Friday, August 07, 2009

Acker, Bekmambetov, and Burton Talk "9"

ScreenCrave spoke with director Shane Acker and producers Timur Bekmambetov and Tim Burton to learn more about the feature-length version of 9 at Comic-Con:

Tim, this is a very unique project. How did you get involved with this?

Tim Burton: Well I saw Shane's short film and it just blew me away. It was amazing. After going through stuff myself trying to get movies made and people complaining like "Why doesn't the character have any eyeballs?" and things like that, I think our goal was to just let Shane make his movie.

Did you get this financed as an independent film?

Shane Acker: Yeah, it was a negative pick-up. I mean, the idea was I guess Focus guaranteed the money to buy the film as long as it met X amount of criteria at the end which kind of gave us the creative space to make the film that we wanted outside of their direct input or involvement, although they were definitely involved in the process. We were doing it at such a modest budget that we were able to take the risks and do the things that we really wanted to do and explore in this medium that is typically a medium designed for more family oriented material.

How do you do an animated film with a low budget these days?

Tim Burton: We did it.

Shane Acker: Well, yeah. You just find the right creative team and you make the right decisions as you're going forward and just be really dedicated to the project and be conservative about your design but not let it be really... because we're making a world...

Tim Burton: You did your short pretty much in your basement or garage. Right?

Shane Acker: Yeah. I think the technology is in the hands of artists now. You don't need a whole studio like Pixar in place to do these films. You can take the software and put the team together and make these films yourself, and I think it's a pretty exciting time because it's not about the technological challenge now. It's just about the stories and what is the story that you want to tell.

Did you teach Tim that movies can be made for a lot cheaper?

Tim Burton: Oh yeah. I mean, it's great. It does allow a certain freedom that you don't get when you're dealing with big budget studio [films]. Fair enough. This was such a pleasure. They made the movie and it just was such a pleasure to see if he'd be able to do it and do what they wanted to do without any negative involvement with things. So, it was very liberating to see this process happen.

Where did you get the inspiration for this film?

Shane Acker: I got the inspiration from a lot of stop-motion filmmaking – the Brothers Quay, John Stuckmeyer and the Eastern European sensibility of stop-motion filmmaking as well as Tim Burton's projects in stop-motion. I just love that world. I love the tactile quality. I love the texture and the motion that that creates. When I was starting the short, a lot of the animated films were really clean, pristine, soft and pastel and it just doesn’t speak to me. It doesn't speak to that kind of quality and the tactile nature, the organic kind of decayed nature that I really saw that the world of this film would take. I initially started playing with stop-motion and then realized that with the facility at UCLA, I wasn't going to be able to do the kind of cinematography and the camera moves and the visual storytelling that I wanted so I quickly went into the CD world but I took with it all that quality of stop-motion. I even designed the characters as you would a stop-motion armature so that they'd behave — you know, metal behaves the way metal behaves and cloth behaves the way cloth behaves. I think that lended a kind of believability to the film. People often ask me "How'd you combine stop-motion with CG? How did you do it?" And I go, "No, it's all in the computer." It's just that attention to detail that makes it believable, I think.

How long did it take you to make your short film?

Shane Acker: (laughs) 4-1/2 years.

How long did it take to make your feature film?

Tim Burton: (laughing) 4-1/2 years.

Shane Acker: 3 years actually so it's shorter to make the feature.

What was it about the movie that made you spend 4-1/2 years on it? What did you learn about yourself during that process?

Shane Acker: Well I think that's when I discovered that I was a...

Tim Burton: (interrupting) You can't. The mind of an animator, you don’t have enough time to understand that.

Shane Acker: That's when I discovered that I was an artist because I could not, not do it. You know what I mean? It's like I could not walk away from it once I started. I had to see it through. I have all the best and worst qualities of an animator to be that venal and attentive. Around year 3 it started psychologically affecting me. It's like, "Will I ever get out from underneath this thing?" I was like, "Oh my God, I've got cancer. I'm going to die before this thing is done." All this psychological stuff really starts to affect you and you know your wife is like, "How are you going to finish that?" and everyone is like, "Are you still working on that film?" "I'm still married, yeah." But somewhere around 3 I just started telling people, they’re like, "When are you going to finish that film?" and I said, "Oh, two weeks." "Two weeks! Really?" And then a couple weeks would go by, a month would go by, and they’d come back and ask "Are you finished with that film?" and I'd say, "In two weeks, two weeks." "Really?" And then they finally got the joke and just stopped asking.

