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Animated chats

In what will be only the second time since the animated feature film category was created

in 2001, there will be five nominees to root for at this Academy Awards, thanks to the 20 films submitted (a minimum of 16 is required to field a full slate of contenders). Among the submissions are “Ponyo,” from Hayao Miyazaki, whose “Spirited Away” won the award in 2002, the last time there were five nominees. Other contenders include “Monsters vs. Aliens,” “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs,” “Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs,” “Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel” and the French film “A Town Called Panic.” Here is a look at some of the others:

For ‘Coraline’ director Henry Selick, stop-motion was the only way

When Henry Selick started work on “Coraline” several years back, he looked very much like a go-cart driver weaving between so many Hummers.

The studios were pouring fortunes into computer animation and its shading and rendering algorithms while Selick, relying on independent financing, was painstakingly positioning his miniature characters in a series of delicate poses. Selick may not have been so crazy after all: “Coraline” not only became one of the most acclaimed movies of the year but it also served as a fulcrum in the revival of stop-motion animation.

“Everyone has a memory of being so fond of a toy that it was alive,” Selick says in explaining why his preferred genre feels so emotionally relatable. “You carried it around, you spoke to it, and it spoke back. We can’t do a lot of things that computer animation can do. But what we can do is say, ‘These are your memories coming to life.’ Stop-motion has brought that back -- these toys are alive.”

The toys, so to speak, in “Coraline” exist in parallel worlds: on one divide, a fairly ordinary suburban couple and its young daughter; on the other side, a too-good-to-be-true version of that same family, which both attracts and repels the film’s title character.

Selick’s cinematic designs are as fantastic as they are elaborate. A scene of a magic garden claims just a few minutes of screen time but took weeks to conceive and four months to animate. “I like to keep pushing,” Selick says.

As he prepares for his next stop-motion production -- another possible adaptation from a novel by Neil Gaiman, as was “Coraline” -- the 57-year-old Selick is amazed at how many filmmakers are crafting stop-motion studio films: Wes Anderson’s “Fantastic Mr. Fox” (which Selick was once going to direct), Tim Burton’s “Frankenweenie” and Peter Lord’s “Pirates!” among them.

“It’s unprecedented,” Selick says, “there’s never been this much activity.”

-- John Horn

Leaping back to old-school style

With its critically acclaimed new release “The Princess and the Frog,” Disney returns to its hand-drawn animation heyday. The man making that push? The same guy who helped usher in the computer animation takeover with the 1995 blockbuster “Toy Story.”

John Lasseter, the guiding force at Pixar Animation Studios, admits he was dismayed when Disney and DreamWorks and other studios decided to close up their 2-D hand-drawn divisions earlier this decade after several such films performed poorly.

“Never in the history of cinema has a movie been purely entertaining because of the technique,” Lasseter says. “We felt that 2-D animation became the scapegoat for bad storytelling. At Pixar, we believe our films work because of the story, the characters and how entertaining the films are.”

When Disney purchased Pixar in 2006, Lasseter was named chief creative officer and among the first things he did was bring back the old format. He rehired Ron Clements and John Musker, who had directed two of Disney’s biggest hits, 1989’s “The Little Mermaid” and 1992’s “Aladdin,” but lost their jobs when the 2-D division was shuttered.

“We believe in being a filmmaker-led studio, not an executive-led studio, so I said, ‘I want you guys to think about what you want to do. It’s up to you. But we are ready to support a hand-drawn animated film.’ ”

Lasseter, though, did suggest an idea Pixar had been kicking around -- doing a version of the Brothers Grimm’s “The Frog Prince,” set in Lasseter’s favorite city of New Orleans. “I fell in love with [the story idea] immediately and we started bringing back all of these animators who had been let go by Disney,” he says. “You never met a group of animators that had more to prove to the world than this group. They have really dedicated themselves.”

-- Susan King

Into the foxhole with ‘Fantastic Mr. Fox’

Although the stop-motion technique Wes Anderson employs for “Fantastic Mr. Fox” is considered animation, producer Allison Abbate says the painstaking process has a lot more in common with live action than some might think.

“Because it’s real space, real light, real textures, it brings you into the world more,” Abbate explains. “It looks familiar and like something that you’ve seen in your life, yet it’s much smaller.”

Abbate, who has also worked on projects with Tim Burton and Brad Bird, says that longtime stop-motion fan Anderson was drawn to the artistry of the process.

“Stop-motion appeals to people who are visionaries because it is about creating every element of the mise-en-scène,” she says. “Every single thing that is in the film has to be designed and created in a way that is very tangible.”

In other words, it requires the attention to detail for which Anderson is known.

His meticulous production design and quirky, stylized characters are incorporated fully into this story about a suit-clad fox, voiced by George Clooney, who has left behind his chicken-stealing ways in favor of being a columnist. When he decides to make one last big heist, he throws his family and friends -- voiced by Meryl Streep, Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzman, among others -- into jeopardy.

In addition to consulting his tailor to find the precise type of corduroy in which to dress Mr. Fox, Anderson recorded most of the actors together on a farm in Connecticut in multiple outdoor locations.

“There needs to be a uniformity and a consistency to the performances,” Abbate says. “With actors of this caliber giving us these [strong] performances, the characters were honed right at the start.”

While Abbate concedes that working in animation is “physically grueling,” she says the biggest challenge in working with a director accustomed to live-action was explaining the change in pace.

“There’s so much adrenaline in live action; animation is very much a slow burn. But for people who are good at live action, it’s just a different way of being tired,” she says with a laugh.

