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Backstage at the 89th Academy Awards

AWN celebrates Hollywood’s biggest night out backstage at the 89th Academy Awards, gathering remarks from the Oscar-winning teams behind best animated feature ‘Zootopia,’ best animated short ‘Piper,’ and best visual effects for ‘The Jungle Book.’

Host Jimmy Kimmel onstage during The 89th Oscars. Image: Greg Harbaugh - Image Group LA / ©A.M.P.A.S.

Outside of a tiny, barely noticeable snafu surrounding the winner of the award for best picture, the 89th Academy Awards on Sunday night went off pretty much as expected.

Host Jimmy Kimmel continued his “feud” with BFF Matt Damon, trolled President Trump on Twitter, and mocked several difficult-to-pronounce foreign-sounding names. Meryl Streep cemented her position as America’s leading actress. The audience got free candy parachuted from the ceiling. And Walt Disney Animation Studios won the Oscar -- for the ninth time in the past 10 years -- for best animated feature for Zootopia.

-- Read it on AWN: ‘Zootopia,’ ‘Piper’ & ‘The Jungle Book’ Win Oscars at the 89th Academy Awards --

Backstage, the mood was hectic and celebratory as the filmmakers and talent behind some of the biggest movies of 2016 headed into the press room to pose with their awards.

Marking the first Academy Award for Piper director Alan Barillaro and producer Marc Sondheimer, the pair were all smiles in the press room after accepting the award for best animated short film on stage, where they thanked the entire Pixar team, including John Lasseter and Ed Catmull.

Backstage Barillaro commented, “When you talk about technology you have to think ‘this is just the art form, this is just the pencil.’ We ignored the world realism and just went for the artistic choices. A lot of the work was looking at classical paintings...the challenge as an animator is you need to understand something before you can animate it.”

Sondheimer added, “We studied those birds and that really helped…for three long years!”

The Academy Award for best animated feature for Zootopia marked the first Oscar win for directors Byron Howard (who was previously nominated for Bolt) and Rich Moore (previously nominated for Wreck-It Ralph), as well as producer and first-time nominee Clark Spencer.

Backstage the filmmakers fielded questions about the movie’s theme of diversity, storytelling, and animation as an art form.

“Our studio employs artists from all over the world,” Moore said of the diverse talents that help bring a film like Zootopia to the big screen. “There’s no way that we could make these films without the talent of international artists. And they bring so much from their countries. And like someone like Josie [Trinidad], you know, who has a very unique point of view, and she’s our head of story on this film. And I really see a person like Josie as someone that she’s a future director, a potential director at the studio in the times coming.”

“We got this idea about five and a half, six years ago to talk about bias with talking animals,” Howard said, responding to a question about how animation can tell a story in ways that other filmmaking mediums can’t. “And the great thing that that allowed us to do was allow the audiences around the world not to sort of prejudge the characters. Like we wanted the animals to serve as stand‑ins for any of us. No matter what’s your cultural background, what’s your ethnic background, whatever your, you know, gender, it doesn’t matter. Like if you can find yourself in these animals. Like Aesop knew this hundreds of years ago, and that was something that animation is very uniquely equipped to do, especially with a story like this. And we were surprised at how timely the film became as the world started to blow up, and it was very comforting to us no matter what country we visited. The people who saw it in those countries would tell us that this seems very like a Belgian movie, a movie for Belgians, or this seems like a movie for Brazilians or for, you know, different people in the United States. So allowing people to find themselves in the characters is a great, powerful thing that animation can do. And we are so happy that our company backed us from the beginning. Like there was never any hesitancy in doing a movie about bias or discrimination. There was only support. So we’re very grateful for that.”

Spencer, meanwhile, spoke about the culture at Disney and the studio’s efforts to respect diversity. “I think the great thing is John Lasseter,” Spencer said. “He really encourages people to tell stories from their heart, and when it came from Ron and John who created this great film with those [inaudible] MOANA, they really wanted to tell the story of the South Pacific and so they did an incredible amount of research down there in the islands to really understand that culture. And the same thing here, we actually worked with an incredible expert on bias named Dr. Shakti Butler for two years and she really worked with us and looked at the script and talked about this idea of subconscious bias which is what made it into the film. And so I think for us, we’re realizing that animated films don’t need to be just for kids. They can truly be a film for everybody. And if we do our jobs right, we can entertain kids and adults, but also cause a reason for conversation and hopefully inspire. I mean, the interesting thing about Zootopia and Moana is they’re both stories that talk about female protagonists in a very, very strong way and that’s a great thing put out there in terms of storytelling.

The biggest question for the three filmmakers was what they each loved most about being storytellers.

Howard went first, explaining, “What I love is that we’re a community at Disney. This is true at Pixar, too, our sister studio. I think we know that these films have great impact on the public and on generations that will watch them over and over again. So we take what we do very seriously. And we’re very tough on each other. We are a family, but we push very hard in the stories to make sure that we get the message nuance in just the right way. And this film is no exception. We did 13 different versions of this film entirely different from one another. And it’s just amazing to be in a place where people will sacrifice their time and their creativity and just ‑‑ and give everything that they have for something that they care about. And then when they knew that the message of the film was one of hope, especially as things started to go again, kind of go crazy, people gave even more of themselves. So that’s ‑‑ that’s a really reassuring thing. So everyday coming to work and seeing that, it made us feel like we are potentially doing something that could really help people in the future and never making a message movie by any means but just something that could provide someone with a feeling of hope and positivity at the end.”

