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Oscar Nominees 2009: Conversations with the Animated Features Directors

AWN chats with the Oscar-nominated directors of Bolt, Kung Fu Panda and WALL•E.

(l to r) Mark Osborne, John Stevenson, Andrew Stanton, Chris Williams and Byron Howard pose with Oscar at a symposium for the Oscar-nominated animated features. Richard Harbaugh © A.M.P.A.S unless otherwise noted.

(l to r) Mark Osborne, John Stevenson, Andrew Stanton, Chris Williams and Byron Howard pose with Oscar at a symposium for the Oscar-nominated animated features. Richard Harbaugh © A.M.P.A.S unless otherwise noted.

With the Oscars rapidly approaching on Sunday, we recently caught up with the Oscar-nominated directors of Disney's Bolt and DreamWorks' Kung Fu Panda: Chris Williams & Byron Howard and John Stevenson & Mark Osborne. We also chatted with front runner Andrew Stanton (Pixar's WALL•E) at the Academy's inaugural Animated Feature Symposium on Thursday in Beverly Hills.

Bill Desowitz: What has been the biggest impact of WALL•E on you as a filmmaker?

Andrew Stanton: It has really emboldened me to want to keep pressing at the boundaries of what the animated medium can do in a film.

BD: As literally the underdogs, Chris and Byron, were you surprised by your Bolt nomination?

Chris Williams: I don't know. I hadn't put a lot of thought into it.

Byron Howard: It was a pretty strong year for animation, with WALL•E and Kung Fu Panda being so great. And there was also the question of Waltz with Bashir...

CW: And there were a few other hit movies as well. So it's a really good time right now to be in animation, and the animation community is pretty small, and there's a real push to make these films as good as they can be. So we feel especially honored to be nominated.

Chris Williams (left) and Byron Howard, directors of Bolt at the reception for the Academy's symposium for the Oscar-nominated animated features on Feb. 19.

Chris Williams (left) and Byron Howard, directors of Bolt at the reception for the Academy's symposium for the Oscar-nominated animated features on Feb. 19.

BH: I think when it finally started sinking in is there's this packet that Chris and I both got in the mail with all sorts of forms and stuff and information about the Oscars, with a DVD you're supposed to watch with Tom Hanks.

CW: I watched it.

BH: You did. So what do you know now?

CW: Basically, don't be long and boring with your speeches.

BD: What has been the impact of Bolt at Disney?

CW: Up at Pixar, they have been able to achieve a great honesty. People are able to disagree and there's this great energy in their story rooms, and for us it's a reminder that you have to really take it to that place in order to get the best ideas on the table.

BH: The thing about watching them in action, which John [Lasseter] instilled in the Story Trust when he came down here, is that notion of "quality being the best business policy" and it's a good way to make decisions and always pushes you in the right directions.

BD: And what was the impact of the accelerated schedule?

CW: We knew we had a tough deadline and in a way there was a silver lining to all of it. Ed Catmull very much believes in setting hard deadlines and doing everything you can as a crew and as a studio. And he was very straightforward with us. He said that lethargy is the enemy of creativity and if you give people deadlines that are difficult, it will force them to confront any difficulty that comes along. You have to deal with it that day. And if you all sign on to this, then you start to build this momentum. And there was really something that I felt that we were going to achieve the impossible with Bolt. The way the studio rallied around the movie was unbelievable. And I think it was partially due to Ed's grand design.

WALL•E director Andrew Stanton at the reception for the Academy's symposium for the Oscar-nominated animated features on Feb. 19.

WALL•E director Andrew Stanton at the reception for the Academy's symposium for the Oscar-nominated animated features on Feb. 19.

BD: WALL•E started with an idea back when Toy Story was still in production, but it was something Pete Docter developed at first. How did you start on it, Andrew?

