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Toons get animated start

Animated entries surrounded by backstage drama

Production insiders like to joke (sort of) that the struggles that go into getting a film made can be far more dramatic and interesting than what eventually ends up on the screen. And while no one would dispute the storytelling achievements of Oscar’s three animated feature nominees — “Toy Story 3,” “How to Train Your Dragon” and “The Illusionist” — their respective behind-the-scenes tales are pretty juicy as well. All three projects underwent rough, protracted labor pains before finally seeing the light of day.

In hindsight, Pixar’s poignant Andy-outgrows-his-toys approach for “Toy Story 3” may seem like a no-brainer. “Not so,” says director Lee Unkrich (who made his directorial debut on the film after collaborating on “Toy Story 2” and “Finding Nemo” for Pixar). “It took us 11 years to get it right. I think it was important to set (the sequel) this many years after the last one, with Andy heading off to college, as that put the toys in a real crisis.”

Offscreen, another crisis almost sent “Toy Story 3” on a potential straight-to-video path: Five years back, in possession of both the Pixar-created characters and the sequel rights, Disney greenlit its own third installment, in which Buzz Lightyear gets caught up in a massive toy recall.

“At that point,” says Unkrich, “Disney was planning to do their own version without us, through Circle 7” (the specialty CG division Disney set up to make sequels to Pixar films). When Disney bought Pixar in 2006, John Lasseter retook control. Circle 7 was shuttered, and the project transferred back to Pixar. Even then, it was far from plain sailing, recalls Unkrich. “A bunch of us — the same team that did the first two — went off to this cabin where they’d come up with the first one. But (our original idea) didn’t really work, which was a pretty scary moment.”

Undaunted, the team hunkered down and, over the course of “a very intense weekend,” fleshed out a new storyline that became the basis for “Toy Story 3.” “That’s when the hard work really began, and the first major challenge was to make a film worthy of the other two, which are very beloved,” he recalls. “It took us all a while to find our way into the right story, which is always the most important thing here, and it was a lot of pressure. We didn’t want to disappoint anyone.”

DreamWorks Animation’s “How to Train Your Dragon” emerged from equally inauspicious conditions. The project was originally based closely on the 2003 kiddie book by Brit author Cressida Cowell. But worried about its too-young demographic appeal and the small-scale vision for a potential franchise, the studio fired the original directors and in October 2008 hired helmer Chris Sanders (“Lilo and Stitch”) to get the project back on track.

“I was working on ‘The Croods’ at DreamWorks when Jeffrey Katzenberg called me one weekend,” Sanders says. “He asked me to set that aside and jump onto this, as they had spent three years trying to adapt it and weren’t getting what they wanted.”

Sanders agreed — on one condition: that he could bring in Dean DeBlois (his co-director on “Lilo and Stitch”) to help. Happily, DeBlois was free — and interested.

“Within two days, we were meeting with Jeffrey, who basically said he wanted to keep the book’s world but come up with a whole new narrative,” DeBlois says. “He wanted a father-son story, a big fantasy adventure, and a David and Goliath ending — and if we gave him those three elements, he was open to anything else.”

DeBlois and Sanders started from scratch again, “sorting out some of the confusion about the dragons’ relationship with the Vikings, and coming up with a story about this teenager who befriends one,” DeBlois says.

The dragon in question, Toothless, soon morphed from a tiny little fire-breather (as described in the book) to a large, fierce one — which may explain the aesthetic connection some fans have drawn between the directors’ newly created Night Fury species and the character of Stitch. According to Sanders, the magic twist came in “giving it more of a ‘Black Stallion’-like story.”

Though even Pixar has been known to undertake such 11th-hour overhauls (doing so on both “Toy Story 2” and “Ratatouille”), “Dragon” was no easy feat for the DreamWorks team. Given the slow pace of animation, the team set a company record, completing the project from that initial meeting to release in a mere 14 months. “In our favor, most of the sets and characters had already been built and rigged,” Sanders says, “but it still felt like jumping in the deep end to rescue it.”

While “The Illusionist,” the latest hand-drawn labor of love from French cartoonist Sylvain Chomet (“The Triplets of Belleville”) may not have faced the same studio and executive pressures, the project invited its own series of hurdles in its long, often tortured journey from script to screen — an epic making-of story that begins more than half a century earlier.

Chomet adapted the project from an unproduced 1956 script by French comedy legend Jacques Tati, and turned the story (which had been written for the actor to direct and star in himself) into an animated feature set in Scotland in the late ’50s, partly because Tati’s daughter “didn’t want an actor playing her father” in any live-action version. “We’d contacted her about using a clip from her father’s ‘Jour de Fete’ in ‘Belleville,’ and she’d told me about this unproduced script and suggested animation. I felt it really suited the style of the story more,” Chomet says. “It’s far more emotional than a lot of his comedies, and I felt I could convey that better this way.”

Chomet also moved the story’s original setting from Prague to Edinburgh “because I fell in love with the city and the quality of the light there.” Chomet became such a fan of the location that he even set up shop there for the four-year project. As his own studio head, Chomet was able to mold the film to his own eccentric vision and style: “I wanted to make a film for adults that would also appeal to children, and I added some characters to help tell the story.” He also wanted to avoid what he pointedly refers to as “cute animation, where everything has big eyes.”

But he admits that the production “took even longer than I expected” and ended up costing closer to $20 million than the original $15 million budget.

“Doing an animated film takes four to five years of your life, and so many things can go wrong in that time,” says Chomet, who’s sworn off the format altogether for his next film. “Yes, live-action films have problems, but at least you can see the results a lot faster.”

More on Eye on the Oscar: Animation:
Toons get animated start | Annie voters see light of ‘Day’ | Characters rigged to tell emotional tale | Toon shorts offer innovative views

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