The co-directors on Disney’s upcoming 2016 animated feature share how they divide and conquer the enormous tasks -- and pressures -- of helming a big studio film.
After years spent participating in carefully arranged press junkets and interviews, countless hours spent talking to big animation studio feature film directors and producers in the midst of orchestrated press activities, sometimes you can’t help but detect a certain unspoken and not particularly positive vibe underlying the promotional festivities. These behemoth films are marathon adventures in creative and financial risk taking and the obvious signs of stress and fatigue, especially as the production effort winds down while the marketing rhetoric ratchets up, permeate the proceedings. Often, I’ve come away from a full day of interviews thinking, “Wow, I really have no idea what this film is about.” People talk all day but often say very little -- forced smiles abound.
But after a day spent with the crew of Disney’s upcoming 2016 animated feature release Zootopia, in their giant, acoustically challenged industrial warehouse of a studio space, culminating in candid discussions with producer Clark Spencer and co-directors Byron Howard and Rich Moore, I came away feeling quite enervated, impressed and dare I say, happy? From the trio’s initial story and visual development presentation, to crew presentations on story, character design, production design and animation, to my final set of one on one’s including a talk with Disney Animation Studio president Andrew Millstein, everything felt quite fresh, unscripted and honest. From body language to tone, I sensed a palpable ease with the crew that made the day much more enjoyable, less methodical and rigid than press days often are. Coupled with the thoroughly entertaining material they shared from the film, the positive vibe I sensed was, quite honestly, a welcome relief.
In our conversation, Moore and Howard, paired together now for roughly a year after the film underwent significant plot and character changes, seemed genuinely in sync, relaxed, funny and focused. In an all-to-short interview, they shared their insights into how they’re splitting up directorial responsibilities, protecting their crew from the relentless stress of production and ultimately, doing what needs to be done to finish the film.
Dan Sarto: Describe your co-directing dynamic. Is it divide and conquer? Do you each focus on a different set of things? Is there so much going on that the strategy merely becomes, “Hey, you go here, I’ll go here…”
Rich Moore: It’s a bit of everything. I came on a year ago, when the story of the movie took a sharp turn. The film was not only far into development but also into production at the same time. It was one of those things where it's a lot of work for one person to do over a short period of time. Directing became a two person job. I had some history with the project, being part of the story trust, being invited to hear story pitches along the way, and being there at all the big milestones of the film’s development. They asked me if I would jump in, and I said, "Of course, that's what we do here." I was more than happy to join Byron. As co-directors, we're in a lot of the meetings together, but sometimes when it gets tight, Byron will take something and I'll take something else…
Byron Howard: Maybe Rich will handle editorial and I'll handle lighting, or effects or other stuff. It's sort of a hybrid. Chris Williams [co-director on Bolt] and I split up a lot and then Nathan Greno [co-director on Tangled] and I were in every meeting together, so on Zootopia, I think it's really been a hybrid between the two. We try to be together whenever we can, even just for the sake of our crew, to give them a clear understanding that we’re on the same page, being as consistent as possible. Because we rebuilt the movie together after the reboot, we wanted to make sure everyone had the same goal, so there's no huge disparity of what one side...
RM: …What does he want, and what does he want...
BH: Yeah, so I think we're pretty much of the same mindset, even as far as the tone of the movie. It’s a very smart movie, has a great sense of humor, and has this fun noir aspect to it that I think we both get into. And we love the mystery aspect.
RM: I think that we found that same page really quickly. We've been in all the animation dailies together, except for two or three. But then Byron will handle a lot of the lighting, the look of the movie and I will handle a lot of the editorial. It's been a little of both.
DS: Speaking to Renato dos Anjos [head of animation] and Kira Lehtomaki [animation supervisor] about the film’s animation, they were saying how phenomenal you are with your communication.
BH: Well, I’m a pale imitation of Glen Keane. When Glen was working with us…I'd always wanted to work with Glen. For years I grew up loving his animation. When I was being trained as an animator, I was trained by one of his protégés, Aaron Blaise. Aaron’s awesome. I got a bit of Glen from him, and when the opportunity came to finally work personally with him...I wasn’t an animator on Tangled, but it was amazing to watch what he did with that team.
