In today’s high-tech world, there are as many ways to make an animated film as there are film genres. Each year’s top animated features span everything from family fare to real-life documentaries and everything in between, and today’s animation directors have as many, or as few, tools at their disposal to tell their stories as they want.
For Sony Pictures Animation’s “The Mitchells vs. the Machines,” a comedy about a dysfunctional family battling a robot apocalypse, directors Mike Rianda and Jeff Rowe saw the irony in using top-notch tools to tell a cautionary tale about technology.
“We were making a movie about technology and the only way we could contact our mom or see our friends was over the computer,” says Rianda of working during the pandemic lockdown. “It’s a wonderful time for animation right now. I would love to see people from all walks of life telling stories. I’m excited to see where people take that.”
Both directors met while training at CalArts, where they made films each year to show to their peers.
“If you did good, you have an audience that laughs and cheers and if you did bad, you just have to like sit there in a quiet room of like a hundred people,” recalled Rowe. “I think it kind of like instilled in us the audience is always right. You don’t make stuff in a vacuum, you make it for people.”
While animation technology is evolving almost daily, some directors use the advances to aid in techniques they were originally trained in, rather than changing how they work.
Michaela Pavlátová, whose film “My Sunny Maad” tells the story of a Czech woman who marries an Afghan man and her experience moving to Kabul during the American occupation, deploys a simple, hand-drawn animation style.
Growing up under communism in what is now the Czech Republic, she studied illustration, but when she was given a Super 8 camera by a visiting Japanese animator, allowing her to shoot films frame by frame, her interest in animation soared.
“That was a very important moment, I could make my own films,” Pavlátová recalls. “This started my addiction to animation — I am the creator of new universes, and I loved and still do love creating the movement.”
Pavlátová’s short film “Words, Words, Words” was nominated for an Academy Award in 1993, and for a brief time she came to the United States, where the technology available opened up new possibilities for her, augmenting what she had been doing by hand for years.
“I like computers because they are saving me time. I draw directly on the tablet, into the computer,” she says. “So now it is for me quite difficult to draw on the paper because it is a different sensation.”
Jonas Poher Rasmussen, a radio documentarian, had been searching for years for a way to tell the story of an Afghan man’s journey as a refugee that the subject, Amin Nawabi, would be comfortable with. When Rasmussen attended a workshop with animators, the pieces fell into place, and he approached Nawabi.
The result is “Flee,” executive-produced by Riz Ahmed and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, which has landed on the Oscar doc shortlist.
“Animation felt like the only way to do it, because (Nawabi) wanted to be anonymous because it takes place in the past but also because it’s a story about emotion and trauma and memory,” says Rasmussen. “You can be expressive with the animation and that was really key.”
With so many animators telling real-world stories and exploring modern themes, the future of these moving pictures is limited less by the constraints of filmmakers than by their imaginations themselves.