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Katzenberg, Fox Lot, Mirren: Another Whirlwind Day on the Oscar Tour

As we arrived back at The Little Theater for the screening, Ron introduced all the nominees to Vanessa Morrison, the new president of Fox Animation. It seems to me this screening will be hard to top. Tomorrow is yet another busy day with a screening at Disney and our first agency screening at ICM, which will be very interesting.

Jeffrey Katzenberg introduces the screening at DreamWorks. © AWN Inc.

Jeffrey Katzenberg introduces the screening at DreamWorks. © AWN Inc.

Well, I just got back from the Academy screening, which closed another whirlwind day on the Oscar Showcase tour. In addition, to Roger, Don, Marcy, Geza and Tamas, Gary Rydstrom, Lifted producer Katherine Sarafian (who we’d all meet at the Pixar screening), Torill Kove, The Danish Poet’s Norwegian producer Lise Fearnley, co-director of No Time for Nuts Chris Renaud and No Time for Nuts producer Lori Forte all joined the fun. Mike Thurmeier is back in New York with his wife and we’re happy to announce their new daughter has arrived. Her named is Katelyn Ivy. She was born on Feb. 18th at 2:23 in the afternoon. She was 21 inches long and a healthy 8lbs 10ozs!!!

We began our day at DreamWorks, where we were greeted by John Tarnoff, the head of the studio’s “incubator” department, which develops the initial artistic designs and storyboards for the company’s feature animated films. Jeffery Katzenberg came to meet the nominees and introduce the screening. He commented that the current renaissance in animated shorts is inspiring. He added that one of his dreams when he started in the industry was to be involved with a project that was nominated for an Academy Award, because it was an acknowledgement from your peers, and told the nominees to cherish this moment. In addition, he was delighted to finally have Roger and Don, who he worked with at Disney, visit the DreamWorks studio. During the screening, Jeffery requested a private screening of Lifted, which Ron provided for him. The audience at the screening was receptive and had many of the same questions that artists at the other studios had such as “what was your inspiration” and “how long did it take to make the film?”

Over lunch, DreamWorks animators Simon Otto and Fabio Lignini discuss filmmaking with The Danish Poet producer Lise Fearnley. © AWN Inc.

Over lunch, DreamWorks animators Simon Otto and Fabio Lignini discuss filmmaking with The Danish Poet producer Lise Fearnley. © AWN Inc.

Following the screening, we were treated to lunch with some of the artists, which included last year’s Oscar nominee Sharon Colman, and executives from DreamWorks. Simon Otto, who has been an animator at DreamWorks since The Prince of Egypt, and Fabio Lignini, who is head of character animation on Bee Movie, wanted to know more about Geza and his film Maestro. Simon asked why Geza made the film and with his trademark sly grin, Geza said, “So that I can meet all of you.” All joking aside, Geza loves meeting other animators and talking about the filmmaking process.

Simon seemed a bit envious of animators who can make shorts just because they have a need to express themselves. This was especially so when The Danish Poet producer Lise Fearnley answered Simon’s question to “why her company would want to make a short film if there were no chance of making money,” by saying, “because we wanted to make this film.” Simon, who was also trained in 2D, seemed very impressed to hear that Maestro was Geza’s first CG film and that the character animation and intricate camera moves were done together. Having the ability and means to do anything you want inside a big studio, Simon observed, is a hindrance to innovation sometimes.

The nominees check out some Shrek the Third artwork in the DreamWorks Animation building. © AWN Inc.

The nominees check out some Shrek the Third artwork in the DreamWorks Animation building. © AWN Inc.

