Director, Epic Key moment of inspiration: For me, animation ideas start with the world, and this one started with a show of Victorian fairy paintings at the Frick Collection in New York. These were masterful imaginings, a hundred-plus years old, of civilizations and ceremonies hidden from our sight; coronations, weddings, a funeral for a bird. I told my friend Bill Joyce that we should develop a story there.
Another key moment came out of struggling to explain why we can’t normally see any Leafmen. I was at the kitchen window one morning when a sparrow flew up under the leaves outside—a sudden blur of wings and feathers and then it was gone. I realized that if there had been anyone riding that bird, I wouldn’t have seen it, it was moving too fast. Maybe the Leafmen experience the world faster than we do, and if he’d seen me through the window I was as immobile to him as a Mount Rushmore president. It was a “Eureka!” moment that set up some of my favorite sequences in the movie. The movie’s biggest challenge: The toughest part was getting a green light. The movie was outside the realm of what the studio thought they could market, so it took some very passionate campaigning to get it started. After that, it was story. It’s always story. There were plenty of technical challenges, but once the crew got over the initial shock of my pitch and our tight schedule, they delivered with glad hearts. Favorite animated movie of all time: There is a period when we are very young when we make no distinction between dreams and reality. We believe everything. I’ve always loved Ladislas Starevich’s The Mascot. And I’ve always loved the “Devil’s Ball” portion of it the most. It is real-looking enough to believe and impossible enough to remind me of that early creative confusion. It’s a place I would have assumed was possible then. On the state of animation in 2013: I’ve been making computer animation for a long time. When I started, everybody was considered a pioneer because everything we did was being done for the first time. Thirty years later it’s more like everything has been done, so the challenge is to come up with new ideas, which is probably the way it should be. We’ve been fortunate to be part of a fantastic creative and technical explosion, now I am looking forward to seeing the industry break into new genres. We all know feature animation goes through phases— which at the time the broad audience assumes are all it’s good for. First it was fairy tales. Later came musicals. Now it’s comedy that sells. As technology brings the cost of animated features down they will be budgeted and marketed more like other forms of filmmaking, to smaller portions of the audience. There will be more freedom to take risks. There will be more personal perspectives on the screen. Career beginnings: I grew up in the country and needed to find things that I could do on my own. I learned about animation and spent weeks, then years making films with a Super 8 camera. I saw King Kong projected in our local movie theater. I saw Jason and the Argonauts on our black-and-white TV. I looked forward every year to the Rankin/ Bass Christmas specials. Like most of us, I didn’t have access to the onslaught of programming that can be conjured up instantly on an iPhone, but I had a lot of time to relive what I’d seen and dream up ideas of my own.
Later I got a break as an animator on TRON at MAGI/Synthavision, one of the first computer animation companies ever. I animated Flynn’s tank and TRON’s light cycle and felt, rightly, that I was in on the ground floor of an exciting era. Best career advice: When I was starting out, I worked with art director Richard Taylor on TRON. He told me to always listen to everybody, that a great idea can come from anywhere. The night watchman might pop his head into a story meeting and crack the biggest problem on the movie. I’ve found that applying this philosophy opens you up. It helps get your ego out of it.
As part of our process at Blue Sky, we screen reels for the crew and ask for their notes. Their observations can be painfully blunt, but they are almost always helpful, and the exercise gives them creative empowerment through the freedom to contribute outside the role they might normally be pigeonholed in.