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“We Need New Voices, New Storytellers”: The Animation Roundtable

Sony Pictures Animation president Kristine Belson, Brad Bird ('Incredibles 2'), Rich Moore ('Ralph Breaks the Internet'), Latifa Ouaou ('The Grinch'), Bonne Radford ('Smallfoot') and Peter Ramsey ('Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse') — gathered for The Hollywood Reporter's Animation Roundtable.

Although they often inhabit fantasy realms, animated features aren’t necessarily about escaping from the real world. The new Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse reflects multicultural realities and Incredibles 2 is built upon questions about marriage and family life. And behind the scenes, the animation industry has experienced its own #MeToo and Time’s Up moments during the past year. At the same time, more young women are learning the craft, even if few have yet broken into the directing ranks. To take the industry’s temperature, six animation pros gathered Oct. 1 at Redbird in Los Angeles. They included Kristine Belson, 54, president of Sony Pictures Animation; Brad Bird, 62, director, Disney/Pixar’s Incredibles 2; Rich Moore, 55, director, Disney’s Ralph Breaks the Internet; Latifa Ouaou, 47, executive producer of Illumination’s The Grinch; Bonne Radford, producer of Warner Animation Group’s Smallfoot; and Peter Ramsey, 55, director, Sony Pictures Animation’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.

Do you see the way that women are represented in Hollywood movies changing now?

KRISTINE BELSON I think it’s changing in leaps and bounds for the better. Disney has been a standard-bearer for putting forth strong female characters for a long time. As a mother and as a professional, I’m incredibly grateful to them. But I do think it’s improving all over the place.

Brad, why did you decide to make Elastigirl the center of your Incredibles sequel?

BRAD BIRD I thought it would put both [Elastigirl and Mr. Incredible] in unexpected places and bring something out of them. In the movie she is very good at “settling down,” meaning she is a wonderful mother and gives it her all and doesn’t look back. And Bob is having all kinds of trouble adjusting to not being a superhero. I thought [being the stay-at-home parent] would throw Bob completely off balance and it would bring out a side of Helen that she has kind of shut down to raise her family.

Illumination’s The Grinch, based on Dr. Seuss’ 1957 book How the Grinch Stole Christmas, follows the 1966 animated TV special as well as Ron Howard’s 2000 live-action film, which you also worked on, Latifa. How did you approach this computer-animated version?

LATIFA OUAOU We honored Dr. Seuss’ original vision and we didn’t change the story. We just expanded on the depth of the characters. We were obviously very conscious and in awe of Theodor Geisel’s [Dr. Seuss’] vision. So the challenge was how do you make a 69-page storybook into a feature-length film without changing the story? In the original it’s more about consumerism, and that’s really the Grinch’s beef with the people of Whoville. And in our version we get some insight into his childhood and the psychology behind what led him to become an isolationist up in his cave. I think it adds more texture and meaning to the story, understanding him.

Peter, Spider-Man is also a familiar brand, and has been made numerous times previously — as animated TV series and live-action movies. This time, you told the story through the eyes of Miles Morales. How did you approach this film?

PETER RAMSEY When I first heard about an animated Spider-Man feature, my question was, “Why another Spider-Man movie?” I think the first thing that really made me go “Oh” was the fact that [screenwriter] Phil Lord and [producer] Chris Miller were involved. Then I heard that it was going be about the Miles Morales version of the character rather than the Peter Parker version, and that really exploded my enthusiasm for the idea because that’s a story that hasn’t been told before. Miles is half African-American and half Latino ­— right there it’s an innovation in the type of person who typically gets to be featured in these kinds of movies. At the same time, it’s what so much of our country looks like and is.

BIRD Big-budget animation with superheroes has been gone for a long time. We were given a hard time about it when we first tried to do Incredibles. Animation plus superhero meant cheap in most people’s imagination because of thousands of TV shows. This is virgin territory — spending money and resources on it.

BELSON Luckily you paved the way a bit for us.

For Smallfoot, Bonne, you created all new characters and you created a world — the yeti village and the human village. What was involved in creating this world?

BONNE RADFORD The concept was just flipping the Bigfoot myth on its head. So the yetis don’t believe in a human. The original pitch was that they come together and there’s antics and it was very cartoony and a lot of gags. We moved it so that they had a village of their own high in the Himalayas and they were safe from the humans, who at least one person knew that they should fear. And that became a culture that was on its own evolutionary trajectory and we could create whatever we wanted.

Rich and Brad, on your productions, how did you keep working when Pixar and Disney chief creative officer John Lasseter announced he was stepping down?

