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Book Review: On Animation: The Director’s Perspective Volumes 1 and 2

Bill Kroyer, Tom Sito and Ron Diamond’s expansive anthology is an intimate and comprehensive record of firsthand experiences from a ‘Who’s Who’ of top industry directors.

On Animation: The Director's Perspective, Volumes 1 and 2,” by Bill Kroyer and Tom Sito, created and edited by Ron Diamond (CRC Press, paperback, $59.95 each; 369 + 314 pp.)

This intimate two volume anthology of interviews with a carefully selected group of the animation industry’s top directors -- conducted by animators Bill Kroyer and Tom Sito, with animation producer/distributor Ron Diamond sometimes sitting in -- is handily the most in-depth and comprehensive record of firsthand experiences detailing the explosive increase of animated features during the last three or four decades. Each of the interviewees tells how he or she got hooked on animation, generally at an early age. "Hooked" may be too mild a term; in most cases, the road to fulfillment involved enough bumps that "obsessed" might be more accurate.           

From the '30s through the '70s, Disney was the 800-pound gorilla of feature animation, with what amounted to an artistic monopoly on the form. Since the early '90s, they've been -- accounting for inflation -- more like an 8000-pound gorilla, but with competition from plenty of other gorillas (code word here for "distributors" and "production entities") jockeying for screens and G/PG-rated dollars. While many of the 23 interviewees are best known for their work for the competition, nearly all at least worked at Disney at some point or made their bones with Disney's Pixar before Disney and Pixar merged.            

The vast majority are baby boomers or younger, with Don Bluth (born in 1937) the sole outlier. Many naturally gravitated toward CalArts, which was seen as the best avenue to Disney's animation division. The latter was in a slump during the Ron Miller years: Walt was gone, and the legendary Nine Old Men were dying, retiring, or acting as consultants at the studio, leaving a vacuum of vision at the company's core.

This hefty two-volume set serves as an historical record, but is also designed to be inspirational and to pass on how-to advice -- some artistic, and perhaps even more how to deal with an industry that is fundamentally more complex than live-action Hollywood filmmaking. The interviews generally start with what drew the subjects to the field in the first place, before moving into how -- by various combinations of talent, persistence, and character -- they found their places at the top of the creative food chain, as directors.           

Cultural changes were crucial in the often-uncomfortable shift from Disney's entrenched hierarchy to an environment more amenable to the new, young generation. John Musker (The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Moana) -- whose classmates at CalArts included Pixar pioneer and Toy Story director John Lasseter, Jerry Rees (the criminally underrated The Brave Little Toaster), and Brad Bird (The Iron Giant, The Incredibles, Ratatouille) -- says, "If you asked me what the 'model' for the Pixar Studio was, I would say it was based on CalArts and the collegial atmosphere that we cultivated there."

While many of the stories here detail daunting obstacles, the success of Pixar is the most heartening, a combination of Lasseter's understanding of the new medium and a talent for finding other writer/director/artists who also "got it."           

Lasseter himself states what is now obvious but was apparently not so obvious in the early days of computer animation -- that the technical novelty shouldn't be the focus. "With Luxo Jr., I had just focused on the character and story. I remember at one...screening, Jim Blinn...said, 'John, I've got a question for you.' I thought it was going to be about Bill Reeves's innovative shadowing algorithm.... Instead, Jim said, 'Was the parent lamp a mother or a father?' I knew at that moment we had succeeded. For the first time, a computer-animated film was entertaining the audience because of the characters and the story, not just because it was made by a computer."

While the new technology led to many of the best (and highest grossing) animated features of the last 25 years, the studios predictably saw the technology, not the content, as the crucial factor. Henry Selick recounts how the release of Toy Story in between his first two features -- The Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach -- caused problems with Disney, where he was told that "stop-motion just wasn't viable anymore." He adds, "I've watched experts like Tim [Burton] and my friend David Fincher deal with studio politics.... I'm terrible at it."           

Kroyer and Sito are friends with most or all of their interviewees, so the tone is generally amiable. Their goal is not to be critics, but to glean useful information based on professional experience and often hard-won knowledge. One might perceive some resentment toward Bluth, who was in an awkward spot during Disney's transitional period: he was the generational odd-man-out, who had toiled under the old regime and was suddenly confronted with ambitious newbies, looking to express their own visions as soon as possible. To be fair, once on his own, Bluth had to deal with maddening business complications that make it remarkable he turned out as much first-rate work as he did, including the pioneering videogame Dragon's Lair.

Nick Park considered the field a hobby in his teens, encouraged by his father, a photographer, and influenced by Hitchcock, Terry Gilliam, Bob Godfrey, Fritz Lang, and Ray Harryhausen. It took him seven years to finish A Grand Day Out, the first Wallace and Gromit short, which was nominated for an Oscar. The main reason it lost was that Park's second short, Creature Comforts, was also nominated and won.           

He explains how problems can contribute positively to a project. "Gromit [initially] had a mouth. But as we were filming a scene, I couldn't reach his face to put the mouth on. So I just moved the eyes. That's when I realized I could do everything with the eyes. Gromit was suddenly born. He didn't need a mouth. He became a very introvert and intelligent dog...the opposite of Wallace.... The dynamic between the two of them was born."

The closest thing to a complete independent here is Bill Plympton, who went from drawing for his college newspaper to making a series of outrageous shorts -- solo and hand drawn, often grotesque -- then features, and an ill-fated attempt at live-action features. He explains why he needed to use Kickstarter to raise funds to finish his 2013 Cheatin'. Likewise, Irish director Tomm Moore, whose beautiful, stylistically unique The Secret of Kells would never have been made in a Hollywood milieu, talks about the hoops he needed to jump through to bring his vision to the screen.           

Perhaps the most entertaining talker of the group is Brad Bird, who seems to have had a relatively easy time getting the go-ahead from Steven Spielberg to direct the "Family Dog" episode for the latter's Amazing Stories TV series, then had a much less pleasant time dealing with Warner on his first feature, The Iron Giant. He found a more congenial home at Pixar, where he made The Incredibles and Ratatouille.  

Eventually, he transitioned to live-action features with more success than Plympton or Andrew Stanton, who made the notorious mega-flop John Carter. (Luckily, Stanton bounced back with the hugely successful Finding Dory, the sequel to his earlier Pixar hit, Finding Nemo.)  After the disappointment of J.J. Abrams's so-so Mission Impossible 3, Bird revived the franchise with Ghost Protocol, the best and most successful in the series at the time. He has always been a student of live-action technique and has been able to integrate his knowledge in his animation. Referring to Ratatouille, he says, "[I'd tell Sharon Callahan], "'Well, we want bounce-light here like Robert Richardson,' and... that's all I'd need to say." 
In addition to the interviewees mentioned above, the two volumes include Ron Clements, Andrew Stanton, Brenda Chapman, Chris Wedge, Roger Allers, Chris Buck, Tim Johnson, Pete Docter, Chris Sanders, Dean DeBlois, Vicky Jenson, Rob Minkoff, Jennifer Yuh Nelson, Carlos Saldanha, and Kevin Lima.

On Animation: The Director's Perspective, Volumes 1 and 2 is an expansive, insightful look into the process of some of animation’s greatest modern directors; it’s a must for libraries and an invaluable resource for wannabe animators and buffs in general.

Visit the CRC Press website to order your copy of the two volume On Animation: The Director's Perspective.

Andy Klein's picture
Andy Klein is an LA-based critic and was for many years on the animation committee of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. His work has appeared in more than 50 publications and a dozen anthologies.