“This year, it’s very telling that all the animated movies are concerned with death. And also fathers, sons, daughters, mothers. Really, two themes unifying all our movies,” Guillermo del Toro observed as he and his fellow animators gathered to talk shop in a virtual roundtable on Nov. 2. In the stop-motion Pinocchio, directors del Toro and Mark Gustafson reimagine the oft-told tale of the puppet who yearns to be a real boy in 1930s Fascist Italy, while Joel Crawford’s Puss in Boots: The Last Wish continues the adventures of another familiar character as he confronts his ninth and possibly final life. Henry Selick’s stop-motion Wendell & Wild revolves around an orphaned girl who teams up with two demons from the underworld; Nora Twomey’s My Father’s Dragon, based on the children’s novel, tells of a young boy who joins forces with a cowardly dragon; and Don Hall’s Strange World follows a family of explorers into mysteriously candy-colored uncharted territory. Meanwhile, Domee Shi’s Turning Red stays closer to home as it tackles the turmoil of puberty. Animated films, they agreed, offer endless possibilities, as they discussed challenging expectations for the medium, embracing imperfections and encouraging diversity.
“Animation is film.” That’s a quote that we hear more and more frequently. What does that phrase mean to you?
GUILLERMO DEL TORO Film and animation, live action, they were born very close to each other. And at some point, animation was entertaining all audiences. And it wasn’t until it started to make ungodly amounts of money through younger audiences that it started to veer toward being bad in North America. But in Europe, and in places like Japan, places like Britain, it preserved some of its identity as an art form and a medium. I believe in terms of themes and tone and ambition, we shouldn’t be reined in to being a McNugget when we want to make a five-course meal.
DOMEE SHI I totally agree with Guillermo. For me, animation and film are one and the same. Animation has always pushed the boundaries of filmmaking, and it’s such an amazing and powerful medium that’s unlike any other medium, because it can reach the most people and you can talk about anything. You can put anything in animation, anything that your imagination can think of.
JOEL CRAWFORD That’s a good point, Domee. Animation transports you to another world, to other characters. Every frame, everything, has to be created from scratch with purpose. There’s something whimsical, fantastical about animation in general that has an opportunity to take audiences and put them in the shoes of a character that they wouldn’t otherwise relate to.
Nora, you’re based in Ireland. How do people approach it there?
NORA TWOMEY We have a very Western tradition of expecting animation to be for children and families. Talking as a mom, children have a special relationship with drawing. They see it as a method of figuring out the world, a method of communication, a method of making some kind of meaning from the chaos. I think that’s incredibly wonderful. I think the whole McNugget thing comes into play because animation can be really expensive. It’s really time-consuming. You’re talking maybe half a decade of somebody’s life to create one film. The pressures of art and commerce colliding can have a really horrible bearing on someone who just wants to tell a good story. But there are ways of respecting that audience, and especially children, who I don’t think should need this kind of gloss over stories, which are really good companions that get you through really tough times, no matter what age you are. We’re always up against the expectation that it can be a babysitter, full stop, but I think that’s changing. Streaming is changing with children, and audiences of all ages, being able to choose what they’re able to see. But I am afraid of algorithms bringing us down to the lowest common denominator.
DON HALL As a kid, I didn’t necessarily differentiate. I loved animation and I loved live action and it was all storytelling. Why I think I gravitated toward animation was really drawing. It’s what I love to do. I know, we make CG films, too. But it all starts with a drawing from somebody’s imagination, and that one drawing can change the shape of a movie.
Henry, you’ve said that you requested a PG- 13 rating. Why did you want that rating for the story that you wanted to tell?
HENRY SELICK When we were first setting up Wendell & Wild with Netflix, [my fellow screenwriter] Jordan [Peele] and I both wanted the freedom that we felt a PG-13 rating could give us. We weren’t necessarily going out of our way to get that. But the rating system is very strange. My previous film, Coraline, was actually way more intense and scary, but it was PG. This got a PG-13. But there’s an ulterior motive, a selfish motive in that. Kids want to see things that the older ones are seeing — a 10-year-old wants to see PG-13. There’s nothing in there that’s really going to be bad for kids as young as 8 — or even some 7-year-olds. So it was about getting the freedom to push boundaries, and then because I think more young people will want to see it and they’ll get more out of it.
Could you elaborate on the themes that you did explore in Wendell?
SELICK The themes are certainly nothing completely brand new, but I think [what is, is] how far we took themes of guilt, about a young child carrying horrible guilt, feeling responsible for the death of their parents. We see a lot of animated films with orphans or the loss of one parent, and I wanted to go further than that. How bad would it be when you lose your parents and you feel you’re totally responsible for it? It’s a coming-of-age story with a lot of extra-extraordinary elements.
