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Backstage at the 2016 Academy Awards

AWN editor-in-chief Dan Sarto reports on the backstage antics at the 88th Academy Awards, talking to Oscar winners Gabriel Osorio and Pato Escala, ‘Inside Out’s Pete Docter and Jonas Rivera, and ‘Ex Machina’ VFX supervisor Andrew Whitehurst.

Read AWN's Oscar news coverage - ‘Inside Out,’ ‘Bear Story’ Win Big at the 88th Academy Awards.

On a night when host Chris Rock’s savage wit and biting sarcasm tackled head-on the ongoing debate about Hollywood’s lack of diversity, the 88th Academy Awards did not disappoint, filling almost four hours of air time with an assortment of entertaining, inspiring and thought-provoking moments that captured the elegance, glamor and importance of the global film industry.

For me, sitting in a crowded backstage award winners interview room, the live broadcast piped into my earpiece while I struggled to pay attention to the parade of winners, who, for a few short minutes, suppressed their exuberance to sound coherent in front of the eager phalanx of reporters, the evening was surreal -- an odd blend of anticipation, surprise, yawns, and a fine array of expertly arranged snacks.

The assembled press was allowed to eat as much shrimp, cheese triangles and chocolate cake as desired, but take no pictures -- I overheard security behind me at least twice debate whether or not to remove a reporter after they were caught taking a single cell phone pic…of just the empty stage. But I digress.

It’s unfortunate that alongside every grateful Oscar Gold recipient stands a group of equally talented nominees who, together with their families, friends and fans, surely feel a tinge of disappointment when their names aren’t called. And while it’s always great fun to bemoan the evening’s “snubs,” taking into consideration all the industry buzz in the weeks leading up to the show, some of last night’s winners were truly unexpected surprises.

All the nominated films are outstanding works in their own right, regardless of personal favorites or media handicapping. And while the mainstream press has focused their reports on host Rock’s skewering performance, red carpet high fashion fails, or various takes on best actor winner Leonardo DiCaprio’s impassioned speech about global warming, my focus was on three so-called “craft awards” that barely register in the minds of those who don’t make their living devoting years of their lives to making animated films.

Let’s start with the Oscar for best visual effects. Saying Star Wars: The Force Awakens was the overwhelming favorite was like saying expectations were high Charlize Theron would show up wearing something exquisite. And while many in attendance may have been stunned that J.J. Abrams new Star Wars epic didn’t win, Ms. Theron could have shown up in a hazmat suit and not disappointed a soul.

And let’s be honest. The team behind the visual effects for Alex Garland’s sci-fi thriller Ex Machina was considered a longshot to bag a nomination at the VFX Bake-Off, let alone an Oscar, once it beat out huge films like Avengers: Age of Ultron and Jurassic World for one of the five coveted spots. With a VFX budget most probably smaller than the money spent staffing Ultron’s on-set espresso bar, Ex Machina’s win for achievement in visual effects was, for those in the know, a real stunner.

Sometimes it seems we expect this award to recognize the “most” visual effects rather than their best use, whether grandiose or restrained. Perhaps this upset will send a message to VFX artists that when they speak of using visual effects solely to enhance a director’s storytelling vision, they should cut down on the render cycles and take their own words to heart.

In accepting the award, Double Negative’s Andrew Whitehurst, the overall VFX supervisor on Ex Machina, framed his startling win perfectly when he exclaimed, “This is so utterly unexpected.” When asked his thoughts about being pitted against films with bears, robots and space operas, Whitehurst gave pause before replying, “I suppose the thing that’s maybe different about Ex Machina is that it’s pretty rare in visual effects to be asked to do something subtle and delicate. That was the brief that Alex Garland gave us, and it was a complete pleasure to run with that. So maybe that was the thing that we had that was different. We were less rather than more.”

Commenting on whether or not he feared going up against films with huge VFX budgets, Whitehurst explained that it wasn’t such as issue because this year’s nominees were such different types of movies. “I don’t think any of us actually felt that there was an issue in looking at the budgets between the films, because looking at all of the nominees this year, they’re all such different movies,” he noted. “You’ve got sort of an existential western, you’ve got us, you’ve got that kind of pop art, feminist action road movie. It’s an amazing range of films this year, and I think to me the most exciting aspect of being one of the nominees is just looking at the range of different kinds of movies. So I don’t think we felt any kind of pressure particularly. But I’m not going to lie, I mean, it’s an astonishing feeling thinking that actually we were the ones who ended up winning it.”

