With so many features defining a diverse year for the industry, directors of some of the top films of 2016 weigh in on the process and the state of animation.
With 2016’s chapter in the history books nearing its close, it has proven one of the most robust years ever for animated features, with a diversity of projects hitting screens that the industry could only have dreamed of a quarter-century ago.
As we do each year, we surveyed the directors of some of the year’s top films to get a sense of how they got these movies made, what inspired them through the long filmmaking process, and how it fits into their careers and the animation as a whole.
Ma vie de Courgette
Key moment of inspiration: There were a lot, and it’s thanks to this that the project didn’t lose impetus over time but gained it, was improved by it. First there was Tim Burton, Jiří Trnka, Catherine Buffat and Jean-Luc Greco, François Truffaut, George Schwizgebel, Peter Lord, the Dardenne brothers, Ken Loach, Wes Anderson, Isao Takahata and some others, who nurtured my imagination and gave me the desire to make animated films. Then there was the meeting with Cédric Louis, with whom I made five short films about the torments of childhood. He got me to read Gilles Paris’ Autobiography of a Zucchini, the novel which inspired the film. The brothers Frédéric and Samuel Guillaume, as well as Grégory Beaussart, who initiated me to stop-motion animation. And then things continued with the screenwriter Céline Sciamma, who my producers Max Karli and Pauline Gygax had the good sense to introduce to me. She gave a lot of simplicity and beauty to the story, a clear line for each character. When we did the voice recording with Marie-Eve Hildbrand, who directed the actors, I really felt that the film was taking shape. The film crew took inspiration from these voices when they created the visual aspect of the film. David Toutevoix did a great job with the cinematography and Kim Keukeleire found the right animation style, combining realism and minimalism for the animation. When we filmed the first shot, we all felt a lot of emotion, something outside of us took over at that time. Then, a year later, when the sound was added, we took another inspiring step and thanks to the talents of Denis Séchaud, I was able to rediscover my film, three years after the beginning of the project.
Toughest challenge in making this movie: Finding producers to finance the film. The development took several years, interspersed with other projects, short films and commissions. The main problem was to convince the producers, distributors and television channels that this film, which directly addresses the topic of child abuse and is very realistic, could interest a wide audience. In this we were fortunate that we had the public support of an initial visionary producer, Robert Bonner, and we were able to make a short three-minute pilot which featured the cast for the protagonist. This pilot provided a condensed version of the project: sequence-shots, taking on difficult topics, humor and emotion. With this film and Céline’s magnificent script on board, everything suddenly changed during Cartoon Movie 2012 in Lyon. What followed was of course epic, as any feature-length stop-motion animation has to be, but the worst was over, the film was now going to happen.
On the state of the animation industry: Not very different to the current state of the film industry as a whole. There are many, many movies in a very competitive market. The U.S. dominates the entertainment market and Europe is supposed to offer a cultural alternative made possible through state aid. It is a war in which you have to position yourself and have very clear ideas, finding the right partners at the right time to hope to have a chance of making a film that the public will hear about and have the urge to go see. Over 50 animated films are released in France every year. If a movie does not fill theaters in the first week, it disappears very quickly and another one replaces it. The large studios invest hundreds of millions of dollars in advertising for each film they place on the market. In comparison, when you have a production budget and promotional budget that is 30 times smaller, you can’t offer the same thing. You absolutely must have more soul, something that is extremely original, if you want a chance of bringing your film to screen. This is becoming increasingly rare.
Favorite animated movie or character of all time: Princess Mononoke! I am completely intrigued and fascinated by this girl. Her revolt makes me want to rebel, her savagery makes me want to become wild and soothe her rage to live happily with her in the forest. But she remains inaccessible and that both saddens me and fuels my fascination.
Career beginnings: By making contact with people. I studied illustration and then Cédric Louis and Georges Schwizgebel gave me the desire and helped me to make my first short film. Everything else followed on, each step with another beautiful encounter: Gregory Beaussart, Fred and Samuel Guillaumes, Robert Bonner, Max Karli and Pauline Gygax of Rita Productions, Gilles Paris, Céline Sciamma, Sophie Hunger … . A chain of extraordinary meetings and discussions is what brings movies into this world. Cinema is a collective art and this is especially true with stop-motion animation.
