Animated features have never been more popular or more important to Hollywood. Yet the directors of some of Hollywood’s top toon hits are frustrated with the state of animated features — and some are wondering if Netflix and its over-the-top ilk hold the key to restoring animation’s creative soul.
“It’s too homogenous. It’s way too much the same,” said Henry Selick, who directed stop-motion pics “The Nightmare Before Christmas” and “Coraline.” “The films aren’t really that different one from the other. ‘Despicable Me’ could have been made Pixar, by DreamWorks. It’s not a great time for feature animation if you want to do something even moderately outside the formula.”
His hope, he says, is new media. “I have some feelers out,” he said. “For example Amazon is producing a kids animated series. I have more faith that people like Google, Amazon, Netflix, all these indie cable stations, would be a better home. I mean, that’s, there’s way more creativity in television, and risk-taking, but especially new media.”
He said he’s interested in making a “limited, 10-part series” for a digital or cable outlet.
Pixar’s Pete Docter said the idea of direct-to-streaming animation “seems like something that should happen.”
“The way things are set up right now, it seems like a win-or-lose situation, right? You put so much money in, the stakes are so high. I think that’s what Henry’s talking about, that leads to a similarity. There’s other ways to make movies. I think Henry is a great example of that.” Docter pointed to series now being produced by Amazon and Netflix as an example of the digital channel’s potential. “Get a Henry Selick project going,” said Docter. “How cool would that be?”
Selick, whose last picture stalled in pre-production, said he’s disappointed to see less room than ever before for creative risk-taking at the studios. “They’d rather risk huge money on ‘The Lone Ranger’ or ‘White House Down’ than risk much smaller money doing something that’s a little interesting,” he said. “No one’s ever going to make a PG-13 animated film unless David Fincher executive produces it and puts it out on Netflix, and then if it’s a success everyone will change.”
The animation luminaries gave interviews before July 22’s keynote session at the Siggraph computer graphics conference at the Anaheim Convention Center. The keynote, presented in collaboration with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, was the Marc Davis Lecture Series: Giants’ First Steps, about how they broke into the movie business. Others in the keynote were Chris Sanders, Kirk Wise, David Silverman, Mike Mitchell, Kevin Lima, Eric Goldberg and Ron Clements.
While all the directors who spoke to Variety agreed the current popularity of animation is good news for the industry, Selick was not alone in lamenting the sameness of today’s animated features. Kirk Wise, best known for directing (with Gary Trousdale) “Beauty and the Beast,” also lamented lack of individuality in today’s toons. “I would love to see something come along that was just a little quirky, a little more special, that didn’t feel like the same movie that was released three weeks ago.” And Chris Sanders, helmer of DreamWorks Animation’s “The Croods,” said while big grosses for animation are great news, he’s worried that today’s animated studio fare is “monumental.”
“That’s one of the things that’s very much on my mind,” he said, “I think we need to create a variety of types of animated films, some that are not going to cost as much as others. Not every story is giant.”
Sanders said he wishes animation could be done more quickly, and therefore for less. He pointed to “Lilo & Stitch,” pictured, which he and Dean DeBlois wrote and directed before moving on to pricier fare like “How to Train Your Dragon.”
“It’s a matter of the studio committing to the idea (of a lower budget),” Sanders said. “We pitched (‘Lilo & Stitch’) with the idea that we would be paying for our story freedom with reduced schedule and a reduced budget.”
Sanders sees the lavish, large-scale family spectacle film remaining a staple, however. “I think those for the family market are going to continue to thrive if they’re well done. We’re seeing that. ‘Despicable Me 2’ just came out and people cannot stop seeing that movie.”
Docter and his Pixar pals certainly hope so. Docter is working on “Inside Out,” a Pixar feature exploring the human mind, which hopes to be a big family spectacle while also trying something different and new.