Equally as surprising was the animated short film winner, Bear Story. Pitted against two-time Oscar winner Richard Williams’ Prologue, the most recent of Pixar’s perennial release of short film gems, Sanjay’s Super Team, Don Hertzfeldt’s deeply thought-provoking World of Tomorrow, and Annecy Grand Prix winner Konstantin Bronzit’s We Can’t Live Without Cosmos, Gabriel Osorio and Pato Escala’s poignant film about a bear sent away from his family to perform in a circus was probably the most stunning of the evening’s surprise winners. An allegory about families split apart during Augusto Pinochet’s tumultuous 1973-1990 reign as Chilean dictator, Bear Story is the first Oscar-winning film from that country.

When asked if he felt films like his, that talk of social and political issues, could bring awareness to the dangers of someone like Pinochet coming into power again, Escala replied, “My personal hope is that -- I know it sounds maybe disingenuous or innocent, maybe a lot it’s innocent -- but we really hope that we can get this message to the next generations, to kids, so they cannot make the same mistakes again. So that’s really our hope as animators, as communicators and as filmmakers.”

With two upsets already registered, moving on to the last of our three big awards, I realized that all bets were off. Though Pixar’s Inside Out was the overwhelming favorite to win best animated feature, the previous two surprise winners had certainly proved the old adage, “There’s no such thing as a sure thing.” And though the announcement of Pixar’s win to some may have been a forgone conclusion, it was still exciting to witness, even if it caused barely a stir in the press room.

Taking their turn backstage, director Pete Docter and producer Jonas Rivera were quick to thank their co-director Ronnie del Carmen, acknowledging him as an integral part of the film’s production. Rivera was first to praise del Carmen, noting that, “He is an essential part of the movie. He contributed so much to the emotion, the heart of the movie, and we are incredibly lucky to work with him.”

Docter immediately chimed in, giving a nod to the evening’s theme of diversity by mentioning that “Ronnie is one of the great visual storytellers in animation…and he comes proudly from the Philippines, as you know. You look at all the nominees tonight in animation, a lot of talk about diversity…you see in this category films from around the world, from Japan, from Latin America and from good old California, and we are proud to be among that group. I think animation leans that way. Ronnie is a great artist that represents that [diversity]. We create stories, stories come from everywhere, and so someone like Ronnie really brings that to Pixar. We are proud of him, and he is definitely sharing this with us.”

Talking about the film’s central premise of human emotions, Docter remarked, “When we first started the film, I came in with this idea about using emotions as characters. My daughter was about 11. She was going through a big change at that point, from goofy, little funny kid to being a little more serious, and I was thinking, ‘Whew, what’s going on inside her head?’ And that’s really what sparked the concept for the film. Jonas has younger children, Ronnie Del Carmen has older kids -- everyone seemed to understand what we were talking about, that this is a very difficult time. We went through it growing up…Emotions are sometimes mysterious, and you cannot quite understand what’s going on. So it was really that which drove the making of the film.”

And after being denied a chance to ask a question several times during the evening, I finally got my chance, and asked the pair, “This film took years to make. You wrote and rewrote and rewrote and redesigned for years before you ever even got into principal production. Can you share a little bit about the torturous path you took to finally get this film onto the screen?”

Rivera answered first, proclaiming, “That’s a good way to say it,” with Docter quickly adding, “It is.”

But then Rivera jumped back in, noting, “Except it’s not. I mean, it is a torturous path in that it was a big hunk of our life. But we love our process and our team so much that in a weird way this is sort of a heartbreaker because it’s over. This movie is finally done and we’re on to the next things at Pixar. But, yes, it was a long road.”

Docter agreed, saying, “This movie, we talked to scientists who said, ‘Possibly the most complex thing in the known universe is the human mind,’ and we are like, ‘Oh, we just decided to make a movie about that!’ How are we going to simplify this so that we understand it, for one, kids understand it, and even more difficult, executives understand it? So we had to really make sure things were simple and clear. I’m joking, of course. We had amazing folks that collaborated with us at Disney and Pixar as well, but it was a long process of rewriting that took three and a half years.”

It should also be mentioned that while fan favorite Mad Max: Fury Road didn’t win for best visual effects, it did take home an impressive six Oscars, winning gold for production design, sound mixing, sound editing, costume design, film editing, and makeup and hair styling. And on a personal note, though it brought a twinge of sadness, I was pleased to see my good friend, the late Bob Balser, included in the show’s memoriam montage. Looking at his picture, if only for a few brief moments, reminded me once again that, award show indulgence notwithstanding, the animation industry continues to be home to talented professionals of all genders, races, religions and ethnicities, who work together, side by side, toiling for years in obscurity, creating some of the world’s most enjoyable, engaging and impactful entertainment. You’d be hard pressed to find a more passionate, dedicated and inspiring group of artists.

Dan Sarto's picture

Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.