Don, do you want to elaborate on some of the themes that you explore in Strange World?
HALL It all started with wanting to tell a story that dealt with mankind’s relationship with the planet. And then, thinking about it in terms of “What did I inherit from my father? What are my kids going to inherit from me?” And then, we built it into the story of three generations — a grandfather, a father and a son — using a lot of my own story, growing up in Iowa, and training to be a farmer. And at some point, breaking away from that and deciding to forge my own path and doing what I love to do, which is drawing and telling stories and animation.
Domee, you also brought a lot of personal experiences to your movie.
SHI It’s similar to Don’s. I really just love animation. And drawing is an emotional and creative outlet for whatever issues or crap I’m dealing with. I had just finished Bao, which is a short film about this mother and this dumpling boy. And I realized I still had a lot of mother issues to sort out, a whole feature film’s worth of stuff. And it was really just my way of processing a super awkward time in all our lives that we don’t want to revisit because it was so uncomfortable and cringey-like — puberty, adolescence, when you wake up and you realize, “Oh my gosh, what is happening to my body?” It’s still weirdly considered taboo, but when we were making it, we were just worried about how do we make this the funniest, most emotional, most impactful story ever, not realizing that it was such a big deal that we were showing [sanitary] pads on the big screen.
Are there certain topics studios don’t want to address in movies when you’re pitching stories?
CRAWFORD Puss in Boots was an interesting story to find with the studio, because there’s a huge Shrek universe that we’re continuing into the next chapter. And so there are expectations of comedy, of fun fairy-tale characters with unique spins on them. But something that we were taking on in this next chapter of Puss is that he’s burned through eight of his nine lives, and he’s on his last life. And inherently, this became a story about death, embracing mortality. And that was something interesting to find with the studio, because there is a cautiousness of going, “OK, how dark is this? Not just for our family audience, but there are certain expectations built into the next Puss in Boots.” But we went darker with this in order to essentially feel the light, feel the joy at the end of it. It’s all in how you tell the story. What the tone is.
DEL TORO It’s funny, because when I was at DreamWorks, [founder] Jeffrey [Katzenberg] used to call me the harbinger of death. When we were developing our version of Puss 2, that was also the theme. Maybe it’s something I’m terribly interested in because I’m Mexican, because it’s also the idea of Pinocchio. Can we make it about life and death? This year, it’s very telling that all the animated movies are concerned with death. And also fathers, sons, daughters, mothers. Really, two themes unifying all our movies. These are not the usual animated movies. And I think that’s a very healthy movement in the right direction — not just about skateboarding and escaping dinosaurs. And I think it’s very symptomatic of our desire to serve childhood. A child 20 years ago was the proverbial Amblin kid. Now [she] is Greta Thunberg. These are kids who are incredibly complex, with incredibly complex moments in their lives. I find it really heartening and beautiful that all our movies have these things in common.
TWOMEY With My Father’s Dragon, we were worried for a while because fear and control are huge themes, and we have a protagonist who loves people and wants to protect them. What does having a parent who lifts the mask for a second and you see real fear and real anguish in that face, what does that do to a young person? But I sat behind a 4-year-old in the cinema whose mom, anytime it got a little intense, kept leaning into her, to try and catch things in a way that might make it a bit easier. But [the girl] pushed her mom’s cheek out of the way because she just didn’t want to be managed. Kids don’t forgive you if you try to talk down to them, they really don’t. You have to take them with the seriousness and the respect that they deserve, and a story is supposed to help.
DEL TORO I have heard companies verbalize it exactly like this: “Actually, we don’t make movies for kids. We make them for the parents to feel safe.” Meaning they make them for helicoptering parents who need to feel that this house has been childproofed.
CRAWFORD That’s a good point. There’s conflict in stories for a reason. As human beings, we’re trying to understand the world, young and old, and how we fit in. And I think the best case is that maybe there are some uncomfortable things, [but they are] still appropriate things for kids. I have three kids. Riding home in the car from the movie theater, your kid goes, “Hey, I want to understand this. So you’re not going to be around forever, Dad?” You go, “Yeah, that’s what makes life special.” And these movies become opportunities to expand and open their worldview.
Henry, do you see things changing? Do you think the movies that we’re talking about today wouldn’t have been made five years ago?
