Here are the highlights of my interviews with the Oscar-nominated animated feature directors: Pete Docter (Pixar’s Inside Out), Charlie Kaufman & Duke Johnson (Starburns Industries’ Anomalisa), Mark Burton & Richard Starzak (Aardman’s Shaun the Sheep Movie), Alê Abreu (Boy and the World from Gkids) and Hiromasa Yonebayashi (Studio Ghibli’s When Marnie Was There, also from Gkids). What you come away with is a group of contenders grappling with family, identity and greater self-awareness.
Pete Docter on Inside Out
Bill Desowitz: The dinner scene is a complex moment that sets up Riley’s unhappiness and her inability to express it to her parents. How did it come together?
Pete Docter: It’s interesting you picked that one out because that was probably the first sequence that really worked. And it was early in our storyboarding that that one sparkled. And we showed the whole movie and there was kind of a malaise until that scene came on and then the audience comes alive. John said make that and in any Pixar production that was the earliest approved sequence. So with that we struggled to build the film around it because we knew there was entertainment there. And we did make chiropractic changes as things went on, bit it really was an example early on of the opportunity that this film afforded, which was the juxtaposition of the outside and the inside. And I think that’s reflective in family dinners and I’m totally guilty of being at dinner but not really being at dinner…mentally. ‘Cuz I’m still thinking about work, usually, as opposed to sports. I don’t think about sports too often.
BD: Ultimately, it’s about growing up and you use Bing Bong, Riley’s imaginary friend, as a metaphor.
PD: Yeah, he’s the spirit of childhood and was a great discovery because that gets to the heart of what it was we were talking about in the film: holding on to childhood and not wanting to grow up and knowing that it’s necessary to grow up. It’s a struggle that seems to play out in a lot of things we make at Pixar and the films that we respond to.
BD: And yet the film is dedicated to your kids with the hope that they never grow up. Metaphorically, anyway, because they should always retain their childlike spirit.
PD: Right. And Joy will continue to help Riley keep that sense of imagination and playfulness.
BD: What has been your takeaway?
PD: All the films I’ve worked on have changed me in some way. It’s almost like the process of thinking about this stuff day in and day out is like meditation where you’re ruminating on the same kind of themes and ideas.
BD: What was the journey with Monsters, Inc.?
PD: Monsters was about the love of work vs. love of kids and home and trying to find a balance there. I think at the time I was spending a lot of time at work and then having a baby of my own got me thinking, “Whoa, there’s more to this.” That ended up changing me a lot too.
BD: And Up?
PD: Up was about escaping the world, wanting to get away from everybody because I still get overwhelmed and topped off and can’t to anybody and just want to hide under the table. But, of course, what real life is about is connection. Escapism is nice, but, ultimately, what is going to change you and make a difference in your life is connecting with people.
BD: And Inside Out?
PD: Inside Out
is about connecting with people and I think that’s the reason why Sadness is there. It’s only through the emotions that are negative that we are able to deeply connect with people.
Charlie Kaufman & Duke Johnson on Anomalisa
BD: Charlie, how did you approach this for stop-motion?
Charlie Kaufman: There was obviously figuring out the visual components, which Duke and I did, and what the puppets were going to look like and how they moved and that sort of thing. That led to an animatic where we plotted out the movements. We did the voice records first.
BD: In terms of the look, you went for naturalism but still showed the seams on the faces.
CK: Yeah, once we decided to use that replacement animation, and the seams are a function of that animation, and other movies paint those out, we decided we wanted to keep the presence of the animation and the type of animation that it was rather than make it look polished. It created a kind of vulnerability, I think.
BD: I’ve enjoyed how your work explores overcoming solipsism and trying to connect with people.
CK: Yeah, we’re all subjective beings and trapped in our own realities and our own biographical stories and physical bodies and our histories — and that’s the only way we can experience the world. Certainly the argument for a solipsistic position philosophy is that there really is nothing else you can know except what you experience from inside your body. So it’s hard to know if anything else is real, but obviously people need to connect and there’s a struggle to do that and I’m interested in that struggle.
