Monday, July 29, 2013

Animation Directors Speak Out

When a big name in animation points out the problems with today's industry, you know the problems have come to a head of sorts. Recently, Henry Selick had this to say on the current state of feature animation in the United States...

“It’s too homogenous. It’s way too much the same. The films aren’t really that different one from the other. Despicable Me could have been made Pixar, by DreamWorks. It’s not a great time for feature animation if you want to do something even moderately outside the formula.”

While I do agree with he is saying to a point, I don't agree that Despicable Me "could've" been made by Pixar, or DreamWorks to a lesser extent. However, to an outsider, Despicable Me is like everything else on the market. Audiences normally call most computer animated films "Pixar films", in a similar way to how your average joe might call Don Bluth's Anastasia a Disney film. While I see a Pixar film as far different on a writing and cinematic level from something like Despicable Me, many others probably don't... All they see is a computer animated film. Since Pixar is a big name, that's applied to said film.

Where he is right is in his description of the market itself. Blue Sky, Sony and Illumination all produce family friendly films that have a significant amount of comedy, along with casts that include lots of big names. While there's nothing wrong with making an animated film like that, many of the studios essentially copy this sort of formula without realizing why the first one to do it was successful. I've been saying this for years and so many others have as well, there's not too much diversity in the mainstream feature animation world. It's Disney, Pixar and DreamWorks... And films that are like theirs, but not as unique.

Once in a while, you get something different like Rango or ParaNorman. The former was a big budget risk, a rare bird (or reptile) in this industry. The latter was smaller-scale, lower budget and it ultimately proves that you can make a great animated film with less than $100 million... But the box office talks, sadly.

Pete Docter

Pixar's Pete Docter (director of Monsters, Inc., Up and Inside Out) added...

“The way things are set up right now, it seems like a win-or-lose situation, right? You put so much money in, the stakes are so high. I think that’s what Henry’s talking about, that leads to a similarity. There’s other ways to make movies. I think Henry is a great example of that. Get a Henry Selick project going. How cool would that be?”

He's right in many ways. If a studio is going to spend over $120 million on a feature-length animated film, they want to net in all the fish. The problem is, animation is still pushed to the "kids" corner. A summer blockbuster that's rated PG-13 can take in over $200 million domestically, no problem! Teens are a big audience, but a lot of teenagers "outgrow" animation. Even in this day and age when animated films are slowly but surely piquing their interests (for mostly the wrong reasons), so it's still a challenge. A PG-13 rated animated film with gratuitous violence and inappropriate content won't fare well, because teens won't see it and neither will anyone else. But a mature PG-13 or R-rated animated film? A true gamble if there ever was one... A gamble that someone needs to make...

Selick then discussed the places where risk-taking will definitely translate to success...

 “I have some feelers out. For example, Amazon is producing a kids animated series. I have more faith that people like Google, Amazon, Netflix, all these indie cable stations, would be a better home. I mean, that’s, there’s way more creativity in television, and risk-taking, but especially new media.”

Very, very true. You'd think with some of the creative television shows we have right now, both animated and live-action, that there would be a sort of spark... People actually wanting to see material like that on the big screen. But yet the same old story does well, though sometimes it doesn't particularly do it. Summer blockbusters are a great example, since not every big budget spectacle you throw at the audience will be a smash hit. Battleship is an excellent of this as a whole, because the film was highly derivative and had nothing to really differentiate it from something like Transformers. On the other hand, a well-made big budget film like Pacific Rim is not doing so well at the domestic box office because the marketing failed to sell it... Awesome visuals don't completely get audiences to turn out in droves to see a film, and hopefully Pacific Rim's box office teaches that lesson to studio marketing departments.

Selick is currently finishing up The Shadow King, a stop motion film that was originally going to be released by Disney this autumn. When new Chairman Alan Horn came on board, the project was scrapped, reportedly because Selick was behind schedule. Earlier this year, K5 International bought the halfway-finished production. The question is, who will distribute it and when will it arrive? Will we be seeing it next year?

But also, why is he struggling to get this film made? Aardman and LAIKA are thriving despite the marketability and box office grosses of their films, and LAIKA actually rejected his film... Oddly enough. You'd think someone would be interested, rather than a small foreign production company. This is a film from the man who directed the continuing success The Nightmare Before Christmas (though most associate that success with Tim Burton) and the successful Coraline, you'd think it would be slated for a release already with a distributor backing it. It's a tough world, I guess... Projects like his are few and far between, and the trouble he's having getting it finished is proof.

The Coraline director also criticized the blockbuster market as well...

“They’d rather risk huge money on The Lone Ranger or White House Down than risk much smaller money doing something that’s a little interesting. No one’s ever going to make a PG-13 animated film unless David Fincher executive produces it and puts it out on Netflix, and then if it’s a success everyone will change.”

This is what I've been thinking for a while. Someone should make a lower budget PG-13 animated film, one that's good and actually "mature", not something stupid and gimmicky. Give it good marketing and try to appeal to the adults first (you win that way, then you'll get the teens in), then the animation industry will see a change. A real change. When something does very well, people will want to try harder and be a bit different... Or copy what made that great.

