Oscars Round Table: Animation: Five awards-contending directors take us behind the lines

Directors roundtable
From left, directors Don Hall (“Big Hero 6,” with Chris Williams), Christopher Miller (“The Lego Movie,” with Phil Lord), Jorge Gutierrez (“The Book of Life”), Graham Annable (“The Boxtrolls,” with Anthony Stacchi) and Dean DeBlois (“How to Train Your Dragon 2"), discussed the unique demands of the medium.

Part Pablo Picasso, part George Patton, animated filmmakers must possess an unusual mix of artistic vision and managerial savvy. Five directors who recently came together for the Envelope Animation Roundtable discussed the unique demands of the medium. In a conversation at the Los Angeles Times, Graham Annable (“The Boxtrolls,” with Anthony Stacchi), Dean DeBlois (“How to Train Your Dragon 2”), Don Hall (“Big Hero 6,” with Chris Williams), Jorge Gutierrez (“The Book of Life”) and Christopher Miller (“The Lego Movie,” with Phil Lord), tackled such topics as the pitch that goes wrong, the virtue of studio negligence and solutions for decision fatigue.

Here are excerpts from that conversation.

I thought we’d start at the beginning, which is the pitch, your experience getting your movie made. I know, Jorge, you have kind of a funny pitch experience when you were explaining your movie to producer Guillermo del Toro?

Gutierrez: I pitched the movie to him five times and he had said no. He just was so busy. Eventually, I guess he felt really bad for me and said, “OK, come to my house and pitch to me one last time so I can say no to you to your face.” And so, we go over there. We bring all the stuff and it was one of the worst pitches of all time in the history of pitches. It was like 100 degrees in his house. He was miserable because it was so hot and I sweat a lot, so I was drenched, and it was right outside his pool area.


As soon as I opened my mouth to pitch — they had told me, “You have 20 minutes to pitch him” — he goes, “You have five minutes to pitch me.” So, the words start coming out of my mouth and my people in the house next door betray me — there must have been like five lawnmower guys and leaf-blower guys all at the same time, super loud. I look at Guillermo like, “We should wait for them to finish.” He goes, “No, keep going.” So, I start pitching him and, you know, there’s some very heartfelt moments and I’m yelling all this stuff. It was a mess. He goes, “That was one of the worst pitches I’ve ever seen.” So, I’m ready to just shake his hand and get out of there and he goes, “But, I see magic here. I know who you are. I know your cartoon. So, of course I want to produce your movie.” But he put me through it.

Hall: I wonder if he orchestrated all the lawnmowers.

I know at Disney you’re encouraged to pitch multiple ideas at once. What’s the thinking there?

Hall: Well, it’s something I think that John [Lasseter] started up at Pixar where he doesn’t want you to kind of put all of your emotional eggs in one basket and just be like this is the only thing that I can see making. He likes you to think a little broader than that. The task of trying to put together three ideas, it makes you automatically kind of divert your focus into different things. For “Big Hero 6,” I think I pitched maybe six or seven.


DeBlois: Wow.

Hall: It was the last one I pitched and I put the least amount of work into it as far as thinking about what we would do with it. It just had a very basic pitch and it was the last one, but that was one that I think for him had the emotional center that he felt compelled by.

Dean, when you signed on to do “How to Train Your Dragon” it was specifically with the idea that you would get to do a trilogy. Why was that important to you?

DeBlois: Because I think a lot of sequels feel unnecessary and they tend to recycle material and a lot of them feel like cash grabs. So, to me it felt like—you know, these things take three or four years to make. If we’re going to invest the time in it, it would be nice to have it feel as though it’s got a sense of purpose. So, I pitched the idea of the first movie being the first act in a three-act story and the second film would be the meat of Hiccup’s coming of age, but then everything would culminate in a very finite conclusive way with a third installment. And they bought into that because it meant that we could actually develop storylines, that some things left unexplained in the first could take on more importance, but also set up things that must transpire in the third.