AS: I was working on re-writes for Finding Nemo back in 2002, and I hated doing it, and would finally get the time to get it done, get the door closed in my office and then I'd sit there, stare into space, throw pencils at the ceiling. I always have soundtrack music playing, and then comes on Alexander Courage's theme from Star Trek, and it all came back, and I thought back to our original thoughts on the film, and thought that this had to be a love story. I was really supposed to be doing re-writes on Nemo, but would actually be writing for WALL•E. I would think, that's productive procrastination, right? How can this be bad? I'm doing work on a future project [laughs].

Pete had been carrying this baby, so I had to go to him and ask if it was ok if I carried it now. I pitched my work to him, it worked, and I asked him where all his development and sketches had gone; they weren't in the archives. He said, "They're under my bed, let me go get it."... Robots came out [in 2005] and John was really sensitive to us working on a film that even accidentally was similar to what was already out there. We're fans of Chris Wedge and we couldn't not respect it. But time passed, and Finding Nemo continued to be so huge, I went to them and said, "I really want to do a robot movie," and no one could say no to it, even if they didn't get it all of the time.

BD: Turning to Kung Fu Panda, how liberating was it to depart from the usual DreamWorks in-house style?

John Stevenson: I think that sort of style that began with Shrek was a real breath of fresh air. But it became sort of an easy formula that not only people here latched onto but also everybody [around the world]. And for me, anyway, it's played out. I wasn't interested in doing it. And I remember when I was a child waiting for the latest Disney film to come out -- and that felt like a lifetime. And those were self-contained worlds. And there was something magical about that. I had a desire with Mark [Osborne] and [producer] Melissa [Cobb] to go back to that. And as parents and seeing the animated trailer blocks, they all felt the same: the same sitcom-style delivery, no matter what the studio. And we wanted to go back and create a self-contained world and have the humor not come from pop culture references but from the characters and to only refer to things that happen within the world that we created. It was a much more interesting and satisfying challenge for us.

Mark Osborne: I think the studio was really interested in departing from that as well. They really wanted to diversify. We got a lot of support to try something really crazy. And I think we're all really amazed at the outcome. But it was really nice to have our peers respond so well to our taking risks.

Mark Osborne (left) and John Stevenson, directors of Kung Fu Panda at the reception for the Academy's symposium for the Oscar-nominated animated features on Feb. 19.

Mark Osborne (left) and John Stevenson, directors of Kung Fu Panda at the reception for the Academy's symposium for the Oscar-nominated animated features on Feb. 19.

BD: Yes, you were setting up your own rules, weren't you?

JS: Right, you have to accept that this is a world where animals substitute for people -- a kind of alternative, Aesop's Fables' rule where humans never existed. Now we're in ancient China -- again, that's nice and exotic. But everyone's talking about kung fu. Well, that's kind of weird and arcane and most people don't even know what kung fu is. And with kung fu also comes a long, rich, epic and mythic tradition of storytelling and visuals. We unapologetically went for a template that would be a familiar [Joseph Campbell-like] journey of the unlikely guy that struggles and succeeds. Very simple by choice because what we wanted to do was spend the time to make our characters interesting and to work on the set pieces and make them surprising and innovative editions to that martial arts tradition. It was actually a liberating thing to go for a very simple story and then the roll up your sleeves part was to tell it in a compelling way.

BD: It's certainly the most complex animation the studio has done.

MO: Yeah, in many ways. A fantastic challenge for animation, in particular -- not only the amazing kung fu, we knew we had to do that -- but they did an amazing job of coming up with a grounded style of animation for the rest of the film. So our kung fu and comedic moments really pop up. And we were trying to go for a more subtle approach to the acting so that we could have the kung fu feel so crazy and dynamic. It's something that took a while but Dan Wagner [head of character animation] was pretty amazing at pushing the envelope and trying different things, and then eventually the more subtle version of Po came about not only through animation but also through Jack [Black]. It was amazing when we found it and Dan had done a few shots in the training hall sequence and it was just perfection.

BD: So what do you all think of your competition?

AS: I honestly think it's the most worthy competition you could have. They're both incredibly good movies at the top of their game. You cannot knock any of the artistry on any of them. That's just like picking flavors of your favorite ice cream as far as I'm concerned. So, they're all worthy.