But what if many styles of animated filmmaking prove to be successful? This is what needs to happen. Long-time animator and director Kirk Wise (he directed Beauty and the Beast and The Hunchback of Notre Dame with Gary Trousdale) also shares the same beliefs...

"I would love to see something come along that was just a little quirky, a little more special, that didn’t feel like the same movie that was released three weeks ago. That’s one of the things that’s very much on my mind. I think we need to create a variety of types of animated films, some that are not going to cost as much as others. Not every story is giant.”

Again, talk about hitting the nail on the head! Creative animation shouldn't be limited to the independent market. Lots of different live action films do very well at the box office each year, but these great directors are probably aware of the main problem which we always keep coming back to... The public perception of animation. They'll see any kind of live action film, from a PG-13 blockbuster to a rom-com to a serious drama. With animation, all they want is G/PG stuff with laughs, tears and cuddly stuff. Nothing more. This needs to change, but how?

Kirk Wise

Perhaps if more minds take advantage of the smaller market and outlets like Netflix, something can be jumpstarted. Something could catch on, because millions of people have Netflix! The word could be spread some way!

Chris Sanders discussed the benefits of making lower-budget animation... But quicker! He uses his great Lilo & Stitch as a stellar example...

“We pitched (Lilo & Stitch) with the idea that we would be paying for our story freedom with reduced schedule and a reduced budget.”

Lilo & Stitch was produced at a time when Walt Disney Feature Animation was slowly spiraling down a black hole, a time when executives were given too much creative control over the projects that were in the works. All of these problems explained the box office totals greatly and the erratic quality of the films. Ambitious concepts like Atlantis: The Lost Empire were turned into gigantic messes, because executives were prejudiced and were worried about not appealing to kids... Or teenagers. Or whatever they were reading from the dreaded focus groups. Depends on the film you're evaluating... With Atlantis and Treasure Planet, they tried too hard to get the teens. With something like Home on the Range, they were trying to appeal to toddlers.

Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois directed and wrote Lilo & Stitch by themselves, and the film was made entirely at Disney Feature Animation's Florida unit for $80 million; Clark Spencer produced. By contrast, Treasure Planet, Burbank's big budget project that came out later in the year Lilo was released, cost $140 million. More writers and producers worked on it. Atlantis cost close to $120 million, many people wrote the story while two people handled the script. Both films were botched by the suits, many of Atlantis' great ideas were gutted from the finished product, which ended up being a rather gimmicky mess with a sloppy story that loses its steam halfway in. Treasure Planet also turned out that way as well, though it did have a stronger story for the most part.

Lilo & Stitch had very little executive meddling going on behind the scenes, and as a result, the film is a bright spot in that troubled era. It's no surprise that it opened well, did very well, got rave critical reception, spawned a bigger franchise and remains a popular beloved film to this day. Disney executives didn't learn from this back in the day, but I think this film is a great lesson to the industry nowadays. It was actually one of Disney's least expensive animated projects at the time of its release, and yet it did so well and it continues to be a success.

That should more than prove that you can be risky and wildly original, for nearly half the budget even! Films like LAIKA's films and Aardman's films, along with great little gems like Fantastic Mr. Fox, are today's Lilo & Stitches except they aren't from a big studio. Why quality product like this can't catch on is beyond me. Lilo & Stitch had the Disney name to secure a safety net, but the marketing was fantastic and it appealed from the get-go. Stop-motion fare struggles, and I still can't crack this nut. Why is it so hard to make it appeal? Even Frankenweenie - from the well-known Tim Burton and released by Disney (and backed with aggressive marketing) no less - struggled at the box office! How does one make that appeal?

Audiences don't hate stop-motion, that certainly can't be the case. It's the content and the way it's presented in the trailers. Coraline and ParaNorman were horror films, they didn't have cutesy creatures running around making jokes. Focus Features' trailers for the latter tried desperately to make it seem like a cutesy funny comedy with a ghoulish backdrop, when the film actually terrified a lot of children. (That's a good thing, though!) That style of animated filmmaking only seems to work on audiences when it concerns a certain Burton/Selick film. The Pirates! Band of Misfits was definitely not a mainstream film, and judging by its weak run, most American audiences didn't get it. When will audiences want to see more creative stuff like this?

In order to turn the ship into the better direction, one of the big guns is going to have to really experiment. I don't care who does it at this point, whether it's Disney or Pixar or DreamWorks or whoever... One of the big studios needs to make a lower budget film that's unlike anything else, perhaps something that may not be overtly family friendly. Pixar did it a couple times, Disney did it with Lilo & Stitch over a decade ago, DreamWorks is capable of doing it. What if one of those studios were to make something completely eccentric and unique, back it with strong marketing and the resulting film is a critical and commercial smash hit?