-- Christy Grosz

Things keep looking ‘Up’

Pixar Animation Studios has successfully tackled all sorts of tricky plots: talking cars, cooking rats and trash-compacting robots among them. But not until writer-director Pete Docter’s “Up” did the animation kingpin wonder if it really had an unfilmable movie on its hands.

“There was nothing known in this one -- there was nothing to lean back on, no sexy hook,” says Docter, who has credits on Pixar’s “Wall-E,” “Monsters, Inc.” and the two “Toy Story” movies. “It was just a bizarre idea.”

Even though the film -- like any Pixar production -- went through countless rewrites, overhauls and false starts, “Up’s” core premise didn’t drift too far off course from conception to completion: An old man floats away on a bunch of balloons, propelled by great dreams but weighed down by unfulfilled promises.

“We wondered, ‘Is this idea too weird?’ ” Docter says. “It was certainly difficult to get green lit.”

It turned out to be a good decision to make it.

“Up” not only stands as one of the most commercially successful Pixar releases of all time (it trails only “Finding Nemo” on the box-office charts), but also among its best reviewed: While “Up” seems a lock for an animation Oscar nomination, several Academy Award prognosticators say the film has a shot for best picture, particularly since the field is expanding to 10 movies. “Even to hear talk of that,” Docter says, “is mind-blowing.”

It’s due, in part, to the little things. There’s little debate that the film’s four-minute montage -- in which the lives of Carl and Ellie Fredricksen are recounted without a line of dialogue -- stands as one of the year’s most accomplished snippets of storytelling.

“We just tried to make sure that every single thing was in there for a reason,” says Docter. “It’s either setting something up, or paying something off.”

Still, Docter knows animation is seen by some as an artistic ghetto, a lesser form of cinema -- a cartoon, in other words. “There’s a certain section of the voters who are not likely to want to watch it,” Docter says of “Up.” “We want them to see it as a film, not as animation.”

Maybe that day is at hand.

-- John Horn

‘Nine’: It’s easy to root for the animated rag dolls

When it came time for Shane Acker to expand his award-winning short “9" into a feature-length film, he had no problem inventing a rich back story for the characters who inhabit his darkly imagined post-apocalyptic landscape.

“I just vomited all these ideas out,” Acker said of his first meeting with screenwriter Pamela Pettler, whose credits include the animated outings “Corpse Bride” and “Monster House.” “I’d never done long form before, I didn’t really know narrative structure. She was great at figuring out how we could start to put these different narrative threads through the whole.”

It couldn’t have been easy. Acker’s unconventional story takes place in an alternate future that bears a striking resemblance to post-World War II Europe. Humanity is extinct; the only survivors of an implied nuclear war are nine tiny beings who look like rag dolls fashioned out of burlap. The small creatures, who have numbers instead of names, are relentlessly pursued by a group of predatory machines, the largest of which is a hulking animatronic spider with a glowing red eye. The heroic 9 (Elijah Wood) convinces his compatriots to fight back -- a decision that carries with it some serious consequences.

The movie’s rich visuals help ground the premise, and Acker said that he and the creative team, which included big-name producers Tim Burton and Timur Bekmambetov, took several measures to ensure that moviegoers felt invested in the characters and their plight.

“Whether it’s character design, the voice performance, our approach to staging and cinematography, you’re using all those tools to create empathy in the audience,” Acker said. “On a very basic level, they’ve got big round eyes, they’re made of soft materials. It’s like a bunny rabbit, you like something soft and cute. You start to empathize with them -- how do we further reinforce that? We make the world destroyed and dark and there’s horrific sharp metal creatures that are trying to kill them.”

-- Gina McIntyre

Giving life to the motion-capture technique

Although making a film version of Charles Dickens’ 19th century classic tale of a miserly man is nothing new, using motion-capture technology to animate “A Christmas Carol” is a first.

Director Robert Zemeckis has been honing “mo-cap” since 2004’s coolly received “Polar Express,” with an eye toward imbuing the characters with a somewhat intangible but relatable quality.

“What we focused on was getting greater nuance and fidelity in the performance of the actors,” says producer Steve Starkey, who worked with Zemeckis on “Polar Express” and “Beowulf.” “You can see much greater expression in the actors’ faces and in their eyes. The goal is to make us feel like they’re alive inside.”

The mo-cap technique involves attaching strategically placed sensors to the actor and capturing the voice and facial and body movements all at the same time. And considering the physicality of the actor who plays Scrooge, the details are probably the most important part.

“You want to capture everything when you have Jim Carrey,” Starkey says.

In addition to using the actors’ actual movements to inform the movements of the characters, mo-cap records the information in three dimensions, which offers a distinct advantage for releasing a film in a 3-D format.

“It doesn’t place any real extra burden on the process,” he says. “You really feel immersed in the space because it is a 3-D space. It’s just a beautiful form of 3-D.”

In addition, mo-cap allows the filmmaker to decide on the camera angle for any particular scene long after the performance has taken place.

“That’s distinctive from animation, where they do their cameras in the layout phase,” he says, adding, “You get to paint in everything that you imagine in your mind behind and around the performer.”

Although Zemeckis hasn’t had any luck persuading the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to add a motion-capture category to the Oscars, he remains enthusiastic about the technology, having three more mo-cap films in the pipeline: “Yellow Submarine,” “Airman” and “Who Framed Roger Rabbit 2.”

“You can create any character that you want; you can place them in any setting that you want. It’s a very exciting new way to make movies,” Starkey says.

-- Christy Grosz


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