BD: What fascinated you about Michael and Lisa coming together?
CK: These two people seemed to come out of that conversation I was having with myself about the struggle to connect.
BD: Duke, tell us about the challenge of animating this.
Duke Johnson: Just the overall challenge of trying to create an animated experience that felt subtle and nuanced and authentic to the emotional experience that the characters were having in the film. It was a big challenge because we were limited financially, first of all, with how we could manufacture the puppets and we had to get as much of the mood and the tone as we could out of the lighting and the atmosphere.
And focus the attention on the puppets, like on the eyes, to get the performances. Specifically, the sex scene was challenging because we were aware of the possibility that it could go too comical just from the sense that it was puppets having sex. And that wasn’t the story… it was the natural progression of these two people being in his hotel room. It took a long time to discuss and figure that out technically.
BD: Right, you spent six months on this alone. But how did you problem solve it?
Really, it was just having the characters remain themselves throughout that interaction. How would Lisa and Michael be moving and feeling during this moment? And how would they be interacting in a way that’s consistent with the scene leading up to it? And also from a technical standpoint, how do bodies move, how do you fill their silences between the dialogue?
Mark Burton & Richard Starzak on Shaun the Sheep Movie
BD: Shaun is a simple story: summer boredom, the farm’s in a rut, the sheep try and break free and it becomes their worst nightmare. But they come back with freshness and renewal.
RS: That’s exactly what it is. We kinda had that idea pretty early, but to execute it…
MB: Yeah, I think the best films are very simple ideas that are held together, which is difficult.
BD: Along with your Shaun cast, your little dog steals the movie and you’ve got a nice villain, who’s very familiar.
RS: We were inspired by Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and that structure’s very simple with this great running gag about a villain trying to catch him. So we thought we’d put Trumber in that mold.
BD: And the farmer becoming a popular hairdresser is brilliant.
MB: It made us laugh because essentially that’s what he is with the sheep. The idea of his becoming a heterosexual hairdresser is something we hung on to.
BD: Let’s talk about the prison-like animal shelter sequence.
MB: The world is naturalistic and the absurdity is the sheep being in that world, and so we thought if you were going to have an animal coming into a rescue center, it would be like San Quentin to the animals. That was the comic backdrop. That gave us the idea of having all these scary-looking dogs and lots of prison tropes. And that led to the Hannibal Lecter gag. And then we introduce the Slip dog character, which is another silent movie trope. And we have this one moment, a thematic thing, where the couple arrive looking for a new pet, and all the animals are on their best behavior.
We were working on that sequence, but we knew it wasn’t plot but it would be a nice moment to have… all these animals that just want to be adopted. Because there’s an underlying theme if you want to reach in and find it about good parenting and bad parenting, and taking our families for granted. So we kept it in there and that leads into the farmer and how his life gets better, Shaun’s life gets worse.
Alê Abreu on Boy and the World
BD: Talk about how this began as a documentary, Canto Latino, about the formation of South America and how you inserted the boy into it.
Alê Abreu: I was doing research into the development of an animadoc (an animated documentary) about the early history of Latin America. And one day in one of my notebooks I found this character I had drawn on a previous occasion. It wasn’t the just something in the character that attracted me, rather it was the very simple, scribbled almost “urgent” way in which he was drawn. There was a spirit there which captured the essence of the Canto Latino project in one image. I felt as if the boy were waving at me, calling me to discover his story. I put aside Canto Latino to find Boy and the World.
BD: You drew in the spirit of a child with various patterns, bright colors and different techniques. Tell us more about your use of different paints, pens and pencils and the use of newspaper and magazine collage.
AA: The idea was to start with a completely blank sheet of paper. A metaphysical void, I would say . Where we had come from and where we were going. This child emerges into this space, a garden full of colors and organic textures. And as he starts walking toward a knowledge of the things of this world built by men, the collage of newspaper and magazine clippings begins covering over this white, luminous and sacred space.