Long Way North
Key moment of inspiration: In 2005, the original scriptwriters Patricia Valeix and Claire Paoletti told me about their idea for a movie. Lots of elements were already there and all of them were inspiring for me: the phantom ship, the North Pole, the city of Saint Petersburg and above all the theme of transmission. The idea that a part of us is structured through stories told by ancients.
Toughest challenge in making this movie: The toughest challenge was to build a story from beginning to end with enough tension and complex characters. It took us a failure. After 10 month of hard work, the animatic (edited storyboard with provisory sounds and music) didn’t work. We had to go back to script with a new scriptwriter, Fabrice De Costil.
On the state of the animation industry: I’m not sure to be in the best position to analyze that. From where I’m looking at it, the animation industry seems to cover so many different realities. From Sebastien Laudenbach’s feature La jeune fille sans mains, or Gabriel Harel’s short film Yul et le serpent, from TV serials to big American feature films. For the features, it seems that 2D animation is at risk in the fight with the huge CGI budgets and in a way with a sort a normalization of the graphic aspect of this CGI. 2D, hand drawn animation (even digital hand-drawn animation) works with smaller budgets, less investors and (therefore) more liberties. But it is hard to fight against such aggressive promotion.
Pivotal scene: I really enjoy the moment when Sacha starts to work in Olga’s inn. At that point the story takes its pace. Fabrice De Costil, the scriptwriter of the final version, had a lot of good solutions to re-build the movie in the right way. This sequence is one of his good ideas.
Career beginnings: After art school, I started to work as illustrator. But I didn’t really like it. A friend gave me the advice to show my portfolio in a animation studio in Angoulème (France). That’s how I discovered the life in animation studios. I’ve been trained by elders to the numerous different animation workmanship.
Best advice: For me, the best advice has been given to me by Jean-Christophe Villard, an animation director, a great artist (and a friend) He said: stop working on the films of others, make yours.
Key moment of inspiration: The key moment of inspiration came from a beverage. It was tea. English Breakfast tea to be precise. Chris Meledandri and I drank a whole pot of the stuff while talking about our love of all kinds of music (although I could live without all that irritating harpsichord Baroque music) and stories that weave music into the lives of an equally varied set of characters. By the time our teapot was empty we had the beginnings of an idea that was like a kangaroo jumping up and down around us shouting, “Let’s do this, people!”
Toughest challenge in making this movie: Moving from London to Paris with my wife and four kids started off being the biggest challenge while making Sing. Even though Paris is stunningly beautiful and a thrilling place to live, the business of cutting ties with friends, sorting out schools and plumbers and dentists and parking and all that stuff you take for granted at home plus the rather large issue of not speaking the language was genuinely tough to begin with. Now, Paris is home and we couldn’t be happier. But you probably want to know about work stuff as this is an animation magazine and not a travel magazine. There is rhythm to making an animated film that is very different from my experiences in live action and that threw me at the start. I’d never heard of things like a “pipeline” before but I have been blessed by a team of actual miracle workers so any slips I made along the way, they scooped me up again.
On the state of the animation industry: I’m new in this town, so I don’t feel qualified to talk about the entire animation industry, but I can say that as a movie-goer I think animation continues to provide us all with some of the most glorious, rich and enduring cinematic experiences anyone could hope to have. The good ones ooze an inspiring level of passion and dedication by all concerned.
Pivotal scene: It’s a scene involving an unlikely form of car washing. I don’t want to say too much about it because it would spoil the experience of seeing it in context, but that scene means everything to me and Buster Moon.
Favorite animated movie or character of all time: Edna Mode.
Career beginnings: Like a trillion other people, I made animated movies as a kid and continued right through art school. Although I went into making music videos before making films, I have always wanted to make a movie like Sing. I am not exaggerating when I say it has been a dream come true.