SELICK I agree they would not have been made five years ago. It’s hard for me to understand exactly how the powers that be are actually — if not embracing, they’re allowing more experimentation to take place. The fact that Domee got to make her film at Pixar, it’s kind of a miracle. It wouldn’t have happened if [former chief creative officer] John Lasseter was still there. Kids need to be scared, they need to be taught to then deal with that. They should not be overprotected. We’ve got a whole generation of kids who can’t listen to stand-up comics because they can be hurt, they can be triggered. They’ve been overprotected. That generation is going to have a long, hard journey interacting with the real world. Because everyone thinks in the Western world that animation is for kids, we can be the ones who help those kids and give them the nourishment they actually need — if we find a way, you know, of subversively mixing it in with the normal fun and shininess and colors that people expect from animation. I care the most about the kid audience. I don’t really care anymore if adults love animation. I can’t make predictions. I’d like to think more chances will be taken. But look how long it took for Guillermo to find a home for a more honest, more intriguing version of Pinocchio.
DEL TORO The natural state of a movie is to not get made. But I am at peace that it took about 15 years. And everybody said no except Netflix. Everybody else said no. And they kept saying, “Oh, Guillermo, it’s about the rise of Mussolini, it’s about life and death. Is it for kids?” I said, “No, but kids can watch it if their parents talk to them.” And that was my standard position. I must say, when I see your movies, I’m very moved by what you guys are doing. You can feel the importance of the movies, and it’s very moving.
SHI Maybe I’m too optimistic, but I feel a shift in the audience’s appetite as well. I feel like with streaming and the internet, animation is slowly starting to be treated more like a medium and not just a genre for kids. Anime is more popular than ever. I remember when I was in school, I had to hunt down that DVD store to buy the pirated latest episodes of my favorite anime, but now it’s so readily available.
HALL In the past few years, I think there’s been a steady appetite for more meat on the bone in terms of story and storytelling, when we’re talking about that strong thematic, that is going to galvanize the story and also elicit those conversations that Joel was talking about.
Domee, to go back to something that Henry said: You were nodding when he suggested that your movie probably would not have been made at Pixar a few years ago. How would you describe the current culture at Pixar and what enabled you to be able to tell the story at this time?
SHI I feel lucky that I’ve mostly worked with [Pixar chief creative officer] Pete Docter. He was the executive producer for Bao. He was my first mentor on Inside Out back when I was a storyboard artist, and we worked really closely together developing Turning Red, and he’s just so open to hearing your story and your take on the style and the themes that you want to explore, as long as it comes from a personal place that’s important to you. And I really wanted to do something different with Turning Red, from the opening scene breaking the fourth wall, with our main character talking directly to the camera. I wanted to really lean into my love for ’90s anime and for stylish live-action movies like [those of] Edgar Wright and Wes Anderson, really pushing the colors and the camera and the editing, to just really make this movie feel different. Pete reminded me that style is great, pushing the boundaries is great, but to always think about how that helps support telling your character’s story. That helped meld the anime style so successfully with Western CG animation in our movie, it felt like the perfect way to tell this story about this Chinese Canadian girl who’s kind of caught between two worlds.
Let’s talk about the visual style of some of the other films.
CRAWFORD On Puss in Boots, one of the concepts that was really pushed by our production designer, Nate Wragg, was: What if it looked like you are in a fairy-tale painting? What if it was illustrative? There was a lot of trial and error trying to find not only our vision, but also we had expectations again of what Puss in Boots should look like from the first movie. We did have some license to update it. We decided that everything could be this kind of painterly style.
SELICK With Coraline, I wanted to leave the seams in. And people were just too nervous about it. But it’s years later, the idea was simply: Why use stop-motion animation if people can’t even tell? If they think it’s CG, it’s not going to be as good as a CG film. So what can we do? It has to feel the touch of the animator who wrestled the puppet to life, and I want to show that, leave seams in, leave most mistakes in. We call them charm — unless they’re so egregious we do have to fix it, or if a story point isn’t made. And then building a whole world around that, it was very challenging because it’s very Picasso-esque. And I don’t think a whole feature could look like that. It would be hard on folks. So we used it in a limited way, and then found a way to make that more dimensional.
DEL TORO There are four decisions that were key visually on the style of Pinocchio. I said, “If we go into a world where every building is crooked and stylized, then Pinocchio is not an anomaly — he’s just business as usual.” I said, “We have to portray Italy. I want photographs to make every decision.” And basically I approached it like a live-action movie in that sense. That was the first decision. The second decision was to keep the color-coding really rigid. The blue is only for those elements that are magical or shaping Pinocchio. Red was only for war and destruction. And then we decided we would make the rest of the world seasonal. The other thing, and this was a double decision, was, “Let’s make the staging as if we were staging real-world actors.” I like the camera to move to accommodate the characters. And that allows us to go for a really quiet moment. One of the things I don’t like in animation is how busy it can get, and how frantic, and we went for quiet moments, moments in which the characters are barely moving, and you have little, almost micro gestures. But stylistically, we also said we’re not going to be afraid of wide shots, we’re not going to be afraid of moving the camera.
