A panel of top toon creators — including Byron Howard (‘Zootopia), Garth Jennings (‘Sing’), Travis Knight (‘Kubo and the Two Strings’), Mike Mitchell (‘Trolls’), John Musker (‘Moana’) and Mark Osborne (‘The Little Prince’) — reveal their surprising inspirations, when to avoid having certain characters kiss and why you have to “kill yourself” when working in animation.
“What are you doing here?” veteran animator John Musker jokingly asked Seth Rogen as the masterminds behind some of this year’s eclectic lineup of animated features began to assemble at the Line 204 stages in Hollywood to talk shop. Not that anyone resented Rogen’s presence, since Sony’s saucy Sausage Party, on which he served as a writer, producer and voice actor, added some unusual R-rated spice to the mix. “That taco was amazing,” laughed Mike Mitchell, 46, director of DreamWorks Animation’s Trolls, as the group welcomed Rogen, 34, to their unique fraternity: filmmakers who can spend five years or more, sweating thousands of tiny details, to bring their visually inventive movies to the screen. Nor was Rogen the only newbie on the scene. Having attracted attention with his indie, live-action 2007 movie Son of Rambow, Garth Jennings, 44, made the transition to directing an animated feature with Illumination Entertainment’s Sing. And though he’s no newcomer to stop-motion animation — he’s president and CEO of Portland, Ore.-based Laika and has served as an animator on several of its films — Travis Knight, 43, took the director’s reins for the first time on Kubo and the Two Strings. They, in turn, were joined by experienced hands Musker, 63, whose credits range from The Little Mermaid and Aladdin to Disney Animation’s just-released Moana; Bolt and Tangled helmer Byron Howard, 48, who was one of the directors guiding the anthropomorphic critters through Disney’s Zootopia; and Mark Osborne, 46 (Kung Fu Panda), who helmed the screen adaptation of Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince, appearing on Netflix.
What advice would you give a first-time animation director?
TRAVIS KNIGHT Don’t do it. (Laughter.) Look what it has done to all of us.
BYRON HOWARD Look at our posture.
KNIGHT The main thing is that you have to be passionate about it. In a lot of ways, working in animation can be something of a thankless task. You’re working in isolation. You’re working for long hours. You have to love what you do. You don’t expect adulation, you don’t expect recognition. You do it because it’s a part of you. I have been working in animation for 20 years. So if there is something that you’re driven by, if there is something that you love, even if you’re working really, really hard and killing yourself — which you have to do if you’re working in animation — it takes a lot out of you. But if it’s something that matters to you, if it’s something that means something to you, a part of yourself that you have to express, then it’s a worthwhile endeavor. I could not imagine a better life for myself. This is my life’s work, and I love what I am able to do, to be able to tell stories, to be able to connect with people, to be able to bind them together. If you have that inside you, then working in animation is probably the best thing you can possibly do.
JOHN MUSKER I love animation as well. Being able to communicate an idea visually is sort of a cornerstone of animation, in all its forms: CG, stop-motion and hand-drawn. So I would recommend people, if they can, get some familiarity with being able to express themselves visually, just as a building block in their arsenal.
HOWARD What I would say to a new filmmaker — if you’re a film student now, if you have a diverse background, if you’re female, if you’re from a different country, if you don’t see yourself being represented onscreen — animation is a great medium to explore films and ideas. It’s a great, collaborative process. We work with amazingly talented people, and we can work with great stories that have been around for many years and bring them to life. There is something about the way this medium works that is such an education for me. Over the years — like Travis, I’ve been around for about 25 — I have learned so much every time I get involved in a new film.
Seth, you’re the new kid on the block as far as writing and producing an animated movie, but you’ve lent your voice to such animated movies as Kung Fu Panda. Mark, did he take direction well?
MARK OSBORNE You don’t have to give much direction with Seth. It’s just put the piece of paper down, let it happen and, actually, I think every single line [Rogen had] in Kung Fu Panda came from [him]. It’s sort of like we were really workshopping as we were recording. It was so much fun.
So Seth, what was the learning curve for you like on Sausage Party?