Best advice: WARNING! I’m afraid that if you adopt any of the following advice you may be setting out on a journey that will often lead to stupidly hard work, tears (mainly yours), humiliation and a continuous barrage of very large dollops of steaming hot failure. My advice to people wanting to make animated films films is the same for live action: There is a huge gap between being able to make a decent animated film and making something utterly wonderful and the only way to close that gap is to work very hard indeed. And every time you fail (and boy will you fail!) go easy on yourself and get ready to start all over again. Oh, and though you’ll need to be headstrong and determined for goodness sake be kind to those you work with. The world is mean enough thank you very much.
Kubo and the Two Strings
Key moment of inspiration: As is often the case, the protagonist becomes something of a proxy for the director. The deeper we got into it, the more of myself I saw in Kubo. He’s an artist. He’s a storyteller. He’s a musician. He’s an animator, really, when you think about it. And at some point I had a revelation. “Oh my god, he’s me!” This unlocked everything for me. Once I realized that Kubo’s journey mirrored my own I was able to tap into a lifetime of memories, observations, and life experiences, interweaving my life with my art. It defined the film’s emotional core for me. I saw the film as a heightened, fantastical version of my own childhood, of my relationship with my family, and of my experiences as a father. Paradoxically, the more intimate and personal the story is, the more universal it becomes. There’s more of me in this movie than anything I’ve ever done. That can be a slightly terrifying prospect: revealing a part of yourself that you typically keep shrouded and protected. To lay yourself bare to the world is to await the world’s unsparing judgment on your work, and, as subtext, on your value as a human. But there’s no getting around it. What we make reflects who we are and what we believe. And that’s price for admission if you intend to tell stories that have meaning and resonance and real heart.
Toughest challenge in making this movie: The most challenging locations to create were those above and below the water on the Long Lake during a raging storm that serve as the center point of the film. Stop-motion and water simply don’t play well together. It’s a nightmare. Bringing these locations to the screen was a cross-departmental effort involving the art, rigging, and visual effects departments. After the beautiful designs emerged from our concept artists, our rigging department, led by Ollie Jones, carried out a series of in-camera tests of practical water. This involved everything from panes of rippled shower glass to torn bits of paper to sheets of cloth, shower curtains, and garbage bags fixed to a grid of metal rods. After an exhaustive succession of explorations, we came up with a basic look and behavior for the water. One with stylized scoop patterning, angular geometric shapes, and textures inspired by 20th century graphic artist Kiyoshi Saito’s woodblock prints. We shot tests and captured a lot of this stuff on the stages. But it wasn’t practical to shoot it all in-camera. There was no way we could do that and have it look believable, given the action and the interactivity of the water with the boat.
So we brought in our visual effects team to recreate the feel of the practical tests combined with the greater flexibility, precision, and nuance of CG simulations. Leading the charge was our brilliant lead effects artist David Horsley, working with our visual effects supervisor Steve Emerson. David had previously done some extraordinarily beautiful water work on Life of Pi, but this film’s style created a different kind of challenge. We weren’t trying to replicate reality. We were trying to create a new reality. That’s something the computer doesn’t always appreciate or go along with. David had to bend the machine to his will. The development for the water system took eight months. The astonishing results onscreen are a testament to David’s skills and elbow grease, along with an army of exceptional digital and practical effects artists. The sequence is gorgeous and terrifying and ultimately moving. A real triumph of the marriage stop-motion and digital animation in the service of cinematic spectacle.
On the state of the animation industry: The animation industry is healthy. There has never been a time in our history where animation has enjoyed such widespread success. Virtually every major film studio has now set up an animation arm. It’s big business. There are more animated films, more animation studios, and more animation jobs and opportunities than ever before. That’s a wonderful thing. But, of course, every silver lining has a dark cloud. The problems plaguing animation are the same problems plaguing the film industry as a whole. Namely, we’ve entered a time where the primacy on franchises and brands and immediately recognizable intellectual property has overwhelmed the artistic drive to tell new and original stories. The cinema used to be the place we’d go to see stories about who we are. As a kid, I relished the opportunity to be in a darkened room filled with strangers, a motley community captivated by the flickering image onscreen that would transport us to new worlds and offer insight and perspective on what it means to be human. In their finest form, the movies would give us something new, a meaningful experience, something we could remember and carry with us in our lives. That kind of experience is increasingly becoming a rarity.
