During his acceptance speech for Pinocchio at BAFTA in February this year, Guillermo del Toro said: “Animation is not a genre for kids; it’s a medium for art, a medium for film. Animation should stay in the conversation.”
It’s a pervasive idea that, unfortunately, seeps into advertising. I’ve heard it a lot: Animation “is too cute”, “isn’t for adults”, “isn’t a serious genre”, and my personal favourite: “animation directors aren't real directors”.
As an experienced senior EP of 20+ years (more than I care to count) in the industry, I’ve worked on all sides of the production table. I started out as a director, a graduate of the National Film School, before moving into producing, and now, as EP, representing and developing animation directors. I’m passionate about film and storytelling, and I understand the craft, the creative, and directing.
When I read a brief it’s always from both the creative’s and the producer’s POV. I’ll be pulling director reels, ballparking the budget and the schedule but I will also, always, have a creative opinion, and I’ll know which director will tell that story well.
But in my experience, for some projects, animation directors are not taken as seriously as other directors. For years, this has been my growing bugbear. As a filmmaker, I see the quality, the skills, the talent. Yet, somehow, because it’s animation, not live-action, those directing skills are perceived differently. Why?
Animation is not a genre for kids; it’s a medium for art, a medium for film. Animation should stay in the conversation. - Guillermo del Toro
What was it that Spielberg said? “…once you know what you want, getting it is not that hard… animation is the father of cinema, of live-action cinema… all directors should be animators first…” And there are plenty of live-action film directors who started out as animation directors: David Lynch, Terry Gilliam, Brad Bird, Tim Burton, to name just a few (*it was/is very much a male-dominated world, but that is another story for another time!).
During lockdown, with commercial live-action shoots increasingly being shut down, animation became the production solution, and animation directors suddenly found themselves in high demand. Clients desperate to fill their pre-booked air slots came knocking in their droves and while some found a new love, lots found it wasn’t so easy to pivot a live-action concept into an animated one. Throughout the pandemic, a new stream opened up of creatives and producers who were less scared of animation – and better than that, for some, a production solution became a valid creative option. Scripts are fewer and further between these days and it bugs me that some of the best ones are bid with live-action directors. Why is that?
Some of the best animation directors are up there with the top filmmakers working in the industry today. Some of the best animation directors have done their time at the best film schools around the globe and have had their personal work nominated or shortlisted for some of the top film awards at the Academy, BAFTA, Palme D’or…
Above: Filmmakers who made their start in animation - David Lynch, Terry Gilliam, Brad Bird, and Tim Burton.
So what filmmaking assets do animation directors embody? And how do they use them in the creation of their work?
A good animation director, like any director, knows what they want to achieve and how to communicate to get it. In live-action, the director will explain the character’s motivations to the actor, and in animation, the director will explain the character’s motivations to the team of animators, or the voice actor. Either way, there is a performance that is inspired and brought about by the director. They might be created a frame at a time, but those animated characters do perform, nonetheless.
It’s about knowing what you want and directing a team to get the best of them onto the screen.
There are different types of story in animation. Some animation stories are more abstract with the meaning woven into a single artwork or illustration that uses slight motion to create the life for that meaning… while other animation stories are told over a timeline; creating worlds that are highly considered, with unique vision and directorial style, full of ideas and creativity. In fact, the narrative led animation is where a good director can really prove their mettle.
Animation directors unfold their story a frame at a time.
Animation directors unfold their story a frame at a time, shot by shot. It’s a craft, for sure, but it’s not just the craft… it’s also about considered, thoughtful meaning, with a point of view. It can sometimes be packed with action. It’s clever. And most importantly - it’s impactful.
Part of the craft is knowing what is essential and what is not. How to be economical. They learn to get smart with storytelling shortcuts. That’s why animation can be so good at tackling tricky subjects. It is able to be more objective and metaphorical; it can help us step away from reality.
The traditional realism of a story unfolding with a beginning, middle and end can often take too long to create by hand, particularly with a challenging budget, so, the animation director will invent new ways to express the meaning using smart transitions or metaphors, or other clever, unique ways to reveal the story.
They’ll also utilise all of the usual filmmakers’ tools including framing, camera moves, actions, timing and editing; most of which is worked out at the beginning, in the animatic, where they will meticulously pre-plan how everything works before they create even one single frame of film.
Apart from the unique brilliance and vision of some of the great animation directors out there, what’s great about animation is its power to get right to the point. It’s not just about the visual styling; it’s how the stories unfold in extraordinary, unexpected ways. It’s the unique power to cleverly, intentionally and economically get to the very heart of a brief. It can be funny, sad, make you laugh or cry – it can play with emotions with passion. It can be full of original ideas. It has meaning and impact, which is why some of the best directors use animation as their main medium.
For me, what’s great about animation is what’s different about animation; not only can the form tell stories in unique ways, its methods drill down the fundamentals of directing to their essence. The conversation about filmmaking means nothing without it.