Tim, do you remember ever working on a project that drove you crazy?

Tim Burton: I got out of animation because I couldn't do that. To me, I just don't have the patience for it and I was a very unhappy animator. In fact, when I was working at Disney, I slept half of the day. I learned how to sleep sitting at my desk in case they walked in. That’s why I admire what he's done because it does take so much work. It’s an amazing feat for somebody to do this. It really is.

You and Timur are two very visionary filmmakers. What do you bring to the table? What do you offer Shane?

Timur Bekmambetov: I think you have to talk to Shane.

Shane Acker: Yeah, well what was great about it was that while the crew was working on it and we're putting the thing together, whenever we got to a major milestone or we got a cut of the film, we'd present it to the filmmakers and it was great because they had that critical distance from being away from the project to see it in a big picture kind of way and give us those notes and really kind of shape the direction and give those notes that really cut to the core, to the heart of it, and allowed me to kind of step back and say "Oh wow, I can see this from a different point of view" and then be able to go back in with that new awareness and try to reshape it in other ways. Also, they were just a great resource when you had questions and you needed feedback and ideas.

Are there going to be any moments in the film that we'll be looking at and say this is what Tim or Timur brought to the film? Are there any specific aspects or is it just a melding?

Shane Acker: I think it's a melding. I can't speak for Tim or Timur, but I think there's a certain crossover of all our instincts as filmmakers. We’re sort of in tune in some way.

Tim Burton: I think I wouldn't have gotten involved unless I didn’t really like what he did and I think that we all felt the same way that way. I’m not speaking for everybody but I think…

Timur Bekmambetov: Our role is just to protect him because as directors we know how...

Shane Acker: That’s right on the inside of your…

Timur Bekmambetov: Bodyguard.

Tim Burton: Let me give you a classic example. I had to argue. I had so many fights with Disney about changing the character’s, you know, Jack Skellington's eye balls. You know, nobody is going to relate to a character that doesn’t have eyes. They’re just like, "Ahh, shit!" You know, it takes a lot out of you. So, I think for us, it was just absurd. You have enough to deal with when you're making a film. You've got so much to deal with. You don’t need to deal with all that stuff.

If you’d like to do a film without all that interference, would you like to do an independent?

Tim Burton: I think making a film is a challenge in itself. No, I really enjoyed seeing this process. It really was a cathartic thing for me.

Was it fun being a mentor?

Tim Burton: I don't feel that way. I don't come into it like that. Again, for me, it was a very easy collaboration because we liked what Shane did so there was no controversy. Again, as Timur says, we were just there to kind of… If he wanted anything or to ask a question or show us something, whatever, we had that outside [perspective]... which is great in animation because you can get real tunnelvisioned in there and so it's nice...

Shane Acker: (interrupting) You were going to make sure it didn’t take 4-1/2 years.

Tim Burton: (laughing) Just for his own sake.

Timur Bekmambetov: Personally, I learned a lot from Shane. It was an interesting process for me and I learned a lot of interesting things for myself.

So, with short films, they can take years and be really tedious. What inspired you to want to make this into a feature film?

Shane Acker: Well, there's always an idea of the back story and the larger picture behind the short. I think what people were attracted to in the short and the solid potential of doing a feature is that it seems like a little slice out of some larger narrative. So, there were already ideas gestating about the back story and the world and how these characters came to be. It was really exciting to then get the backing to explore that – you know, expand that little idea into something much bigger and that territory that was already there when I was designing the short to see what was really there. There were these sort of broad strokes and gestures. And then, the idea of being able to see what those other creatures are like because in the short there's just '5' and '9' and then in the feature we can see all 9 of those characters which was really a lot of fun to explore who those characters were and where they came from. It's really a journey of self-discovery where they're trying to find out who they are and it is looking back on the past at what happened to the humans that they discover who they are and what their role is. So, there's just a lot of really fun territory to explore. So, I think that’s what reenergized me to keep going.

Will there be a sequel?

Shane Acker: '10'.

Tim Burton: That's right.

Timur Bekambetov: They didn't save the world, those dolls. They still...

Tim Burton: I think it'll be ‘9 Squared’.

You spent all this time on the concept and the idea for the characters. When you bring in actors to bring these characters to life, how does that change the story?