Pivotal scene: Ultimately I believe the single most critical scene in the film comes, fittingly, at the film’s end. We set up, and I believe the audience expects, a violent, cathartic face off between Kubo and his nemesis. Our hero is filled with rage, looking to exact vengeance on the monster who has taken so much from him. And rightfully so. At one point during the final battle, it looks as if Kubo will get the revenge he seeks. But then we shift gears. That’s not what this movie is about. Rather, it’s a meditation on love and loss and forgiveness and empathy. Those are the examples of Kubo’s parents. Those are the lessons and experiences he will carry with him. The moment when Kubo and then the audience realize the true meaning of the film’s title is a distillation of everything at the beating heart of the film. And it’s one of the things I’m most proud of.
Career beginnings: I’ve been working in animation production for two decades. In that time I’ve done many different things in many different roles. I started as a production assistant on a television show. I did scheduling and coordinating, worked as a stop-motion and CG animator in TV, commercials, and short films, and became a lead animator setting the style for our films. I’ve worked in development. I’ve been producer, guiding a film from conception to completion. I’ve been a CEO, overseeing all aspects of a company’s creative and business operations. I’ve been both in the trenches painstakingly sweating the details and in the board room methodically planning a company’s future.
With Kubo, I finally felt that through all of those years slogging through the mire, I’d acquired a degree of perspective. Wisdom, even. Maybe it was all bluster. But in the end, directing Kubo required and took advantage of every single one of those earlier experiences. I don’t think I could have done it without having endured them all. Directing Kubo was the most meaningful and creatively satisfying experience of my career. I’m grateful for it.
Best advice: The best advice I’ve ever received, and thus the best advice I could ever hope to bestow on anyone else comes from my father. He told me not to settle. He told me not to settle for a job or a profession or even a career. Instead, seek a calling. Even if you don’t know what that means, seek it. Find that thing you were put on this earth to do and go for it as hard as you can. If you’re lucky enough to find it, it makes the hardship easier to bear, it turns the failures into fuel, and it makes the highs like nothing you’ve ever felt.
The Little Prince
Key moment of inspiration: I guess you could say the key moment for me was when I was gifted a copy of The Little Prince more than 26 years ago by my wife, Kim, back when we were just dating in college. The book affected me deeply and became such a significant bond between us, and stayed with me for the decades that followed. When I was asked to consider making a movie out of the book, the book meant so much to me that I initially said no. But I couldn’t stop thinking about how much the book had affected my life, and how much it had affected so many people’s lives, and I started to sees an incredible opportunity to not only cinematically adapt the book, but to create a story around the story of the book about the power that the book can have in someone’s life. I felt that this was our responsibility, to both honor the story and celebrate the magic of what the book has become in our world at the same time. So, the importance of the book in my life was initially why I said “no,” but it was also ultimately the reason why I said “yes.”
Toughest challenge in making this movie: The toughest challenge was finding just the right “larger story” to tell around the book that would be both inspired by the book and born out of the elements of the book. My writers Irena Brignull and Bob Persichetti and I wanted very much to stay as close to the tone and themes of the original story as much as possible, while weaving in a universal story of what can potentially happen to a person when the book enters their life. We wanted the larger story to both echo the original, and also shed new light on the powerful themes and ideas that the books presents so beautifully. This was very challenging, especially since the book lives in the imagination of the reader, and everyone creates their own version in their minds. So we chose not to attempt to portray everybody’s different interpretation (which would be impossible) but instead a very specific character’s personal interpretation of the story, that comes alive in her imagination. This allowed us to mirror the audience’s experience with the story, which is always a very singular and personal experience.
On the state of the animation industry: Sometimes I worry that the larger productions are all starting to look and sound the same. It is always exciting for me to continue to see the broad spectrum of expression in animated feature films. I am an indie filmmaker at heart, so I’m always rooting for the little guy, and to see films being made in animation as diversely different as Anomalisa, The Red Turtle, The LEGO Movie, Long Way North, The Book of Life, Zootopia, Kubo and the Two Strings and Sausage Party, I get incredibly excited about what can possibly come next. Personally, I want to help push the boundaries of what an animated feature film can be, and I am hoping for bolder choices by the powers that be to diversify the kinds of stories can be told.
