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Immersed in Movies: Talking with the Best Animated Feature Oscar Nominees

Immersed in Movies: Talking with the Best Animated Feature Oscar Nominees

I recently chatted with the Oscar nominees for The Croods (directors Chris Sanders and Kirk DeMicco), Despicable Me 2 (Chris Renaud), Ernest & Celestine (Benjamin Renner), Frozen (Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee), and The Wind Rises (producer Toshio Suzuki). We discussed what makes their work personal, challenging, and relatable.

The Croods

What was it like making the first movie about a family at DreamWorks?

Chris Sanders: The number of characters that we had to deal with and we could never cut away from and the dynamic between them was an immense amount of work. I think story wise, it was a puzzle to work out on a scene by scene basis. I would describe it as a dance, handing off the scene from character to character to be sure that we didn’t lose anybody but that each scene has a voice and point of view, and each scene has a lead character. We never recorded a scene that didn’t change in some way. So this really was a family project in more than way.

Kirk DeMicco: It’s about family and universally relatable stories and so Nick [Cage] would talk about his sister-in-law. So everyone brings it to the party and makes them feel like a family.

Did you draw on anything personal?

CS: When I went to swimming lessons as I kid I was absolutely terrified. I was left behind watching kids advance three or four times. And it wasn’t until one night when I was at the pool with my grandfather that I could finally take my feet off the bottom of the pool. After I got over this fear of mine, I started swimming like crazy and caught up to my classmates and passed them up and by the end of the summer they were asking me to be on the swim team. So this is what the Croods are going through and the Maze was designed to change the characters, to show that change, but also to illustrate where Grug is still stuck. And it was an incredible opportunity for the designers to influence where the characters were going. The flower field is a great example: the effect of the sunlight filtering through the red flowers was like putting a rose-colored gel through our camera. It’s shockingly beautiful.

KD: It’s interesting. When I first started writing it with John Cleese, it was a buddy comedy and the fear of change theme was still there, but when Chris and I started working, it had more to do with the fear of inventions and new technology and that’s a big part of the movie. But the emotional part, what really resonates, is the fear of a [child] growing up. And so you can’t escape that. It scares the shit out of every dad that his daughter’s going to grow up. And becoming a father last year before the movie opened, that’s what really speaks to me. 

Where do you take the Croods in the sequel?

KD: The cool thing is having the family right there and while the first one was a father-daughter story, there are a lot of other stories to tell. And the great thing about the caveman world is that everything has been stripped away. There are no rules, there’s no society, so it’s the perfect metaphor to talk about family relationships.

Despicable Me 2

How has this become personal for you?
Chris Renaud: I think for both Pierre [Coffin] and me, I think what we like about the characters and the world is that there’s the parent we’d like to be but then there’s the parent that we actually are. And maybe that’s the one that’s a little bored with a show that we watch over and over again. It’s those kinds of things that we can’t admit, but through a character like Gru, you can enjoy that cathartic experience. By the same token, while maybe you do some things begrudgingly, at the end of the day, you do the best for your kids. I think that a scene like Gru wearing a princess dress at the party in the beginning is culled from personal experience on my part and the writers after being drafted by your wife to wear one of those costumes because somebody doesn’t show up on time.
Talk about the Minions taking off in the sequel.
CR: They were sort of a way of giving Gru some innate appeal in the first film. Here’s a guy who’s surrounded by incompetents and he knows their names, he likes hanging out with them. And immediately it rubs off. And of course we knew we had something special and after they become popular with the audience, we made them central to the plot. Partly because Gru is not a villain anymore and we needed a plot driver. So instead of looking externally we looked internally. And the place where we could have Gru being Gru was in developing Margo as the girl who’s growing up and starting to take an interest in boys. And that was a place where Gru rails against the boy and not the [real] villain in his obsessive desire to be a protective father. That was one of the first scenes that landed because of Steve Carell being a dad and understanding the emotion involved.
What about the Peter Sellers influence, including The Party?
CR: The Party, for sure. In fact, I don’t want to give it away but we’re doing some things in the Minions movie where we were talking about The Party. But even After The Fox and Dr. Strangelove. Sellers always created these bigger than life characters and we’ve talked about Mr. Bean and getting back to the school of physical comedy. Those are the big influences on Pierre and myself.
Where do you take Gru from here in the next one?
CR: It’s a good question and one we’re talking about actively. To us, the core of it is always about family and family dynamic and that’s what’s relatable about it. I used to always describe the first movie as Darth vader adopting three little girls. Think of all your family relationships and there’s plenty of things to make you a rascal.

Ernest & Celestine
How personal has this movie been for you?
Benjamin Renner: To be honest, I’ve put a lot of myself into these two characters. They like to do the things they like. Celestine likes drawing for pleasure and Ernest likes playing music for pleasure. Everyone likes being creative even though people tell you that’s not you can do when you grow up and I wanted to put that in the film. And Celestine’s a kid and everyone tells her she has to be a dentist. And Ernest is a guy who’s made this choice and is really happy with it. So I really love how these two characters can meet and have this weird relationship when he’s supposed to eat her because he’s a bear.
Are people surprised to learn that the watercolor backgrounds were hand-drawn but the characters were Flash-animated?
BR: Yeah, usually in France it’s the opportunity. We wanted to have this watercolor and we wanted to have this feel on paper so that’s why we made it on paper with ink. And the hand-drawn animation on computer was a decision we made because we wanted to have a sketchy look and animation on computer is really easy.
Talk about creating the underground world of the mice for the film.
BR: We wanted to have these two different worlds and the idea of the dentist thing came from the tooth fairy story in France. The tooth fairy doesn’t really exist, it’s a mouse who comes to get your teeth. So we came up with this industry built around the teeth and so everyone in this mouse society must become a dentist. And in the bear world, it’s about one person concentrating on his business. So it’s more like a selfish society focusing on one person, so we wanted to have this contradiction between those two worlds.


