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Toon Adventures Lead to Self-Awareness

Characters find themselves in new places among the nominees for animated feature. A boy chased by vengeful spirits is forced on a journey of self-discovery in “Kubo and the Two Strings.” “Moana” tells the tale of a headstrong Pacific Island girl who crosses the ocean. “My Life as a Zucchini” follows a boy navigating a new life in an orphanage. “The Red Turtle” is the dialogueless tale of a man stranded on an island. In “Zootopia,” a bunny learns a hard lesson about bias.

Kubo and the Two Strings
Focus Features
While 3D printing has been a staple in film production for the Oregon-based Laika for years, “Kubo and the Two Strings” represents another giant leap in how the technology can be applied. Faced with either altering a character to fit the tech they already had or finding something new, director of rapid prototyping at Laika, Brian McLean, set out to find a way to preserve the vision of helmer Travis Knight. Though Laika had been at the forefront of the use of 3D printing, this time the artists needed something entirely new. Stratasys was about to premiere its Connex3 printer, a machine that could help the team create the film’s characters, such as Monkey, as originally imagined by the filmmakers. “We found a new way to print the non-human characters in plastic,” says McLean. “We had to work with hardware and software developers to refine all of it, but we eventually worked through to get the tools we needed to make ‘Kubo,’ and that’s the sort of thing that drives us at Laika We want to find the answer.”

Walt Disney Animation
When it was decided that the tattoos on demi-god Maui would have a life of their own in Disney’s Pacific Islands tale “Moana,” directors John Musker and Ron Clements knew just who to turn to: veteran animator Eric Goldberg, known for such classic characters as the Genie in “Aladdin” and Louis the Alligator in “The Princess and the Frog.” The filmmakers wanted the tattoos in the CG film to be done in hand-drawn animation, which presented challenges. Some were technical, like timing the hand-drawn animation to work with the CG, and others were creative, “which turned out to be the most fun of all,” Goldberg says. Among those were “keeping Mini Maui’s design graphic, while turning him around in three-dimensional space, getting his emotions to read clearly without a voice track, and collaborating with the CG animators on the actual content of the shots, so it not only looked like Maui and Mini Maui were interacting, but also felt like they had an ongoing relationship,” he says. Goldberg most enjoyed animating Mini Maui when Maui sings his “You’re Welcome” song. “A lot of great material came from the story team, and I’m always jazzed [pun intended] by the marriage of animation and music,” he says.

My Life as a Zucchini
Swiss director Claude Barras chose “My Life as a Zucchini” because he wanted a story that would lend itself to the incredibly complicated and beautiful process of stop-motion animation. Based on a story by Gilles Paris, “Zucchini” follows a group of children who live in an orphanage. Somehow, from this, Barras sought to make a film that was light in its humorous moments despite the dark backstories. Stop-motion brought Barras a classic technique that engages audiences immediately, but comes with the difficulties of both live action and animation. Barras is quick to point out that with stop-motion there’s only one take, not multiple chances to correct a take as there would be in live action or digital animation. So the helmer chose to keep the faces of the children simple, and that made it possible to show changing emotions very easily. “You spend a year or so creating the puppets and the sets and then before beginning to film you must light the shots,” says Barras. “So much goes into stop-motion, but you get so much emotion from it.” Karen Idelson

The Red Turtle
Sony Pictures Classics
Helmer Michael Dudok de Wit wasn’t set on making a nearly silent animated film when he started “The Red Turtle.” It was only after trying to use both French and English against the compelling survival story told in this movie that he realized it was the way to go. Neither language seemed to give the tale about a castaway what it needed, so he had to make a make a bold choice — to do without language. The visuals would have to carry everything, but this only inspired the filmmaker to alter some elements of the animation and structure other aspects of sound design differently. Then it all seemed to fall together. “Once I decided to do the movie without dialogue, the facial expressions became more important because they give the audience more of the story when there is no language,” says Dudok de Wit, who won the Oscar for animated short film in 2001 with “Father and Daughter.” “Then we decided there should not be a lot of sounds, except for breathing, because this is something you will hear subconsciously and it will become part of the story without taking away from what you are seeing.”

Walt Disney Animation
The focus of Disney’s “Zootopia” was initially supposed to be con-man fox Nick Wilde, but just a year before the film wrapped the POV was switched to Officer Judy Hopps, a tight turnaround for an animated film, but one that proved significant. “What changed and made ‘Zootopia’ relevant to our world today was the notion of unconscious bias,” says screenwriter Jared Bush, who teamed on the project with Phil Johnston. “We made Judy aware of prejudice and bias, she knows it’s wrong. In fact, she struggles against it the entire film. But by adding Judy’s own unconscious bias, it allowed our hero to discover her own prejudices and, most importantly, it forced the audience to look within themselves as well.” The many-layered story was a challenge, notes Johnston: “To say we were walking a tonal tightrope is a huge understatement. After all, we were writing an animated comedy with thematic elements dealing with hidden bias and racism. So finding the right tone was key. Generally speaking, the way we achieved that was to go too far. We pushed the themes and the jokes as hard as we could. If we crossed a line, our colleagues would usually tell us.”

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