Bolt, the first Disney animated feature produced under the new John Lasseter/Ed Catmull regime, overcame a rough start and is up for one award on Sunday, for Best Animated Feature. © Disney Enterprises. 

BD: Did you give notes on Bolt?

AS: No, I stayed out of it, that was really John's [Lasseter] baby.

CW: Well, WALL•E was amazing from the day they embarked on making the film. They're such an established studio with great success and, of course, every one of these films is a huge investment, so to say I want to make a movie about a robot that doesn't talk and with hardly any dialogue at all. It's just so daring in so many ways and I think that's what people are responding to, where so many live-action movies today are playing it safe. And it was so well executed.

BH: Yeah, I think there was a lot of smart filmmaking choices in general. You can't help being impressed by the first half-hour -- I don't think it's something we've ever seen before. And with Panda, for me, I was just so impressed with the appeal. I think it's the most appealing thing they've ever done at DreamWorks Animation. And the animation was very solid and the story was very simple but clear. I don't know, we have friends at all these studios -- Pixar and DreamWorks -- and I'm very happy to see people come up with something solid, because the crews tend to work very hard on these things. You have about 450 people and they'll give you huge chunks of their lives and you want to make films that are worthy of that sacrifice.

CW: And the thing about Kung Fu Panda that I'm so impressed by is that the execution was so good. Every shot was so well put together, the editing, the staging, the animation was so razor sharp.

BH: I think what stands out with all three movies animation wise were the subtle things. There are the tiny little movements in WALL•E and how much is communicated with simple movements. There's some real nice subtle stuff in Panda, especially with the Jack Black character. And for us, at the end of the film where Bolt has to react to fairly earthshaking news with his owner, he has very deep emotions but we tried to keep the acting very subtle and simple.

JS: I thought WALL•E was fantastic -- they did something in the dystopian opening on Earth, the mostly pantomime stuff, but particularly the cinematography, the sense of atmosphere and space, I thought was simply astonishing and like nothing I've ever seen in another animated movie. But while WALL•E has gotten the lion's share of the praise, I thought Bolt was absolutely fantastic. I was completely charmed and thrilled by Bolt. I thought it had astonishing action sequences and great cinematography and great heart and warmth and was consistently... funny throughout. And it came up with its own visual style, which was very interesting. In a sense, Bolt was the biggest surprise because everyone in the world assumes that Pixar's films will be great because that's their track record and they always seem to exceed themselves.


WALL•E is up for a total of six Academy Awards on Sunday, Feb. 22. © Disney/Pixar. 

MO: I was so thrilled when I heard what they were doing with WALL•E. There are some real risks being taken on all fronts, and that's a thrill to me just as a lover of animation. We talked a lot about it on our movie and I hear they talked about it on WALL•E -- we wanted to make a real movie, that just happened to be animated. And Bolt, too, surprised us. There was a moment when we thought we were going to be 3-D, and I remember thinking that it has such an impact on the way you photograph things and there was a point when I thought this would be a pretty interesting challenge. But there was sort of a relief when we realized we didn't have to do it and just focus on everything else. But I was amazed by how well they used 3-D on Bolt. I just thought the opening and closing sequences were so well done.

BD: How did WALL•E prepare you for the live-action John Carter of Mars?

AS: Not as much as I had wanted it to. [laughs]. It's certainly made me very comfortable with working with very realized CG characters because half my cast are all CG. I got to dabble a little bit in live-action on WALL•E so that gave me a tiny taste of what I'm getting into for the live-action. But the biggest thing it did is it made me understand really what it's going to take to realize an entire world that's made up from fantasy.

BD: And John and Mark, what are you working on next?