SETH ROGEN It was vast, but, honestly, it was my experience on those DreamWorks animated movies — through the people we were meeting and their enthusiasm for the idea — that really made us think it was possible for us to do an adult-oriented animated movie. Conrad Vernon [one of Sausage Party‘s directors], whom I’m sure a lot of you know, was one of the first people we told the idea to, and the look on his face literally is one of the things that made us think it was worth pursuing. We were like, “Oh, this guy is like a legitimate animation person.” It was as though you had a weird sci-fi idea and George Lucas was like, “That’s a good idea, I would work on that.” So for us, it was only through me doing voices in those movies that our movie came into existence and why it actually is like a real movie and not just something that me and my friends tried to pull off. We knew it had to have the skin and feel of a real, big animated movie, and it’s only through the relationships I had from DreamWorks that it happened at all.
Garth, you directed your first animated movie with Sing. What was the transition from live-action movies like?
GARTH JENNINGS Yes, I shouldn’t be here either. (Laughter.) It’s been nuts. I only just finished. I’m really glad I didn’t know how long it was going to take when I started or just how crazy [it would be]. I was so naive with everything. I thought, “Yeah, I can do that, I can do an animated film.” And then about a year in, I got pneumonia. But then it came through great. I mean, the team I have is amazing. And the fact that I can just write and direct it myself without having come up through that animation world is an amazing gift. I loved it. It’s just a miraculous process. It really is. I have to calm down my enthusiasm when I see a shot finished, because my team, they’re used to it, but I’ll be like, “Oh, that’s amazing!” And I just end up looking like an idiot. So I have to try to be a bit cooler. I’ll try to do that next time.
Travis, you’ve been an animator and produced animated movies for Laika. But Kubo and the Two Strings is the first one you directed yourself.
KNIGHT Stepping into the director’s chair on this film was sort of the culmination of all those different experiences. As a producer or executive, you have to have a global view. You have to see the big picture. Being a director, you have to be able to balance being able to focus on the detail, on the granularity, but also be able to extricate yourself from that and never lose sight of the story you’re trying to tell. For me, it was absolutely the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but it also was the most rewarding. You really are part of this incredible community of artists who are passionate and innovative, who really care, who pour their souls into something. It’s a long, arduous process, because to spend that kind of time and effort comes at a cost to your personal life and everything else. You don’t want to devote that much time and energy into something that’s just a pop culture confection, just a bit of ephemera. You want to focus on something that matters, something that’s meaningful, something that hopefully can enrich people’s lives. And paradoxically, the more intimate you make something, the more universal it becomes. Art in its finest form elicits empathy, it gets us to see the world through someone else’s eyes, it gets us to experience someone else’s story as if it were ours. In this world that’s so chaotic, having some degree of empathy so that we can all try to see other people’s perspectives is a beautiful thing, and that’s one of the rare things film can do.
How do you approach different ethnicities and cultures in animation? Are you conscious of running the risk that some group could take offense?
HOWARD You have to be careful, just speaking from our own perspective on Zootopia. One of the things that I love about animation is that we often ask ourselves, “Why does this have to be an animated film?” And for us what was great about doing a movie about bias and difficulties between groups is that we didn’t have to use human beings. You could use different types of animals to be an allegory for what we are experiencing as humans. When we first pitched it five years ago, we had this predator/prey idea. Then we did about a year of research into animals and then into human sociology as well. We started to figure out really quickly that these two groups of animals not getting along was just like our situation and our own world. So we really dove into bias — and not just bias — kind of in-your-face bias, contemporary bias, which is kind of in everything around us. And then as we were making the film, the world started to go crazy with politics and the election that just happened. And this weird lineup between what we’re doing with the film and what was happening in the world, especially in the United States, came out. You can’t really plan for something like that. But when a film ends up being timely …
JENNINGS Sausage Party.
ROGEN Yeah, we knew. (Laughter.)
MIKE MITCHELL You knew that people wanted to see food having an orgy? So ahead of your time, Seth, so on the cusp.
OSBORNE Talking about culture, we had a crazy challenge. The Little Prince is a book that’s known all over the world. It’s been translated into 260 different languages, and I think that’s a big reason why it’s been seen as this impossible book to adapt. I initially said no, because it’s crazy how different the book is in different cultures and at different times in people’s lives when they read it. And so we were looking for a way to tap into the universal ideas that are there in the book. And then, luckily, the book was able to draw in talent from all over the world that wanted to be involved in the project, and we were able [to have] these different perspectives on why the book resonated with people and has been around for 70 years. When we took the [completed] film to different places, they would say, “Oh the parents, they’re Italian parents, aren’t they?” Or in China they would say, “These are Chinese, this is a Chinese mother.” Everybody was relating to what was universal about the book and the movie.