Pivotal scene: The make or break scene for me in The Little Prince is the moment that The Little Girl hears the end of the story, where the Little Prince gets bitten by the snake. Her reaction to that part of the story is such a huge moment for her as a character, it brings up her darkest fears about having to say goodbye to her dear friend the Aviator, but it also causes her to shut down emotionally in a very dramatic way. This was intended to both mirror the way children can react to loss when it happens to them, something that they can’t quite make sense of or put words to, and the journey of understanding that the Little Girl embarks on to eventually try to understand that part of the book is very much intended to mirror the Aviator’s own initial and very personal reaction to losing the Little Prince in the original story. This scene had to work as both an exploration of the deeper aspects of the book, the themes of love and loss, but it was also intended to give us new insight into the very clear strategy that the Aviator gives the reader about how to cope with loss. In the book he talks about imagining what happened after the Little Prince returned to his rose, and the many different ways he imagines the story continuing in what he calls “a matter of so much importance!’ that “no grown-up will ever understand”. And this is why the Little Girl must go on a journey of understanding, she herself has to find out in her own very childlike and very personal imagined “continuation of the story” if she is going to find the answers that she is so desperately is seeking. This is truly a matter of so much importance to the larger story that we are telling about the Little Girl, and ultimately about the true power of the book.
Career beginnings: I had a real deep desire to explore animation as a medium in short form to not only tell stories but to be highly expressive. I fell in love with all different kinds of animation techniques, and I started to experiment with how mixing them could help tell more interesting stories. My first mixed-media film Greener (made at CalArts) got me noticed and created many different opportunities that I could have never imagined. Eventually my second short film More (also using mixed-media) got my foot in the door at DreamWorks which eventually turned into my opportunity to direct Kung Fu Panda.
Best advice: Just make animated films! Find a story that is personal to you and make it. Don’t wait for permission, don’t wait for someone to give you money, make your own opportunities and find a way to express your voice as an artist. Don’t worry about making it perfect, do the best you can and see what happens. You will always do better with your next one, and learning by doing is the most important and valuable thing you can lean. Make shorts!
Key moment of inspiration: After watching Finding Nemo again, many years after its initial release, I realized that Dory’s character wasn’t finished yet. She deserved to be whole. It was completely inspired by her character.
Toughest challenge in making this movie: Making a movie where the main character has short term memory loss. If your subject can’t self-reflect, then you can’t track their growth throughout the story.
Pivotal scene: For me, it’s Dory’s lowest point, where everything she’s gained over two movies has been stripped away from her, including her memory, and she has to learn, completely on her own, how to dig herself out of that hole.
Favorite animated movie or character of all time: Bambi (movie), Shere Kahn (character).
Career beginnings: I went to CalArts in the ’80s for character animation. I then worked (or didn’t work) freelance for about three years after school, then one day I met a guy named John Lasseter, a fellow independent filmmaker, at a festival for animation, and well … the rest is animation history.
Toughest challenge in making this movie: Getting it sold. We pitched this idea for close to three years. We were in this weird animation purgatory of live-action studios not wanting to make animation because they didn’t know it or in some cases had no interest in it, and animation studios that had a children’s brand they didn’t want to tarnish with an R-rated movie under their banner. So everyone we pitched would laugh hysterically at the idea and through the chuckles tell us no. That is until Megan Ellison and Annapurna Pictures came along. They loved the script and Megan loves animation and saw this as a way to do something different. Which is what we set out to do in with this film.
On the state of the animation industry: I hope the success of this film has opened up opportunities for a new kind of animated film. What worries me is the myopic view the industry has of animation. It is considered a genre by many, which automatically puts it into a very limited category and severely stifles what you are allowed to do with the art form in the mainstream. In consequence we have an over abundance of animated films for one audience. The marketplace is becoming over saturated with “four quadrant, family animated films” and of these only a couple out of the dozen or more each year will be able to make enough money to survive over time. This eventually will cause a crash in the industry and could result in the idea that animation isn’t a viable business anymore except for maybe one or two studios. It’s happened before. This is one of the main reasons I’ve wanted to make a film like Sausage Party for so long. To prove that there is a market and an audience for this type of animation. Hopefully we’ve kicked down a large door and opened up the industry to more animated films of this type.
