Overlooked Film's Animators Created a Giant

When the nominations for the Annies--the animation industry's equivalent of the Academy Awards--were announced recently, the big winner was "The Iron Giant." The Warner Bros. film garnered a remarkable 15 nominations, including best animated feature, best director and three nominations for best character animation.

To put that number in perspective, "The Iron Giant" received more nominations than DreamWorks' "The Prince of Egypt" and Disney's "Tarzan" put together.

Unfortunately, hardly anyone saw "The Iron Giant," despite its having received reverential reviews. Under-promoted by Warner Bros., it opened in August and quickly disappeared. Last time I checked, it was playing in just three discount theaters in Greater Los Angeles.

But when you talk to the people who made "The Iron Giant," you hear few complaints. No one is happy that the Burbank-based studio chose to put its promotion money behind "Wild, Wild West" and other forgettable films. But the people who made "The Iron Giant" have something better than a hit on their hands. They have the satisfaction of having made a great movie and having had a great time doing it.

Like many other animators, Annie nominee Steve Markowski lives in Valencia, not far from the CalArts campus from which most of the industry's best animators flow.

Based on a novel by Ted Hughes, written to comfort their children after Hughes' estranged wife, poet Sylvia Plath, committed suicide, "The Iron Giant" is the story of a boy, named Hogarth Hughes, and his buddy, a 50-foot robot from outer space.

In most animated features a single animator is responsible for a particular character. In "The Iron Giant," however, director Brad Bird gave animators chunks of film rather than one character to animate. The exception was Markowski, who did most of the work on the giant robot.

As Markowski explains, the robot was computer animated, in contrast to the other principals, who were drawn the old-fashioned way.

"The biggest challenge," he recalls, "was getting a lot of emotion and acting out of a big metal character."

To make sure the computer creature and the hand-drawn characters were integrated stylistically, he made printouts of the giant and the other animators often drew directly on them.

Although the project meant "my wife was widowed for a year," Markowski has no regrets. Bird, he says, "is an inspirational director" who created an atmosphere in which everyone's energy went into "what was best for the picture," not intramural competition.

"Of course, everybody was disappointed" by the lack of promotion the film received, he says. "Had it been given a Disney push, it would have made Disney dollars, I think; the movie is of that quality."

But the reviews are vindication ("I think it might be the best-reviewed movie of the year"), and there is hope of an Oscar nomination. Even Hughes, who died last year, was reported to have liked the picture.

Dean Wellins was also nominated for character animation on "The Iron Giant." Another CalArts guy, Wellins is currently at work in the Warner animation studio in Sherman Oaks on a feature called "Osmosis Jones," about "a white blood cell who's a cop and who's running down a virus" inside a human body--a perfect example of what only an animated film can do.

Wellins recalls that Bird managed to make everyone feel the film was his or her baby, as well as Bird's. An animator himself, Bird filled the movie with fun scenes to animate, Wellins says. The piece of the movie that he most thinks of as his own is the scene in which the boy and his giant play in the lake, which draws on his memories of splashing in various lakes in the Sierra.

Unlike most directors, Wellins says, "Bird really asked, 'What do you think?' and he really meant 'What do you think?' " If one of the other members of the production crew came up with a better idea, Bird would change the film accordingly.

"As easy and simple as that sounds, it's really rare," Wellins says.

A cartooning wunderkind, Bird introduced himself to the Disney studio when he was 11 years old. He returned when he was 14, and even though he was too young to work on an actual film, the studio turned him over to legendary animator Milt Kahl to mentor.

Bird was one of a group of greatly talented animators who experienced enormous frustration at Disney during the fallow period before Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg revitalized feature animation in the 1980s and 1990s.

Fired after two years "for rocking the boat," Bird says, he and the other rebels struggled with a hierarchy that lacked the greatness of earlier Disney animators.

"The whole corporate outlook in a nutshell was 'Let's not screw it up,' " Bird recalls. That regime refused to share power with the younger talent, avoided risk-taking and put every aspect of feature filmmaking through the blanderizer.

You can see the results of that philosophy in the 1981 Disney film "The Fox and the Hound," Bird says. The only part of the movie that comes alive is the bear fight, which was left the way its gifted animators drew it because the release date loomed.

"They didn't have time to ruin it, as they did the rest of the movie."

In making "The Iron Giant," Bird tried to remain open to input of others in the group.

"I think it's a mistake to hire talented people and then never allow them to express their individual point of view." He also made it a point to spread the choice animation jobs around.

"Everyone got to do something fun," he says.

At Disney, he recalls, great talent was often wasted on animating minor characters. He tried to make sure that even relatively green animators had important work to do.

"They really rose to the occasion," he says of the mostly young crew, many of whom came to the project still demoralized from their involvement in last year's animated flop "Quest for Camelot."

If you let your top talent monopolize the best assignments, he says, "You overburden your strongest people and underburden the others."

Although he's sorry the film wasn't marketed better, he's grateful for the freedom Warner Bros. gave him in making it.

"I think there are two sides to the flying-under-the-radar coin," he says. "We were left to our own devices while making the film, which was wonderful, but we were also left to our own devices when it came to promoting it."

And yet "with one-third the money and one-half the time" most major animated features require, the group made a movie that may have a life in video as long as "Bambi."

"I'm very proud of our team," Bird says.

And so, obviously, is the animation industry.

The 27th Annual Annie Awards, sponsored by ASIFA-Hollywood, will be held the evening of Nov. 6 at the Alex Theatre in Glendale. For ticket information, call (818) 842-8330.

Spotlight runs each Friday. Patricia Ward Biederman can be reached at valley.news@latimes.com.

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