MUSKER We had the challenge in Moana of dealing with this culture that we were really outsiders to in a way. I knew something about the South Pacific just from a distance, reading books set there and seeing paintings by Paul Gauguin and that sort of thing. But after I pitched the idea to John [Lasseter, Disney Animation creative chief], I started to read Polynesian mythology and I discovered there was this character, Maui, who was bigger than life, could pull up islands with his magical fish hook and was a shape-shifter and I was like, “Why has this never been done before?” So we cobbled together a story and pitched it to John and he said, “This is great, but you’ve got to dig deeper, do more research.” So we were forced to go to Tahiti and Samoa and Fiji. Our development people arranged a really deep dive into the culture where it wasn’t the Tiki bars and that sort of thing. We met with anthropologists and archeologists and linguists and cultural ambassadors. As we went forward, we kept those people involved because we really wanted to be faithful to the culture and yet make a movie that hopefully would entertain people around the world. But it was an added challenge that we didn’t have when we did Aladdin. Our research on Aladdin, it was during the first Gulf War, so for our research, we went to the L.A. Convention Center, where there was a Saudi Arabian expo.
OSBORNE That’s pretty good. On Kung Fu Panda, we just Googled China. That was as far as we could go.
Despite all that research, when the first images from Moana were released, you got some criticism for fat-shaming Polynesians. Were you surprised?
MUSKER Not entirely. When we designed the character of Maui, in these myths, he was described in different ways. In some he was short, some he was squat, some he was like a leading man. It was an oral culture. There was nothing written down. He’s a pan-Pacific demigod. Different versions of him existed. We really wanted to make him super-heroic. We felt like if he’s going to pull up islands, he’s got to look like he can really pull up an island with his magical fishhook. He’s got to look powerful. So that’s what we were going for. On our trip, we took pictures of all sorts of people on the islands, and we did sketches. So his design was based loosely on some of the people we had seen in the islands. And when we brought Dwayne Johnson in, he was going to do the voice. And he said, “Oh, I like him, he’s lovable. Yeah, I like him.”
ROGEN You got to listen to him. (Laughter.)
MUSKER I think Maui played a little differently in some of the stills that people were reacting to in the early going. When they see him in the context of the film, I think he plays differently.
Seth, you also got some criticism for some of the ethnic stereotypes in Sausage Party, like Salma Hayek’s taco. Did that surprise you?
ROGEN No! (Laughter.) You know, our movie is directly about racial stereotypes and how religion divides us and how our beliefs divide us and how we look different divides us and how we speak different divides us. And at the same time, as a lover of Disney animated movies, we took a lot of cues from those types of movies. They don’t use it to the same narrative effect, but you look at [Pixar’s] Cars and the Fiat is Italian and the [VW van] is a stoner and the tow truck is a Southern guy. It’s very much a part of the animation vernacular, and so we thought if we’re going to do an animated movie and it’s about these things, then it seemed like a perfectly organic opportunity to really lean into all those things and not just do them, but to really talk about them and confront them as head-on as possible — to really make it part of the overall narrative of the movie.
Were there characters you decided in the end to remove?
ROGEN Oh yeah, tons. (Laughter.) In my opinion, my favorite comedies feel like they are really riding a line between what people think they should be allowed to watch in a movie and what seems like maybe you shouldn’t even be allowed to see in some ways. There’s a danger to it. You’re looking around at the other people: Are we really seeing this? Is this happening? Those are my favorite experiences in theaters: when I am watching a movie and I have to look around at the people to make sure we’re all seeing the same thing. There was a real trial-and-error process, and our only way to reconcile exactly what you’re talking about was to test it exactly as we would any of our other movies, put it in front of real audiences a lot.
For all of you, several of your movies have female protagonists. But they’re not looking for a prince.
MITCHELL Well, on Trolls, we wanted to completely break the mold of the animated princess. Most princesses have big eyes and little bitty waists and little tiny hooves they walk around on. And [with Poppy], we wanted to keep this ugly-cute, big melon head, giant teeth. She didn’t have to wear uncomfortable princess shoes, which I think is cool. (To Musker) I don’t think your princess has any shoes.
MUSKER No. She does not.
