Filmmakers Behind Animated Features ‘Spellbound,’ ‘That Christmas,’ ‘The Imaginary,’ ‘Ultraman: Rising’ and ‘Wallace & Gromit: Vengeance Most Fowl’ Share Their ‘Great Creative Journey’

Filmmakers Behind Animated Features ‘Spellbound,’ ‘That Christmas,’ ‘The Imaginary,’ ‘Ultraman: Rising’ and ‘Wallace & Gromit: Vengeance Most Fowl’ Share Their ‘Great Creative Journey’

The makers of five of this year’s buzzy animated features—“Spellbound,” “That Christmas,” “The Imaginary,” “Ultraman: Rising” and “Wallace & Gromit: Vengeance Most Fowl”–participated in the Variety FYC Animation Preview at last week’s Annecy Animation Festival, showcasing a range of stories and animation styles during a broad discussion about their movies, creative process and business. Observed “Ultraman: Rising” director Shannon Tindle, who also co-wrote its screenplay, “We’ve got CG, we’ve got hand-drawn mixed with CG, we’ve got stop-frame animation. It’s really cool to see that all these different forms [of animation] are alive.”

Perhaps best known for Oscar-winner “Shrek,” director Vicky Jensen shared a sneak peek at Skydance Animation’s computer-animated “Spellbound,” in which a tenacious young protagonist, Ellian, voiced by Rachel Zegler, must save her family and kingdom after a spell transforms her parents, the rulers of the magical land, into monsters. “It’s a fairytale take on a sort of modern idea, and so we played with some of the familiar aspects of fairytales,” she said of the Nov. 22 Netflix release. “We were trying to create a new allegory, or a fairytale, for one of these passages of life.”

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The production takes some visual inspiration from Spain. Explained Jenson, “Rather than going for the Anglo look of castles and forests, we played with and pulled from old Spanish architecture, Moorish design and tile and color work, and then thrown in on top is my own personal inspiration, Mary Blair.” Blair is the late Disney legend who drew concept art for several Disney animated classics such as “Alice in Wonderland” and “Cinderella.”

Based on a trio of children’s books by Richard Curtis (“Four Weddings and a Funeral,” “Love Actually”) “That Christmas” follows a series of entwined tales about family and friends set in a snowy seaside town during the holidays. It marks Curtis’ foray into animation, serving as the film’s writer and executive producer, and the feature directorial debut of animation vet Simon Otto (“How to Train Your Dragon” trilogy).

For Otto, the entwined stories of the holiday movie from Locksmith Animation and Netflix “meant there are lots of characters that we could flesh out and investigate. … I think digging into the idiosyncrasy of each character and what they’re going through and finding that little nugget of who they are and what they’re dealing with is what interested me as an animator, and I think, for me, that development work.”

He also had the books’ illustrations as source material. “They were really quite innocent and sensitive in the way they were executed,” Otto said, adding that the filmmakers also “needed something that was really going to give us a chance to perform the comedy and the type of performances that we were looking for … So we fleshed something out much more three-dimensional, but we wanted to keep that sensitivity in the design, the simplicity of that.”

Also featured was Studio Ponoc’s “The Imaginary”, an anime movie coming to Netflix with a story seen through the eyes of Rudger, an imaginary friend of a young girl named Amanda. During the panel, two-time Academy Award nominee and Studio Ponoc founder Yoshiaki Nishimura, the film’s producer who also wrote the screenplay based on the novel of the same name, discussed adapting the book for the screen. “I really was taken by the story, but I could tell that it was going to be very challenging to make it into a film,” he said, speaking with the assistance of his interpreter. “Rudger is an imagined character. However, he is not a monster; he’s not a creature. He’s actually an inner self of Amanda, a human character. Therefore he’s not completely removed from the human side. But I thought that depiction of the different perspective would be very interesting, that’s my first point.”

“The second point is that because Rudger is not a human, he will be forgotten, as with all the other imaginary characters as well,” he continued. “Once that human who imagined the characters in the first place starts to forget about the imagination itself, they would disappear. But we as humans are very fragile beings as well.”

“Ultraman: Rising” is based on the Japanese Ultraman franchise, first introduced in 1966, which follows superheroes that defend against kaiju. But Tiddle (“Lost Ollie”) took a unique approach in his movie, which was animated by Industrial Light & Magic and now streaming on Netflix. “I thought it would be interesting to have a character who didn’t want to be Ultraman, whose dad had been Ultraman and there had been a rift between them, and he was kind of out of obligation, forced to be Ultraman. Then these kaiju, these monsters that they normally fight, might be the thing that unifies them.”

In the story, protagonist Ken Sato/Ultraman (Christopher Sean) reluctantly adopts a baby kaiju, bringing with it themes around family and parenting.

Tindle’s own daughter helped to shape the performance of the baby kaiju. “I have three photos that were taken within seconds of each other where she was mad at me, then she was laughing, and then she was crying and they all happened just like that,” he said. “We actually have a scene in the film where I just gave the animators those photos, and I said, I want you to make her this mercurial because that’s how kids are. They can change how they feel one second to the next.”

Rounding out the panel were Wallace & Gromit creators Nick Park and Merlin Crossingham (“Creature Comforts America”), directors of “Wallace & Gromit: Vengeance Most Fowl,” the latest adventure from Aardman Animations’ stop-motion inventor and faithful beagle, which comes to Netflix this winter. In this story, Gromit’s concern that Wallace is becoming too dependent on his inventions proves justified, when Wallace invents a “smart” gnome that seems to develop a mind of its own. This also marks the return of the Feathers McGraw, the villainous penguin from 1993’s Oscar-winning short “The Wrong Trousers.”

“Gnomes have been a part of Wallace and Gromit’s world for years,” four-time Oscar winner Park said, adding that it seemed “very natural” for Wallace to invent a smart gnome. “He becomes a kind of new favorite in the house and puts Gromit’s nose out badly.” As to the return of the cunning penguin, he adds, “With gnomes around the house, as good as they were, we were having trouble finding good motivation and incentive for them. And then it kind of was like a fabulous epiphany that dropped into our lap that this is just perfect for Feathers McGraw. And he just fitted into and solved a real story issue.”

The filmmakers also discussed character design, and how they made their characters so emotive.

Of making silent stars Gromit and Feathers McGraw so expressive, Crossingham revealed, “It’s about finding what is the absolute minimum. With Feathers especially, the power comes from his stillness. … Sometimes it’s about not moving the character and letting the camera do the work.”

“Spellbound” protagonist Ellian was given a “carefree, athletic build,” Jensen explained, adding, “She’s sharp, and she’s smart, and she’s overwhelmed. So the design also has a lot of innocence in it. Big, wonderful eyes–someone who’s maybe taking on more than they’re prepared to.”

Otto described the process as “the joy of finding that emotional truth in a character and understanding how they fit into a story, but then also finding the leave of caricature that makes it really entertaining and fun to watch.”

The group also talked about the storyboard process. “We’ve got to get it right. We can’t go back and really change shots after we’ve animated them, but I think the most valuable thing is it’s a great place to make your mistakes,” Crossingham explained. “You learn so much from a storyboard and you learn a lot about your story and where you need to take it visually. And it’s just a great creative journey.”

Watch the full conversation above.

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