Drawn to Live-Action Directing


What everyone really wants, as the Hollywood cliche goes, is to direct. The ambition to get behind a camera and tell a story exactly as they envision it is powerfully alluring for actors, writers and others to whom producers turn to handle the task--and especially these days, it seems, directors of slick TV commercials and music videos.

With rare exceptions, directors of animated features have not been a talent pool into which producers have dipped for their live-action pictures. That the visual storytelling and technical juggling skills required for cartoon filmmaking could translate to live action has not always been apparent.

The last couple of years, however, have seen directors of some of the more successful animated movies jump to live action.

The current migration to live action began with Columbia’s 1999 holiday hit “Stuart Little,” which marked the live-action feature debut of Rob Minkoff, the co-director (with Roger Allers) of Disney’s 1994 animated blockbuster “The Lion King.” This holiday season, Disney bestowed its big-release designation on “102 Dalmatians,” the live-action debut of Kevin Lima, co-director (with Chris Buck) of 1999’s animated “Tarzan.”


Henry Selick, the director of the stop-motion animation marvels “The Nightmare Before Christmas” and “James and the Giant Peach,” is finishing up “Monkeybone” for 20th Century Fox, which, like “Stuart Little,” is largely live action with an animated title character. Meanwhile, Simon Wells, who co-directed (with Brenda Chapman and Steve Hickner) DreamWorks’ “The Prince of Egypt,” is preparing for the studio a live-action remake of H.G. Wells’ “The Time Machine,” while Ralph Zondag, co-director (with Eric Leighton) of Disney’s computer-animated “Dinosaur,” is making his live-action debut with “Raised by Ghosts” for MGM. That each of these films is in some way anchored by animated characters or visual effects is hardly surprising.

“Animators are attracted to films that rely heavily on visuals to tell the story,” says Zondag, adding: “An animator is not one to be doing a courtroom scene.”

Next year marks the first period of eligibility for the new Oscar category of best animated feature, which the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will hand out in March 2002. Despite Hollywood’s reluctance to let go of its long-standing prejudice against animation as not-ready-for-big-league filmmaking (remember the grumbling from some quarters when “Beauty and the Beast” garnered a best picture Oscar nomination in 1992?), some producers and studio executives are discovering that the leap from drawing board to clapper board is not that extreme. “Certainly the training that these directors get in making an animated film is invaluable to becoming live-action directors, for those who have chosen to,” says DreamWorks’ Jeffrey Katzenberg.

Doug Wick, producer of “Stuart Little,” points out: “You’re always making that leap [to director] and here’s your list: Do you make it with a cinematographer? Do you make it with a producer? Do you make it with a writer? The skills that Rob [Minkoff] brings to the table are a lot--measure that against a writer.”

The skills animation directors have include an emphasis on long-form storytelling that is not likely to be found in new directors moving over from commercials or music videos, and the proven ability to direct major stars, honed by the industry’s current passion for A-list voice casts. What the directors in question also bring to the sound stage, interestingly enough, is some previous experience with live-action filmmaking or live performing.

In Minkoff’s case it was a short, live-action comedy film that he directed for Walt Disney World. Made in between his two Roger Rabbit cartoons from the late 1980s (both of which featured live-action scenes directed by Frank Marshall) and “The Lion King,” the experience whetted Minkoff’s appetite for filming live. “I had told Jeffrey [Katzenberg] before he left Disney that I wanted to do a live-action picture, and he was trying to get me to commit to doing an animated picture before that,” he says. “We were in the middle of figuring out what was the right step to take when he resigned [in 1994].”

For Lima, it was experience in theater and puppetry that fueled an interest in live action, which continued even throughout the production of “Tarzan.” “I was talking to the studio about wanting to go on and direct a live-action film,” he says. Lima’s goal coincided with the studio’s plans to make “102 Dalmatians,” a film that relied on humanizing animals, something in which animators are well-versed. It also starred Glenn Close, whom Lima had already directed as a voice actress in “Tarzan.” The fact that it was a sequel did not hurt, either.

“It’s very difficult to find a major director to do a sequel,” says “102" producer Ed Feldman, “so when I met Kevin and saw ‘Tarzan,’ I was so knocked over with his creativity that I figured, let’s take a chance with him, and it turned out to be terrific.”

Sidetracked by Offer From Steven Spielberg

Wells’ experience in live-action filmmaking consisted of doing storyboards and design work for director Robert Zemeckis for “Back to the Future” II and III. “At that time I thought, this is where I want to be, this is where I’m going to go, I’m going to move into live action,” Wells says. That goal was sidetracked, however, by an offer from Steven Spielberg to set up Amblimation, a feature animation studio in London. “Finally, some 10 years later, at the end of ‘Prince of Egypt,’ I said to myself, ‘You know, I’ve really got to try to make this move across [to live action] happen,’ ” he says.

