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How the great animation film directors got their start

Image Credit: Dean Takahashi

Disclosure: The Siggraph organizers paid part of my expenses to Anaheim. Our coverage remains objective.

ANAHEIM, Calif. — How did you get your lucky break? Who were your mentors? Those are the questions that the leaders of any big industry are often asked. But perhaps the luckiest of all are the film directors who have created some of the most popular animated movies (such as Pocahontas to Up), films that have been seen by hundreds of millions of fans.

Top filmmakers answered those questions today in a panel session dubbed “The Giants’ First Steps” in a keynote panel at Siggraph, the computer animation conference in the shadow of Disneyland. In step with the “Left Brain. Right Brain” theme of the conference, most of them talked about their fascination with animated entertainment, technology, and storytelling. During the rise of this generation of filmmakers, animation went through a huge transformation as it went from hand-drawn cartoons to computer-generated 3D animations.

The 3D-animated films are great achievements in technology and project management, involving hundreds of people working for four or five years and computer server farms rendering for years. But the directors didn’t really dwell upon the technological side of their accomplishments, as technology is something that is always changing. Moderator Randy Haberkamp introduced the filmmakers by showing snippets from the animated films they created when they were students.

Kevin Lima, whose first film was Let’s Misbehave in 1983 and who eventually directed Enchanted, said that his student film taught him how to “tell a story in two minutes.” Lima said he grew up poor in Rhode Island. But he stretched. As a child, he told his mother that, after she took him to see The Jungle Book, that he wanted to create scenes like the film’s King Louis dance number.

Pete Doctor, the director of Up, said that he went into school thinking that he needed to learn how to draw and left school believing that acting and storytelling were more important.

Henry Selick, who directed Coraline and The Nightmare Before Christmas, said, “I liked getting an emotional response from an audience.” He grew up as a fan of Ray Harryhausen’s monster films like The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad and Jason and the Argonauts.

Eric Goldberg, the creator of Pocahontas and Hercules, said that he got into animation because it seemed like a good way to make a movie all by yourself. (He didn’t have many friends when he was young). Doctor said, “A lot of us started with lonely nerddom.” Mike Mitchell’s student film was Franny’s Christmas, and his more recent achievements include Shrek Forever After. Talking about his first film, he said, “I couldn’t turn my character’s head, so I just had her face the front.”

David Silverman, producer of The Simpsons, said that he had a great experience experimenting with his first film. When it was shown, he saw it was getting laughs and felt like “it was an out of body experience, getting laughs for jokes that I did months ago.” After viewing all of the student film clips, Silverman said, “These all have the mark of a storyteller. I want to know what happens in the next scene.”

Kirk Wise, creator of Open Season, said that he grew up watching Warner Bros. cartoons on Saturdays and The Wonderful World of Disney on Sundays. That inspired him to be a comic book artist, but he slowly gravitated to animated films and applied to the California Institute of the Arts.

“The film I submitted as part of my portfolio was absolute crap,” he said.

monsters university scott clarkWhat technology changes

As for the advances in animated films, Mitchell said, “It’s fantastic. Who knew animation would be as big as it is now. Computer-generated imagery (CGI) is a new tool that expands its scope. That is evolving every month. The only negative thing I can say is that storyboards are now done” on computer-connected light tables or slide decks.

“In the old days, you would pin it up on the wall,” Mitchell said. “You would see the creator do a pitch as a performance, pointing to the slides with a stick. Now the room is dark, and they click through the storyboards. I miss the good-old days where you could see it all at once on the wall.”

“I liked the interactivity of [storyboards],” Wise agreed. “You could stop and scribble things on the paper.” Lima added, “Now all of it is hidden in computer files. I miss being inspired by something that you happen upon instead of something that you search for.”

Ron Clements, the co-director of The Little Mermaid and The Princess and the Frog, said, “They’ll do storyboards like Tom Cruise on the [gesture computer] on Minority Report. Maybe that will be the next best thing.”

The upside of technological advances is that it is a lot easier to make a small film quickly today, Silverman said. He spent a lot of time doing hand drawings that amounted to a huge amount of manual labor. With computer animation and editing tools, the labor is greatly reduced, he said.

The Making of Monsters UniversityAdvice for youngsters

Doctor said that he looks for material that shows the character of the person who made it. He wants someone to be able to deliver a simple idea clearly.

“You don’t want to see some corporate thing,” he said. He added, “Most people want to get into DreamWorks or Pixar. If you can get into a small place, you can try lots of things and really contribute. It’s a great place to start.”

Silverman and Goldberg said that it remains important for budding animators to be able to tell a story with their work.

Selick said, “As a student, you have to be very good at the craft. If you are not a natural fit for the big studios, I would look to new media. Amazon is doing an animated series for kids. There is a new frontier. I would say consider those options. I think it is super hopeful.”

Mitchell said, “You have to do what you want to do. Don’t make a film so you can get into Pixar or DreamWorks.”

Doctor said that, “In the long run, tenacity trumps talent. If you are doggedly determined in the long run, you will become a better” filmmaker.

As for mentors, the filmmaker said that young people should seek them out.

Doctor said that his told him, “What are you giving the audience to take home” and think about.

Lima said he tries to remember that “every day should be play,” even at work. You have to “reattach to that 14 year old [inside you], telling stories.”

Wise recommend that people read broadly. “It refills your creative batteries,” he said.

Monsters vs Aliens

Above: Monsters vs Aliens.

Image Credit: Dreamworks

Animation’s future

Selick said that Hollywood is going through a difficult time.

“Budgets are so high. I don’t think people can afford to take any risks,” he said. “On top of making a great film, having to make a blockbuster every time puts an unhealthy pressure on the creators. I think it’s going to explode. It’s very risk averse. I can’t imagine another Fantasia being made now. I am hoping there will be a breakthrough. The pressure on filmmakers is so intense at such a high level, I think it stifles a lot of creativity.”

Clements said, “I feel safe predicting that things will be different ten years from now.”

 

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