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Immersed in Movies: The Oscar-Nominated Animation Directors Tell Their Secrets

Immersed in Movies: The Oscar-Nominated Animation Directors Tell Their Secrets

I played Inside the Animation Studio with Don Hall and Chris Williams of Big Hero 6, Anthony Stacchi and Graham Annable of The Boxtrolls, Dean DeBlois of How to Train Your Dragon 2, Tomm Moore of Song of the Sea, and Isao Takahata of The Tale of the Princess Kaguya. The questions were simple and more personal and the responses were engaging and insightful.

Bill Desowitz: What makes your movies so personal for you?

Don Hall: It’s the culmination of a childhood dream come true to work at Disney,but also to indulge my love of Marvel comics. There are some very aspirational moments to it. The first flight is my favorite for that sequence alone. It connects to something deep as far as wish fulfillment. That said, during the journey of making this film, it uncovered a deeper, richer emotional experience than I ever imagined at the beginning. A minor scene: where GoGo comes in and gives Hiro a hug after the Tadashi video because he’s still feeling remorse for what he’s done. It allows him to forgive himself. It’s a relatively subtle point but I love that we kept finding more and more moments like that amidst all the fun and the comedy.

Anthony Stacchi: My way into the project was Alan Snow’s book and so much of it is about these lost boys and missing and absentee father figures. And my son had just been born and the sensibilities — the rawness around those new emotions is what appealed to me about the book and what I never wanted to lose. Although the film isn’t thematically about that, it’s always an important tone to the whole story of these absentee fathers and the sons they leave behind and the sons finding their way in the world. 

Graham Annable: For me, when I got the opportunity to board The Boxtrolls for Tony, it was developing and building that sense of family and that connection of Eggs to that family of Boxtrolls that was always the most appealing thing for me. And much like Tony and Travis Knight, I’ve got two young boys at home, and my oldest, James, grew up with this project with me in a very personal way. He was a part of it every day with me coming home and showing him animatics on my laptop. For him, it was poppa showing him his secret project and suddenly there were posters and trailers and it was fun experiencing it with him.

Dean DeBlois: The film was personal to me in the sense that I was 19 when my father passed away. So what Hiccup is going through in the story — not being prepared for the loss of someone so instrumental in your development as a parent and the suddenness that pushes him over the edge in leaving his childhood behind and taking on the mantle of adulthood — I felt the same thing in my life. There was my mother, who was not working, and we had four kids in our household, and it just forced me over the edge into becoming someone who could provide for the family and step into the adult role that I needed to take on at that point.

Tomm Moore: It’s based on my relationship with my sister and is set in 1987 when I was 10-years-old so it’s full of nostalgia for Ireland at that time. And keeping the old folk tales alive. It was something I thought about with my son and looking at the Ireland he was growing up in. And I realized that the stories had to be retold in a way that was relevant for modern audiences. That’s our responsibility as storytellers.

Isao Takahata: It is definitely a personal film for me. First, it is because I was able to declare through this film and its songs my basic, natural love for the Earth and the people, plants, and animals that live here. And second, I was able to take up the challenge of making an antithetical statement to the trend in animation films to pursue greater and greater reality in a virtual sense; that is, by stirring up people’s imagination and awakening their memories through pictures drawn on paper with lively, expressive lines and wash coloring while allowing them to be aware that these pictures are drawn on that flat surface.

BD: Why do you think your movie resonates so strongly with audiences?

DH: The issue of loss definitely resonates. But what’s great is that we have a thematically rich film with other themes that people seem to be picking up on as well. This idea of the celebration of intelligence across the board is something that people keep coming up to us and saying. And hearing stories of teenagers telling their parents that they can’t wait to go to college because of what they saw in the film is really gratifying.

AS: There is something universal about this coming of age story: the kids empowered against the really dark forces is what appeals to kids. I think the Dickensian world was also appealing because they essentially see how our villain, Snatcher, is able to maneuver in this world. And I think that kind of credible creation of a whole world with a really interesting, empathetic and motivated villain is what adults like about it. And at the end of the day, you can’t imagine a better resonance between the medium of the film, stop-motion, and the subject matter, a Victorian steampunk piece with fantastic costumes and weird machine.

