Getting Stitchpunked with 9
Joe Ksander (The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe), the animation director of 9, opening today from Focus Features, first met director Shane Acker when they were both at UCLA. In fact, Ksander was so impressed with Acker's initial pitch for the 9 short that he volunteered to work on it.
"We all grew up loving a certain kind of Ray Harryhausen movie and 9 had that kind of feel to it," Ksander recalls. "Then I went off and became a character animator and animation supervisor and Shane came back to me when the feature was in development and asked if I wanted to direct the animation. "
Once they got into storyboarding, Ksander came aboard and helped develop the characters and refined the design, since the feature, which was made at Starz Animation Toronto, is no garage film like the short.
"By the time the movie comes out," Ksander continues, "Shane will have been working with these characters for about nine years. The original design of the short was a little bit limited, but with the feature we had to consider how they are going to talk and how are they going to look when they talk."
Although #9, the protagonist (voiced by Elijah Wood), was essentially the same "stitchpunk" design (stop-motion-like and stitched together in burlap), they tried to refine his look to make him more expressive and appealing.
"We made his lines cleaner," Ksander explains. "And in order to see what it was like with a human voice coming out of it, we played around with the face a little bit and I even did experiments to try and make him more human and get some of Elijah Wood's face into the character, but that didn't really work: the more human it got, the weirder it became, so we pulled back and kept it really simple. It's an oval with two round eyes and a slit for a face, which means that when you're performing him, you have to do a lot more pantomime."
Coming from visual effects, Ksander admits that it was a valuable learning experience. The principles of animation may be the same, but, in some respects, visual effects animation can be more challenging because, with live-action, there's a level of reality that viewers expect., such as when dealing with Aslan from Narnia.
"What was interesting working with Shane is that he's an animator -- that's his first love -- but he's also a generalist: he models, he lights, he does story, he edits. And working in the industry, you become very specialized. I've been doing animation and design. And then when I was working with Shane, the mantra was whatever we need to do to get it done or solve a problem, so I found myself being back in film school again. I was modeling and working with rigs, working with story and editorial. It was [great] for me to go back to our roots."