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The Oscars: To Animation and Beyond

The directors of How to Train Your Dragon, The Illusionist and Toy Story 3 talk transcending the best animated feature.

Check out the 2011 AWN Oscar Showcase for trailers and clips at AWNtv!

Dragon opened up new storytelling and technical possibilities at DreamWorks. Courtesy of Paramount Pictures.

The stakes seem much higher for this year's best animated feature Oscar race, what with Toy Story 3 becoming the medium's first billion-dollar grosser and Disney aggressively pushing for the best picture Holy Grail -- and How to Train Your Dragon breathing down its neck every step of the way. And let's not forget how Sylvain Chomet's The Illusionist outmuscled both Despicable Me and Tangled for the third nomination. These really are the most ambitious stories with rich themes that rival their live-action counterparts.

Why, Dragon's Dean Deblois was thrilled to sit at the same table with Christopher Nolan and talk shop at Monday's Oscar nominee's lunch. "It just takes a current movie that people like for you to be in there," he says. "They can't ignore us any more now that animation is getting critical praise but also dominating box office. It's kind of hard to shove us off to the kid's table now, as it were. I've met all of the best director nominees and was able to talk to Christopher Nolan a little bit more today. But I do know that Darren Aronofsky is a real fan and wanted me to meet his producer. I met Harvey Weinstein and I was shocked when he said I love your movie."

But the best result of Dragon's success, according to Deblois, has been in expanding the DreamWorks palette. "If it had fizzled or failed critically, I think it would've closed the door to the fantasy/action-adventure that's light on comedy and mines heartfelt moments out of something that feels a little more classical. Now, with Dragon 2, which I'm directing, my focus has been creating a much larger coming of age story. Since we end with the Vikings riding on the backs of the dragons, so the world expands exponentially right off the bat."

The Illusionist turned a live-action Tati script into an animated wonder. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

"One of the wonderful things that Dean and I experienced on Dragon as our first CG film is that you can consider the camerawork and the acting while you're writing the script," adds Chris Sanders. "Dean and I worked very hard to move the virtual camera in ways that you could only move a camera in the real world, including the tiniest little bumps, shakes and organic movement. One of the other things we worked very hard to do -- and Roger Deakins achieved this so beautifully -- was not being perfect. You have complete control in animation, which means you could have a perfectly composed sky behind a character who is perfectly lit, but we chose to expose for background or foreground, but not for both.

"There's a beautiful scene between Hiccup and his father in his studio. The only light source is the two candles behind them -- it's very heavily silhouetted -- and parts of that image drop off into black. And that's a pretty bold choice. As far as I know, I've never seen an animated film do that. Again, it really adds to the believability of the story we were telling and that a camera had been there. What's so gratifying is that people would come out of it saying that they didn't think of it as an animated film."

In fact, while Sanders continues working on his latest DreamWorks feature, The Croods (also assisted by Deakins), he's soaking up every technical tidbit to provide the richest possible visual experience: "I was talking to a technology guy from the Academy at the luncheon and learning more about how the pictures are converted from the raw data into the visible spectrum that you see, and how that final print registers really well with the human eye," Sanders continues. "Some of the spectrums that they're using are very close to what the great master painters were doing. It has to do with more information being processed now. But the end product is getting more and more malleable and I'm totally fascinated by that."

With The Illusionist, Chomet was trying to adapt the minimalist sensibility of Jacques Tati for a grownup tale of love, loneliness and cultural upheaval. In addition, he experimented with the Northern lights in Scotland to visually reinforce his themes.

Toy Story 3 tapped into humanity beyond belief. Courtesy of Disney Enterprises Inc.

"I really wanted to go more toward the cinema that Tati had been doing; that the Japanese directors did, which is something gentler," Chomet explains. "And of course, we are in a very aggressive period right now with 3-D and you can do whatever you want with the camera. But because the film is talking about the musical, I did something to make it feel a bit like a musical."

Indeed, even Chomet would now like to cross-over into live action as his next project. Not surprisingly, it's a musical. But what will it be like not being in complete control? "I bring a love and a very lively way of shooting," he contends. "It takes too much time to do an animated film, especially in 2D. You need a lot of patience and I don't have any patience, which is my nightmare. And sometimes you need a change in life, so we'll see."

Meanwhile, Toy Story 3 director Lee Unkrich, who began as a live-action editor, is thrilled to be nominated for best picture and heartened by the great response. "I've just had people all over the industry tell me how much they like the film: people like Spielberg, Judd Apatow and Quentin Tarantino. At the end of the day, they liked that we've tapped into humanity. I mean, this film was born from 18 years of work in developing these characters, and the films have mirrored our lives as we've gotten married and had kids and raised them and had friends and co-workers pass away. We've been living that juicy stuff of life and somehow, for whatever reason, with the Toy Story films, in particular, all that stuff has wormed its way into the stories we've told. And because the films are so spread out over time, they are incredibly unique. They never would've been these three films had we just made them back-to-back-to -back."

As for winning the coveted best picture prize, Unkrich says, "I'd like to think that people will vote for the film they were most impressed by or what most affected them in any given year. And if that film happens to be an animated film, I'd like to hope that it could take best picture."

And what about the prospects for a Toy Story 4? "We really tried to end the story of Andy and the toys, so we don't have any plans to do a 4 right now."But, I keep coming back to the fact that when we did Toy Story, we were asked if we were going to do a sequel and we all said vehemently no. Yet here we are. But we want to be cautious -- we don't want to jump the shark, we don't want to run this off the rails. We know we have something special and if we do keep it alive, we want to do it in a very special way."

Bill Desowitz is senior editor of AWN & VFXWorld.

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