DD: I have heard from so many people who find different aspects of the movie emotionally resonant. And others that I’m quite surprised by. I think the honesty of it and our dedication to tell a story that didn’t shy away from the tough, emotional moments seems to have been very welcome. I feel that animation as a medium is so powerful and yet so often treated as light entertainment. There’s almost a conventional wisdom that you can’t provoke your audience, you can’t go for deep, meaningful emotion. That’s been proven wrong time and again with many of the Pixar films and the early Disney films that I grew up on.

TM: I think all the family stuff that I drew from my own family, the sibling rivalry between older brothers and little sisters, that seems to resonate, and also a sense of disconnection with the landscape and the environment, even though that’s on an unconscious level in the movie. And the whole idea of not keeping your emotions bottled up.

IT: Nothing would delight me more if this is true. The reason, no doubt, is because audiences can identify with the story and its characters. I also think that audiences felt a fresh appeal in the ease and freedom of the drawings, as if a breeze were blowing through the screen, which is different from fantasy films that confine people inside their works and lead the audience by the nose.

BD: What was the biggest story challenge?

DH: It was the dual stories: trying to honor the main story about this 14-year-old super genius who loses his brother and the brother’s robot becoming a healer and surrogate, and combining that with a superhero origin story, which, for a while, was frustrating. I remember having conversations with Chris early on before he was on the movie about trying to weave these two things, which almost felt like they were repelling each other. That proved very difficult but it wasn’t until we hit on the idea of Baymax being the linchpin for drawing the team into this as a way of dealing with Hiro’s grief that I knew that we made these two seemingly separate stories into one.

GA: In general, it was that journey that we could all agree upon for making a 90-minute feature. And even without that, I’d say that one of the toughest characters to get right was Winnie because she was a composite of a lot of characters in Alan’s book and we refined it into this one character and who she was and how that was gonna work was a very difficult journey.

DD: When Toothless is ordered to blast Hiccup and Stoick dives in the way and takes the blast instead, that moment was particularly difficult to get right because it was paramount to us that there wouldn’t be a single audience member young or old that would fault Toothless after the fact. So orchestrating it in such a way that the audience understands and sympathizes with Toothless. I wanted it to feel as though these two have overcome this terrible obstacle and now they’re stronger than ever. 

TM: The biggest storytelling challenge was integrating the folklore into the family story we were telling. We kind of found the family story in the folklore, so we wound up refining and rewriting some of the folklore to fit the family story, but we also wanted to be true to all the folklore references. The mythology was getting complicated but looking at all the Miyazaki stuff, we realized that we didn’t have to explain everything. It could just be kind of the flavor, the backdrop to all the emotional arcs of the characters.

IT: My intent was to take up the challenge of reviving in our time The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, written at the end of the 9th century, a story familiar to all Japanese from children to adults. The original has the appeal of containing aspects that are enigmatic or amusing which are contradictory. But the tale is impossible to comprehend and the feelings of The Princess Kaguya, the main character, are totally unfathomable. My aspiration was to recreate the story into one that is understandable and to turn it into a film that allows us to identify with The Princess Kaguya’s feelings without changing the surface plot line and episodes of the original story.

BD: What was the biggest design challenge?

DH: The world was difficult. I’ve never seen a CG movie as dense as this with the amount of detail packed into every frame and to be able to coordinate all of that visual information because none of it is automatic. There are so many little details, like Hiro’s room: the paint splatter, the fact that you can tell that Cass didn’t take the tape off the beams when she painted.

AS: The biggest design challenge happened in a strange confluence. From the very beginning, we really settled on the look of the picture and the texture and the shape language. And then it took forever to fit our characters into that world.
GA: In a weird way it almost painted the design stuff into a corner. And getting that corner to feel comfortable for everyone was a huge task.
DD: The overall aging up of the characters. The personalities and design had to be retained, and there was a lot of trial and error, particularly with Hiccup, in trying to turn him into a 20-year-old without losing his appeal. So much of his charm lay in how dorky and awkward and mismatched he is to the rest of the Viking community. There were a lot of subtle shifts: elongating his jaw, giving him height but keeping the geek frame. In the end, people still recognize Hiccup from the first movie.

