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Filmmakers Use Animation to Tell Diverse and Sophisticated Stories

By any measure, it’s been a great year for animation. From “Frozen 2” and “Toy Story 4” bringing in huge box-office numbers in the U.S. to “Ne Zha” becoming the top-grossing Chinese animated film with more than $700 million gross to 32 official entries in the best animated feature category for the 2020 Oscars, animated stories flexed their muscles.

But those animated films are also vehicles for filmmakers to tell diverse, challenging and unexpected stories of all kinds throughout the world. Whether their films are fantasy or even historical fiction, the storytellers are drawn to the medium.

“Animation makes it easier for the audience to believe in the world we created, they might think was a fantasy world but we show them that it is not,” writes Salvador Simo in an email with Variety about his film “Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles.”

The animated feature takes us through the life of artist Luis Buñuel in the 1930s when he’s fallen on hard times. Despondent and broke, Buñuel gets another chance to make a movie when a friend wins a lottery and gives him money for his next project.

“It’s a constant dance between reality and fantasy, what allows us to take the audience to the head of Luís [Buñuel], to show the character, to places and feelings that construct the story. Each story demands its own way to be told and animation and mixing some parts of the actual footage that [Buñuel] filmed in 1932 was the way for this one.”

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“If [audiences] feel some curiosity of who Luís Buñuel [was] and see some of his films, [the film] will be a great success,” writes Simo. “I hope that this film put some questions in the head of the audience, is a small way to change the world, making people think, questioning everything.”

The Swallows of Kabul,” based on Yasmina Khadra’s novel, was a story that French helmers Zabou Breitman and Eléa Gobbé-Mévellec were inspired to tell. The 2D watercolor-style animation takes viewers into the daily lives of characters that live in Afghanistan under Taliban control. Here, animation and the style of the animation played a crucial role.

“There are things that you see in this story that would have been too much to show in live action,” Breitman says. “But animation makes it possible to show this life where the characters are not free and they’re afraid without taking away anything from the meaning of the story. This is a moral story and you want to use your chance to do something with meaning, something with humanity.”

Helmer Jérémy Clapin’s Oscar-nominee “I Lost My Body” takes audiences on a tour of Paris with a severed hand that’s trying to get back to its body. Through traveling in the city, the hand remembers the life it once had.

Clapin avoided certain angles of the hand and kept the camera close to it to keep it from looking odd or aggressive, so the hand would look sympathetic and almost fragile. He also decided against CG or a type of animation that would be too smooth.

“The style of the animation is realistic, but with the distance of the drawings it brings something unique,” says Clapin. “With the drawing of the lines I wanted something very sketchy, not clean. You can be very precise (with this style of animation) if you have to add some details but if you want to have something more abstract you can have that too. I wanted to tell the story of this tiny piece of you struggling with the whole world around it, which is destiny.”

Sister,” Oscar-nommed for animated short film, was a kind of personal quest for helmer and animator Siqi Song. This stop-motion short was developed from Song’s own experiences as a little sister and second child to an older brother during China’s one-child policy. It tells the story of a boy who imagines what his life might have been like if things had gone differently.

Song herself didn’t feel fully accepted by her country because of all the restrictions surrounding her birth, a common feeling among children who were born and survived despite the country’s one-child policy. Many second children she knew were sent to live with aunts or other relatives because the policy was so oppressive. In the last couple of years, China has reversed that policy.

“It’s kind of a turning point where China is encouraging people to have more children, but my generation has grown up as only children and now we have more options,” says Song. “People may not want to have two children because it’s expensive and you may be taking care of your parents and your children at the same time. You are thinking of your future. My father made sacrifices when they had me, and it was not good for his career because it was against the law of the Chinese government. But my story in this is not political. It’s something from my heart, about what life was like for my generation growing up with the one-child policy.”

With “Klaus,” Oscar-nommed for animated feature, helmer Sergio Pablos wanted to create a new origin story for Santa Claus that didn’t lean into all the trappings of the legend. It’s an ambitious undertaking when there are so many animated and live-action films that have tried to do the same.

The 2D animated feature uses things like volumetric lighting to give it a storybook feeling. But it still maintains a look that’s less polished and looks more like something from the past, as intended by Pablos.

“We wanted all the characters and the elements to look like they were painted by the same hand,” says Pablos. “And I loved that this story. There was a cynical element to it, maybe Santa isn’t who you expect him to be, but there’s still this magic about Christmas where everyone is kinder to each other somehow, and maybe people are more open, and if they see someone who is carrying a lot of packages, they’ll stop to help that person but normally they wouldn’t. It was a perfect story for this kind of 2D animation, which would push things forward but also have this feeling of a story about Santa.”

While all these filmmakers chose animation for their stories, there was a time where animation wasn’t necessarily seen as a serious choice for more political themes like the ones in “The Swallows of Kabul” or historical takes like “Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles.” But with the number of developed animation industries worldwide — especially in countries with highly developed film businesses such as Japan, China, France and Spain — that may have changed.

“The Spanish film industry is of an extreme quality, with great films and great directors that traditionally were not interested or considering animation as actual cinema, but this is changing. The quality of the storytelling in animation is showing that actually you can tell amazing stories in this technique,” writes Simo.

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