David Mermelstein is an AwardsLine contributor. This article appeared in the Dec. 19 issue of AwardsLine.
It’s not unusual to have big names in popular music sing end-title songs for major movies. Opera singers, though, don’t generally roll that way. But nobody ever said they can’t. Which is why Alexandre Desplat, who composed the music for Rise of the Guardians, decided to approach soprano Renée Fleming about singing “Still Dream,” which uses the melody he wrote for the picture’s main theme and lyrics by the film’s screenwriter, David Lindsay-Abaire.
“It covers two octaves,” Desplat says of the song. “The music is very orchestral; the melody, very lyrical. So it really made sense to ask Renée Fleming, who is the greatest soprano alive. And she said yes right away. It was a suggestion that could have been rejected, but it was right—though I can’t remember the last time a soprano sang an end-title song.”
“It’s really an aria he composed,” Fleming says. “It’s got a huge range and is quite demanding melodically—very instrumental. So it was challenge for me, but it’s so beautiful. Alexandre has an extraordinary melodic gift. I’d never met him before this, but I was familiar with his work, because he’s done so many wonderful scores.”
Their collaboration went smoothly despite no prior history, though they didn’t actually meet until a specially arranged recording session in New York that followed the full score’s recording in London. “We went back and forth about key and range on the phone and email,” Fleming recalls. “He did several rewrites, but I wasn’t the only one making requests. This all came together in a very short period of time. I couldn’t be there in London, but he was with me in New York.”
Fleming got the lyrics only after Desplat had already sent the music. “I was under a mountain of deadlines when they called,” Lindsay-Abaire says. “But I couldn’t say no. Alexandre was very set that he wanted the song to revisit and rearticulate the score’s themes. He didn’t want to just tack something onto the end. And in that way, it felt very organic to the movie that was already there. We took the ‘believe theme’—where the little boy believes in Jack Frost for the first time—and it was like, ‘Oh, our work is halfway done.’ He wanted the song to have the same sweep and epic quality the film has. It’s not the standard ‘stick a pop song at the end of a movie.’ It embraces the wonder of childhood and boils it down.”
Thomas J. McLean is an AwardsLine contributor. This article appeared in the Nov. 28 issue of AwardsLine.
As a child, William Joyce wanted more answers about Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and other holiday figures than his parents were able to give him.
“I know where Superman came from—from planet Krypton!—so what about this guy, the Easter Bunny?” says Joyce. The typical parental answer to queries about how Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy did what they do was, “They just do,” which Joyce found dissatisfying, even years later when he became a father.
“I wanted to come up with something better for my kids,” says Joyce. “And it really galvanized when my daughter asked me one hot August day—after her little brother lost his tooth—‘Do the Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus know each other?’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah!’ ”
Joyce, a celebrated illustrator, children’s book author, and filmmaker, began filling in those blanks, creating detailed backstories and a shared universe robust enough to fill a Guardians of Childhood book series. His imaginative work ultimately provided the foundation for DreamWorks Animation’s hottest contender in this year’s Oscars race, the 3D animated Rise of the Guardians.
It is a project Joyce calls his magnum opus. He directed a Man in the Moon short film as proof of concept, but found himself turning down offers from the likes of Pixar before hearing exactly what he wanted from DreamWorks Animation chief Jeffrey Katzenberg.
“Jeffrey was the only guy from any of the studios who was willing to take on the bigger picture I wanted, which was books and a movie,” says Joyce. “Everybody else just wanted to do a movie, and they didn’t want me to do these books, and that was a deal-breaker for me.”
Joyce’s feature animation credits include concept art for the original Toy Story; he was production designer and producer on Blue Sky Studios’ Robots; and saw Disney adapt one of his books into the animated feature film Meet the Robinsons. For Rise of the Guardians, he came on as codirector but had to step back into an executive producer role when his teenage daughter, Mary Katherine, was diagnosed with a brain tumor. (She died at age 18 in 2010, and Guardians is dedicated to her memory.)
Stepping up to the director’s role was Peter Ramsey, an animation veteran who had just come off directing DreamWorks’ Monsters vs. Aliens Halloween TV special. He joined playwright David Lindsay-Abaire, who wrote the screenplay, production designer Patrick Marc Hanenberger, and producers Christina Steinberg and Nancy Bernstein in developing the project, with input from director Guillermo del Toro.