Moore spoke of his evolution from seeking pure entertainment as a kid to tapping into the emotional responses of the audience in reaction to a character or storyline. “When I would watch movies and hear stories as a kid, like I thought that they would just entertain me. And as I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized, no, this is ‑‑ this is a medium in which we are giving back what the people before us gave us,” he said. “And I always loved as a kid the stories, that not only entertained me, but made me think after the movie was over, the show was over. And that’s what I really, really love about storytelling is to be able to make an audience laugh or cry, have an emotion, be thrilled, but then on the ride home or a kid speaking with their parents or as someone who’s falling asleep before they ‑‑ when they’re going to bed, that they’re actually kind of thinking about how ‑‑ how do I see myself in that protagonist’s shoes? Like how ‑‑ what are times that I felt like that? And that to me is, you know, I ‑‑ I think there’s a real nobility in storytelling that like so many of the lessons that I learned in life were from stories, you know, and it feels very good as an adult to be able to give that back to the next generation.”

Spencer echoed these sentiments, adding, “But the thing that I love most is how hard it is. It’s really, really, really hard to tell a story and you watch the directors and the story artists and the writers try to craft it over the course of four or five years and then you get to that point where you see the final product and you think about how many versions, as Byron said, you go through and you realize everyday just how hard it is to tell a story that’s cohesive and can have an impact. And for me, the satisfaction at the end of watching the film come out, get released and then see it impact audiences is what I love so much about absolute storytelling.”

Disney’s The Jungle Book won the Academy Award for best visual effects, topping a field that included two additional high-profile Disney releases -- Lucasfilm’s Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and Marvel’s Doctor Strange -- along with Deepwater Horizon and LAIKA’s stop-motion animated feature, Kubo and the Two Strings.

The Academy Award was the third gold statuette for VFX supervisor Rob Legato, who had previously won awards for his work on Hugo, in 2012, and Titanic, in 1998. It was the first nomination and win for lead VFX vendor MPC’s VFX supervisor Adam Valdez; the second Oscar for Andrew R. Jones, who previously won an Oscar for Avatar; and it was the first win for Weta Digital’s Dan Lemmon, who had been previously nominated for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and Rise of the Planet of the Apes.

Backstage, the team was questioned on the use of virtual production in The Jungle Book, which was shot entirely on a green screen stage in Los Angeles yet featured a photorealistic jungle populated with animal characters.

“Working with real animals and nature, it takes a long time, and ours took about 40 times longer than that when we did it,” Legato commented about the award. “These guys are much more experts about that than I am, but it took like maybe 40 hours a frame to render some of the more beautiful scenes that we’ve done.”

“I think the thing to know about our film, Jungle Book, was that Disney and Jon Favreau, our director, decided to make a film almost entirely on the computer,” Valdez said. “And so when you are watching the movie go by, it may not be that obvious, but everything that you see, almost everything you see except for the one little boy is created in the computer. And I would say yes, the jungle is difficult ‑‑ very difficult to do. Every detail needs to be there for your mind to believe it. And animals, we all know animals. We love animals. People love to watch animals. So if anything felt artificial, it wouldn’t be the magic trick or the movie wouldn’t work.”

Asked about maintaining verisimilitude of the jungle while filming in downtown Los Angeles, Legato responded, “Well, one of them is a complete observance of nature and what nature gives you by accident, not by design, and sometimes you just throw it all out there and we’ve pioneered or used a sort of a virtual way of shooting where we feel like we are live‑action cameramen again where you pick up a camera, you move it around, you make choices that are based on real-time input. And you then start making dailies and the dailies then get edited with an editor with the same type of material they would have if they shot a live‑action film. And then we infused every chance we had to remind the audience they were watching a real movie. Sometimes things went out of focus. Sometimes the camera shook when something got too close to it. So observing very keenly the physical world and then embracing the mistakes that we’ve grown to live with in a live‑action movie, we incorporated those in there and actually cherished them as opposed to try to fix them as we often try to do in a live‑action movie.”

“We are creating something that has the same discipline as photography, has the same discipline as editing, has the same discipline as literally makeup and hair because every time you see the boy it was like 150 shots where he’s a computer‑generated boy,” Legato continued. “So all of the disciplines that we are awarding tonight are all incorporated into that and so there’s no real difference when you see it on the screen. When you see it on the screen, it should be a photographed, beautifully art‑directed, acted, all the various things that we like to do.”

“We did a lot of animation in this film and tried to find the right movement and feel for each character,” Jones added. “Basically, it’s a lot of research into all the animals, so finding all the ‑‑ you know, why a tiger is submissive, why it’s aggressive. Same thing with all of the wolves and every animal in this film; we kind of had this huge amount of research and we’d find out different ways using to kind of sell the performance and using different ‑‑ the voice talent was so great. Idris Elba was amazing and, you know, and of course King Louie as well.... It was a fun film to work on. Jon Favreau was a great director. He’s really fun. Had a good vision for the film.

“It is all about the story,” Lemmon concluded. “You’re making different decisions for different films and there’s different, kind of, specific stories that are there to be told and whether you tell it in an animated kind of way or whether you tell it in a photorealistic kind of way, it’s a decision that you’re ‑‑ Our job is basically to aid and abet in the suspension of disbelief and if the audience totally can sink in without having to work too hard and be able to just concentrate on the story without having to look past the fakeness of it, then we’ve done our job.”

Jennifer Wolfe's picture

Formerly Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network, Jennifer Wolfe has worked in the Media & Entertainment industry as a writer and PR professional since 2003.