Toon helmers give pics an edge

If this year’s crop of acclaimed animated features, such as Pixar/Disney’s “Toy Story 3″ and DreamWorks’ “How to Train Your Dragon,” have a distinctly 3D-CG edge, a peek beneath the surface reveals some live-action pedigrees.

Look at the way these films were made and the conventional animation distinctions aren’t so clear-cut, because their directors brought some atypical p.o.v.’s to bear. “Toy Story 3″ helmer Lee Unkrich brought his live-action training to Pixar’s world of playthings-come-alive, becoming the studio’s first director without an animation background.

Former 2D animation directors Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders (Disney’s “Lilo and Stitch”) made the 3D leap in “How to Train Your Dragon” by pursuing a live-action camera flair, while director Sylvain Chomet (Oscar nominated for “The Triplets of Belleville”) took Sony Pictures Classics’ “The Illusionist” script, by live-action artiste Jacques Tati (“Playtime”), and adapted it for animation.

Unkrich has actually been bringing a broad filmmaking mindset to Pixar since he arrived in 1994 to edit the original “Toy Story.” Then as co-director of “Toy Story 2,” “Finding Nemo” and “Monsters, Inc.,” Unkrich has helped his collaborators think in depth and utilize the medium’s 3D space. But he deliberately took what he calls a “light hand” with the camerawork in “Toy Story 3.” “Some CG films have had cameras swooping everywhere — just because they could,” he says. “But it was important to keep this film rooted in reality, like any other film.”

Pixar’s “virtual” cameras had been redesigned to work more like physical ones during production of “Wall-E” — on which live-action d.p. Roger Deakins had consulted. As Unkrich notes, “That redesign helped make ‘Toy Story 3′ more believable in terms of the behavior of the lenses as we racked focus and the quality of the images that are out of focus in the background. Our films are more cinematic now.”

Notably, Deakins also played a key role on “Dragon.” “He joined us for the entire production, and influenced the camera compositions and lens choices,” recalls DeBlois. “So it has a naturalistic feel, as though we’d shot it with live-action cameras and lights.” Sanders adds, “Roger was delighted that he could put a light in the middle of a scene and you couldn’t see the fixture, which he can’t do in live action.”

Since “Dragon” features lots of aerial sequences, the directors needed to convey the feeling of flight. Nonetheless, says DeBlois, “We tried to shoot with the restraint of a real camera, so you believed the physics. We had dolly and crane shots, and even some ‘hand-held.’ Sometimes we’d be late to frame a subject, just like a human operator might.” As Sanders notes, “A bit of organic movement can make the difference between a good shot and a thrilling one.”

Both the Pixar and DreamWorks directors collaborated with their voice actors by joining them in the recording booth, to foster as much spontaneity as possible. Some “Dragon” actors were even recorded together to capture a conversational tone — an approach that’s typically a logistical nightmare.

No such problem faced Chomet, since “The Illusionist” is primarily a two-character study that’s virtually dialogue-free. “We’re sitting in a room being a witness to their lives,” he remarks. “You, the viewer, create your own zooms in and out.” Chomet envisioned Tati’s script as if it was unfolding on a stage, so the camerawork and editing are deliberately restrained. “There are just 400 shots in ‘The Illusionist,’ compared with 1,400 in ‘Belleville,'” he says.

The digital bells and whistles used for “The Illusionist” are subtle, too. Many of the props and backgrounds were modeled in 3D-CG for the sake of malleability but then were manipulated to fit the film’s 2D style. “You can take a 3D object and animate it and then ask the machine to render it as if it were a drawing,” explains Chomet. “The computer gives us a line and then we put that line through many filters so it looks like it’s been done by a human being.”

Advances in technology have enabled all of these directors to achieve subtleties that wouldn’t have been possible a few years ago. But the appeal of their films finally rests in how well they’ve applied enduring principles of composition, camerawork, lighting and editing. As Unkrich notes, “The act of editing story reels on the Avid hasn’t changed since the original ‘Toy Story.’ What’s changed is that animation is no longer limited. Now we have to strategize about the smartest way to do it.”

More articles from Eye on the Oscars: The Director Preview:
Auds entertained by pics’ royal pains | The ‘Inception’ phenomenon | A live-action approach to animation
First Person: Six helmers behind some of the year’s most buzzed-about pics talk about their inspiration
Darren Aronofsky | Danny Boyle | Lisa Cholodenko | Debra Granik | Mike Leigh | John Cameron Mitchell

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