RICH MOORE Like with any kind of unseen circumstances, you have to just soldier on. We are here to make a movie and that is our job and we have the tools, we have the people. So it was a moment where we said, “We have the capability, this studio is not about one person. It’s about all of us. And we are going to move forward.” Not knowing what was going to happen next.

BIRD It was distracting, to say the least. It’s a little different for us because the lamp in front of the building [a statue of Luxo Jr. on the Pixar campus] is John’s lamp. [This desk lamp is the title character of Pixar’s first animated title, a 1986 two-minute CG short that Lasseter wrote and directed.] The collective influence of him and Steve [Jobs] and Ed Catmull made that company what it is. And John protected The Incredibles when Disney didn’t want to make it initially.

MOORE He did the same thing with Wreck-It Ralph.

BIRD He threw himself between us and the people who wanted to shut it down because it was “too much like Spy Kids.” He allowed it to exist at Disney. I said to my crew, “Just don’t get bogged down in this right now. Focus on why you’re here, which is to tell stories.” That’s what John would’ve done and that’s what anyone that loves this medium would do. And we had a year taken off our schedule. So it was literally like racing right in front of a train.

It’s been about a year now since the Time’s Up movement started. What have you seen change in your individual studios or in the animation world as a whole since then?

BELSON One thing that actually started to change a while ago — in the last seven to eight years — is that the number of women going through animation training, going to animation school, is higher than the number of men. So there is a little bit of a disconnect there, but it seems like the time has finally come. If all of the studios that we are part of can just change the culture — it’s not about being welcomed, it’s about understanding that you are needed and that you are essential. Of course, how could women not be essential to this process? So I’m pretty hopeful that the change is going to come.

MOORE I go to the CalArts Producers’ Show, which is the end-of-the-year film review at the university, and Kristine is right. When I was there in ’84 to ’87, our class was 25 students; five were women. Now more than half are women. So it’s going to happen. It’s going to change.

OUAOU It’s weird, though. It has been like that for some time now, but no one can quite explain the drop-off in terms of women in creative positions in animation. In terms of education, you have maybe 60 percent women representing the class, but then the drop-off is just gigantic in terms of going into the working world.

BIRD But it’s also people being inspired by examples. And women are continually stressing that when they are forceful and put their ideas forward, that’s not [considered] feminine, it’s not what they should do. The more that it’s OK for them to assert themselves, the more you’re going to see creative leadership because that’s what creative leadership is. You are basically imposing yourself on a system that doesn’t really want to accommodate you. I was explaining to my kids that in your 20s you have to be overconfident and you have to be louder and you have to be absolute that you know everything because you are about to get hammered by the world. You are leaving the protective shield of your parents and you are going to be told no 10,000 times, so you’d better overcompensate in every way and believe that you are the most vital thing to the success of the planet.

RADFORD And believe it.

BIRD And believe it. Because after 10 years of being pounded you’ll have a normal human being left. (Laughter.) But also I think that there are very selfish ways to look at being inclusive. If you’re just selfish, you want to work with the best people. And the best people are everywhere and they’re not just white guys. What I’m saying is there is a selfish reason to want women and minorities to be empowered.

RAMSEY It also points to a bigger problem. There are so many links in that chain — you’ve got to go down that chain and see where are the places that people can make a difference to open the doors. I think you’re definitely starting to see the effects of the attitudes shifting and the realization that it’s only taken a few movies being greenlit and becoming huge successes for people to start to go, “Oh.”

BIRD But people act like Hollywood has a brain. It doesn’t. It’s a shark. It is on the hunt for money. If something makes money, then it will get repeated.

BELSON What’s good is we’re finally not talking about diversity for diversity’s sake. We are recognizing that we need new voices, new storytellers — diverse storytellers — to create new heroes and new stories for this evolving, modern audience. The movie business needs it to survive.

RAMSEY People are admitting they’re not just flukes when they’re successes. “Oh, well that was only successful because Will Smith is a huge star” — there’s always been this reason or circular logic.

MOORE I remember when I started in animation. The thinking was young people will never be able to direct. It’s like if you want to direct animation, you need to be at least 50 years old. Once people can prove that they can do the job, all that stuff just disappears.

RADFORD I’m in total agreement. I do think that it does take time to work into a position where you get to be the person who chooses. But I was very fortunate to work for a company that was very diverse to begin with. I worked on The Color Purple and a lot of family fare. They embraced diversity. You’ve got to work hard because those kinds of organizations, the successful ones, they don’t suffer fools. You have to do your job well, and then you get to be put in a position of recognizing where this really diverse talent is.

