Animation Directors Use Cutting-Edge Tech to Amplify Emotion

The diversity of animated features — both content and assembly — continues to evolve in lockstep with filmmaking technology’s almost daily leaps and bounds. This ever-changing landscape creates new challenges and opportunities for directors to tell stories that encapsulate everything from epic blockbuster spectacles to personal, relationship-driven dramas. 

“Animation is such a powerful medium in exploring complicated themes in an easily accessible way,” says Pixar director Domee Shi, whose “Turning Red” tells the coming-of-age story of Mei, a 13-year-old girl in 2000s-era Toronto, who turns into a giant red panda at the onset of puberty. “I think animation also almost tricks the audience into believing magical logic a little bit more, because it’s already an abstracted version of reality.”

In a process that took more than four years, Shi utilized some of the industry’s most cutting-edge technologies to progressively expand her team of collaborators, from two co-writers (Sarah Streicher for the first draft and then Julia Cho for subsequent ones), to all the additional eyes, ears, hands and eventual voices that brough the film to life.

During the 2020 COVID lockdown, she held remote discussions with her co-DP Mahyar Abousaeedi (along with Jonathan Pytko) about the scale of the stadium location for a pivotal sequence. 

Shi recalls, “He said, ‘How about I take you inside the stadium just to show you how big and small it actually is?’” Using VR equipment shipped to her home, they explored the dimensions of the location together. “I’m standing in my guest room and we’re popping around the stadium. It was fun,” she says.

Shi worked her way through the Pixar ranks as a story artist (“Inside Out”), storyboard artist (“Incredibles 2,” “Toy Story 4”), and won an Oscar for animated short film for 2018’s “Bao.” 

Despite her use of such high-tech tools, she always sees character as the core of the work.

“I know that each director approaches a film differently, but for me I found a lot of success through character-first, instead of story-first or plot-first,” she says. “For me, the character of Mei and her mother, that was the first thing that materialized.”

Starting with a personal seed idea that grew into a feature also applies to Henry Selick’s “Wendell & Wild,” which began 20 years ago as a sketch he drew of his two young sons as demons, and a corresponding seven-page story that he tucked away at the time. 

The veteran director (“Coraline,” “Nightmare Before Christmas”) became a fan of Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele from their Comedy Central show and thought the duo would be a good fit for his demon siblings. 

“They were both interested in working with me, but Jordan wanted to do more,” says Selick, noting the conversation took place in 2015, just before “Get Out” altered Peele’s career trajectory. “He basically pitched the idea of being a full collaborator with me — he didn’t want to just do voices.”

Selick and Peele worked together on the script, reworking elements and characters, and began animation tests in summer 2018. After an almost yearlong shutdown due to COVID, the film arrived on Netflix in the fall after premiering at this year’s Toronto Intl. Film Festival. 

While Selick’s brand of stop-motion animation dates back to old-school classics from directors including Ray Harryhausen, he keeps an open mind toward modern innovations.

“After decades of doing this, there are certain things that are settled, but I also like to explore new things,” he says, describing a sequence in “Wendell & Wild” in which the eponymous brothers invade a dream of the protagonist, Kat, as gigantic floating hands and faces. “We came up with a brand-new technique for how to make those hands and faces and how to animate them. They’re not like anything else that’s ever been done in stop motion.”

The painstaking, hands-on work that goes into stop-motion animation is also on display this season in another Netflix film, “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio,” which del Toro and his co-director Mark Gustafson spent more than a decade developing, even before its five years of meticulous production. 

“The medium is my favorite medium. I practiced it, taught it at school and even did it professionally in Mexico, but it had been decades since trying to reapproach it,” says del Toro. “I thought a story about a puppet in a world of puppets was ideal and it would charm audiences with something that felt handmade and hand carved, painted, rendered, and lit. There is something magical about it.”

Del Toro, whose stunningly visual and fantastical films include Oscar-winners “The Shape of Water” and “Pan’s Labyrinth,” adds that “Pinocchio” is not a film for young children (but kids can watch it if their parents talk to them), and that he hopes animation can participate in some of the conversations live-action films enjoy during awards seasons, such as cinematography and production design.

“And I hope we can also more steadily produce films that raise the status of animation,” he says. “Animation is not a genre. It’s a medium, and we should seek diverse ways to use it.”

Like Selick, co-director Gustafson, who also served as animation director on “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” also credits Harryhausen as an inspiration. “We stand on the shoulders of giants and push forward one frame at a time,” he says. 

Because the locations, action and laws of nature are boundless in animation, legend and folklore offer a fertile ground for creativity, and this year’s “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish,” a spinoff the the “Shrek” films from DreamWorks Animation, is no exception. Previous “Shrek” films had explored characters from across the fairy tale pantheon, but there was more territory to explore. 

“We dipped into some new fairy tale territory, which is the Grimm fairy tales, which can get a little dark, and that was exciting,” says “Puss in Boots” director Joel Crawford. 

He and his team wanted to create a complementary visual style for the film to enhance the mythic, storybook feeling they wanted to convey. 

“What if it looked like you were dropped into a fairy tale painting? So you can almost see the brush strokes on everything,” Crawford says. “You just feel like you’re immersed in a fairy tale, mixing the CG with a hand-drawn feel.”

As with Shi at Pixar, Crawford spent years at DreamWorks working on films as a story artist (“Shrek Forever After,” “Kung Fu Panda 2”) and head of story (“Trolls”) before first leaping into the director’s chair for “The Croods: A New Age” and now “Puss in Boots.” Consequently, each of these directors is quick to credit their teams and the hundreds — if not thousands — of hands that bring their fairytale characters, giant red pandas, purgatorial demons and puppets who wish to be real, to life for audiences of all ages. They understand all too vividly what it’s like to be in the shoes of the people to whom he’s giving marching orders. 

“Animation, it’s so collaborative,” he says. “The more that you understand all of the work that goes on behind the scenes, if you’re asking for something, most of the time you know it’s not easy. You know it’s going to require some blood sweat and tears to push things.” 

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