JS: I'm attached to a new [live-action] version of Masters of the Universe and a project called We3, which is a terrific graphic novel by Grant Morrison. It's an extremely interesting and challenging idea. Grant created this idea of when your household pets go missing, that those pets have likely been abducted by the U.S. military and turned into assassins. It's the story of these three animals: a cat, a dog and a rabbit who've been given fundamental speech and also equipped with weapons of deadly force by the military. And they're used as assassins and are decommissioned and escape and try to get home. And the military are in pursuit because they are deadly weapons. So it's a mixture of Incredible Journey meets The Terminator. And the thing I love most about it is we found a way of making the animals the most human thing in the movie: they have a lot of heart and it has great pathos and emotion.


Kung Fu Panda, after winning 10 Annie Awards, is up for Best Animated Feature on Sunday. © DreamWorks Animation LLC. 

BD: And Masters of the Universe?

JS: It is this huge, epic, science-fiction story. So any negatives that might come to mind from memories of the toys or cheap Saturday morning animation or Dolph Lundgren in a leather diaper should be banished from your mind, because it would be nothing like that. We're trying to make it Lord of the Rings scale, [a] very serious, adult take on that material. And the mythology that underpins the toy line and the animated series, if you take it seriously, is strong enough and rich enough to handle that. So we're working on trying to develop that as great big action/adventure movie with a boatload of [visual] effects and a unique world you've never seen before, but anchor it with the really strong human story, and make it completely real and credible and dark.

MO: I've been developing my own stop-motion project for quite some time now, and I've returned to that. It's kind of a pipe dream project that's starting to look more and more realistic. So I'm at the stage now where I have a script and am doing a budget and we're in talks with somebody right now to make it a reality. I'm hopeful I can do that next. I miss getting my hands dirty. As much as I enjoy the experience of CG and working with the artists and animators, I feel like there's a hybrid between stop-motion and CG that I've never seen before and would like to explore. I would like to make an epic film in stop-motion... using stop-motion to connect us with the characters and give us that hand-made aesthetic while using CG to replicate and build out the rest of the world... I like the idea of visiting those sets and feeling like you're there. That's the power of stop-motion because it reminds us of our childhoods and playing with toys. It reminds me of playing with Star Wars figures and acting out movies. It transforms me -- and a lot of other people -- so I look forward to going there.

BD: And how is Rapunzel going, Byron?

BH: Oh, very well. It's very early. Nathan [Greno] and I have only been on it for 10 weeks. We're going to have our first screening internally in about a week, and we've got a couple songs from Alan Menken. I think Chris said this very well when we were in Europe: someone was asking us how many times we screen and Chris told them, "Well, each time you screen, you're not making the film, you're just building platforms to see where it could be." So with Rapunzel, we're building this new platform a little higher, a little higher. We're getting that first base and we can step up from that and see where the next place we have to go, which is probably eight weeks later with the next screening. But it is a very fluid and communal and cooperative process. It's nice that you're making this with a team of friends that all care about the same thing and all want to make the film great.

BD: And are you able to take advantage of some of the groundbreaking work on Bolt?

BH: That's true: Bolt did break ground in a lot of areas and a lot of the folks that worked on Bolt are working with us to try and get CG films to look not so computer-generated. I think that's where Bolt succeeded so well... it's still very organic and very soft, and the painterly look actually makes the backgrounds almost look more real than real sometimes.

BD: And, Chris, are you still in between projects?

CW: Yeah, but I'll be back pitching ideas to John in March. And so I've got a few things swimming around in my head and I'm anxious to get them down on paper and make sense of them and present them to John and the studio.

BD: Are there any story restrictions that you're mindful of?

CW: The only rule, as far as I can tell, is that it has to be accessible to kids and something that families will be comfortable going to. But beyond that, I don't think John would tell you that there are limitations. And as far as pitching to John, you just have to pitch him something that he thinks is a great idea.

BH: And as far as the day-to-day decision making, we're pretty self-governing about what we think belongs or doesn't, and I think we are trying to get a broad audience.

CW: When we're pitching and working on scenes, we want to entertain each other and like the film ourselves, so it should be something that ultimately appeals to adults.

Bill Desowitz is senior editor of VFXWorld and AWN.

Bill Desowitz's picture

Bill Desowitz, former editor of VFXWorld, is currently the Crafts Editor of IndieWire.