TM: Definitely finding a clever way to design the sea and keep that organic hand-drawn look in a way that we could afford and have it be a character in the film. It’s calm, sometimes it’s quite violent. So we had to design our way around the budget. We couldn’t do a Pixar and write amazing software or even what Ghibli did in Ponyo.

IT: I put my full trust into the wonderfully gifted talents of character design and directing animator Osamu Tanabe and art director Kazuo Oga. Even so, our effort to show on the screen what I intended — that is, to search out the most fitting expression for the spiritual or psychological meaning in each scene — required endless trial and error by the three of us. For each shot we considered how rough, how strong, and what colors to make the lines; how much to allow for blank, unfinished spaces; how much difference to make in the expression between parts where the movement is fast and intense and parts that are calm; and on and on. This meant we couldn’t use the “assembly-line” method that is normal for animation film production.

BD: What was the biggest animation challenge?

Chris Williams: We have a house style here at Disney and the artists really pride themselves on observation and truthful acting and we have these really complex and human models. And at the other end of the spectrum, you have Baymax, who is so simple, just these two eyes and his acting was so limited, just being able to blink quickly or slowly, nod or tilt his head one way or another. But that allowed the audience to impose so much emotion onto Baymax. The Tadashi video scene is a perfect example of that.

Technologically, the rapid prototyping of faces had a reached a place where they were able to make them smaller and give them really subtle performances and really elaborate paint textures, so we weren’t held back by the technology. We could go as realistic as we wanted or as grotesque as we wanted with the caricature. But early on, Snatcher was more of an old style Disney/Zero Mostel type villain: he was big and bubbly. He was still bad and doing terrible things, but he went through a lot of permutations until Sir Ben really nailed him down in that first recording session.

DD: I’ve often heard [animation supervisor] Simon Otto talk about how the human animation in How to Train Your Dragon 2 is the best that the studio has ever done. And a lot of it was trying to fine the line between having it feel naturalistic without losing a cartoony playfulness as well. It’s a subtle thing because Hiccup is very close to human proportions and so there isn’t a lot of caricature in him. And finding the moments where we could be playful with the acting and at the same time keep all of the physics in check and deliver performances that are truthful and well observed was the toughest animation challenge. 

TM: Again, the sea. It ended up being a real hybrid between hand-drawn animation and then using the computer to make the most out of the hand-drawn animation that we could do.

IT: No matter how talented the two lead staff are and no matter how many pictures they drew, it was impossible for their drawings to be the only ones used throughout the entirety of this film with a running time of over two hours. It was essential to divide the labor in order to complete the enormous number of drawings needed for the film in a set amount of time. Despite the incredibly difficult task of copying the non-design style drawings of the two, the entire animation staff worked with dedication and total cooperation in their efforts to complete this film. In my mind, this was a near miracle.

BD: What was your best day?

DH: I would say our best days are so closely linked to our worst days. Usually after a big screening, we’ll be confronted with thing that are working and things that aren’t working and you come face to face with them. You can’t ignore them and so that can sometimes be disheartening and challenging. But what I’ll always see is this energy, this spirit and this confidence in our story crew, and somebody would start the ball rolling and we’d have a breakthrough. So I’d always find that our best day would fall right on the heels of our worst day.

AS: Our reward was going to the studio in London to hear Dario Marianelli play that score.

GA: Yeah, sitting comfortably on the couch and watching Dario running the show and elevating everything with the music and the live orchestra. I don’t even have words for it — it was amazing.

DD: The best day overall was hearing John Powell play us back the first melodies for our story because I have such respect for musicians and I can’t play music myself but I love it and look forward to that moment after we’ve been crafting the story and building up the scenes to having the composer come in and lay a custom piece of music and deliver a good third of the storytelling.

TM: My best day was maybe the day with the orchestra because that day was like magic. Most of it was finished and then hearing the orchestra play the score and it was overlaid with the music we’d already recorded by Kila. 

IT: That was the day when I felt that the staff, upon watching the daily rushes, realized how good the result was and I could sense that it boosted their feelings of anticipation to complete the film. They were able to strengthen their solidarity at that point. But the very best day would have to be the day of the initial screening of the completed film for the entire staff. It was when I saw the faces, faces, faces of satisfaction for what they had accomplished by joining together as one to work so hard.

BD: What was your worst day?

