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Independent Animation Makes Big Play for Oscar Gold

Since big-budget CG features have been so influential, it’s sometimes hard to hear the outside voices that vie for attention during awards season. GKids regularly reminds us that hand-drawn animation continues to attract Oscar nominations — for such Irish films as “The Secret of Kells”; French offerings, including “Ernest and Celestine,” and great titles from Japan’s legendary Studio Ghibli.

This year, GKids is highlighting two Japanese 2D films, the sweet-tempered family tale “Mirai” and the surreal “Lu Over the Wall.” And Sony Pictures Classics is touting the Hungarian indie film “Ruben Brandt, Collector,” which definitely illustrates the idea that animation isn’t just for kids.

Of course, cultural sensibilities always factor into the equation. Illumination Entertainment may be headquartered in California, but its main animation crew is based at Mac Guff in France. That presented an interesting challenge when Illumination was making “The Grinch,” since the Seuss book plays liberally with the English language.

“Americans grew up with the Seuss books, but that’s not the case in France,” says co-director Yarrow Cheney. “When we did ‘The Lorax’ [in 2012], it was the first introduction to Dr. Seuss for many people at our studio.”

Fortunately, Illumination landed Benedict Cumberbatch to voice the Grinch and he was well aware of the book.

Co-director Scott Mosier, who oversaw the recording of Cumberbatch’s voice performance in London, says, “We were able to bring Benedict in early, and he did the heavy lifting to become the character.”

Britain was also where Wes Anderson’s stop-motion crew animated “Isle of Dogs,” as it had done for “Fantastic Mr. Fox.”

“It is a challenge to nail the subtleties that Wes wants,” says Jason Stalman, a British animator who played key roles on both films. “Even if you’ve worked with Wes before, each film brings new challenges. Everything about ‘Isle of Dogs’ was minimalist, from the composition, to the sets against white skies, to the characters’ nuanced eye movements.” Anderson based the film’s Japanese milieu on an original idea, unlike the Roald Dahl story that had inspired the “Fantastic Mr. Fox.” So this project definitely called upon the puppet crew to think differently.

“It isn’t like working with a ‘house style,’” Stalman says. “Wes moves from subtle to choppy, cartoony movements. He celebrates stop-motion in all its flawed glory.”

Stalman, who also worked with Tim Burton on the Oscar- nominated “Corpse Bride,” has now returned to Laika Studios, where he previously worked on a trio of Oscar nominees: “ParaNorman,” “The Boxtrolls” and “Kubo and the Two Strings.”

Though he can’t divulge details of the upcoming Laika project, he says he feels lucky to be working with such diverse voices in stop-motion films — still “dolly-wagging,” as he calls it.

Stalman gives voice to what all animators believe, regardless of their style of filmmaking, and whether they are working inside or outside of the Hollywood establishment: “All you are ever trying to do is to get performances that work really well.”

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