A new era in animated storytelling begins with the release of 9 on 9/9/09 (from Focus Features). Shane Acker, the celebrated UCLA alum, whose imaginative 9 short was nominated for an Oscar, has been hard at work for the last four years or so making his post-apocalyptic CG adventure into a feature. How 9 got set up is fascinating. It was first shepherded by producer Jim Lemley (Wanted), who got the short to super agent Mike Simpson, who then approached Tim Burton, who helped set it up at Focus. Then Lemley approached his directing partner, Timur Bekmambetov (Wanted, Night Watch), who was helpful with, among other things, recutting. Acker tells us in this exclusive interview about his experience making his feature debut with Starz Animation Toronto, as well as his recent artist in resident gig at The Gnomon School and two upcoming features he's trying to set up.
Bill Desowitz: How did you first approach making 9 into a feature?
Shane Acker: When I made the short, I really didn't have a longer form script or idea, but I did have a lot of ideas about the world and the backstory to help me design the short and the characters. We just kind of started there, relooking at all those ideas I had behind the short and how those characters came to be and what happened to the humans. And then started cracking the door open a little wider and tried to piece together a story from that. But this was my way of diving back into another four years of a project that had already taken me four-and-a-half, with the possibility of who these other characters are, who the other numbers are. They are just suggested in the short.
BD: So you got to unlock a lot of doors.
SA: Yes, exactly. And that's a lot of fun, both in designing the characters but then trying to figure out who they are, and their personalities and who their maker was: a Geppetto/Oppenheimer-like character connected to the downfall of humanity and how they represent a new beginning and vessels for the human spirit to carry on in this world. And that they're all facets of that one individual personality/identity. They're all inclined in different ways, so they all have different strengths and weaknesses. And through this coming together, they form the whole -- they put together the individual once again.
BD: And where did you set up your animation initially?
SA: You must know the story: It was Attitude Studio, which had a studio in Paris, but we set up in Luxembourg. And so we worked on the film for about seven months over there in Luxembourg before it became really apparent to us that we were never going to get the movie done with that studio. I mean, they have a lot of talented and dedicated artists, but the pipeline was just not set up [for our needs]. They were adapting a motion capture pipeline into a character pipeline; we sort of discovered through the process that we just didn't have the tools and wouldn't be able to get the tools together in time…
BD: So how did you end up at Starz?
SA: Yeah, so the thing was set up as a negative pick up, and when we had to go to the studio and tell them that we wouldn't be able to guarantee that we could get this movie done on time, then the bond company came in and did a whole audit. And, as part of that audit, they brought in Jinko Gotoh, who is an animation producer. She worked on Finding Nemo and a bunch of Disney projects, so she became a champion for the project. She wanted to find a way to keep it going, even though it meant setting it somewhere else and spending more money. So I really credit her for keeping the project alive and finding a new home for it at Starz Toronto, which turned out to be a wonderful experience with a really great team. And really smart artists who understood the vision and were really collaborative in finding ways to make it work and get the most bang for the buck on screen for a really modest budget. They come from experience where they're working with big studios, but they're up in Canada and finding ways to cut corners and tweaking and refining their pipeline all down the line.
BD: And obviously it stepped them up and prepared them to handle bigger features.
SA: And we took a creative team there and just kind of vetted and bonded with the artists… and there's something about the material and the world that inspired the artists. They got to flex [new] muscles and that helped push the quality of the film.
BD: Talk about developing the look of the characters and the world -- the "Stitchpunk" that borrows from stop-motion.
SA: When I was doing the short, what I felt was lacking in a lot of the CG projects out there were a real texture and grit, as well as a cinematic approach to the storytelling. And I was finding that in stop-motion films, whether it was the Brothers Quay or Jan Svanmajer. I drew a lot of inspiration from them. There's a kind of believability because they had to mechanically work the puppets and armatures that they created for their stop-motion characters. So there was a truth through materials and a grit and grime and texture on the world.
BD: Very tactile.
SA: Yes, very tactile, that drew you in and you believed it.
BD: And how did you make this work in CG?
SA: When I was first doing the short, I was thinking that I would do it as a stop-motion film, but found that it was very limiting in what you could do with the camera to tell the story visually, So I decided to take this sensibility, this interest, this design idea and bring it into the CG world where I can move the camera any way that I want. But at the same time, adhering to the cinematic language of how you move a camera, which, I think, is what Pixar has done.
BD: And the environments, which have a very Eastern European painterly influence?