Chris, did Lego have much input as you were making the film?

Miller: No. Well, part of our pitch to them was, if this is going to work, it can’t be coming from the Lego Group and it can’t be coming from Warner Brothers. It has to feel like it’s a grassroots thing. If it feels like the hand of the Lego Group is there going, “Sell these toys,” then it would just be a disaster. And so, they understood that and respected it. The movie made them very nervous obviously because it’s sort of gently nibbling at the hand that feeds it, but they were pretty respectful.

Did DC have anything to say about what you did with the Batman character?

Miller: Yes. We met with Zach Snyder and we met with Christopher Nolan’s team about making sure that we were not treading over any of the same ground. And then, we just wrote a bunch of stuff with no regard as to how possible it was or anything. The only stuff that made anybody uncomfortable was we had—it was the Green Lantern character that people thought was maybe a little bit too soon and then we had a Justice League scene where they were starting to form a Justice League until the Green Lantern came along and then they decided not to. They decided that was not a good idea and so we cut that from the movie, pretty late in the process actually.


You got away with a lot.

Miller: Lack of supervision is the best you guys. Negligence.

Is there a virtue also in being outside Los Angeles, like with Laika, Graham?

Annable: Yeah. We’re in a weird, unique spot in that we really kind of have [company president] Travis Knight to deal with, but we don’t have much beyond that. I remember on “The Boxtrolls,” in one of the early iterations, we had this great fish-out-of-water sequence with Eggs, our main character, and he was at a tea party with Winnie’s parents and it was one of the few things in those early screenings that for the studio was working great. But as the movie began to evolve, Travis came in at a certain point and said, “You guys, as much as we all love it, we need to rework it, make that moment bigger. It just needs to, for the whole film, needs to balance it a little better.”

So, we went back to the drawing board and came up with doing a whole big ballroom dancing scene, which ultimately became the absolute hardest thing we had to do in the movie. But, we didn’t know that. Neither Tony or I were stop-motion guys at heart. So, we didn’t quite recognize the logistical pain it was going to cause in all the departments. But it was what Travis had sort of pushed us into doing. It was one of those moments where it was nice that he had seen it from a big-picture perspective because we were so in the trenches of the story, and that moment became something really special because of him.

There’s this idea in psychology called decision fatigue, and it’s basically the more decisions you make in a day, you’re making worse decisions.

DeBlois: It’s an everyday thing. The nice thing about “How to Train Your Dragon 2” is we were a bit of a well-greased wheel coming off of the first film, and we had really strong artists in charge of their departments. And because I was writing solo and I was going to be directing solo, I empowered those people around me by saying, “You can reign dominion over your department and you can make a lot of the creative decisions and I’ll support you unless I absolutely disagree.”

Miller: Right, and that’s what’s great about animation. It’s such a slow, drawn-out process there’s time for everybody to debate, and not just the story team, but every part of the department and the PAs can chime in and say, “You know what? I think this” and whereas like in live action, you’re burning daylight and you’ve got to shoot the thing. But in animation, it’s just years of being able to go back over it and over it and over it again and keep making changes.


Is there such a thing as too much time?

Miller: For sure and the same kind of fatigue where you’ve seen a moment and it was really emotional or it was really funny the first time and the seventh time and the 20th time and now you’re numb to it and you don’t feel anything. It’s not funny anymore.

Hall: You’ve got to protect it.

Miller: You have to remember: “Remember when this used to make us laugh? That was delightful” and then it’s good to bring in fresh eyes and audiences and just people that you trust to come in and be like, “Does this work?”

Is the voice actor stage a fun one for you guys?

Gutierrez: It was terrifying for me in the beginning.

Why is that?

Gutierrez: Well, again, Guillermo—you know, one of the first guys we hired was Ron Perlman and Guillermo did a number on me. He’s like, “Ron’s going to push you around. He’s going to challenge you. He’s going to yell at you.”