According to Katzenberg, Wells’ overall filmmaking skills were not only apparent, but also translatable to live action. “Among the many contributions Simon made to ‘Prince of Egypt’ was the style of cinematography, the cutting style and the way the camera was used, which was pretty unique,” he says.

Zondag, who had been one of Wells’ co-directors on Amblimation’s 1993 feature “We’re Back: A Dinosaur’s Story” (Brenda Chapman, co-director with Wells on “Prince of Egypt,” is married to Lima), says he was already exploring through his agents a move into live action. He was aided by the first trailer for “Dinosaur,” a film that featured computer-generated dinosaurs against live-action backgrounds and special effects. “When ‘Dinosaur’ came out with that four-minute clip, I didn’t have to call anyone [for jobs], they started calling me,” he says.

Commercials, Videos as Live-Action Training

For Selick, the transition was somewhat different. Instead of receiving scripts and/or offers, he brought the comic-based property “Monkeybone” to the studio himself. In addition to directing live-action wraparound sequences for “James and the Giant Peach,” Selick had directed Pillsbury Poppin’ Fresh commercials, and as far as he’s concerned the transition from tooning to lensing is a natural one. "[Animation directors] previsualize,” he says. “They know how to have a plan. They don’t have to wait until everything is in front of them before they respond. It’s just in their training. I believe it makes sense to give animation directors an opportunity in live action, certainly as much sense as music-video directors.’

The first cartoon director to leave his mark on mainstream Hollywood--in fact, the only one for decades--was Frank Tashlin. Best remembered today as the writer-director of such standout 1950s comedies as “Son of Paleface” and “Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?,” as well as a string of films with Jerry Lewis, Tashlin is well-known to animation buffs as an innovative Looney Tunes director of the 1930s.

After Tashlin, such distinctive animation talents as Ernie Pintoff, Terry Gilliam, Tim Burton and “South Park” creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone have similarly made the jump, with Burton and Gilliam actually making bigger splashes in the live world than they did in animation. (For the record, veteran cartoon story man Dave Monahan directed the live-action scenes in Chuck Jones’ 1970 MGM film “The Phantom Tollbooth.”)

But like Tashlin, those animators came from the world of short, occasionally experimental films. The first feature-animation director to slide into live action was Ralph Bakshi, best-known for 1972’s landmark, X-rated, animated “Fritz the Cat.” Many of Bakshi’s other films, though, from 1973’s “Heavy Traffic” to 1992’s “Cool World,” have included live-action elements, and his resume includes two completely live-action TV films, “This Ain’t BeBop” and 1994’s “The Cool and the Crazy,” for HBO. According to Bakshi, the decision to go live was based less on creative matters than economic necessity and outsidepressure.

“In Hollywood, no one really took what I was doing seriously,” Bakshi says, “and every day I used to get ‘what are you doing that animation . . . for, nobody wants it!’ So once in a while I just wanted the relief of shooting a real picture to make some money and to stop this tremendous amount of work I was doing.”

Easier to Shoot a Film Than to Draw One

For a cartoon purist like Bakshi, the fact that a number of directors are leaping from animation to live action has less to do with issues of salary or DGA membership (which is currently denied to animation directors) than the current state of the animated feature itself.

“The type of animation that leans toward the realistic, like ‘Prince of Egypt’ and the kinds of films Disney does, those films have no business being made in animation,” he asserts. “So animation directors who are taught to work on those films get interested in live action inasmuch as it is easier to shoot a live-action picture than to sit there and draw one.”

Value judgments aside, few people would argue that shooting live isn’t easier and often cheaper than animation. More important, the process is much faster, given that most animated films take from two to five years to complete.

While some directors characterize the ability to make the snap decisions afforded by live action as creatively liberating, it can also require a big psychological adjustment. “In animation, I always felt that if I didn’t have an idea at the moment, I could put it off until tomorrow, because ultimately you have four years,” Lima says. “In live action, everything happens in the moment, and dealing with the moment was something I really had to force myself to commit to.”

As the feature-animation industry continues to cycle down fromthe development and employment peak it enjoyed four years ago, it is difficult to conclude whether even more animation directors will switch to live action. Many top animation directors, such as Disney’s John Musker and Ron Clements (“Hercules,” “Aladdin” and “The Little Mermaid”) and Pixar’s John Lasseter (“Toy Story” and “A Bug’s Life”), appear perfectly happy staying off the sound stage.

The bigger question might be whether producers, seeing the success of films such as “Stuart Little,” will raid the talent pool under the Sorcerer’s Hat, assuming it to be a guarantee of success. Wick views that prospect with a skeptical eye.

“This trend is not dissimilar from the special-effects wizards who were partners with live-action directors on movies, and then someone said, ‘Well, let’s let them direct,’ and many of those were unsuccessful,” Wick says. “For every animator who would make a good live-action director, there are 30 or a hundred who wouldn’t. It’s a gift just to be a general on the set, which you have to do on a live-action movie, and that’s a lot different from drawing in a closed room.”