MITCHELL That’s cool. Who needs these shoes? We wanted to make a film about happiness, and we really researched happiness. We wanted to explore happiness and how undervalued a positive attitude is. So our lead character is super-optimistic, but we wanted to make sure she wasn’t vacant. It was nice; we took a cue from [the rabbit] Judy Hopps [in Zootopia]. Is this something Judy Hopps would do? Because (to Howard) your character is so positive. And Anna Kendrick came in and she helped us find that character with her voice. I’m sure your actress did, too.
HOWARD Yeah, Ginnifer Goodwin.
Judy also is not your typical female character. She aspires to be a police officer.
HOWARD Yep, yep. Part of our research on Judy was talking to female police officers who have come up through the ranks over the years in different generations and finding out their struggles as women going into a mostly male-dominated profession. This lieutenant we talked to, she had come up during the 1980s through a California police organization and the guys around her at first didn’t trust her — not because they had any direct animosity toward her, but because going out on patrol they weren’t sure how to [relate to her]. Can I interact with this person the same way I’d interact with a male? They would actually protect her out on patrol. And she was like, “Don’t protect me, let me do my job.” And the determination we saw in those women made its way into Judy’s character because Judy doesn’t want to be treated differently because she is small or because she is female or because it hasn’t been done before.
Was there a point where you debated whether Judy and Nick the Fox should kiss?
HOWARD It’s funny because when the movie came out …
MITCHELL No, no, they shouldn’t do that.
HOWARD … the world was divided. We are very aware of it on social media, because half of the audience wants them to get involved with each other and half doesn’t. And what we talked about in creating their relationship, we talked about shows like Moonlighting or Northern Exposure where you have great tension and chemistry. But it gets wrecked when they get together. We’ll see where it goes in the future.
MITCHELL Same with us. Everyone wanted those two together, and maybe they’ll hook up eventually …
ROGEN Trolls III?
MITCHELL Maybe three. (Laughter.) It’ll really create that tension.
Moana is another female protagonist who is growing into a leadership role.
MUSKER Yeah, she’s going to be the future leader of the village. It’s really a coming-of-age story. There is no romance in it. We were at Comic-Con and we did a little pitch, and I just incidentally said, “There’s no romance,” and there was a gasp in the room. “How can you? Are you mad?” But we really liked that challenge. It’s a hero’s journey, and gender is taken out of the equation a little bit in our story. It isn’t like her problem is that she’s a girl. It really is: Does she know who she is in terms of her own abilities? And the ocean kind of picks her to go on this mission to save the world. And it was great to have a girl and have her be an action-adventure hero. We really designed her in ways so she could jump off a cliff and sail a boat on the open sea.
OSBORNE The Little Prince is a book about a boy, and all the characters are male. So making a little girl the main character of the story was actually a huge challenge going into it. This was pre-Frozen. My daughter Maddy was the inspiration. We watched all the [Hayao] Miyazaki films, we watched Mulan over and over on repeat. It just made a lot of sense to try to bring balance to the book, when the idea of adapting the book is crazy, by building this larger story about this little girl’s experience with the book.
Music is an important part of all of your movies. Seth, where did the idea for the Sausage Party song come from?
ROGEN Again, it all came from a love of the animated movies that we grew up watching: Aladdin, The Little Mermaid and The Lion King and then the Pixar movies. There was an early version of the song that Kyle [Hunter] and Ariel [Shaffir], two of the other writers of the movie, wrote. And then we approached Alan Menken to do a song, and he just really loved the movie and wanted to score the entire thing. And we were like, yes.
Sing has dozens of songs. How did you pick which ones to use and decide which character would sing what?
JENNINGS I think the last count was 104 pieces of music, which is insane. A lot of the music, the choices were starting to go into the script as I was writing it, because even though it’s music from any time period, any genre, it has to not only work for that character, it has to tell the story a bit. So you couldn’t just pick anything you liked, it had to do two jobs pretty well. Like Rosita, who is played by Reese Witherspoon, is a piglet mum who has 25 piglets, and her songs were the pop stuff that she would be listening to on the radio. And then for someone else, like Scarlett Johansson’s character, who is a porcupine in a Goth band, those were original songs that were written for her. So everyone was different. Seth MacFarlane is singing Frank Sinatra songs, which he does pretty well. And all [the voice actors] had to sing their own parts, both originals and covers. That was the deal.
