At the Samuel Goldwyn Theater on Feb. 24, a sold-out audience was treated to the inner workings on this year’s top animated films. Featuring two computer-animated works and one traditionally-animated movie, the proceedings, moderated by animator and animation historian Tom Sito, offered insights into the conception and creation of the three films nominated for best animated motion picture of 2010.
The first film presented, after a brief introduction by Sito, was How to Train Your Dragon, represented by nominees, co-directors Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois. They offered analyses of their process, which was turned around a remarkable 18 months after receiving a green light. In fairness, the co-directors noted that Dragon was actually conceptualized and designed prior to their arrival on the project, even though they were told that they had free reign to rework two-thirds of the movie – they claimed, in fact, that they reworked the entire film. Sanders and DeBlois had previously worked in the story department on Disney’s Mulan and Lilo and Stitch, the latter of which they also directed.
At DreamWorks, Dragon was solely the directors’ domain, overseeing story artists and animators, envisioning such touching sequences in which the dragon “Toothless” and the main youth, “Hiccup” get to know one other. Though in a script, such a scene might be described simply as “they play.” Sanders and DeBlois had their storyboard artists meticulously conceive a sequence in which the characters feed each other and play a game drawing shapes in the sand. Undoubtedly, the connection made between the misunderstood dragon and his potential slayer reads through very clearly onscreen.
The directors further described their controversial decision to make Toothless a nearly solid black color, worrisome to their team due to the deadened color that such a character might render itself in theaters. However, with some white particulates in the character’s scales, it resulted in a memorable onscreen manifestation, somewhere, they noted, “between a salamander and black panther.”
Sadly, the next film The Illusionist, by director Sylvain Chomet was not represented as Chomet was not in town and the other filmmakers, from France and Scotland, were not available. However, clips revealed Chomet’s unique style, which was first widely available to American audiences in his superb 2003 feature, The Triplets of Belleville. Like that film, Illusionist is told nearly without any dialogue of note. Other elements apparent in the clips were moments of surreal character design and action beats, familiar from Belleville. Based on a Jacques Tati story from the late 1950s, Illusionist concerns a simple stage magician who, out of work, travels to Scotland to perform his act and inadvertently meets someone who changes both of their lives.
The final film presented, Toy Story 3, was represented by director Lee Unkrich, a 16-year Pixar veteran. Starting as an editor at Pixar on the first Toy Story, Unkrich began his career in live-action films, but as a fan of early John Lasseter shorts, went to Pixar in the early 1990s to work on Toy Story and never left. He discussed how the three Toy Story films were meant to be of one piece, but that the creative heads at Pixar, still led by Lasseter, needed to shut themselves into a cabin for two days to finalize the newest film’s story. Unkrich described how the original Toy Story from 1995 was so influential to children from that time, that some of his team who worked on the new film actually saw the original Toy Story as children. This was underscored by audience members, one of whom noted that she was seven when the first film was released and wondered how Pixar maintained the magic of the film through two sequels over 15 years to date. Like the other directors at the symposium, Unkrich graciously credited his Pixar team, which has now grown to 1,000 employees.
Widely regarded as the film’s strength, the final scene in Toy Story 3 – which may or may not spell the end of the franchise – concerns the lead human character Andy giving his toys away to a neighborhood girl before going off to college. Packed with emotion, the scene was embellished by Unkrich paralleling a personal memory of saying a final goodbye to a family member. Both Unkrich’s infusion of the scene with a personal affect, plus the finality of the moment make it one of animation’s most impacting scenes in any film from the last decade.
In the end, it was telling that these directors all revealed that their work in animation, due to the sophistication in the technology that now allows them to tell stories in nearly limitless ways, is akin in many aspects to directing live-action films.