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Oscar Animated Features Use Diverse Tools

This year’s Academy Award nominees in the animated feature film category take audiences everywhere from Afghanistan to the mind of an infant desperately waging a war against puppies. Here are their stories:

The Boss Baby
Directed by Tom McGrath
Featuring a tour de force vocal performance by Alec Baldwin as a baby who possesses the cunning of an adult paired with the demanding nature of an infant, this CG film from DreamWorks Animation was helmed by Tom McGrath (“Madagascar”) and loosely inspired by the Marla Frazee book.

“I had an older brother so I was really the ‘Boss Baby’ of my family, the one who came in and made all these demands while my older brother had to watch all that attention go to me,” says McGrath. “I don’t think there’s anyone quite like Alec (Baldwin) who could have communicated all those things with his voice because he absolutely wants to give everything to a project and he wanted to know exactly what was happening in each scene, where he was, who else was there, what he was wearing, every time he came in to do his performances.”

In addition to Baldwin, Jimmy Kimmel, Lisa Kudrow, Tobey Maguire and Steve Buscemi voice characters for the film.

When it’s revealed that the “Boss Baby” is really a secret agent in the war for the love of adults that exists between babies and puppies, audiences get to see another primal pull between characters.

“We’re all looking for that approval and attention from parents, so you see that the baby is also afraid of losing attention and love and it seemed that everyone goes through that and would be able to relate in a way to those feelings of loss and wanting love,” says McGrath.

The Breadwinner
Directed by Nora Twomey
This 2D film was based on a best-selling novel written by Deborah Ellis about the life of a young
girl living in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. When her father is arrested, she decides to conceal her identity to support her family since women aren’t allowed to work outside the home. Producer Anthony Leo fell in love with the story when he overheard a friend reading from the story night after night to her child.

“I knew it would have meaning for so many people and for kids who would see how other children had to live in the world,” says Leo. “That’s why we reached out to Angelina Jolie, because she was involved with helping people in Afghanistan and was very active in advocating for the rights of young girls, and she really responded and was a great consultant.”

Leo also went to Cartoon Saloon to find a co-producer and director for the project. Helmer Nora Twomey knew right away she wanted in on the project and that they would need to keep the style of animation simple to keep the focus on the story and meet deadline and budget requirements.

“Sometimes parents try to shield their children from all the hardships of the world, that there are other people in the world who live a more difficult life than they do, to make it a bit easier for them, but I don’t think that’s right,” says Twomey. “We should let them see what’s happening when they’re old enough to understand it.”

The film won the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn. Award for animated feature.

Directed by Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina
Inspired by the traditional Dia de los Muertos holiday when friends and family remember loved ones who’ve died, “Coco” takes audiences on a journey to the land of the dead imagined by helmers Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina. Before creating the CG film, the Pixar crew journeyed to Mexico to do in-depth research.

“I felt we had to get this right,” says Unkrich, of the movie that was release in both 2D and 3D. “We were going to bring this holiday to the screen and it would have to feel authentic to everyone who knows these traditions and also show the culture to people new to these traditions.”

The story, about a young boy named Miguel who is pulled toward his destiny by the memory of an ancestor he never knew, brings together both artistic and technical achievements. The crew was immediately struck by the colors and lighting of the festival, which prompted director of photography, lighting, Danielle Feinberg to pioneer new ways of coding to bring that look to the screen. They also brought on songwriting team Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez (“Frozen”) to write the song “Remember Me,” which has been nominated for original song. Gael Garcia Bernal, Benjamin Bratt and Edward James Olmos are featured as part of the voice cast.

“It was a dream to work on this story and to share something that was such a big part of my history,” says Molina. “When I heard about the project, I knew I had to be part of it.” “Coco” received the best animated film award at this year’s Golden Globes.

Directed by Carlos Saldanha
Helmer Carlos Saldanha (“Rio”) had a clear vision for the film, based on the beloved children’s book “The Story of Ferdinand” and produced by Blue Sky Studios, Davis Entertainment and 20th Century Fox Animation.

He liked the idea of a Spanish bull — trained and bred to enter the ring — who didn’t want to fight.

“The story meant a lot to me and the ideas in that story are so important for children,” says Saldanha, who traveled to Spain to research traditions and culture for the film. “There are messages like that the only real fight worth fighting is the one to be who you really are and not to literally fight someone else, that you can be who you are inside by having acceptance and tolerance of others.”

“John Cena was Ferdinand, he was this character to me, because you look at him and he’s so big and you don’t want to make him angry, and then he talks and you see something different,” says Saldanha. “He’s truthful, honest and so gentle and he said to me, ‘I am Ferdinand. I look fierce but on the inside, I’m soft.’ So I just needed John to be himself and Kate McKinnon was just so funny and she brought so much to Lupe the goat.”

This take on the classic story attracted Peyton Manning, Gina Rodriguez, Bobby Cannavale and Anthony Anderson to the cast as well.

The film was also nommed for Golden Globes for animated feature and original song (“Home”).

Loving Vincent
Directed by Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman
Writer-director Dorota Kobiela had to abandon her first ideas about how to animate the story of a man who delves into the life and death of Vincent van Gogh.

“We did the math and if I had done it on my own, well, I don’t know I would have lived long enough to finish it completely because it would have been another 80 years,” laughs Kobiela. “So we put together a team of about 125 people to work at hand painting all the frames so they would look like van Gogh paintings that were moving and we could have some insight and feeling into how he saw the world while we were watching the story of his life.”

The team used After Effects, Photoshop and Maya for the 3D animation and had access to high-quality digital copies of van Gogh’s art through the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.

Some live-action shooting took place in London with a voice cast that includes Saoirse Ronan, Douglas Booth, Eleanor Tomlinson, Jerome Flynn, Chris O’Dowd and Aidan Turner.

“The title of the film is taken from the way van Gogh would sign his letters — especially to his brother — as ‘Your loving Vincent,’” says Kobiela, who like the Dutch painter has struggled with depression. “That’s how I think of him, as this person who suffered so much pain and sadness in his life but still was so full of love and the love for art that you can see it in every one of his paintings.”

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