SA: We wanted it to work on lots of different levels. So when you get close to the characters, there will always be more detail revealed to you. We knew that we would be spending a lot of time with our characters and so we put a lot of detail and texture into them, which make them believable. And then on the environments, we were able to take other liberties with them, based upon the camera and things like that. We did a lot of painterly things with that. But somehow it works because when you're close, the characters feel believable and tactile, and then when you're in the vista, it feels like they're moving through these paintings so it feels more romantic, lyrical, like a fable. It is this alternate reality world, this ruined "Stitchpunk" world, and it becomes a dark, urban, post-apocalyptic fairy tale. Plus you'll get there so much quicker by doing a painting then by putting all the details in for one rendering.
BD: And what was it like having Tim Burton and Timur Bekmambetov shepherding your movie?
SA: Tim Burton coming on the project when he did and validating it and putting his name out there and supporting the vision that we had, as well as finding the writer [Pamela Pettler] and getting the studio, too, to buy it. And then as we went, just having that support team there, where whenever we got a big mouth done or we got a new cut of the film, we would present it to them and they had this critical distance from the film, because I had been in the trenches for so long and could see it with fresh eyes and talk about the larger ideas or the big picture notes. This allowed me to step back and see it through their eyes and strategize and go back into the trenches and to know how to push from the inside out.
And in the end, they were both making films, but then Timur finished Wanted, so I got to spend more time with him, which was an amazing experience.
BD: What was he like?
SA: He's like this unedited stream of crazy and inventive ideas, so he's like this endless well, where, if you have a problem, and he'll constantly come up with ideas. Some work, some don't. But while some may seem crazy, when you step back, you realize there's something to it. And so it was fun having that crazy spirit. And then doing recuts with him, seeing how even in editing if you massage it a certain way, you can change the perception of the characters, you can make them stronger, you can make them more vulnerable as well as upping the ante and the excitement of the film.
BD: So, let's switch gears and talk about your becoming an artist in residence at Gnomon.
SA: Yeah, well Alex Alvarez and I have had a loose connection for a while and he approached me before I started 9 about being an artist in residence at The Gnomon School and developing short films with the students there, which I thought was an amazing opportunity. And then when 9 was wrapping up, I called Alex and said, "Hey, do you still have that position over there?" Because there's something very liberating and you always want to keep developing stuff and broadening your horizons as an artist. These feature films take years and years and they also take a lot of time to set up, so the opportunity to go and make a little short where the stakes aren't as high and you can take more risks and explore and push yourself as an artist was really appealing to me. So when he said that the position was still open, I leapt at the opportunity. You know, you always have these stories rolling around in your head and spending four years on 9, I certainly have a backlog of ideas for shorts. And I had one ready-made that I pitched, which fits the aesthetic of the school, so it felt like it was right up their alley.
BD: What can you tell me about it?
SA: Well, it's really short: I think it's going to be three or three-and-a-half minutes. And, again, it's returning to my roots as a non-verbal storyteller. It's real character-based. Gnomon is sort of known for their visual design and effects work but not so much for character animation, so it's bringing something new into the school. But it's this tale that takes place above the planes of hell in like this Dante's Inferno world. There are these two demons that are biding their time and they're caught in a struggle of miscommunication; they're both missing vital pieces of themselves, important for communication, but they each contain the piece in their possession that will complete the other. But somehow, because they can't communicate, it just turns into this terrible battle that ultimately leads to their fate, and you get the sense that this is something repeats endlessly, and that's their place in hell. It's a pretty neat little story with some interesting character designs, so I'm excited about working on it.
BD: And you get to collaborate with the students.
SA: Yeah, which is great, because I spent time as a teacher all through my education. At UCLA, I was a teaching assistant and I really love working with artists in general, especially young artists, and see what they bring to the table and how excited they are to learn and be a part of it. And, again, looking for this unfettered imagination that is not tarnished at all by production experience and all these kinds of things that can bog you down after a while and limit your vision.
BD: So, when do you start?
SA: It's happening now: I've storyboarded it and we've been cutting it and I think the end of September we'll start producing it.
BD: And what about any potential features in the works?
SA: There are two projects: a live-action that hasn't been announced that we're trying to get a development deal on, kind of a fantasy world, based on a young-adult novel series out of the U.K., which will be a lot of fun because it has this very interesting core of characters. And then there's an animated film that we're pitching to the studios right now that's based on a graphic novel -- a kind of Secret of NIMH meets Dark Crystal meets Lord of the Rings. It's all told deep in the unforeseen forest and it's a dark, dramatic, epic adventure film.
Bill Desowitz is senior editor of AWN and VFXWorld.