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TV Animators Tooned Up for Big Screen Features

The creative lines between film and television are blurring ever more frequently these days, with many live-action directors, writers and other talent moving with increasing ease between the two media. But in the animation industry, only a handful of directors and writers have made the transition.

One of those is Rich Moore, who is directing Disney’s “Ralph Breaks the Internet: Wreck-It Ralph 2” alongside Phil Johnston and who earlier this year won the animated feature Oscar for Disney’s 2016 hit “Zootopia” with director Byron Howard. Moore has an extensive background in TV animation, working on “The Simpsons,” “The Critic” and “Futurama” for many years before making his feature directing debut on the first “Wreck-It Ralph” film in 2012.

Moore himself realizes he’s part of a rare breed.

“I’ve noticed that, too, and it’s a shame because there are some amazing TV directors out there who should be making features,” says Moore. “If I were running a feature studio, I can think of 10 people who I’d hire immediately.”

Genndy Tartakovsky, who has successfully made the TV-film transition himself with the hit “Hotel Transylvania” franchise, agrees that there’s a big talent pool in waiting to be tapped. “It seems like it would be obvious because you can really cut your teeth in TV, and then, when you get into features, you’re much better prepared.”

Tartakovsky, known for creating such shows as “Dexter’s Laboratory,” “Star Wars: Clone Wars” and “Samurai Jack,” recalls a time “say, seven or eight years ago, that television was kind of a dirty word in features. Nobody made that jump because we were kind of looked down upon.”

Moore noticed this as well. “It could be the stigma that’s been around forever that TV and feature animation are two separate mediums, but I don’t believe that. I tell people all the time that the job of a TV and feature animation director is the same — we create fantastic worlds that feel like our own, populated by well-rounded characters involved in stories that all ages can relate to on a deep level.”

Tartakovsky, currently in production on next year’s “Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation,” concurs: “It’s all storytelling.”

Another storyteller that’s made the transition from TV to film is Jared Bush, co-creator of Disney Television Animation series “Penn Zero: Part-Time Hero” and a screenwriter on Disney’s 2016 features, “Zootopia” and “Moana.” Bush got his start writing for live-action TV (“Who Wants to Marry My Dad?” “All of Us”) while writing feature spec scripts. During this time, he found himself drawn toward animation. “I felt like the sensibility was very much my sensibility,” he recalls.

He tried for a long time to get a foot in the door at Disney Feature Animation.

“That was just a long process, but I came in to meet with a bunch of people at the same time I was starting to develop some ideas for television animation. I sold a pilot to Disney Television Animation within a couple of months of when I actually started working here at feature animation.”

That pilot turned out to be “Penn Zero: Part-Time Hero,” co-created with Sam Levine. The series aired for two seasons on Disney XD, wrapping last summer. The timing of everything meant that Bush got a crash course in TV animation right about the time he started work on “Zootopia,” which he co-directed. “I actually lucked into this,” he says. “I started on ‘Penn Zero’ about six months before I started working on ‘Zootopia.’ It just happened to be a perfect series of events that gave me this perfect education.”

Tartakovsky and Moore also think their time in TV helped prepare them for features.

“I had a decent body of work, so I came into it very experienced,” explains Tartakovsky. “Once they saw how fast I worked and they liked what I did, it started to open the door a little bit.”
Moore credits two venerable shows for his education. “I was fortunate to work on both ‘The Simpsons’ and ‘Futurama’ very early in my career. The people involved — Matt Groening, Jim Brooks, Sam Simon — were heroes of mine. … They challenged everyone on the crew to make the best show possible, and on a personal level, they inspired me to reimagine what an animated television show could be.”

When it was time for Moore to move on, “I found myself wondering if I could apply that same spirit of reinvention to animated features. That’s about the time that the opportunity at Disney presented itself,” he says. “I found the studio to be a true partner in my ‘experiment’ of combining ‘Simpsons’-style comedy with the deep heart that the audience has come to expect from an animated feature. The result of our effort was ‘Wreck-It Ralph,’ a film that fused the types of movies that I loved as a child with the comedy I enjoy as an adult.”

While Moore, Tartakovsky and Bush have made the move from TV to feature animation, live-action auteur Guillermo del Toro has gone the opposite direction.
Del Toro is behind Netflix’s hit animated series “DreamWorks Trollhunters,” which is about to begin its second season Dec. 15. It is now part of a trilogy of interconnected animated series recently greenlit by the streaming giant.

“We’re trying to, first of all, deliver feature-level animation and production values at a TV budget,” he says. “Second, what we’re trying to share with families is really sophisticated storytelling, dialogue and character with good-hearted values and beauty.”

He first pitched the idea in 2006 as a more young-adult live-action movie. “It had some gruesome moments. The kids were cursing. Very much that model, but I’m actually glad it didn’t happen because I think this is the perfect form for it.”

Time appears to be the biggest difference between working in TV animation and doing an animated feature.

“In TV, there’s never enough time. Even on the first day of a brand-new animated project, you’re behind schedule,” Moore says. “Plus in TV, there’s more room to experiment and fail. If a particular moment didn’t play exactly as planned, there’s always the next episode to try again. It’s as if you’re allowed to work out the kinks right before the audience’s eyes. That’s not the case in feature animation. We work and rework the same 90 minutes anywhere from three to five years until it plays as entertaining as it possibly can.”

His Disney colleague Bush agrees. “You have to write faster in television,” he says. “At Disney Features, we have this unbelievable opportunity to screen a movie several times over a few years, so you really get to hone it. That’s not exactly the case in television.”

For Tartakovsky, the main difference is the pressure to deliver. “In TV, you can make episode after episode, and if one doesn’t turn out as great, it’s OK; there’s another one,” he says. “But with features, the pressure is on, really, the opening weekend. You have this one shot, and that’s all. So we’re spending two or three years, sometimes four, building this one thing, with more money and more pressure, and you only have one weekend to make it work.”

Tartakovsky came full circle recently when he came back to shepherd a miniseries to resolve the story of “Samurai Jack” on Adult Swim.

“It was incredible,” he says. “I went back to TV under the best circumstances, where it was my own show, I was working with my old boss [Adult Swim’s] Mike Lazzo, who gives me, pretty much, 100% creative freedom, and a very decent budget. It was an amazing experience, a labor of love.”

And he was able to make the most of his feature experience.

“I realized that we had, maybe, more throwaway things in the earlier series, but [now after doing features] I’ve come to realize that I’ve got to take advantage of every frame,” he says. “With features, you get an appreciation that every minute is valuable, everything is precious. So coming into this, we planned better, and also I think we’ve all become better artists and better storytellers through the years.”

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