Walt Disney Animation Studios could do it first. Wreck-It Ralph took a risky concept and used conventional tricks to make it work, to much success. Critical acclaim, good box office and popularity. Frozen retreads the fairy tale ground, but Big Hero 6 looks to be the next Lilo & Stitch... Or any of the four films coming out of after that. We keep getting teased about these films, and how they'll open audiences up to what a Disney animated feature can be. Going by what I've read of these projects, they may make some real waves here. Big Hero 6 so far looks like it'll be a real game-changer for both Disney and mainstream animation. It sounds like it's going to be quite different.

Pixar still continues to experiment with seemingly outlandish and risky ideas, Inside Out being a fine example. The "Dia De Los Muertos" film could also be wicked and wildly different. People are now accusing Pixar of a formula (imagine that!), maybe they'll make something that's totally unlike their current batch of films. Disney Animation and/or Pixar are the likely candidates at the moment, since the Disney empire is their safety net. A flop won't really matter, and Bob Iger did imply that risks are worth it. Hence their "show must go on" attitude after The Lone Ranger bombed.

DreamWorks is out of the question right now, since one flop cost them dearly. DreamWorks banks on their films to keep them going, but if they successfully expand and tap into theme parks and other things, maybe they'll have more confidence to experiment and try even harder. Something like that Alma project could be greenlit or something. For the time being, DreamWorks has to play it safe considering their jam-packed film slate.

Sony Animation? Well, they don't spend much more than $120 million on their films and a few of their releases were actually good (Surf's Up, Cloudy) while the rest is pure product, plain and simple. They're also doing a good number of sequels... What if one day they just said, "Hey! Look at how much we made from Hotel Transylvania 1 and 2, Cloudy 2 and Smurfs 3... Let's take a risk!" That probably won't happen, considering that this studio wants to make a Tonka trucks movie starring Adam Sandler.

Illumination is a bit more likely than Sony, despite their rather creatively unambitious plans. Consider this, the Despicable Me franchise is their safety net along with Universal. That distributor has been on a roll lately, that's actually an understatement! Anyways, Illumination spends at least $70 million on their films... They could totally do something different. The question is, are they willing to?

Similarly, Blue Sky spends less than $100 million on their films. Epic could've been that very project that was different, one that would been tried out because of the success of the Ice Age films. (You know, the sequels funding the originals kind of thing.) But sadly, that wasn't the case. Blue Sky isn't too content with taking massive risks either... Yet. Anubis may very well be something unique and different. May, being the key word here.

A big studio making something that's incredibly original and different would really kick off a better future for American feature animation... Will it happen? Or will some smaller outlet have to kick things into high gear?

One more thing... Why are news sites like Variety saying Selick is slamming Despicable Me 2 and/or the animation industry? If anything, he's evaluating a problem... More story distorting... Tsk tsk.


  1. They're journalists, what do you expect? They distort stories just to cause negative reactions these days anyways, especially in the entertainment media. In fact, the Los Angeles Times interviewed the manager of Walt Disney Animation Studios, and he said that the speculation of Disney getting rid of hand-drawn animation for good were all pure hyperbole.

  2. I know. I threw that sentence in there as a jab at them, considering how they always have to make things seem what they're not. As for The New York Times, ironically, they ran a piece about DreamWorks' new CCO and decided to put in excerpts of an interview with a certain someone that actually slammed Pixar and John Lasseter. Crazy.

  3. What great quotes from those directors. It's very much the case that animation output seems about the same. To the astute eye, they have differences, but if you are the average parent, it would be hard to tell the difference between DreamWorks and Fox and Pixar. Although WRECK-IT RALPH was a little "typical" of the current market offerings, I admire that Disney is still doing their own thing with TANGLED and FROZEN.

    Because these movies cost so much, no one wants to risk veering from the norm. Unfortunately, the real risk is audience fatigue with film after film that feels the same. My parents and I hit that this summer in taking my niece and nephew to see animated movies.

    Although I have no desire for a PG-13 animated movie, I do think there needs to be some difference in what we are seeing. That won't happen, however, until audiences start showing fatigue in their spending. Honestly, I thought fatigue would have set in years ago. Clearly, there is still a market for the current animated comedy formula.

    But I still hold on to my belief, which I just blogged about myself, that the biggest success LEADS the way; it doesn't follow.

  4. All very good points, but if audiences show fatigue, I worry that animation studios will fire people and close up shop, thinking that audiences are just done with animated films in general, rather than animated films that follow a formula.

    And of course, the studios need to try new things. Creating trends is obviously better than following them, and I wish many animation executives realized that. It's going to take a lot to turn things around, but I think it might end up happening in the next 5-10 years.

    As for the fatigue not coming any sooner, I think audiences are slowly turning their backs on derivative stuff given the box office performances of films like TURBO and THE SMURFS 2. Aside from sequels, audiences may want something different and something with a little more bite in the coming years. Hopefully they'll be there in droves for LAIKA's next film or Fox's BOOK OF LIFE, after being tired out by this year's crop and some of next year's. One can only hope!