Jill Culton has been working in the animation industry for around 16 years, eight of which she spent as an animator, storyboard artist and story person at Pixar. Having accumulated an impressive list of credits that includes Toy Story, Toy Story 2, A Bug’s Life and Monsters, Inc., she was ready to step up to the director’s chair for Sony Pictures Animation’s debut feature, Open Season. Sharing helming duties with veteran director Roger Allers (The Lion King) and animator/storyboard artist Anthony Stacchi, Culton helped the studio knock their first swing out of the park with a No. 1 box-office debut.
Animation Magazine Online: What was it like moving up to directing? You certainly had a competent ally in Roger Allers.
Jill Culton: Sure, but this was Roger’s first time doing CG, so that was kind of a good balance between us because my whole career had been in computer animation. It was a pretty great experience and I think Roger would agree with this as well’the art of making these films is kind of like the art of stained-glass window making’it’s really meticulous and the craft is passed down from person to person. It’s really difficult to direct one of these if you haven’t seen the whole process, been part of the process or been an animator or story person because it’s very difficult to direct others to do things you yourself haven’t done. That’s one thing that I thought was really great. As a director, you’re kind of the conductor of the orchestra, you have to hold the big picture and go to every department on a regular basis and make sure that they have the vision in their head and it helps if you’ve been there before. I found that a lot of people I worked with on this job are people I’ve been working with in the industry for years and years, so it was even a bit of a weird, super close-knit family.
AM: After working at an established toon shop like Pixar, you came to Sony to work on their very first CG feature. How smoothly was that ship running?
JC: It’s always challenging when you’re doing a first film with a company. You have to set up every department as you go, so you’re doing all the start-up as you’re making the film. However, the benefit that you get’and I experienced this on the first Toy Story as well’is that there’s an enthusiasm from the crew that comes from making a first film that you may never get back again. Everybody’s so excited. They’re willing to stay up all night and come in on the weekends and it’s not because they have to, its because they really want to do this and they’re so excited to be part of a first film for a company. Sony really has that. At times when I was exhausted and thought I couldn’t go on there was always somebody on the crew who was saying, ‘Let’s keep going, let’s do this bigger, let’s do it again.’ Usually, you’re that person but I have to say on this project, it wasn’t only the directors who had to play that roll. The entire and all their excitement kept us all going.
AM: What were the days like leading up to the release of the move? Were you looking at reviews? Does that sort of thing get to you?
JC: It’s tough. All of us tried not to look at reviews but secretly we were all looking at them. A lot of the negative reviews were talking about the glut of animation these days and I think it’s unfortunate that some reviewers got sick of seeing so many animated releases this year. Obviously, the kids don’t get sick of it. It there’s more than two out there, that’s great for families. So some of those reviews we had to turn a blind eye to just because a lot of them were statements about the animation industry in general and we kind of got lumped in with that. The live-action industry never gets judged like that. A lot of the families we’ve talked to are relieved that there are more things to take their kids to on the weekends. And I think that the people who went to see it really enjoyed it and that does all of our hearts well. That’s what we’ve been working for three and a half years for.
AMO: And the film is also screening in IMAX 3D ‘
JC: We never planned to do it in IMAX 3D at the very beginning but at the end there was kind of a push to say, ‘You know, what? Let’s do it.’ Really, I think people are not just excited to see the film in a large venue like that (all those IMAX screens are gigantic), but the added effect of 3D makes it another fun thing to do on the weekend. It looks like we made this film for 3D even though we never planned on it. It was just a happy accident. When you watch the river rapids ride or the convenience store break-in where there’s Cheerios flying at your face. It works great.
AMO: You’ve been in this industry a long time and have really worked hard to get where you are. What advice would you give to someone who wants to be in your position, especially a woman in this industry, which is pretty male-dominated.
JC: I was talking to a group of ASIFA folks the other night and they asked the same question about women in the industry. The interesting thing about animation is this is one of the great, rare industries where you are judged on your talent. When you send in a portfolio or a reel of animation or something like that, they kind of look at your name but they pop it in and you’re no longer male nor female, you’re just talent. That’s your one shot. Rarely do you get a face-to-face interview. So my advice is that you really have to keep at it. You have to keep at it when no one’s looking. You have to take your sketchbook to the zoo. You have to observe people. You have to read stories. You have to look at mythology. You have to watch movies. Someone recently asked me if I study movies and I told them about this weird obsession that’s been with me since I was a little kid. Since I was in junior high, I used to come home from school every day and watch the same movie. Chariots of Fire was the first one I did that with. I was so bored when it was in the theater that I walked out and played videogames in the lobby. But when it came on TV I taped it and my mom came into the living room and said ‘I’m worried. You’ve watched that movie 40 times in a row.’ And I still do that to this day. I’ll get a movie that I love, Master and Commander or something like that and I’ll watch it every single night when I come home from work for I don’t know how long, months. You have to love what you do in life, period. If you love to animate and you love to draw, do it. Practice when no one’s around. If you want to tell stories then watch stories, read stories. Go to book clubs. Don’t just read the how-to books. I think becoming a director is really just a residual effect of all these years of being in the industry, doing these things and being saturated in it. After you’ve done it for so long, people say, ‘Hey, would you like to direct?’ But it’s as competitive as being a doctor or a lawyer or anything else. You have to really work hard on your own and you have to find ways to keep going, keep drawing, keep taking classes. Then they’ll make it, they definitely will. It’s a fabulous career. I’ve been an animator, I’ve been a designer, I ‘ve gotten to write, I’ve been a story head and I’ve been a director. I’ve been able to do so much.
AMO: Is there anything in the industry that you’ve haven’t done but would like to do?
JC: I’ve never been on the technical side of creating software and stuff, and I have to say those guys are just as artistic as the best designer you could ever find. Talking to them is just like talking to an artist and there are so many creative minds. I’ve been able to benefit from challenging some of the software engineers to create new tools, but I haven’t been part of the creating process. It just seems like a miracle to me that they keep making these tools. Specifically, on Open Season I wanted a tool where the characters could have built-in squash-and-stretch where you can manipulate the silhouettes. You basically have the ability to sculpt the characters into any shape you want. I gave a two-hour lecture and I showed all these old Disney films and stylized Warner Bros. cartoons and showed how the characters could squash and stretch out of proportion. I went frame by frame and they just kind of looked at me, and I thought, ‘I’m such an idiot. They don’t understand me.’ But the next day the phone was ringing off the hook. They came out of the woodwork asking all about this and within about four months this amazing, revolutionary too was developed. When I peek behind the curtain, that’s the one part that I don’t know how it happens. But I’m so glad it does because it takes both sides’the creative, visual storytelling and this wonderful, creative team of technical guys who are still pushing the envelope and creating new stuff.
AMO: What’s next for you? Are you taking time off or right on to the next project?
JC: I’m taking some time off and I’m on to my next project. I’m working on another one for Sony and I’m going to take some time off to go rest up. I think it’s important for creative people to go and’you’ve been putting all of your creative input into something for three and a half years and if you don’t go away and have a normal life, you don’t have real experiences to grab from. To me, it’s really important when you’re a filmmaker not to just grab for a formula or grab for something you’ve used in the past. Sometimes I think doing these one after another can not only be dangerous to your health, but can also be dangerous to the film if you’re not careful.
AMO: So what’s the next Sony film?
JC: It’s undisclosed, a big hush-hush. But you’ll be the first to know!
Be sure to pick up the October issue of Animation Magazine to read more about the work Culton, Allers, Stacchi and the rest of the team at Sony Pictures Animation put into Open Season.