Nora, My Father’s Dragon has a very different technique and visual style. How would you describe your work?
TWOMEY We took inspiration from the book [by Ruth Stiles Gannett], but also from children’s drawings. I was really not wanting to tell this story from the perspective of somebody talking down to a child. And so we asked the children in our lives — I asked my two boys — to draw the characters from the book. And they did things that I just didn’t expect. For example, there’s a tiger that’s kind of scary. And they would draw a huge head for the tiger because the head is the most dangerous-looking part. They literally got tied up in knots drawing crocodiles, and so we have a knot of crocodiles in the film. A lot of my research was done by experimenting on my own children. And so the world of My Father’s Dragon is both the ridiculous sense of a child’s perspective of what’s dangerous and what’s not. We also worked really hard to get a big sense of scale and gravity to the film, so that Elmer and Boris, the two main characters, felt like small kids in a big, big world, and a world that they had no control over.
And Don, for Strange World, I know you’ve said that one of the inspirations was Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth. Would you describe the look?
HALL Yeah, I’m going to do some spoiling here. Where the Journey to the Center of the Earth thing comes into play is that the characters in our story go down into their world and discover a world that is completely alive. The big discovery, two-thirds or three-quarters into the movie, is that they are actually living on the back of a living thing. Their discovery is, “Holy crap, we live on a continent-sized creature. And what we’re doing is harming a creature.” Now, because of the spoiler, we didn’t really want the audience to figure that out, so it’s pretty disguised. There were two reasons for it. One, the spoiler of it all. And then the other part of it was just letting our artists run wild. We can look at microscopic imagery of lungs. Bronchial cilia look like grassland, there’s a whole bunch of stuff that you can draw upon. So look at it, research it, throw it away, and then come up with your version of it — and so it was really, really fun. We may have started with an actual part of the body and then turned our artists loose and let them go with it. I had some color restrictions as well, just in terms of throwing people off the scent a little bit. Green was sort of our primary color up top, so we restricted the use of green, restricted earth tones. It forced everybody on our production design team to come up with really interesting, weird new color schemes.
Do your studios anticipate that there’s going to be a resurgence in stereoscopic 3D, especially with Avatar: The Way of Water coming out later this year?
HALL I don’t know. I just know that [at Disney] we have a 3D department and we do it.
SELICK [When 3D first came out], the glasses were really dark. The projectors weren’t bright enough. There are so many films where the 3D was added on afterward and was really bad, and as 3D was starting, it got two black eyes — one from the experience of feeling like you’re in a dark cave, and then how much bad 3D there was. So I don’t know if it’ll ever come back. Certainly not at Netflix. They were selling 3D TVs a few years ago, but no one’s buying them now. But I love great 3D. Nothing looks better. Nothing looks better than stop-motion in 3D because it really is dimensional. I love it like crazy, but I’ve just had to turn my back on it.
TWOMEY It’s just interesting the way it comes back and then it fades away. And then it comes back again and then fades away again. It is spectacular when it works well.
SHI It’s a tool. It’s a color on your palette. And you don’t have to use every single color to paint your film. You can choose which tools to use in order to tell the most immersive and effective story. And maybe for you, Don, because your movie is an action-adventure, it begs for 3D to put you in there. When you’re flying through the space, that feels like the perfect use for 3D. But for a movie like mine, for the first half, I really was inspired by slice-of-life movies. The way to make it more immersive was through color, through camera, versus using stereoscopic 3D.
SELICK Too many CG-animated films are living pretty close to each other in their look and feel. There have been moments like Pete Docter in Inside Out, those characters are remarkably cartoony in terms of their head size, and that in itself is incredibly bold. There hadn’t been anything like that. Maybe never at Pixar. And it worked. People were credibly entertained, they didn’t write them off as cartoons. I believed in them. I just think we can do so much more. It’s not even taking a chance, as long as underneath it you believe in the characters and you have empathy for them and share their emotional journeys. They can almost look like anything.
TWOMEY It’s amazing when you get 50 animators to all buy in to the way a particular character moves, and their particular gestures, and then you get the empathy of 50 people making sure that there’s a throughline in a character’s performance. And if you’re lucky, you get an incredible voice performance. And as Henry says, the little mistakes and things like that, that lets you know that we’re flawed. There’s something really beautiful in that. There’s somebody behind that, who makes a compassionate decision about physics and weight and character, and it’s a loving decision.