BD: You’ve said this was like a game. How so?
AA: You’re referring to the way in which the film was created, right? Yes, it was like a game, in the sense that I made a film practically without a screenplay, working directly from my sensations which I then transformed into small movie segments. I then tried to somehow connect these segments in a search for some larger meaning. In this way I began to discover the characters and their connections. I believe that many of these discoveries surprised me in the same way it surprises some viewers at certain moments in the film.
BD: What was the significance of the theme of Latin American colonization and how it relates to the boy and his journey?
AA: I think the boy represents in a certain way the “childhood” of these countries. The theme of the loss of a father and the search for a father is a recurrent one in Latin American cinema — the father as fatherland. I asked myself during my research for Canto Latino, how these Latin American countries, born as exploited colonies with such difficult “childhoods,” and marked by military dictatorships that served specific economic interests, had arrived at today’s globalized world.
BD: And how did you develop this visually as a metaphor for the boy?
I think that above all the Canto Latino
project provided me with a background, this historical overview through which I could then have the boy circulate and discover his own story. This child’s eyes were fundamental to the whole visual universe we created. Everything went through the boy. I tried to bring out more primitive elements in my drawing, inspired by the freedom of children when they draw. It was always a boy facing the world.
Hiromasa Yonebayashi on When Marnie Was There
BD: Is “Ghibli Gothic” an accurate description of Marnie, which gives off the aura of a ghost story?
Hiromasa Yonebayashi: I didn’t consciously intend to make it a ghost story, but since I’m a fan of chilling stories, maybe some of that naturally seeped through. But if you watch the entire film, I’m sure you’ll find that it’s a story of love.
BD: After both Miyazaki-san and Suzuki-san recommended the book, you liked it but weren’t convinced it could be captured with animation. Talk about the visual image of Anna and Marnie that lingered in your mind and became the catalyst for your proceeding with the project.
HY: In the book, Anna and Marnie interact quite a bit. As I read it, I was excited by the mysteriousness of these two girls spending time together even though in reality they’re not supposed to be able to be together. And so I wanted to depict through animation the warmth, the smells, and other things that Anna experiences. It proved to be very difficult.
BD: The setting of Hokkaido is important with its marshes and lush beauty and seaside charm. Did it come to you immediately as a location or did it take time?
HY: When I thought of marshes in Japan, the first place that came to mind was East Hokkaido. The key members of the team were assembled in August, and Hokkaido has a short summer, so in order to scout the location as our setting, we needed to make a quick decision. Miyazaki was against it, but we couldn’t lose any time.
BD: The stone mansion is like one of the characters: tell us about bringing it to life.
HY: I asked the production designer, Yohei Taneda, to make the mansion feel like a mother that watches over Anna. It was designed after scouting various locations in Hokkaido and combining elements of various buildings. It’s so meticulously designed that it could be built in real life, and I think that’s helped to create something with real presence.
BD: Take us through the various challenges: story, design and animation and the overall color palette.
HY: In the book, Anna says she likes gray, pearly skies. It’s an important passage that expresses Anna’s heart, so the challenge was to find a way to bring that to life. Typically, Ghibli films have always featured clean, blue skies, but it needed to be different this time. It wasn’t easy to draw cloudy skies and still make the landscape clear and beautiful, but it reflects the tone of the character, and I think it’s resulted in a distinctive mood overall.
BD: Yohei Taneda comes from live-action. But he created an exhibition from Arrietty. Tell us what it was like collaborating with him and what he brought to the movie.
HY: In this film, Marnie is a fantastical presence, so the scenes of Anna’s normal daily life needed to be drawn in a more realistic way. That’s where Taneda’s designs from his live-action sensibilities proved very effective. What was stimulating was that he was even proactive about involving himself with things like the food on the dining table or the diary, which are things that are typically handled by the animators. Sometimes it created more work, but the resulting effect was terrific.