Why Animation Directors Are Taking Over Live Action Hollywood

A look at Pixar directors Brad Bird and Andrew Stanton who have taken their animation talents to blockbuster filmmaking.

On the audio commentary for his Pixar film €˜The Incredibles€™, director Brad Bird proclaims that he will punch the next person he hears refer to animation as a genre rather than an art form. Often belittled as an attraction aimed primarily at young audiences, over the past decade animation has found a wider and more adult audience on the big screen. World cinema has acted almost as a breading ground for animation directors creating vibrant, emotional, funny and engaging films. Chico & Rita from Spain, Persepolis from France and Waltz with Bashir from Israel were all award winning, highly regarded and best of all, widely distributed animation films aimed at an adult audience. Pixar€™s Up, a computer-animated feature, even opened the Cannes Film Festival in 2009! So why is it that at this exciting time two of North America€™s most interested and talented animation directors take the leap from one art form to another and make their live action directorial debuts, and what attracts a filmmaker to take this path? Brad Bird has just seen the release of his first live action film €˜Mission: Impossible €“ Ghost Protocol€™ in cinemas across the world and it has been a huge success. Bird has displayed a skillful touch when creating the bonds that form between people on screen, which can be seen across a wide range of characters in his work. From the subtle relationship between boy and huge robot in his criminally under looked The Iron Giant to the emotional journey that Remy and Linguini take in Ratatouille. So how does this fit in with a Hollywood action franchise? The answer is, quite well. Bird creates a team around the central character Ethan Hunt that nicely plays off the main characters limitations, and also creates some much-needed comic relief. All the cast receives their fare share of screen time, and although it all comes back to Cruise at the end of the day (it is after all, a Tom Cruise production) no one feels shortchanged. When looking at the many differences between animation and live action filmmaking the most obvious difference is the limitations that are posed in a live action setting by comparison. Bird appears to hit these issues head on and doesn€™t let anything stop him, testing the limits of live action filmmaking. The endless stream of gadgets that Simon Pegg€™s Benji throw out is reminiscent of the futuristic scope of Syndrome€™s lair in Birds Previous film The Incredibles, both captivating and ridiculous at the same time but always innovative. When creating a scene when animating the camera can be positioned pretty much anywhere, the set changed and shaped in a style that is not possible on a busy live action set. Bird and his DOP Robert Elswit seem to pretty much ignore these limitations, and see filming with an Imax camera 130 floors up the tallest building in the world a challenge; and the results are breathtaking. Some of the smaller details of Bird€™s film making technique are lost in Mission: Impossible €“ Ghost Protocol, but as a blockbuster it gets an A! Bird challenges the limits of live action filming, and warps the familiar franchise into something that resembles his own directorial style. Andrew Stanton is a colleague of Bird€™s at Pixar, and has been involved in some of its biggest and most successful releases to date, both as a writer on such hits as Toy Story and as a director with Finding Nemo and Wall E. Stanton will be making his live action debut next year with an adaptation of Edgar Allen Burroughs Barsoom series, often referred to as John Carter of Mars, a popular favorite for nearly a century. Stanton is quite literally taking on the world here. Well, Mars, to be precise. Whilst Bird specializes in the close relationships that form between people, Stanton deftly handles a command of character and creates films centered around individuals often lost within a wide, highly detailed world. In Finding Nemo Stanton stunningly re-creates the ocean from a fish€™s point of view, and in Wall E we are literally taken us to the stars and back following a cute robot! Stanton seems to have found the perfect project for his first live action debut, and one, which he has, a personnel passion for. The plot plays to his strengths, surrounding the adventures of John Cater, a civil war vet lost in space after being transported to Mars, and to a wide new world. And I mean a wide, wide world! Including atleast 3 new races, an alien war and serious global environmental issues. To bring Mars to the big screen Stanton has combined a lengthy live action shoot (filming took place in the deserts of Utah and studios in London) with a long post-production schedule, referred to as Principle Digital Photography by the director. Stanton is testing the limits by combining two different art forms in the production of John Carter, rarely done before on such a huge scale. By the look off the trailers and production stills already released John Carter will be a big film and has even been referred to as Disney€™s Avatar. A tall order yes, but come March 2012 I hope Stanton will pleasantly surprise us all. Brad Bird and Andrew Stanton are not the first animators to make the leap to feature film direction, and they are following in the footsteps of such directors as Terry Gilliam and Tim Burton. Two film makers who emphasis the importance of detail within the frame and create new worlds within their films. It seems that a possible attraction to live action filmmaking could be the opportunity to push to boundaries, to create whole new worlds combining both live action and animation filmmaking disciplines or to push Tom Cruise out of a 130 floors plus building and film him climbing up the sides. Whatever the reason it looks as if both directors will be bring their own style, technique and imagination to their films, whether live action or animation.

Will Pond hasn't written a bio just yet, but if they had... it would appear here.