Hall: “You have to fight him.”

Gutierrez: Yeah. “It’s going to be like a cockfight between you two and you have to kill him.” I was like, “Oh, my God. This is going to be crazy.” So, I’m shaking and Ron was a sweetheart, the nicest guy in the universe.

Miller: It seems like Guillermo tries to mess with you a lot.

Gutierrez: But, the actors, I mean—it’s amazing. You think you know who the character is and what the lines are. You think you know these moments, but then in the moment they make it their own—there was like foundation shakes during our records where we went, “Holy crap. This is so much better than anything we imagined.” Channing Tatum, for example, was so funny. So, it definitely changed—I was really nervous, but I had no idea how creative that part of it was.

DeBlois: It’s the only aspect of animation that has any spontaneity to it.

Hall: That’s the thing, you don’t want it to be just a job [for them]. Just to come in, punch a clock and say these lines and then leave. That’s not what’s going to get you a great animated performance. We had a similar experience and you let them run. You know, “Here’s the script. Here’s the story board.” You walk them through it, but “Anytime you want to add anything, you know, take it and run with it.” We were very lucky to have people like T.J. Miller and Damon Wayans Jr. and Genesis [Rodriguez] and actually all of them to an actor were very good at sort of improvising. That stuff is—like Dean said, it’s tough to get spontaneity in an animated film because of just the structure of how we make them, but that is one of the areas where you can encourage it and really get some gems.

Annable: It made a huge difference for us because in one of the early sessions, we were lucky enough to get Nick Frost and Richard Ayoade together in the same room for Trout and Pickles and yeah, just immediate chemistry and like you guys were saying, I mean they just took the characters. They riffed on things that even we weren’t reading into the lines we had written, they made it so much more fun. And then, you know, subsequent sessions where they were on their own, they at least had that rhythm to kind of build on and they knew where to take it from there.

DeBlois: The alternative’s terrible because the actor has to then sit in the booth with me and I have to play every other character. I actually don’t sit behind the glass. I’m always in there with the actors so they can get immediate reaction, but I’m a terrible actor.

How cognizant are you of your international audience versus your domestic audience?

Gutierrez: I was terrified of American audiences.

How come?

Gutierrez: Well, is this too Latin America, too Mexican? Is this too foreign to them? I also felt the weight of, you know, Mexico. I felt like as Guillermo began doing all this tough love on me, every meeting he would end just by him saying, “OK, Jorge, just remember you have the weight of our whole culture on you.”

Did you make any modifications to either reach out more to one audience or another?

Gutierrez: My fear was, as a Mexican who has that very special and specific relationship with death that Mexicans have, how do you convince people that are normally afraid of it and fear it to come to your kids’ movie that kind of is about it? That to me was the biggest hurdle and it was impossible because I had to try to put myself in—you know, what will the non-Mexican think when they saw a main character of a movie die to go to the one he loves? In the beginning, I just assumed everybody thought like me and then realized, oh, no, no. People in the U.S., they see “of the dead,” they think zombies; they think depressing; they think scary, horror. Like no one thinks when they read the word “death,” oh, loving, like a tribute, an honorable thing to someone else. So, that took a lot of like kind of figuring out — how do we not scare soccer moms?

You also had this really funny moment in the movie where this little Goth boy character at the museum who says, “What is it with Mexicans and death” and he’s a Goth, right? What was the thinking in putting that line in there?

Gutierrez: We were basically telling the audience exactly what they were thinking. We have a line in there also where a kid says, “What kind of story is this? We’re just kids” where it’s like “Hold on, we know what we’re doing. Trust us. It’s not going to go the way you think it’s going to go.”

Hall: It’s really smart because, again, it did what you wanted it to do, which is to let everybody know that the filmmakers are aware of what you’re thinking right now. It was awesome. It was funny.

Gutierrez: And those were all improv jokes because we had meetings and people would literally say those things in the meetings and we’re like, “Uh, let’s go to the script.”

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