I’ve always admired Glen because a lot of supervising animators I saw coming up through the ranks were not the most sharing of people. They would keep the best scenes for themselves - they would not give those to their team. Glen was exactly the opposite. He would give the best scenes to his crew and he would teach them through those scenes. I loved that about him.
There's something about him that embodies the spirit of why I love this place. There's that cooperative, giving nature...I love watching the team. The animators and lighters all work closely with each other. They inspire each other and us too. We're constantly inspired by the quality of what we're delivering, and it makes us want to do better. There's this great vibe that exists in the studio. It's just the sense of community and family that isn't...It sounds very hokey to talk about it, honestly, but it's very real to us.
DS: It starts with you guys. Really, all eyes are on you, so if there's a good vibe, it's because it starts with you. For each of you, what about this production is different from Tangled and Wreck-It Ralph?
RM: The easy answer is the technology. Over the past three years, the technology has come up so quickly. Now we can render things so fast. Even just the level at which we can see animation dailies, they almost look like finished scenes. They're almost like lit scenes when we see them. It's so different from where it was just a few years ago on Wreck-It Ralph.
So we’re seeing so much more of the performance on the face of the characters, where sometimes we would have to take it on faith a little bit that all the nuance was there, because the playback still had a very rudimentary version of the model. Now, it's just like, "Oh my god."
BH: We never used to be able to see the fur on the characters. Like if you see Nick, the character in our film, without his fur, he looks like a shaved Chihuahua. When you're trying to judge acting while watching a shaved Chihuahua…
RM: Yeah, now we can get there faster. We're able to see what the movie's going to look like at the end much sooner. That just didn't exist on Wreck-It Ralph. The lightning system is so intuitive and it just adds to the emotion of every scene in a way that is different than it was on Ralph.
BH: Yeah, it’s incredible. For me, I guess, this is the first project that I've ever been with ever since its inception. With Tangled, Nathan and I came on when Glen stepped down because of his health. So, we were coming into a project that had its feet on the ground, it had some history to it, had some development to it. There was a big re-imagining when we came on.
But on Zootopia, this one, I’ve been on this from day one. What's this notion of an idea that got pitched, and how does that develop? You can honestly see it change and morph over the years. It's pretty crazy when I think about how long I've been on this movie – it’s a good percentage of my life. It's pretty scary, but in a way it's amazing, and every step of the way enriching. We had this great period of time when we were doing research and traveling, going to Africa, and then working with other filmmakers like Rich, and all these other directors and writers that were so gracious with their own time to contribute to what this thing has become. In the end, it's this amazing piece of art and storytelling that is good because of all the people that gave themselves to it.
RM: There’s something about doing it in this building too. This was such an oddball place to come, right at the moment when everything was at its peak of craziness - we're going to change the story, and another director's coming in, and we have the throw out a good percentage of the movie. Oh, and we're moving the whole production two miles away to a warehouse. It was just like, "Oh my god, what else can happen?" But this place, having that big open space out by the loading dock, where people would come and congregate and have fun, something about it just added to the camaraderie and great vibe. Coming to this place, I think, really helped make the movie come together.
DS: One last question. What are the skills that best serve you as a director?
RM: Why that question? [laughs]
BH: Brevity…See ya later [laughs]. Rich, like you were saying earlier, being a good listener is really important...
RM: Pardon?...Yeah, you’ve got to listen. Listen to the story. Listen to the people around you. If we're just trying to make the one version of the movie we have in our minds, I think we're going to lose a lot of great stuff that other people have to contribute.
BH: Flexibility too. You have to be as good when you're letting go of things as when you’re creating things. People obviously look to us to see how we're reacting to the changes, and if we lose our minds and it just tears us apart, then they're going to do the same thing. We have to learn to flow with it, understand that what we're trying to wrangle are these massive living things with a hundred thousand variables that are very, very tough to work out, and to embrace that and know it’s going to work out.
RM: Being able to absorb the pressure without letting it seep too much into the production. Not letting the shock waves of problems hit the crew, because they have enough to worry about. They don't need to know about all the stresses that we have to deal with. I learned early on, like when I was directing on The Simpsons, that I needed to be kind of a buffer between the producers and writers and executives and the stress that came with their demands. They don't need to feel that. I almost felt like I'm the wall that absorbs that and allows my crew to be the best artists they can be. I don't know what that quality is...maybe Masochism? [laughs]
BH: [laughs] Certainly there’s a component of masochism to all this effort.
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.