“A lot of my thinking dovetailed well with what David Lindsay-Abaire was doing, which is not doing a satirical take but actually meeting it head-on and making the core story about the belief in the characters and this new vision of what the characters actually represent and mean,” Ramsey explains.
Del Toro was particularly helpful in restructuring the story, which incorporated an idea Katzenberg pitched to Joyce in their first meeting on the project: to introduce a new Guardian. That crystalized the story around Jack Frost and made children’s belief in these characters the central theme of the story.
Key to Joyce’s take on the characters was the need to treat them seriously and make them cool in a way that decades of bland holiday TV specials could not.
“We knew that we didn’t want to go the postmodern, wink-wink route,” says del Toro. “What we aspired to was to make them feel alive, to make them really have a personality, and that they would have a personality where you as a kid have an option of saying they were cool without sounding childish.”
Most of the characters took their cues from Joyce’s ideas, such as North, a.k.a. Santa Claus, being a swashbuckling Cossack complete with Russian accent and tattoos. The Easter Bunny changed the most, with Joyce adopting the movie’s boomerang-wielding outback warrior for his books over his original idea.
“The Easter Bunny that Bill originally had was something a bit more Beatrix Potter-y and a bit more ‘fussy professor,’ ” Ramsey says. “We just couldn’t pull him off that way, so we decided to keep him a little more in line with our superhero idea.”
Joyce, who launched Moonbot Studios in his native Shreveport, LA, and wrote and codirected the Oscar-winning short The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore, says he was very comfortable with the studio’s approach. “I really felt like the studio and Peter wanted to tell the story that I wanted to tell,” says Joyce. “Then it was easy to stand back.”
Katzenberg was essential in getting the studio’s first choices for casting: Alec Baldwin as North, Jude Law as the villain Pitch, Isla Fisher as Tooth, Hugh Jackman as E. Aster Bunnymund, and Chris Pine as Jack Frost. Voice work was new to Pine, who says the one day he worked directly with Baldwin was surprisingly counterproductive.
“I had all of my actorly hopes that it would help ground the experience, but it really didn’t help,” says Pine. “It actually worked out better, I found, after three years of doing it, to just go section by section by myself and play with the lines and with volume.”
The animators developed different styles of movement for each of the characters. Steinberg says teams were assigned to each character, but by the end of production those styles were so well defined it was second nature for animators to work on any or all of the characters.
“We started calling it ‘method animation’ because we were trying to get as much naturalism into the performances as we could,” Ramsey says.
The look of the film borrowed heavily from Joyce’s illustrations. “Most animated movies drink from the fountain of pop art,” says del Toro. “We wanted to go for a more painterly look and a look that felt like it was based on a production design more in tune with illustrated books of the past, rich and lush and embroidered and detailed.”
Joyce, whose next animated project is the feature Epic, due out next year from Blue Sky Studios, is more than pleased with Guardians and has high hopes for a sequel. “There’s two things that aren’t the way I wanted them to be: I wanted Bunny to have a cape, and I wanted the Tooth Fairy to be a little bustier. But other than that, it’s what I hoped.”
David Mermelstein is an AwardsLine contributor. This article appeared in the Nov. 28 issue of AwardsLine.
Alexandre Desplat is nothing if not prolific. This year the quadruple Oscar-nominated composer will have five films in theaters. And, as is typical for him, each score is completely different from the others—much like the movies themselves. “If I only did thrillers, I would kill myself,” he said by phone recently from Majorca. “Seriously, I would want to change jobs.”
What keeps him in the game is the opportunity to play with various styles in different genres and compose music that challenges and delights him. “They’re all my babies and all so different,” he says of his scores. “They have different faces and shapes and costumes. Some are big, some are small—and some are huge. Some are talkative, and some are quiet. But I try to give the best of my energy to all of them.”