Shane Acker: What's nice about animation and also a little hair raising is that it's always a process. It always is. You would have a session with the actors and they would bring a lot of their material and we would leave it pretty open and we'd explore the character and dialogue and then you'd run back to your secret lab with that and then you start to play with that material and see what comes out of it and you make new discoveries and you go back and do the process over again. So, I think that was always really exciting because you collaborate on every level which is great and the film just kind of organically shapes itself. They brought a tremendous amount to the table and we actually sought the actors who had the characteristics of the characters that we were portraying. We wanted them to speak in a very naturalistic way and it's not as pushed as some animation and it's not as broad. You learn a lot from that. They're sort of the first round of the acting and they give you a lot of raw material and then you also work with the animators which do another level of acting on top of that so you're always fleshing these characters out.

Was it helpful having two people like Tim Burton and Timur Bekmambetov involved in the project. Did that bring you any sort of cache?

Shane Acker: Oh, I'm sure. Definitely. Tim was involved very early in the project and I think that's what really got the ball rolling and got people excited and interested in the project.

Tim Burton: These actors are all great. I mean, I was impressed by what they brought. The easiest thing with animation is to over... kind of broad... I think that's just the nature of it. They all did a really great job of making it really natural. That's one of the things that I really like about the film and the animation as well. It's got that stop-motioney kind of... but naturalistic. It's a film of power that I thought was really amazing.

Shane Acker: I think it really helps the audience begin to go past the abstract character designs and really start to see the humans inside these characters which is a big thrust of the film. It’s the concept of the film.

How would you say this film is different from whatever we’ve seen before?

Shane Acker: I don't know. This is just how I think. This is the thrust that I have, the interest I have in animation. For me, it's what I think animation should be. I'm just expressing myself. Hopefully, if people like and engage in it, it will open the door for other possibilities to explore and expand.

Tim Burton: You don't see many personal animated films. That's what makes it special. It's Shane's thing. It's really nice to see something [like this]. It's like when you go to see an independent film and it's got somebody’s stamp of their thing. You rarely see that in animation so that's good.

Shane Acker: Yes. Speaking of that, I didn't set out to shake the foundation of animation. I just kind of set out to tell the story that I wanted to tell and the world I wanted to tell with the characters and the way I see things. But also, it's exciting to see that something like this can come out and get the backing. I'm very excited.

Has this project opened up doors for you?

Shane Acker: It has. People are really excited by this. It was great because we were flying so low and under the radar and it just sort of bubbled up to the surface and people were really excited and they gravitated to it. Like, what is this thing and where did it come from? It’s fascinating. It's interesting. And I think it's generated a lot of excitement in the industry.

Tim Burton: That's a rarity too. And unfortunately, that won't happen again. Enjoy it because it's amazing to be under the radar. It's the best thing in the world. Enjoy it before it's too late.

Timur Bekmambetov: No responsibility.

Shane Acker: That's right.

What other projects do you have coming up after this? Will there be a Wanted 2?

Timur Bekmambetov: It's happening. I think the second movie will be in production soon.

Is Angelina Jolie signed up for it?

Timur Bekmambetov: We're trying to wake her up but it's difficult. She was wounded. We’re trying hard to wake her up.

Tim, have you ever been to Comic-Con before and how have you found the experience?

Tim Burton: I did come a long time ago. It obviously surprised me how big it is now. I mean, that really surprised me. But, it's still passionate people, still dressed in funny costumes. It's great. It really is a special energy here. It’s like the Cannes Film Festival. I saw the lines and I couldn’t believe it.

I'm curious if that community has reached out to this film or if you’re trying to reach out to them?

Shane Acker: They haven't reached out to me directly but I'm a big fan of that world. You can see there's a lot of inspiration from that kind of world in this film. I don’t know. I haven't seen any rag dolls walking around yet.

Will the short appear on the DVD?

Shane Acker: Yes. It will be packaged on the DVD.

Can we see it now online anywhere?

Shane Acker: I think there’s a bootleg on YouTube. I don’t really promote that. You should see it in full quality but I think that’s possible.

Be sure to check out the film, in theaters September 9th.


Bill said...

I believe you made a mistake in posting this; that Shane Acker is the one who mentions the trouble with Disney in Jack Skellington's eyes. That should be Tim.

Anonymous said...

Fuzzy Duck said...

Bill: Thanks for alerting me to that. I fixed it.