Tuesday 18 June 2024

Kindness is a survival skill

An encounter with The Wild Robot
at Annecy Film Festival...

A quiet, absurdly picturesque corner of the French Alps has become the global epicentre of cinematic animation. The Annecy International Animation Film Festival is apparently now more import to studios than ComicCon for launching new projects, while its market is a buzzing hub for aspiring filmmakers from every corner of the globe. Amid a huge range of adventurous animation across the programme, big studio premieres this year included Pixar's Inside Out 2, Illumination's Despicable Me 4, Paramount's Transformers One and two from Netflix: Ultraman: Rising and The Imaginary. There was also short-format work featuring Pokemon, Snoopy & Charlie Brown, Porky Pig & Daffy Duck, Beavis & Butt-head, and Asterix & Obelix.

Sanders on-stage at Annecy
Fans in Annecy were especially delighted to see advance footage from a variety of forthcoming high-profile projects: Disney's Moana 2, Aardman's Wallace & Gromit: Vengeance Most Fowl, Roald Dahl's The Twits, Richard Curtis' That Christmas, Warner Bros' The Lord of the Rings: The War of the Rohirrim, Nickelodeon's Saving Bikini Bottom: The Sandy Cheeks Movie, Netflix's In Your Dreams, Skydance's Spellbound and DreamWorks' The Wild Robot.

It was this last title that brought me to Annecy for the first time, offering a chance to spend some time with writer-director Chris Sanders and his creative team. Sanders is an animation veteran involved in writing such Disney classics as Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King and Mulan. He also wrote and directed Lilo & Stitch, How to Train Your Dragon and The Croods. So it's fascinating to hear him and his cohorts call The Wild Robot the film of their career.

A shared passion

The Wild Robot certainly looks unlike anything we've seen before, with its delicately hand-painted brushstrokes layered together using technology. This creates a dazzling visual style that looks like an oil painting come to life.

A small group of journalists sat down to chat with the film's design team over breakfast on a sunny terrace overlooking Lake Annecy. Sanders begins by speaking warmly about the collaborative artists who have been assembled, and how they embody the spirit of this particular film. "I knew everyone's prior work," he says, "and the people we wanted were available! All of us trained as painters, so the computer is a pencil to us. And we gravitated to a story that doesn't have the obvious heroes and villains. It's about shades of emotions."

Visual effects supervisor Jeff Budsberg says this idea is reflected in the looser style of the imagery. "We wanted the endearing qualities of paintings, because they're more immersive," he says. "And it was important to let the animals be animals."

"I asked that the animals have animal eyes," Sanders notes, "because we usually default to human eyes for everything." This idea extends to using real animal skeletons to guide the structure of foxes, geese, bears, otters and more.

"The animation has to disappear, so you don't think about it," adds Jakob Hjort Jensen, head of character animation. "Because we have a lot of experience, we have more restraint. So we resisted throwing everything at the screen."

"It could have been much more stylised," agrees production designer Raymond Zibach, "but we wanted to find a balance, so we never broke the spell."

"It was important to develop a something specific for the movie," says head of look Baptiste Van Opstal, referring to how digital animation has tended to create a sameness in design and texture across many films, especially with skin, fur and water. "The image doesn't need to be a slave to the technology."

Indeed, The Wild Robot is a story about nature and technology finding a way to coexist. "But it has to be seen on a human level," notes producer Jeff Hermann. "And that's why we are all genuinely inspired by this project and Chris' vision for it."

"The crew has embraced the story completely," Sanders agrees, "and that's why the film is so good. It's thrilling to see audiences connect with the preview footage and see its differences."

"The way people react to the footage makes us know that we that we weren't crazy," says Zibach. "And those scenes still get me!"

A survival story

For a film that features few humans, the premise is unusually resonant, taken from the first in Peter Brown's trilogy of novels about the robot Roz (voiced by Lupita Nyong'o), who finds herself in a very unfamiliar place, a deserted island populated by lively animals.

"I love that Roz wakes up and has no idea what's going to happen to her," Sanders says.

"The opening sequence carries so much weight," says head of story Heidi Jo Gilbert. "It has to reveal key things about her journey as well as the dog-eat-dog nature of the forest. Then she's learning to hear and understand the hate the animals have for her, as well as the violence between them."

"It's important to have bittersweetness in stories for kids," says Jensen.

"That brutality informed the design," Zibach adds. "It's aggressive and sometimes deliberately uneven. It's was a challenge to get the balance right."

"Each sequence in the book has consequences," Hermann notes. "The key message throughout the story is that kindness is a survival skill." Once Roz unlocks their languages, the critters are voiced by an impressive voice cast including Pedro Pascal, Kit Connor, Catherine O'Hara, Bill Nighy, Stephanie Hsu, Ving Rhames, Matt Berry and Mark Hamill.

Set in the future, the time and place are intentionally vague, because they are seen through the eyes of the characters. But when they migrate, the geese see the world beyond the island. "It's just landscape to them," says Sanders. "But there are signposts for the audience about where and when this is taking place." As a teaser, one shot in the trailer reveals a submerged Golden Gate Bridge below the migrating geese.

Finding their voice

Working with Lupita to develop Roz was an art, Sanders says. "It involved experimenting, redefining and evolving," he says. "It couldn't be robotic or emotionless, but she starts more cheerful, and then changes as she begins to understand."

"It's like reverse peacocking," notes Jensen. "At the start, Roz is showing off her robotic abilities, but gradually she becomes more natural and connected."

Budsberg agrees that this shift is key to the story. "Roz changes imperceptibly from scene to scene," he says. "At first she looks like an alien metal being, then she gets more and more like the island. She is affected by the island, and she also makes an impact on it."

"They change each other," Sanders says. "It's all about being who they are and being vulnerable."

Some 20,000 people representing 103 countries attended Annecy Festival this year. The top prize went to Australia's Memoir of a Snail, directed by Adam Elliot, who previously won this award in 2009 for Mary & Max (and won an Oscar for the 2003 short Harvie Krumpet). And three other awards were presented to Flow, a feline odyssey by Latvian filmmaker Gints Zilbalodis.

For more information: ANNECY FESTIVAL >

photos by Marc Piasecki • with thanks to DreamWorks • 10-13.Jun.24

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