The variety of animated features — both content and assembly — continues to evolve in lockstep with the almost daily leaps in filmmaking technology. This ever-changing landscape creates new challenges and opportunities for directors to tell stories that encompass everything from epic blockbuster spectacles to personal, relationship-driven dramas.
“Animation is a powerful medium for exploring complex themes in an easily accessible way,” said Pixar director Domi Shi, whose “Turning Red” tells the coming-of-age story of Mei, a 13-year-old girl in the 2000s. Age Toronto, who turns into a giant red panda at the onset of puberty. “I think animation also almost tricks the audience into believing in magical reasoning, because it’s already an abstract version of reality.”
In a process that took more than four years, Shi used some of the most cutting-edge technology in the industry to gradually expand his team of collaborators from two co-authors (Sarah Streicher for the first draft and Julia Cho later). All the extra eyes, ears, hands and incidentally voices that bring the film to life.
During the 2020 Covid lockdown, he remotely discussed the scale of the stadium location with his co-DP Mahiyar Abusaidi (along with Jonathan Pytko) for an important sequence.
Shi recalled, “He said, ‘I took you inside the stadium just to show how big and small it really is?'” Using VR equipment he sent home, they explored the dimensions of the location together. “I am standing in my guest room and we are walking around the stadium. It was fun,” he said.
Shi has worked his way up through the Pixar ranks as a story artist (“Inside Out”), storyboard artist (“Incredibles 2,” “Toy Story 4”) and won an Oscar for the 2018 animated short film “Bao.”
Despite his use of such high-tech equipment, he always sees character as the core of the work.
“I know every director approaches a film differently, but for me I’ve had a lot of success with character-first rather than story-first or plot-first,” he says. “For me, the character of Mei and her mother, that was the first thing that materialized.”
Starting with a personal seed idea that became a feature also applies to Henry Selick’s “Wendel and Wilde,” which began 20 years ago as a sketch he drew of his two young sons as demons, and a corresponding seven-page story that He pulled. Time away.
The veteran director (“Coraline,” “The Nightmare Before Christmas”) became a fan of Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele from their Comedy Central show and thought the pair would be perfect for his monster siblings.
“They were both interested in working with me, but Jordan wanted to do more,” Selick says, adding that the conversation took place in 2015, just before “Get Out” changed the trajectory of Pill’s career. “He basically came up with the idea of being a full collaborator with me — he just didn’t want to do the voice.”
Selick and Peele worked together on the script, recreated the material and characters, and began testing animation in the summer of 2018. After nearly a year on hold due to COVID, the film arrived on Netflix after premiering at this year’s Toronto Intl. Film exhibition.
Although Selick’s brand of stop-motion animation ranges from old-school classics from directors including Ray Harryhausen, he remains open to modern innovations.
“After decades of doing this, there are some things that are fixed, but I also like to explore new things,” he says, describing a sequence in “Wendel and Wilde” in which the eponymous brothers invade a dream of protagonist Cat, with giant floating hands. And like the face. “We came up with a brand new technique for how to create those hands and faces and how to animate them. They’re not like anything else done in stop motion.”
The painstaking, hands-on work that can be done in stop-motion animation is on display in another Netflix film this season, “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio,” which del Toro and his co-director Mark Gustafson spent more than a decade creating. Even before his five years of fine production.
“The medium is my favorite medium. I’ve practiced it, taught it in school and even done it professionally in Mexico, but it’s been decades since I tried to reconnect with it,” del Toro said. “I thought a story about a doll in the world of puppetry was ideal and would captivate the audience with something that was handmade and hand-carved, painted, rendered and lit. There’s some magic in that.”
Del Toro, whose stunning visuals and fantastical films include the Oscar-winning “The Shape of Water” and “Pan’s Labyrinth,” added that “Pinocchio” is not a movie for young children (but children will understand if their parents talk to them. It can see), and he hopes that animation can take part in some of the conversations that live-action films enjoy during awards season, such as cinematography and production design.
“And I hope we can consistently make films that raise the profile of animation,” he says. “Animation is not a genre. It’s a medium, and we should find different ways to use it.”
Like Selick, co-director Gustafsson, who also served as animation director on “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” credits Harryhausen as an inspiration. “We stand on the shoulders of giants and advance one frame at a time,” he says.
Because location, action and the laws of nature are limitless in animation, legend and folklore provide a fertile ground for creativity, and this year’s “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish,” a spinoff of DreamWorks Animation’s “Shrek” films. Exceptions to this. Previous “Shrek” films explored characters from across the fairy tale pantheon, but there was more territory to explore.
“We dived into some new fairy tale territory, which is the Grimm fairy tale, which can be a little dark, and that was exciting,” says “Puss in Boots” director Joel Crawford.
He and his team wanted to create a complementary visual style for the film to enhance the mythic, storybook feel they wanted to convey.
“What if it looks like you’ve dropped into a fairy tale painting? So you see brush strokes on almost everything,” says Crawford. “You feel like you’re immersed in a fairy tale, mixing CG with a hand-drawn feel.”
Like Pixar’s Xi, Crawford worked on film at DreamWorks as story artist (“Shrek Forever After,” “Kung Fu Panda 2”) and head of story (“Trolls”) before jumping into the director’s chair for the first time. The Croods: A New Age” and now “Puss in Boots.” As a result, each of these directors has created their troupes and hundreds — if not thousands — of their fairy tale characters, giant red pandas, pure monsters and puppets who want to be real, of all ages. He’s quick to credit them for bringing life to the audience. They understand very clearly what it’s like to be in the shoes of the people he’s giving marching orders to.
“Animation, it’s so collaborative,” he says. “The more you understand all the work that goes on behind the scenes, if you ask something, most of the time you know it’s not easy. You know it’s going to take some blood sweat and tears to push things.”