Now that a few people have seen the movie, let’s discuss the challenge of turning this story upside down with the two surprise twists at the end.

Jennifer Lee: I always thought we knew that’s how it was going to be, but when I looked back at our notes, we didn’t know that [the prince] was going to turn so dark for a while. And then it really felt that’s what Anna needed. She needed to learn about heartbreak and understanding the shallowness of [first-time] romantic love vs. real love by being confronted with it. But one of the things that was a wrestle with the studio a bit was to kiss or not to kiss. People went back and forth and thought they should kiss and it not work. We finally figured out that it was a lot of the women who didn’t want them to kiss and it wasn’t for some romantic reason: it was because there’s no greater slap in the face than for him to think she’s not even worth the kiss. And that’s where the gasp comes from that we were getting from the audience. Yes, it’s a shock that he turns. But the real shock is that he doesn’t think she’s worth kissing. So that was a fun discovery for us.

What about the next surprise with the kiss?

Chris Buck: Well, that came about as redefining true love, which is what we talked about from the beginning. Can we do something different than the guy kissing the girl and saving the day? I felt it could be very strong and emotional and Jenn was right there with me. But that surprise of Anna going for her sister, not knowing that it’s going to save her life but just going because she loved her sister.

JL: And when I came on the project, we knew we were making a tonal change. We were going much bigger. We were going for comedy/musical vs. action/adventure. So Ed Catmull said you could change anything in the movie if you need to, but you have to earn that ending, you have to earn that moment when Anna makes that choice. And if you earn it, it’ll be wonderful. And if you don’t, it’ll suck. And he walked away. So that was my intro to Frozen. No pressure. 

And I’d check in after every screening and he’d say not yet, almost. And at the final screening where we brought it to an audience in Arizona, he hadn’t seen it in a few months, and he said we’d done it, thank goodness. In order for it to work the way we wanted, you had to support the parallel stories, you had to support Anna’s journey and awakening about what love is. And you’re doing it in a romantic way about throwing yourself into the arms of the first guy who gives her attention, and you have to make that feel plausible because she’s so desperate for love, and then meeting someone else who’s not the prince, who’s messy and smelly. But he’s a great person inside. But you’re not letting that story turn into a cliche or overshadow the sisters. But it’s fundamental to getting her to a place where she can understand love even beyond that, which is the love that she has for her sister.

The Wind Rises

What made this so special?

Toshio Suzuki: Hayao Miyazaki is a man of contradictions — he loves fighter planes, but hates war. Before starting work on this film, Miya-san was saying, “What made me like this?”  I think this underlying question made this such a special film for him.

Did it seem more personal to him, given the more adult subject matter, his connection with the engineer and the period?

TS:  He told me his uncle managed a company that made Zero fighter parts during the war, and that his father was a board member of that company. It seems that he remembers fighter plane parts lying around at home. I think those memories traumatized him.

What was it like doing the earthquake sequence, which is so dramatically effective?

TS: Miya-san believed history should be drawn as it was.  Because of this, he reasoned that the film’s protagonist and its heroine must have met each other amid this earthquake. Encounters in Miyazaki’s animation are always dramatic. I thought this sequence was done in a very “Miya-san” way. The next day after he finished storyboarding this sequence, The Great East Japan Earthquake struck. He was torn whether this sequence should be kept as is or not.  I remember it well, how he asked me for my opinion and I advised he should go ahead with it.

What was it like depicting the tragic love story?

TS: He had three things in mind when making this film.The respect and friendship that transcends time and place, with an Italian aeronautical engineer Caproni who really existed. The birth of the Zero fighter plane that later became legendary. The encounter and separation with the ill-fated heroine Nahoko from the novel Kaze Tachinu, written by his beloved writer Tatsuo Hori. Tatsuo Hori’s female character Naoko also dies of tuberculosis in his novel.

Was there anything new for Studio Ghibli to prepare for the making of this?

TS: Doing human-voiced sound effects. This turned out to be a very thrilling and suspenseful challenge for us.

What did Miyazaki-san seem to enjoy the most about the making of this movie? What was the most difficult parts for him to get right?

TS:  He had a grim, stern expression on his face everyday during production.Probably, the only pleasant moments for him were wishing for the film’s completion and the sense of liberation that would come with it.

What does he say this movie means to him as his final artistic statement about life and art?

TS:  Though this is not well known, Hayao Miyazaki is very knowledgeable about war.  He is familiar with the history of not only Japan’s wars but also of wars around the world, and gets especially passionate when talking about the Eastern Front of World War II. The death toll was 20 million, according to him. He denounces it as the most foolish conflict mankind has ever experienced. I believe the film’s subject choice was perfect for his final film.

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