December 21, 2017

4 Mysteries of Animated Production Solved by the Directors of 'Coco,' 'Despicable Me 3,' and More

Some of the industry's biggest names discuss how to find your story and keep it animated. 

Most of us are familiar with what goes on behind the scenes of a live-action film, but there's still quite a bit of mystery surrounding animated productions.

In yet another excellent THR Animation Roundtable, directors of some of the year's most successful, interesting, and entertaining animated films—Kyle Balda (Despicable Me 3), Chris McKay (The LEGO Batman Movie), Lee Unkrich (Coco), Lore Forti (Ferdinand), Nora Twomey (The Breadwinner), and Tom McGrath (The Boss Baby)—shed light on the unique section of the film industry they occupy, how their projects ultimately come together, and what it's like creating intensely emotional stories for young audiences. Below  are a few of our takeaways from the roundtable discussion.

'Coco' (2017)

1. Knowing when to put the "pencil down"

The most beautiful thing about animation is also the most horrible thing about animation: you can always edit your project. Even when you think you're done and your film is ready to be shipped out, you're always going to be able to spot a mistake or a part of a scene that can be tweaked a little bit. Since everything was created on a computer, including the characters, sets, lighting, and cameras, there's no limit to the number of changes you can make. So, when is it "pencils down?" The LEGO Batman Movie director Chris McKay says you're always "constantly finishing" and tweaking your projects, but the thing that seems to get these films finished is a firm deadline. If a studio or client hasn't put one in place for you, set your own and stick to it. Don't let your film languish in limbo forever.

'The LEGO Batman Movie' (2017)

2. Measuring your film's afterlife

This may not be as big of an issue for independent filmmakers who are most definitely not working on big-budget franchise films, but the spirit of the issue is the same regardless: should you be focusing on your film's future? According to Coco's Lee Unkrich, no.

We just hope that we make something that resonates with people. Sometimes the movies take on a life of their own afterward, but...we've just tried to tell a really solid standalone story. That's all we're really thinking about.

Lore Forti, director of Ferdinand, echoes Unkrich's sentiment:

We're always so fortunate that we get to make a movie period...that we can actually see it through and then it gets released and the studio's behind it and it's marketed. All you're worried about, really, is finishing it and doing something that you hope people will like. Anything beyond that...it's icing on the cake.

'Ferdinand' (2017)

3. How to learn by doing

Ask any seasoned vet and they'll tell you that one of the best ways to learn how to be a better director is by taking an acting class or by acting in a film. That firsthand experience shows you exactly what actors need from directors in order to give them their best performance. This is not only true in live-action films, but in animated films as well, and Tom McGrath, director ofThe Boss Baby, shared his experience working on the other side of the camera (in animation, it's "behind the mic").

I learned a lot about directing by being...behind the mic...how naked you are, you don't know, context wise, what's going on or anything. So, it's really a leap of faith. When you do a performance...you need the feedback and it taught me to be a better director...even just giving actors context of what's going on. And never do a line read.

'The Boss Baby' (2017)

4. Don't hesitate to give your audience an emotional experience

Animated films are nothing like the old Saturday Morning cartoons we grew up watching. Many of their stories are raw, intense, and occasionally even life-changing, providing some of the most emotionally captivating moments in cinema today. Since animation is traditionally thought of as children's cinema, how do filmmakers and animators reconcile the complex emotions of their films with the potential inability of their young audience to comprehend? Unkrich explains his experience dealing with that in his own career:

We've had a few films where...there were moments that maybe parents thought were too intense for kids, and I found in every case the kids are fine. Like, say, at the end of Toy Story 3, the whole incinerator scene, there were people that just thought that was just way too intense. I think what happens is that when adults feel strong emotions, they naturally want to protect their children from feeling those strong feelings, but the kids, I found, by and large, are actually capable of dealing with it. It's actually good for them.

'Toy Story 3' (2010)

We know the roundtable discussion is a bit on the long side, but I highly recommend you watch it from start to finish. Each director shares great details on how their respective films came together, as well as valuable insight on choosing the right voice actors, what it's like working as a woman in animation, and how to do research for your film so it's more authentic and sincere.

Check out the entire roundtable discussion for more behind-the-scenes stories courtesy of The Hollywood Reporter.     

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