The most time consuming of these recent projects was his soaring music to DreamWorks’ Rise of the Guardians, which marked the first time Desplat wrote for animation on such a vast scale. “It was three months altogether, writing and recording,” the composer says. “When you work on animation, the music has a great task: to create a sound and melodies and mood and atmosphere and energy dedicated to these extraordinary characters. And you see they are very specific, very clearly designed. Each has a personality that is different. It’s fun and moving and very emotional.”
For Ben Affleck’s Argo, Desplat merged western and eastern sounds to evoke the film’s Iranian setting. “As soon as I heard about the project,” Desplat says, “I got masters of the ney, oud, kemenche, and Persian percussion. And we also had vocals by the Persian pop singer Sussan Deyhim. I could write anything because these are incredible musicians.” But the driving element was never exotica for its own sake. “Ben was mainly interested in emotion,” Desplat says. “He wanted to hear despair, fear, hope. That was always the main thing with Ben.”
With Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom, Desplat’s challenge was finding room for his own voice in a film dominated by the strains of Benjamin Britten. “Britten became this thread through the film,” Desplat explains. “And I had to be smart and get inspired by that and convey the love story, the quirkiness, the adventure—but in a weird, restrained, childlike way. I couldn’t have music that would be too adult in terms of harmonies. I tried to stick to what the picture was offering me and be in the heads of the characters and almost in the landscape.”
The French-language Rust and Bone marks Desplat’s sixth film for writer-director Jacques Audiard, their most recent before this being the Oscar-nominated A Prophet (2009). “There’s something that makes a real collaboration,” Desplat says. “You can tell it’s the same director and composer. There’s a real continuity in the work, the style, the orchestration. It allows both director and composer to blossom and find a way through cinema to develop a style like no one else. There’s a word we use with Jacques, ‘modest grandeur’—something really noble but still modest. And I wanted to find that in the music. It couldn’t be symphonic or emphatic. It had to be constrained, restrained, but with fire burning. And it had to be emotional. This is a story about love and how it comes toward you without you noticing.”
Desplat wraps up his fecund year with one of the most awaited films of the season, Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, her follow up to the Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker (2008). “It’s a very delicate subject,” Desplat explains, referring to the killing of Osama bin Laden. “There is this sense of inexorability. But it’s also about a war between two cunning and ruthless camps with no limits. Kathryn doesn’t show evil and good battling. The audience is wise enough and adult enough to choose. War is ugly, and both sides are ugly. Never mind who started the war. So the music is very dark. Many times I mentioned (director Akira) Kurosawa to Kathryn, and the musical world Toru Takemitsu created for him in Ran. We use no violins. I use only the low side of the strings. And for brass, the same—so 12 trombones, 12 horns, three tubas. It creates an army of sound, dark and earthy. And I think that works pretty well for a film about desert war.”
The composer makes an unexpected comparison when describing his career at this stage. “As I get further along, I feel more like an actor in these films. I try to disappear with everyone else. I’m not detached but rather part of the game. And when music is not a character, it’s an issue.”
Pete Hammond is Deadline’s awards columnist. This story appeared in the Nov. 28 issue of AwardsLine.
A new trend has begun to creep into a category that’s been mostly major-studio territory since its creation a decade ago. The animated-feature lineup is seeing more independent distributors finding their way into the Oscar race and enjoying real success in winning those coveted nominations.
In fact, since the animated-feature category was created in 2001, the list of winners—beginning with DreamWorks Animation’s Shrek through last year’s victor Paramount’s Rango—has been dominated by the major studios, particularly Disney/Pixar, which won four of the past five animated-feature Oscars and six overall. Last year’s Cars 2 was the first time a Pixar entry failed to make the cut, even with five nominations in the category. Even the two independent productions that have won in the category, Studio Ghibli and Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away (2002) and Aardman’s Wallace & Gromit in the Curse of the Were-Rabbit (2005), were still distributed by major studios, Disney and DreamWorks Animation, respectively. So seeing indie distributors making headway in the animation race is causing big trouble for the majors and their expensive tentpole toons that desire domination.
