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The Animators Who Left a Mark on Live Action Films in 2015

For the Academy’s best animated feature category, the Oscar rules clearly state “animation must figure in no less than 75% of the picture’s running time.” Even so, some of the year’s most impressive cartoon craftsmanship appears in movies that were predominately live-action. Meet the animators behind these stunning bespoke sequences.

Diary of a Teenage Girl

Animators: Sara Gunnarsdottir, Caleb Wood

Based on a graphic novel hybrid notable for blending traditional prose with Phoebe Gloeckner’s artwork, “Diary of a Teenage Girl” lends itself naturally to hand-drawn embellishments: birds and flowers and other animated doodles that lend a sense of adolescent fantasy to the otherwise live-action feature.

“This was a dream project really, because I feel like my drawings were very compatible with Phoebe’s to begin with,” says Icelandic indie spirit Sara Gunnarsdottir, a graduate of CalArt’s experimental animation MFA program whom director Mari Hellerhired to create animation for a proof-of-concept trailer.

Once funding arrived, Gunnarsdottir reached out to Caleb Wood, and togther, they accented the film with various toon touches, drawing on paper, coloring in PhotoShop and compiling the animation in Adobe After Effects. Perhaps most striking is the acid scene, in which Bel Powley’s character imagines she can fly. According to Gunnarsdottir, “Animating feathers can be very challenging, so I suggested that we would film her in a costume that we could rotoscope.”

He Named Me Malala

Lead Animator: Jason Carpenter

For his documentary portrait of youngest-ever Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Malala Yousafzai, “An Inconvenient Truth” director Davis Guggenheim enlisted CalArts grad Jason Carpenter, who’d caught his attention with his short film “The Renter.” Guggenheim was looking for a stylized way to illustrate flashbacks and stories told by Yosusafzai and her father. “He called it ‘blobby’ animation,” says Carpenter, whose soft, figurative style was designed to give the film a painterly storybook feel, while breaking up the live-action footage. It also supplies visuals in the absence of B-roll. “When Davis first went to meet Malala, he didn’t know what he was going to find, so he started with audio-only interviews,” says the animator, who oversaw a team of 15 to create visuals that could accompany those recordings, amounting to roughly 20 minutes of the film’s running time. Carpenter still works with Guggenheim, with whom he’s aiming to start an animation shingle called Little Room with a possible scripted feature among their future projects.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

Animators: Edward Bursch and Nathan O. Marsh

The “me” referenced in the title of this cancer-themed coming-of-ager is an aspiring filmmaker whose clunky remakes of classic films supply much of the film’s humor, and whose magnum opus — an abstract animated short in the style of Stan Brakhage and Saul Bass — packs the pic’s strongest emotional punch. Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon had extremely specific ideas of what he wanted, enlisting Edward Bursch and Nathan O. Marsh to carry out his vision. “There’s a kind of symmetry between the main characters of ‘Me and Earl’ and Ed and I,” explains Marsh, a graphic designer enlisted by his old high school pal. “I had always been interested in stop-motion, but I had never really done it, so we were at the appropriate skill level for the character,” adds Bursch, who had interned on “The Fantastic Mr. Fox.” The climactic short took them the longest, falling into place once they decided to incorporate fabric pieces the character might have collected over the course of the film, including swatches stolen from the dying girl’s headscarves and pillows.

Pan

Animator: Andrew Thomas Huang

For his ultra-revisionist Peter Pan prequel, Joe Wright invited music video director Andrew Thomas Huang to create three animated sequences crucial to understanding the freshly imagined backstory. The film opens with one such episode, a “Star Prologue,” in which constellations come to life. Wright contacted Huang on the basis of his 2012 short film “Solipsists”: “He basically said that I could direct these sequences that were standalone pieces in the film,” recalls Huang, who set up shop at Wolf & Crow, an L.A.-based vfx house who’d impressed him with their work with Houdini software. The most interpretative was the “Memory Tree” sequence, says Huang, who created an effect in which wood appears to move like liquid. “I had actually just finished a music video for (Radionhead’s) Thom York that was very similar, featuring lots of topographic rings coming to life.” He also worked on the “Mermaid Lagoon,” marshaling bubbles to take human form and reveal the final detail of Peter’s tragic past.

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