A Film from Your Favorite Director Day 9: 30 Days of Animated Films

(as always, these opinions are mine and mine alone)

I have huge respect for film directors – they have a job that requires not only a discerning eye for every aspect of the art of film-making, but also a leadership savvy sufficient to manage huge teams that include artists, technicians, and performers. A good director has to be able to simultaneously fight for his own vision of a film, while being wise enough to yield to criticism when others bring their own experience and perspective to bear. Add to that mix the pressure from executives, distributors, ratings agencies, and budget constraints… It’s a tough job.

Animation directors face additional challenges. Where a live-action film director can place his actors in the scene and see in real-time what a performance will look like on-screen, with animation the actor’s delivery, their animated body language, and the look of the set are all decoupled. An animation director has to be able to look at an ugly temporary animation often with ugly temporary audio, and be able to see what it will all look like in the end, after the hair, fur, cloth, secondary animation, textures, and lighting all come together.

here’s a lovely example of an animation breakdown from Disney’s Tangled:


This example is especially good because the lighting plays such an important part of the storytelling in the song – the director can only have a pretty vague idea of what it’s going to look like as each phase gets approved.

The topic for today is:

A film from your favorite director

The Runner-Up: The films of Brad Bird

We’ve already started to discuss The Incredibles a bit, and Brad Bird’s dual role as both director and voice performer as Edna Mode. I’m sure Incredibles will have a bigger feature later in the month, but the next time you see this movie, pay extra attention to the pacing and performances — especially impressive given the still-early state of the technology. I think Bird can take a lot of credit for the overall outcome for the film.

We haven’t really discussed Ratatouille yet, which Bird took over after four years of development under Jan Pinkava.

copyright Disney/PIXAR

copyright Disney/PIXAR

I’m extremely curious what this movie might have been without Brad Bird coming in to the show. Considering the end product, it’s really hard to fault Pixar for the replacement, but still — I can’t help but wonder what changes happened and how they affected the final product. As it stands, Brad Bird’s paean to food and the creative spirit is one of Pixar’s best, regardless of how much influence he had on the final story. We’ll definitely be revisiting this one later in the month as well.

And the winner is…

Honestly, the top spot here probably belongs to a film by Brad Bird, whose career even before Pixar gave us the criminally-underrated Iron Giant, one of my favorite animated films generally.

Both Incredibles and Ratatouille are fast-paced, quick-witted, and a lot of fun, but at least all of Brad Bird’s characters had limbs.

copyright Disney/PIXAR

copyright Disney/PIXAR

I’m giving the prize to Andrew Stanton, largely for his work on Finding Nemo (Co-directed with Lee Unkrich, who also deserves a shoutout) and Wall-E. Both of these films are much slower-paced, more contemplative films about characters that are incredibly difficult to make empathetic. A large part of that goes to the excellent animators and artists working on these shows, but Stanton’s slower films required a delicate touch that not every director would be able to achieve.

Consider that the first twenty minutes of Wall-E have practically no dialog, and are still entirely watchable. I think that can be laid squarely at the feet of a director who knows what he’s doing. More or less. Wall-E himself can’t speak and can’t make facial expressions except for rarely-used eyebrows. That’s a challenge no matter how you slice it, but the physical performance of the character was spot-on.

copyright Disney/PIXAR

copyright Disney/PIXAR

I also love the way Stanton tells the fish-out-of-water story of a fish in the water with Nemo, which has some really lovely cinematography and a pace that allows you to believe that Marlin has traversed a great distance over the course of the film. Making fish into empathetic characters is itself no small task, and an entire generation will know the blue tang surgeonfish as “Dory”.

copyright Disney/PIXAR

copyright Disney/PIXAR

I’m curious to see how Stanton handles the entirely unnecessary sequel, Finding Dory, which is due in 2015. I thought all the Toy Story sequels would be terrible, as well, so I’ve been wrong before, but I have no clue how the sequel could hold up to the original. I guess we’ll see in a couple of years!

Later: A film with your favorite actor or actress

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