After our nice lunch, the nominees were treated to some DreamWorks shwag. John Tarnoff gave us a tour of the studio, which started off with the famed conference room. The new additions to the tour were just as marveled with the high-tech facility as the rest of us were when we saw the PDI/DreamWorks mirror version last week. We got to walk through the animation building and gaze upon the artwork for the upcoming films. Roger admired the character design work of Nicolas Marlet and the production design work of Pierre-Olivier Vincent on How to Train Your Dragon. We also learned that Madagascar 2, or Madagascar: The Crate Escape, will have Alex the lion meeting his family in Africa on his way back to the zoo. The new characters for the sequel still retain the wonderful angular design style of the original. Torill said that on Christmas day her daughter was uninterested in opening presents and was more excited about watching Madagascar again. Another nice treat was the chance to peak in the offices of the animators, especially Dave Burgess who’s hard at work on Bee Movie. Rumor has it that Jerry Seinfeld will be at the DreamWorks brunch on Saturday. Check back later to find out if that’s true.

The Oscar Tour takes a right turn on Pico Blvd. and ends up in New York City. © AWN Inc.

The Oscar Tour takes a right turn on Pico Blvd. and ends up in New York City. © AWN Inc.

Next on the day’s lineup was the debut Oscar Showcase screening at Fox. Having a bit of spare time before the screening, we were let loose on the Fox lot. The photo op over on the old New York set was irresistible. While we were there the conversation turned to a very important Oscar concern — what are you wearing? Katherine had picked out a dress she liked, but when her friends objected she felt obligated to go with their choice. Torill had friends help her pick out a dress, but was unhappy with the beige color. When she showed her husband, he simply said, “no” and she went back to the store and picked out another. Geza’s designer friend begged him to let her make his suit for the awards show. Marcy is living out a childhood fantasy and wearing a red Spanish flamenco style gown. Chris is sporting the Calvin Klein tux that he wore at his wedding while Gary is just happy that long ties are en vogue again so he doesn’t have to struggle getting his bowtie just right.

Fox Animation vp John Cohen and president Vanessa Morrison meet the nominees, including Katherine Sarafian (foreground), Lori Forte (l to r), Chris Renaud and Gary Rydstrom. © AWN Inc.

Fox Animation vp John Cohen and president Vanessa Morrison meet the nominees, including Katherine Sarafian (foreground), Lori Forte (l to r), Chris Renaud and Gary Rydstrom. © AWN Inc.

As we arrived back at The Little Theater for the screening, Ron introduced all the nominees to Vanessa Morrison, the new president of Fox Animation. She was very excited to see the films and Geza and Torill had a chance to give her copies of their films. While the screening took place, Geza was whisked away to encounter the dreaded Errol Morris interview for the Academy documentary. I had warned Geza that Mike and Roger had said that the interview with Morris was strange. However, it seems that Geza had no problem with the Interrotron. Ron told me that he came off very charming. As for questions from the small crowd, they were similar to the other studios. However, unique to Fox was an applause for Roger in fighting to keep the ending he wanted for Little Matchgirl.

No Time for Nuts co-director Chris Renaud gets interview for a podcast. © AWN Inc.

No Time for Nuts co-director Chris Renaud gets interview for a podcast. © AWN Inc.

From Fox, we hopped in our cars and headed to Beverly Hills for the Academy Shorts screening. It was lucky that I met up with Geza and Tamas, because I wasn’t on the guest list and ended up slipping in as Tamas’ guest. Knowing Oscar nominees is already paying off. In a very Hollywood fashion, there was a small section set up for press to interview the nominees. As Academy receptions usually are, the crowd was a collection of Academy members and the nominees with their guests. Photographers with print outs of what the nominees looked like buzzed around the room snapping photos. Academy staff collected the nominees for a nice group photo as well.

Oscar nominee Helen Mirren chats with Oscar nominee Geza Toth. © AWN Inc.

Oscar nominee Helen Mirren chats with Oscar nominee Geza Toth. © AWN Inc.

Because Taylor Hackford, director of Ray, was the host of the evening, his wife and Oscar nominee Helen Mirren was at the event. She was very receptive when meeting Geza and Torill. As a fan, Marcy was delighted to meet the star of the Best Picture nominated The Queen. Tamas grabbed me to take pictures of Geza hobnobbing with movie stars so that they can send the picture back to Hungary. It’s kind of nice to think that my picture could be in every Hungarian newspaper in the not so distant future.