SHI So true. When we built our sets, we made sure not one wall or beam in the temple or the house was a perfect line. We had to go in there and add nicks and dents. And even how we shaded the world. We were inspired by stop-motion. We studied how color can pool in corners and different areas of other surfaces so that the shading was kind of imperfect. It’s subliminal, but tells the audience that it’s made by a person. It also helps tell the story, because for Turning Red, it’s a story about a girl who’s embracing her imperfect messiness.
HALL It’s almost like you have to be very intentional with the imperfections. For Strange World, even in the storyboarding, that happened. There’s a very quiet moment, between the grandfather and father having a beer, and the storyboard artist aboard that scene, Tyre Jones, had the grandfather, just in a moment of awkward silence, hock a loogie over the side of their ship. It wasn’t there to get a laugh. It was not there for anything other than to convey the reality of a moment. Everybody loved that moment, because it was so unexpected and real.
One more question: What are you seeing this year in terms of diversity, in the workforce and creative leadership as well as the stories themselves?
TWOMEY On My Father’s Dragon, I made a pretty conscious decision. I come from a place where when I was in college, I was one of three women in my course, and I think I’m the only one of those three who’s still working. It’s changing, and now when you walk into a college room, the majority are female. But where the inequality still is, is that you have heads of departments, positions of power and leadership. You have to work harder to make sure that those roles are filled by people who deserve them as much as anybody else, but who might not put themselves forward or might not have traditionally been in that role, or might not have the support system. And if you hire a woman or a nonbinary person in a role like that, then they’ll probably pull somebody else in who’s not traditionally been in that role, so it broadens it out.
CRAWFORD At DreamWorks, there’s a lot of diversity in terms of gender and ethnicity in terms of the filmmakers. But something that’s really cool that DreamWorks has been doing is that they also have an inner-city outreach program. There are people out there who could be amazingly talented, but who have no idea this is a career, this is a job: You can tell stories for a living. I think there’s a lot we have the opportunity to do as filmmakers for bringing up the next generation, finding those storytellers.
HALL When you start a film and you’re creating a world like Strange World, it’s a fantasy world. I can set the rules for that world. And I want it to reflect the real world in terms of diversity and inclusion, because I think there’s power in people seeing themselves onscreen. And so it starts, day one.
SHI I feel the world’s just gotten smaller because of the internet and access to amazing foreign movies and movies that are not in English. And we’re gradually seeing a redefinition of what a universal story looks like, and who gets to tell them. It requires investment from the studios to support those storytellers, and it also requires [those of] us who are in this very privileged position to be making movies to hold the door open for the next generation, because it could very easily regress. Like [when] The Joy Luck Club came out in the ’90s, I was like, “Oh, man, this is it for Asian Americans.” And then it kind of fizzled away and we didn’t really have another movie until Crazy Rich Asians, [25 years] later. It could always go backward, which is something that I had to keep reminding myself, and so I feel like it takes a whole village to make sure that this isn’t a blip or a fad, that it’s an ongoing change.
SELICK I think we, in animation, on average, are doing way better than the rest of the industry. I was visiting Disney today, just to talk about my movie, and there’s an incredible diversity of animators and talents and executives. Netflix has had, from the get-go, some very powerful women in charge of animation. But I’m a little more worried; it’s not a steady thing, because in the end, it has to be based on talent, people have to be able to do the job, but if they show promise, that talent can be developed. I’m a little more worried about the audiences out there. Sometimes, when there’s pushback on casting choices, for The Lord of the Rings or the superhero movies, it drives me nuts. Neil Gaiman got pushback for casting choices for Sandman. And his reaction was, “Have you read the fucking comics from 25 years ago? This person is nonbinary.” So I think we can educate [audiences] by telling the best possible stories with diverse characters, using diverse crews, and they’ll get over their stupid hang-ups and just be entertained and moved.
DEL TORO We have to keep it alive in terms of representation. The story, that’s one conversation. And the other one is cast and crew. We tell the animators, “You are our cast, you are our actors,” and we credited them in the credits, right after the voice cast, same size. And I said, “I will protect you from studio notes, there will be no studio notes, there will be no screenings, there will be no bullshit.” We had about 357 employees. Forty-five percent were women. We took a lot of animators that have never been leads, they were apprentices or doing smaller characters, and we provided them with a platform to grow. And I do think this is almost a basic duty of filmmakers to pursue these things. It’s very important to do so.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in a December stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.