Back when the Academy first introduced an Oscar for animated feature, audiences were still buying tickets just to witness the medium’s latest breakthroughs, from realistic fur to plausible water. These days, everything seems possible in animation, yet, as a handful of this year’s toon contenders prove, the challenges are more varied and complex than ever.
From finding a visual metaphor for how the brain works to refusing to shy away from depicting sex between puppets, this year’s animated features seem to be breaking rules left and right. What follows are five seemingly impossible hurdles and how their creators overcame them.
Unlocking the Inner Psyche
In theory, animation would be the perfect medium to tackle something as abstract as how the mind works. Disney actually toyed with a similar idea in a 1943 propaganda short made to illustrate how Hitler manipulated his followers, though Pixar pushed it further, refusing to underestimate younger viewers’ intelligence.
“People have hinted that they’ve seen this idea before,” acknowledges director Pete Docter, who even contributed to Epcot Center’s “Cranium Command” attraction back in the ’90s, “but within a few months, we realized that it was going to be really hard: How are we going to take something as complex as the human mind and make that into something that would be visually clear to the audience?”
The team’s first instinct was to imagine a giant spiral that began with consciousness and wound its way down to the subconscious and forgetting. “That made sense intuitively,” Docter says, but didn’t fit the narrative that was taking shape. “It was definitely a honing process, and as much a design problem as a story problem. That was one of the real problems of the project: Anytime we made a story change we had to re-conceive how that looked in the mind.”
Subtly Depicting Life’s Little Mundanities
Nearly everything about “Anomalisa” defies what audiences expect from animation, beginning with the source material. Based on an hour-long script by Charlie Kaufman, “Anomalisa” was a live radio play, to be read by actors on an empty stage. “All the visuals were intended to be created in the audiences’ minds,” he says.
In the audience was producer Dino Stamatopoulos, who hatched the idea of recreating the experience in stop-motion, enlisting director Duke Johnson to collaborate on this latest unconventional adaptation — one that broke with nearly all the traditions of animation, where character design and performance are calibrated to be easily understood by children via big, expressive heads and broadly pantomimed gestures.
By contrast, “Anomalisa” is subtle, unfolding mostly in a generic business hotel. The directors were determined to discreetly capture the interior emotional state of two low-key characters, recording the actors together (seldom done in animation), leaving in their breaths and coughs.
That’s not to say the visuals weren’t important: The co-directors insisted on live-action-style lighting (no easy feat when operating at 1:6 scale) and camera techniques, including long tracking shots spent staring at the back of a puppet’s head, and a relatively intimate sex scene.
“Oftentimes, what makes something cinematic is visually dramatizing an emotional experience, and many of the things that we were choosing to dramatize in this film aren’t touched on in animation, like the mundanity of the experience of being in this hotel room,” Johnson says.
Kaufman says: “I think that animation is just the way we did it; it doesn’t define what the movie is. We were trying to make this thing subtle and naturalistic and nuanced in terms of the performance and what the puppets’ expressions could be.”
Pic’s Starring Gaggle Talks in Lines Made of Babble
Part of what makes the Minions so appealing is their unique nonsense language — provided courtesy of French-born co-director Pierre Coffin. When it came time to promote “Despicable Me’s” babbling comic support to leading-Minion status, though, Coffin says he and the Illumination Entertainment team quickly recognized how hard it would be to focus an entire movie on characters who communicate via mumbo-jumbo. “We knew early on that we needed to have some sort of human character in there as a relief from all the gibberish,” Coffin says. “The high-pitched voice, how fast they talk — that for an hour and a half would be unbearable.”
And so Sandra Bullock’s character was born, along with Geoffrey Rush’s irreverently expository narrator. On the first film, Minionese consisted entirely of made-up patter with something like “pancake” dropped in for a laugh. “Things got a little heavier on ‘Despicable Me 2.’ That’s when I started stealing words from different languages — basically Spanish or French.”
Finally, with this film, the language’s underlying logic is revealed. “Out of the three movies, this movie makes the most sense, since they’ve been around forever, serving all these different masters around the world,” says Coffin, who customized his dialogue in slightly different dubs for nearly 40 different territories.
Ultimately, he credits the animators with conveying what the Minions really feel via body language and performance. That’s why we kept referencing all these silent movies,” Coffin says. “It brings you back to the roots of animation.
“Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet”
Folding a Baker’s Dozen Poems Into One Film
Not every bestseller lends itself to film, but few bestsellers pose more obvious challenges than “The Prophet,” a collection of 26 philosophical life lessons with no unifying narrative. According to producer Salma Hayek, when she was first approached about getting involved, the plan was to adapt 13 of those chapters to live-action on a $5 million-$6 million budget.
“Imagine 13 poems in one film. You wouldn’t register anything!” says Hayek, who urged her collaborators to create a background story for the title character that would tie things together, while making his teachings more accessible to children. “I think it was important to do this book in animation because visual art — drawing and paintings — is closer to and more compatible with poetry.”
Tapping Disney veteran Roger Allers to direct, the team reached out to respected independent animators — including Tomm Moore and Joan C. Gratz — to adapt individual poems. “All of the artists had absolute freedom,” Hayek says. “You have three minutes; you cannot ruin my whole film, but you can do whatever you want. There was no color palette, nothing, and that leads to a sense of unpredictability for the audience.”
Allers was directly responsible for the open-ended framing device, which takes a mature turn where the authorities threaten to silence the prophet, leaving it open-ended enough for auds to have a profound and personal connection. “I wanted to experiment with a new experience in the cinema, where you actually go inside yourself, where you’re actually present with parts of yourself that you ignore during the day,” Hayek explains.
“The Peanuts Movie”
Breaking Up CG’s Smooth Movements and Shapes
For die-hard Snoopy fans, there’s something heretical about Blue Sky — the state-of-the-art CG toon studio responsible for the “Ice Age” franchise — putting its ultra-polished paws on Charles M. Schulz’s lovingly hand-squiggled characters. Director Steve Martino knew this feature film offered a bigger canvas than previous Peanuts comics or TV specials, one that demanded a more robust story and richer image quality. Yet his goal was always to find a computer-animated equivalent for Schulz’s flat, line-drawn style.
Blue Sky’s CG animation software is designed to create smooth movement, and yet early research uncovered a valuable lesson: When Bill Melendez (the original voice of Snoopy) made the first Peanuts Christmas special, he drew a short animation cycle of Charlie Brown walking and flipped through the sketches for Schulz to see. The Peanuts’ creator pointed out that Charlie Brown didn’t look right — he went “off-model” — during certain in-between drawings.
Taking that to heart, Blue Sky’s tech team defied CG convention, developing a way to break up the characters’ movement to stick to the poses Schulz repeatedly used in the strip, while the studio’s rigging department rebuilt the CG models so animators could deform the characters as needed. Fingers appear and disappear on command, while some movements call for multiple or disembodied limbs.
“The mantra was to find the pen line in everything we did,” Martino explains. “That’s where we got to the styling of Charlie Brown’s mouth to look like a squiggly line and the little ink drops for eyes. It was the most technically complicated process to make something that would look so simple.”