Do you think we are going to see more diversity in creative leadership by this Roundtable next year, or is it a few years away?

BELSON Certainly at Sony Animation I’m really happy that we do have a lot of diverse filmmakers, but it takes so long to make these movies that you won’t be sitting with them next year — but in about three years, I hope.

OUAOU Female directors are not well represented. For us at Illumination, there are a lot of female writers to choose from. Female illustrators and designers, there are a lot to choose from. We have female editors at Illumination. Female directors is still a big challenge.

RAMSEY Animation is a glacier that’s moving pretty slowly. The changes are happening, but it kind of goes back to what I was saying about that chain of places where you can start to make a difference. One of the big gateways to animation, the main one, is art school. And who gets to go to art school? Who sees that as a viable option? Who even knows that that’s a viable option? When I was growing up, I grew up in South Central L.A., that mentality was a thousand miles away from me. I think it’s a lot different now. The information is easier to access.

OUAOU Also with social media and Instagram.

BIRD You can get a DVD player and watch classics frame by frame.

RAMSEY Exactly, you can go to film school all by yourself. But when we’re talking about studios hiring people out of places like CalArts or Sheridan [College in Toronto] or wherever, you start to see there’s still at this point a little bit of a bottleneck. How do you either change that or make those places more open and accessible — or even let people know that they exist?

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We’re seeing more and more “hybrid” movies, a combination of CG and live action, like Paddington 2; and virtual productions, like The Lion King. Do you consider these animated movies?

BIRD Well, which half of me are you asking? The live-action half of me is kind of getting sick of the way the movies look all computerized. We bent over backward in Mission: Impossible [Ghost Protocol] to make our stunts real. Where Tom [Cruise] is actually on the building in Dubai, we eliminated cables [with VFX] but he was out there swinging around. It’s not a CG Tom Cruise. I do think you can feel it. And listen, I come from animation. I am not against animated effects. But I think there’s a tendency to just plunk people down in front of a greenscreen and think we’ll figure it out later. And I hate that.

MOORE Do you think Jungle Book, the recent one, was animation?

OUAOU Yeah, I do.


RAMSEY Yeah, it was.

MOORE The Lion King, the one that’s coming out next year ­— there’s not going to be a human character in it, like Mowgli. It’s an animated film.

RADFORD That’s animation.

BIRD I was mentored by Milt Kahl, who was one of Disney’s Nine Old Men. And they used live action on those hand-drawn films. But he hated animators leaning on it. And it ended up being an issue that was one of the things that got me fired because I was vocal about it, the rotoscoping.

RADFORD Motion capture is that now.

BIRD Kind of. It gets into so many gray areas, though, because I’ve seen actors that get wired up and they think that everything on the screen is a hundred percent them. And really, sometimes it is; but sometimes there’s nothing from what they’re doing. Because the animators look at it and go, “Screw this, I can do this better.” And they’ll do a scene that is completely emotional. I don’t want to get in trouble, but there’s stuff on Gollum [in the Lord of the Rings movies] that is a hundred percent key-framed [hand animated]. And Andy Serkis is brilliant, I absolutely credit much of that to him. But there are shots in there that are very emotional that were a hundred percent key-framed, and that’s the dirty little secret because animators aren’t supposed to do that — only actors can do that. And what I would love to see change is for actors to consider animators their brethren.

BELSON Thank you. Hear, hear.

MOORE The more that you bring actors into the process and they meet the animators and see what they do, they concede that fact: “It’s like these guys are as much actors as we are.”

BIRD I want actors to see animators as fellow actors.

BELSON As the great actors that they are.

BIRD Because we were doing a review session on Incredibles 2 and I’m talking over with an animator: “What we need to see here is this and you have something here, but I’d love to see it.” And we were breaking it down into what the character is thinking. And I turn around at the end of it, and Holly [Hunter, who voices Elastigirl] is sitting there, she’d just come in and just decided to hang out and watch. She was like, “I’ve never seen this before, this is very illuminating because it’s much of the same process that we go through internally as actors.” And it’s not competition — it’s expanding.

BELSON This whole conversation is making me think it’s not that interesting really to debate the semantic difference between animation and hybrid. But as the lines keep blurring, I have much optimism that movies are just going to get more and more interesting. It’s all just tools in the toolbox. And as the lines get blurred, you won’t think those movies are for kids, those movies are only for adults. They’ll just hopefully be awesome movies for everybody.

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