeing — there’s a freedom in that. We didn’t have that fear that comes with a massive injection of money from one source.

Are there types of stories that are too risky for the studio system?

FORTE The studio definitely wants to make films for families, for all ages. They want mothers to feel comfortable taking their young kids to the movies. But at the same time, we’re trying to make movies that appeal to adults as well, so that adults can go see them with or without children. So we’re walking a fine line. But there are things that you have to keep in mind. Is the humor too edgy? Does it push the boundaries a little bit too far? Is it a subject matter that we really need to tame a little bit more? Hopefully children can learn from something that’s a little bit above their heads.


MCGRATH To make movies for kids, you really have to go from your heart. I’ve worked in movies that weren’t as personal, but when you get into a personal story and it’s kind of a universal thing [like] sibling rivalry, everyone who came to the film had a story to tell. The hope was that kids are seeing it through the kids’ point of view, and the adults are watching it as parents. That question comes up a lot: Do you aim for kids or do you aim for adults? And you’ve just got to go, “Maybe we’re all arrested developments when it comes to kid humor.” You just kind of have to go from your gut and hope it plays to everybody. We’ve had a few films where there were moments that maybe parents thought were too intense for kids. And I’ve found in every case that the kids are fine.

Could you give us an example of one of those?

UNKRICH At the end of Toy Story 3, the whole incinerator scene [when the toys try to avoid sliding into a fire]. There were people who thought it was just way too intense. And what I found with my own kids and talking to a lot of other kids who saw the film was that they were fine with it.

Lori and Nora, what is it like being women working in the animation business?

TWOMEY I’ve always worked in cartoon settings, nearly 20 years, and I’ve always been a head of the studio. So when I had my two boys, I would wheel them in beside me, and they would make noise and annoy all the animators. In a way, I’ve been in a bubble, because we always had a very open atmosphere in our studio toward families. I do think we have to change the whole way we look at animation production. It’s just not realistic for line producers to think that you can work seven days a week, or expect people to work seven days a week, 24 hours a day and kill yourself in a production, and then start again. We have to be really realistic about how much time is healthy for people to spend on a production, because otherwise we won’t attract women into animation, into the director roles. Anybody who wants to have any kind of a balance in their life is not going to be attracted to directing.

Is that why there are so few female directors in animation?

FORTE There’s just not a lot of women directors. There’s not a lot of women producers. There’s a lot of women executives in the studios, but they’re just not coming to the creative positions. I’m not sure I know the reason why there are not enough women directors or producers or line producers or animators. Clearly, the majority are men. But I’m stymied to know whether it’s the time constraints — that you have family life and you can’t take the time off — if that’s part of the problem.

TWOMEY There’s a different type of encouragement needed. Certainly, on The Breadwinner, I noticed that I was using women in certain departments where I knew they could do the job brilliantly, but I also knew there was a level above that where they could also move into. But I knew to hold things together, I’d like them to stay in that role, which is terrible, and I shouldn’t do that and they shouldn’t do that. We should make sure that people can move up and feel the pain, the production pain. Your film might not be as good because you’ve made a hole down here and you’ve moved somebody up here. I think that kind of encouragement is necessary. Just to use an example: I asked one of the women I work with to do something that was outside of her job description, and she felt she wouldn’t do a good job with it. But I was pressed for time. I asked her to please do it anyway, and she did a magnificent job.

How is it for the rest of you? How much of an effort do you make to hire diverse crews?

UNKRICH It’s absolutely been a priority at Pixar lately. We have a number of extremely talented women working in animation and in story, and we are doing everything we can to give them opportunities to rise up, to make sure that they’re mentored properly, to give them opportunities to direct shorts, to pitch their ideas, because we know that there’s an imbalance and we want to fix it. Unfortunately, it’s hard when the timeline of a film can be five years. It’s hard to get that ball rolling, but we’re doing everything that we can to try to get more female voices and voices from different backgrounds telling stories.

FORTE We’ve always looked for females, because the balance between females and males in our departments, especially story and animation, is really crucial. But we haven’t been able to find as many women who are out there, looking to come to us.


MCGRATH They’re coming. When you do publicity, you get the benefit of going to a lot of schools, and there are a lot of animation schools now. When I went to CalArts, this was in the mid-’80s, there were maybe three girls out of a class of 30. And so when you go to, like, Ringling [College of Art & Design] or San Francisco’s Academy of Art, especially now, it’s like 50 percent.

UNKRICH Or beyond sometimes.

MCGRATH It’s encouraging there are role models, like the Kathleen Kennedys and Stacey Sniders and all these people who can run studios. And they can go, “Wow, I can do it, too.” And maybe that’s just drawing more and more people in. And hopefully this next generation will keep building on that.

MCKAY We have a diversity problem in general. I think what’s important about that is, we don’t have a good mechanism for when people fail. A lot of straight white guys get a second, third, fifth chance. But a kid like Matty Rich who makes [the 1991 live-action film] Straight Out of Brooklyn, he gets one other chance to make a movie and then that’s it. You have to find ways of supporting that person and giving them a safe space to be able to fail so that they can do it again and again and again and get the confidence. That’s the most important thing that I’m trying to do right now with the crews that I work with — take responsibility for the movie as a whole so that everyone else under me gets a chance to participate in the process in a meaningful way, gets to meet all the key people and to have a safe space where they can make mistakes and not be punished for it or be ostracized from the group.

This story first appeared in a December standalone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.