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Helmers war for future of toons

Eye on the Oscars: Animation 2012

This year’s animated feature race is a culture clash.

Live-action helmers Steven Spielberg and Gore Verbinski, working outside established animation studios, built unique creative cultures tailored to their movies.

Those established companies — Disney, Pixar, DreamWorks — and their entrenched creative cultures have long been the backbone of the animation business. This year, though, those entrenched cultures have evolved, perhaps reflecting a maturation of the feature animation industry.

At DreamWorks Animation, for example, “Puss in Boots” director Chris Miller describes the studio culture as more filmmaker-driven than it has ever been. “In the early days of DreamWorks, Jeffrey Katzenberg was really hands-on,” says Miller. “Now he’s allowing us to find our own way, and even to fall on our faces — whatever it takes.”

Miller cites his “Shrek” spinoff “Puss in Boots” as a good example. “There was a willingness to give this character his own world apart from ‘Shrek,’ and let the comedy be driven by character, not by satire. Jeffrey let us do that.”

Verbinski and his “Rango” team went anti-corporate, creating a cloistered workspace at Verbinski’s old house in the hills above Los Angeles. The goal was to insulate those artists from studio or producer notes, and liberate them to take risks. It was a high-wire act from day one.

“None of us had any animation experience,” designer Mark “Crash” McCreery admits. “We were under the radar, working in a home, and nobody stopped us.”

Verbinski’s team spent a year creating a “story reel” — an early version of the entire picture, albeit with simple art and temporary sound. It fell to Industrial Light & Magic, which had never done an animated feature before, to bring that story reel to life in CG animation. “Gore talked to ILM’s animators as if they were actors. He let them embrace a character and own it.” ILM learned to think in terms of entire sequences, not just individual shots, but in the end, says McCreery, “nothing changed from the animatic Blind Wink had done to the final product.”

Spielberg, who usually works with ILM, instead teamed with Peter Jackson’s Weta Digital for the first time on “The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn.” Each side helped the other.

Spielberg had never had to capture actors in a blank “volume” before, and Weta helped him by providing him with rough CG reference imagery on monitors.

“That at least grounded me,” Spielberg has remarked (Daily Variety, Nov. 16). “I was hoping that I could bring some of the filmmaking tools of my trade to a medium that I had never explored before, and that really did the trick.”

Weta, on the other hand, had never done stylized characters, and Spielberg wanted to keep the graphic style of Herge’s original books. Says Weta partner Joe Letteri: “We had to find a way to honor the source material and still create a unique look on film.”

Letteri credits Jackson with getting heavily involved early on. Jackson, whose pictures built New Zealand-based Weta into a world-class vfx studio, eased the path for both Weta and Spielberg.

“He (Jackson) understood the challenge of taking a character design and turning it into a 3D character that you want to see onscreen,” Letteri says. Letteri notes that while Spielberg lived a half world away from Weta, he collaborated constantly via videoconferencing. “It was a surprisingly easy way to work.”

Arguably the most unusual blended culture this year paired the stop-motion animators at Aardman with the 3D-CG artists at Sony Animation and Imageworks for “Arthur Christmas.”

To mesh such different studio cultures, Sony artists worked at Aardman in Britain during story development, and “Aardman West” was set up in L.A. during production.

“We wanted to feel like a joined-up studio and not a vendor,” explains director Sarah Smith. “In a small studio like Aardman, you think of the totality of a project. You’re always — in your head — trading one part of the process against another, in terms of what’s important to you.

“It can be hard for people from a visual effects pipeline like Sony’s to do that kind of holistic thinking. Had it been a classic ‘vendor’ relationship, you can imagine all sorts of horse-trading. But having our teams related to each other all the way through, we could to keep that ‘big picture’ thinking.” nPixar’s story-driven culture is guided by its famous “brain trust” of collaborators and its policy of inviting comments from everyone in the studio’s rank and file. Even John Lasseter, who built that culture, and who could almost certainly ignore such notes with impunity if he so desired, heeded their critiques of “Cars 2,” recalls producer Denise Ream.

“There were uncomfortable times when issues were brought up by crew members — like several instances where people felt that the movie bordered on violence. It’s a spy movie, so we definitely had to have stakes. It would not have been believable if we didn’t. But John definitely heard what Pixar people had to say, and made changes.”

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