Pivotal scene: I’d have to say the fight between Brenda and Frank and the Meatloaf montage. That scene with an audience is so fun to watch because you can tell people are surprised by the fact there are actual emotional stakes the characters are experiencing and not just a string of dirty food jokes. There’s a real story going on and they’re digging it. Then the audience is hit by an actual meatloaf singing a power ballad and they lose it. We really wanted to play that scene real. Let it breathe and not worry about whether or not it had a laugh in every line but let the characters be real. I think it really caught people off guard because of the tone of that scene, and then caught them off guard again when we got silly a moment later.
Career beginnings: I was stuck in college at Long Beach State looking at a career in graphic arts that I did not enjoy. One day I was fed up with the system seeing as it was going to be six years before I earned a degree in something I did not want to do for a living so I literally called up the front desk at Disney studios and asked how does one become an animator? The receptionist said that a lot of the people there went to a school called CalArts in Valencia. Whoever that receptionist was changed my life. I enrolled, was accepted by the skin of my teeth and spent a year working my ass off with like-minded people for the first time in my life. That summer I randomly went in to a studio that was hiring for a new animated film in the vein of Roger Rabbit. I applied and got my first job and the movie was Cool World.
Best advice: Learn the craft, respect it and love doing it. Learn all aspects of the process. From what a P.A does all the way to what a producer does and how studios work. I always thought I’d be an animator sitting at a desk animating but my second job after Cool World was storyboarding. That was where I found my niche. I could write and draw and then get up and act it out. I never would have found how much I loved that if I had only applied for or taken animating jobs. Also, find a way to put yourself and who you are into everything you work on. Throughout my career I have always tried to push the envelope of what was being done. I strived to change the industry and what people were seeing. A lot of derivative stuff can crop up after an animated show or movie hits. It’s likely you’ll find yourself working on something like that. Constantly ask yourself “How can I make this better? How can I twist this in a way that’s new and entertaining?” Ultimately it will make even the most mundane job enjoyable.
Jennifer Yuh Nelson
Kung Fu Panda 3
Key moment of inspiration: We got asked a lot by fans when we’d get to meet Po’s panda father. What would it mean for Po’s relationship with his doting adoptive goose father, Mr. Ping, and how would it affect Po’s identity? We always wanted to address this in a real and respectful manner. In many ways, we wanted this to be a tribute to fathers of all makes and models.
Toughest challenge in making this movie: People know these characters and have clear opinions about what is in or out of character. The same is true for the crew, many of whom have been working on these characters in this world for twelve years. There is an expectation for continuity. But you can’t just make the same movie over and over. Creating something new and surprising out of something so familiar is a somersault.
On the state of the animation industry: There are so many feature animated films being made its kinda crazy. I heard recently that this year there are 40 eligible films for Oscar consideration. Last year there were 16. It’s great so many are being made, because that means a lot of people are working.
Pivotal scene: It’s always the emotional moments that are the most important to me. If you don’t feel something, it’s just not going to stay with you. The moment Po’s panda dad helps Po and says, “a father.” That gets me. And one guy who worked on it who was a new father told me he cried on that spot.
Favorite animated movie or character of all time: Without a doubt, Totoro!
Career beginnings: I was in my last semester in college wondering what I was going to do with my life. My sister was working at a small animation studio and needed a PA, so I’d book over after class to make copies. It was super cool to see how a production runs, how people work with each other, even the most mundane stuff like the long commute was great training. I learned how to drive really well.
Best advice: Don’t just copy what you see being made right now. It reflects the taste of people who graduated twenty years ago. What the studios need, what the industry needs, are new ideas. If it’s exciting to you, it will be exciting to others. Plus, find a mentor. Hopefully someone who thinks you’re not too crazy.