AS: The worst day was after working on it for more than two years, we had it up on reels when ParaNorman was in mid-production and then it all fell apart. We had a screening, we got a lot of notes and Travis just said it wasn’t working. It was strange because we had built this thing and had all made decisions together. And the consensus earlier had been that we just had to make this a little bit funnier. And then it all completely collapsed. There was much more of the book still in the story when that first crash happened. That happens a lot in animation before you find the right story.

DD: When I’m writing and confronting my demons and force the story out of myself and have the courage not to throw it all away.

TM: I think one of the worst days was early on when we only had 18 months and much less money than we thought we needed to get it made. It came together in the end, but there was definitely a period there where it looked like it was going to be impossible to really do it justice. 

IT: My character seems to be foolishly optimistic so that I immediately forget anything bad, so I don’t remember my worst day.

BD: What was the hardest scene to get right?

DH: For me, the hardest scene to get right was that goodbye moment in the portal. We did a lot iterations of that and I wouldn’t say they were wildly different as far as concept goes because it was an intimate scene. But that one we worked and worked and worked because it was so emotional. There were times where maybe we were pushing a little too hard with it. Or that we weren’t pushing enough. Ultimately, the combination of making Hiro more agitated in the final pass with the calmness of Baymax gave the scene the energy it needed.

GA: It’s gotta be the dance. That dance sequence was far more crushing than either of us had ever anticipated. We told you this story before, Bill, but it was that whole idea of making the fish out of water story feel bigger. It was working and was funny but once everything else started changing and improving, so it escalated and we turned it into a ballroom scene and a great dance number. But when we presented it to the studio, everyone’s stomach just hit the floor because technically they realized right away how deep the waters were getting. It took all 18 months of our animation schedule to get less than two minutes of footage done.
DD: The hardest scene was the moment that Valka and Stoick sing and dance together was tough because the potential for it to become hokey was very high, and we realized that unless we played it with complete honesty and delivered it in a raw way, it was going to fall apart and suddenly feel like our characters were suddenly breaking into song in a musical moment. So it was very important to convey in the acting that this was Stoick’s tactic to remind Valka of the woman she once was.

TM: I think the most challenging scene was the last scene when the mother has to say goodbye to the son. That had to be really subtle and took a lot of careful animation to get that right, doing the storyboard first, then the posing and we only had one animator and she just took her time and showed us the different steps and it was delicate.

IT: The hardest was the scene where The Princess Kaguya and Sutemaru fly through the sky. When I first thought of this scene, I was overly ambitious, wanting them to fly not only above the Earth, that is above Japan’s wonderfully varied landscape, but also within the landscape. At the design stage I went through a lot of trial and error to attempt to realize this, to no avail. But that was during the design stage. Since I am basically steeped in frugality, as with other scenes, once a scene was animated, I did not waste the staff’s work by choosing to throw out any scenes. There were no shots that I cut after they had been animated.

BD: What’s your favorite moment?

DH: The portal scene, the goodbye, finding that less is more. It’s a really silent scene but getting that emotion just right took iteration after iteration. We were tinkering with that all the way to the end because it was so important.

CW: Even when we played an early version of that scene that was just layout, there were 30 people sitting in a room in tears. And yet we were a long way from finding the exact version of the scene.

AS: For me, hearing Winnie tell Eggs what a father is supposed to be. We all know that her father is not like that and we see in some very subtle animation Eggs’ face start to light up as he hears this is what fathers do and he can help the Boxtrolls. But wait a minute: it turns out that she’s blown it way out of proportion.

GA: Yeah, Tony’s favorite is the quietest moment in the film and mine is the loudest moment: the end for Snatcher — his demise, which we worked out early on pretty much as an homage to Monty Python. And getting that sequence to work and the timing of it, I never tire of sneaking into a theater to watch it.

DD: I think that the funeral was very special in the way it turned out. Craig Ferguson did a wonderful job reading that eulogy and I think Hiccup speaks the words I wish had done with the clarity and maturity I could’ve spoken at my own dad’s own funeral. It’s a quiet, cathartic moment.

TM: The part with the spirit dog is my favorite scene. It had a nice kinetic energy to it and it was something I visualized early on as a kind of ET flying by sequence, and it came together better than I expected it.

IT: I am fond of all of the scenes, so I can’t name just one. If I do, then I would feel sorry for the other scenes.

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