“Some stories can be told better in animation,” explained Fernando Trueba, one of the directors of the British-funded Chico & Rita, as he discussed what he had learned from the experience of making his first animated feature. Trueba – who, along with his fellow Spaniard Javier Mariscal, was representing the the musical romance – was previously best known for making the live action Belle Epoque, which won the Foreign Language Oscar in 1993.
The pair were joined by the directors of A Cat in Paris and Kung Fu Panda 2 at an event at the Academy’s headquarters in Beverly Hills, in which they discussed their work with the comedian Patton Oswalt, introduced to an international audience with his recent supporting role in Charlize Theron’s Young Adult.
Representatives of the other two nominees, Rango and Puss In Boots were unable to attend, although in a recorded message, Rango’s Gore Verbinski – like Trueba, nominated for his first animated feature – aid he felt honoured and humbled and couldn’t wait to return to animation.
Perhaps the most impressive – or shocking – first of the night was the fact that Kung Fu Panda 2’s director, another first-timer Jennifer Yuh Nelson, is the first woman to be nominated alone in the category’s ten year history. Her film is, in fact, the highest grossing film of any kind directed by a woman, which perhaps says more about the movies women get to direct than it does about the quality of her film, although its skilled blend of 2D and 3D animation is only part of the impressive vision that earned her an Oscar nomination. “I always had movies playing in my head as a child,” she revealed. “The only way for me to get them out was to draw them – and that was even before I knew what storyboarding was.” It was storyboarding that launched her animation career and still she likes to do it as much as she can. “I’m not thinking, I’m printing,” she enthused. Explaining her mixture of styles, Nelson said that for the 2D sequences, it was a case of making the art of her team move, while she used 3D to tell the story emotionally. “It was a legitimate tool, not a gimmick,” she insisted. “It reinforces how it feels to be in a space.” Moving up to the top of the film-making process meant she had a lot to learn, she admitted. As a director, she observed, people look to you and you have to have an answer. The most difficult part for her was that she sees herself as an introvert, but she had to get 350 people to work with her.
While King Fu Panda 2, Puss in Boots and Rango were high profile, big budget and featured voice talent including Jack Black, Antonio Banderas and Johnny Depp, respectively, the nominations list omitted Steven Spielberg’s Golden Globe-winning Tintin and featured instead two smaller, more intimate, foreign language films. Dave Jesteadt, from the small American distributor G Kids, which represents both Chico & Rita and A Cat In Paris joked “I bet when Steven Spielberg’s in bed, he lies there wishing he was us,” but he expressed his delight that his small company had two of the five nominations.
The French A Cat in Paris produced some humourous moments, when host Oswalt’s often witty – but lengthy – questions, translated for the co-directors, were met by Jean-Loup Felicioli after some thought with a simple, “Yes.” Alain Gagnol’s responses were more illuminating, as he explained that the animation was hand-drawn, while most of the colouring, except for the lighting on the characters, was done by computers. Gagnol’s background is in writing gangster novels, which – together with his love of American film noir – coloured their film about a cat-burglar and his feline neighbour, in a film that is due to be released in the UK in April.
Released in Britain in 2010, the Isle of Man-made Chico & Rita is largely in Spanish and made by a pair of Spanish film-makers, co-directing for the first time. As they came to the stage to answer questions, Javier Mariscal still had some of the tape, used to reserve seats for members of his crew, stuck to his jumper. He started as he continued, offering the thousand-strong audience a series of surreal but hilarious moments as he described his experiences of moving from designing rugs to making feature films in his broken English. A more measured Fernando Trueba said the film sprang from their friendship and involved things important to them both, such as Cuba and jazz music. “We filled the film with the things we love,” he remarked. “We shared these wonderful things,” added Mariscal.
There were times when Oswalt’s sharp wit sent him on flights of fancy that threatened to try to steal the show from the nominees, but he always brought it back to the film-makers. Describing himself as an amination nerd, he said he was honoured to be hosting associated with the category that has the most genuine surprises and is the most diverse. “There’s a continuing revolution in animation,” he enthused. “Every year, there’s something new.”
Feature animation can be a notoriously difficult category to predict, simply because – as Oswalt observed – the nominees are so different; some are 3D, others 2D, others both; some are hand-drawn, others computer generated. Some are visually delightful or exciting, while others are more concerned with the characterisation and plot. The only thing that is certain is that Pixar, which has won the award for the past four years – with Ratatouille, WALL-E, Up and Toy Story 3 – will be giving up its crown, as Cars 2 failed to secure it a nomination this year.