MITCHELL We did that, too [on Trolls]. We had songs from the ’60s, the ’70s, the ’80s, the ’90s. Like any good musical, we had to make sure that the story doesn’t stop for a musical moment and then carry on. The music is continuing the story. The only time we ran into a challenge is at the end in the third act. And fortunately we went to this guy, Justin Timberlake? Do you guys know this dude? He knows how to sing. (Laughter.) We went to him to just do a voice. He’s a really funny guy on Saturday Night Live. So he heard what we were doing and he was like, “I want to help you guys. I’ll just write an original song for that bit,” and then he goes, “and maybe we’ll just make it a hit song, too.”
Travis, you, on the other hand, used a song by George Harrison on your end credits. How did that come about?
KNIGHT Music was such a central part of this film. Oftentimes, music can give voice to those strange, inarticulate emotions that we have rolling around within us. It’s why pop songs are evergreen. Kubo is like an Orpheus figure. He is gifted with divine music. So whatever he is feeling, his emotions, he can bring these things to life. Whatever he is feeling, that comes out in his music, and you see how that affects his art. In that way it’s really a metaphor for creation. I explained that to our composer Dario Marianelli, and I said, “Look, I just need you to write god-like music,” [and he wrote] pieces of music throughout to give voice to Kubo’s emotions. For the end-credits song, I knew I wanted something that was really special, really evocative, a timeless expression of love and empathy, which is ultimately what the film is about. The song that expressed that to me was George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” My mom was a teenager when the Beatles were on The Ed Sullivan Show for the first time, and she became a lifelong fan of the Liverpool lads. It was one of the things we bonded over when I was a kid.
So we talked to Dario about doing a reinterpretation of that song, using the same basic fabric, the same threads we were using to weave into the score for the film and applying that to this classic ’60s rock song and using traditional Japanese instruments, and some romantic instruments as well, melded within there. And he started working on this arrangement and then we started speaking with a vocalist, Regina Spektor, who I’m a huge fan of, who could actually give life to the film in a way that felt like it was evocative of Kubo’s mother. And, blended together, it really created the perfect grace note for the film.
And in Zootopia, Shakira and Sia teamed up for a song. How did that happen?
HOWARD Shakira [plays] a beautiful, beautiful gazelle. A lot of other people had talked to her about doing animated films, and she’d always said no. But she immediately said yes to us because when she was a child in Colombia, she saw bullies around her and wanted to be a police officer. She was like, “I love this story, I love Judy.” I think she related to that character. And then Sia wrote this great, enthusiastic song that kind of encapsulates everything that Judy is feeling as she goes into that city. And then on the side of the score, Michael Giacchino did the same thing. There was one theme that he wrote, which he said was to represent what Judy feels when you have all this optimism, all this expectation, about what your new world is going to be, like when you go off to college, when you move across the country, when you move away from your parents, and then you find out that world is not what you pictured. What do you do with that enthusiasm, what do you do with that energy? And he wrote this poignant piano theme that was so heartfelt. With a movie that has a lot of comedy in it, he really surprised us with this kind of very dark, melancholy but very sweet theme. And it influenced the path of the film from that point on because it made Judy’s journey deeper.
John, how long did it take to bring Lin-Manuel Miranda onto Moana?
MUSKER Music is such a big part of the Pacific Islands. There are songs of farewell, songs of hello. So we first got a musician named Opetaia Foa’i, who has a band called Te Vaka. He is from Samoa. So we added that color to the score, but we wanted to pair him with somebody who did narrative songs, could tell a story and all that. Tom MacDougall, our music vp, set up a trip for us to New York. We met with eight or 10 different lyricists and composers, one of whom was Lin-Manuel Miranda. He had been working on Hamilton, but we didn’t know anything about it. We knew his play In the Heights, and one of the things we liked about it is that it shifts from Spanish to English very effortlessly. He also writes those hilarious things that Neil Patrick Harris does on the Tonys, those jokey parody songs. So he can write heart, he can write really funny. We met him, he was really charismatic, and he had all sorts of ideas and he was open to collaborating with someone from the South Pacific. So that was all cool. And then he mentioned incidentally he was working on this crazy hip-hop musical [Hamilton] for the Public Theater. And we’re like, “Well, OK. Well, in two weeks when that’s over … ” (Laughter.)
This story first appeared in a December standalone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.