Roger Allers, Leslie Iwerks and Don Hahn pose for a pic at the Academy reception. © AWN Inc.

Roger Allers, Leslie Iwerks and Don Hahn pose for a pic at the Academy reception. © AWN Inc.

During the reception, I had a chance to talk with Lori, who used to work on live-action sitcoms before coming into animation. Crazy as it sounds she is busily unpacking the boxes in her new home in L.A. before jetting off to New York where she will be staying for the next two years producing a new animated feature at Blue Sky. Throughout the day, I had a chance to talk with Torill, who seemed more interested in finding out how I got wrapped up in animation then answering questions about herself. The humble filmmaker seems uneasy about all the praise she has been getting. But the day couldn’t have ended any better for her. The sold-out crowd loved her film, receiving choruses of laughs throughout. I actually heard an audible gasp of dismay during the screening of The Danish Poet when the mailman loses the lover’s letter. However, The Danish Poet wasn’t the only film that had the audience in stitches. All the films (except for Little Matchgirl for obvious reasons) all received huge laughs. Having been a part of the tour for almost week now and having gotten to know the filmmakers, it was strangely gratifying for myself to live vicariously through their experience. It’s the kind of audience everyone hopes for. I was so happy for everyone and eagerly awaited the next joke, knowing what was in store for the audience next.

The screening was followed up with a short Q&A with the filmmakers, moderated by Hackford, who asked the filmmaker about their inspiration for the various films. Torill said The Danish Poet was inspired by a time in her life when she wondered about how she got to where she was in life. Gary’s wonderful sense of humor shined through in saying his film was an act of revenge on years as a soundman. Roger and Don said they had loved the original Hans Christian Andersen story and felt the pre-revolution Russian setting fit the material best. And apparently the Borodin piece of music fit the original storyboards so well that only bits had to be cut. Geza’s witty response was that he wanted to make a successful film and this was the story he came up with. Chris said that when Blue Sky wanted to make a new Scrat short, he thought it would be a good idea to take a cue from classic Looney Tunes shorts where Daffy Duck started out as a duck in the marsh and ended up as Robin Hood.

Director Taylor Hackford poses with animated shorts nominees -- Roger Allers (l to r), Don Hahn, Gary Rydstrom, Torill Kove, Chris Renaud and Geza Toth. © AWN Inc.

Director Taylor Hackford poses with animated shorts nominees -- Roger Allers (l to r), Don Hahn, Gary Rydstrom, Torill Kove, Chris Renaud and Geza Toth. © AWN Inc.

Hackford’s second question was how the filmmakers got into animation. Torill originally studied urban planning, but found it unfulfilling. So she contacted an animation professor she made meet and studied for a year. Then she showed her portfolio at the NFB and landed a post as an assistant. She worked up ideas on her own and eventually pitched them and her first short, My Grandmother Ironed the King’s Shirts, was nominated for an Oscar. Gary said he took the quick way into animation and worked for 20 years in sound. When he was offered the chance to make an animated short at Pixar he jumped at it. He said that he saw a level of control in animation that was similar to post-production, which was appealing. Roger said he was sold on being in animation when he was 6 years old and saw his first Disney film. Don, who was a music major in college, got an assistant job in the archive department at Disney. Upon meeting such legendary animators as Ollie Johnston, Frank Thomas and Grim Natwick, he was hooked. He started out as a clean-up artist and eventually moved into producing, which lead to him eventually becoming president of feature animation. Geza had debated on becoming a pharmacist, but felt animation was the only way he could truly express himself. Chris started as an illustrator for comics and applied to Blue Sky when they first began work on Ice Age.

During the intermission, many in the crowd came up to the filmmakers and expressed how much they loved their films. It seems to me this screening will be hard to top. Tomorrow is yet another busy day with a screening at Disney and our first agency screening at ICM, which will be very interesting.

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