Chief among these indie players is tiny New York distributor GKIDS, which is also the producer of the New York International Children’s Film Festival, an Oscar-qualifying event. The company scours the world for titles appropriate not only for the festival but also for distribution. Now a big part of that process is picking films that might be Oscar friendly, as well. GKIDS first received surprise Oscar recognition for its 2010 entry, The Secret of Kells,and then really hit paydirt last year by becoming the first indie distributor to land two nominations, for Chico & Rita and A Cat in Paris,over a lot of heavyweight contenders, including Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson’s The Adventures of Tintin. This year, GKIDS leads the indie charge with four qualifying movies (From Up on Poppy Hill, The Painting, The Rabbi’s Cat, and Zarafa),and the company has already announced two more for the 2013 awards year.
Eric Beckman, founder of GKIDS and artistic director of the NYICFF told me after winning those two noms last season, “for us, our whole purpose is to help expand the market for what I find artful and thoughtful, sophisticated animated films for adults and kids. (It’s) an art form that exists with more economic success outside the U.S. than inside.” He says he doesn’t have nearly the budget of the majors but still finds a way to compete. “Our challenge is just getting the film into the hands of the Academy and getting them to put the damn thing in their DVD player. We’re an indie film company; we’re not going to spend a half-million dollars on an awards campaign. We can’t,” he explains.
Those who can, though, likely will, especially in this year’s hotly contested race. Disney finds themselves in the ticklish situation of having three genuine contenders in Pixar’s Brave, Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie,and Wreck-It Ralph possibly dividing votes and putting a burden on the studio to support all three equally. That’s something DreamWorks Animation’s Jeffrey Katzenberg is trying to avoid by putting most of his company’s Oscar strategy toward the holiday release, Rise of the Guardians, rather than the summer hit Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted,which has turned out to be the biggest film in the history of the franchise. Still it makes sense. Neither previous Madagascar got a nomination, and it’s unlikely the third film in the franchise will change the trajectory, despite being generally acknowledged as the best in the series. Last year, surprisingly, DWA got nominations for both their entries, Kung Fu Panda 2 and Puss in Boots, which likely split the vote, allowing Rango a clear path to victory. With hit toons from Universal (The Lorax), Sony (Hotel Transylvania),and Fox (Ice Age: Continental Drift),there is a strong studio presence to fight off the new wave of indie love the nominating committee seems to have.The animated field sports 21 titles that have been entered into the competition, meaning it is virtually certain there will be five nominees for only the fourth time in the history of the award. Here is a snapshot of the contenders for those five slots.
ADVENTURES IN ZAMBEZIA
From South Africa, this story about a naïve falcon who flies to bird-friendly Zambezia might remind some viewers of last year’s Rio,but with its likable protagonist and a good voice cast led by Abigail Breslin, Jeff Goldblum, and Samuel L. Jackson, it could be a sleeper.
This Disney/Pixar entry was a summertime hit for the studio and a welcome return to some critical enthusiasm after last year’s Cars 2 detour. It has meticulous animation but didn’t seem to generate the same level of enthusiasm as many past Pixar winners. However, artistry just might be enough here to make the grade.
The first Indian 3D animated film, in which a bunch of jungle animals team up to save themselves from human intervention, could remind some of the Madagascar franchise, but the Bollywood flavor sets the tone and sets the film apart. Christopher Lloyd and Jane Lynch are among the voices in the English-version indie to be released in the U.S. by Applied Art Productions.
DR. SEUSS’ THE LORAX
Another in the successful transformation of Dr. Seuss from book to animated smash, this huge spring hit with a strong pro-environment message came from Christopher Meledandri, who is turning out to be Universal’s most reliable hit maker. Critical indifference won’t help gain awards traction here, though, making its Oscar prospects a little cloudy.
Tim Burton’s most personal film is adapted from a live-action short he made at the beginning of his film career and turned into a black-and-white 3D animation wonder. Boxoffice reception was chilly, but Burton might have enough aficionados on the animation committee to serve up a second nomination for him in the category after first hitting paydirt with 2006’s Corpse Bride.
FROM UP ON POPPY HILL
GKIDS distributes this Japanese entry from legendary Studio Ghibli and Oscar-winning director Hayao Miyazaki and Goro Miyazaki. The 1963-set love story centers on a young couple hellbent on saving their high-school clubhouse from destruction. Never underestimate animators’ love for the Miyazaki brand.
Yet another entry from India, this one is touted as India’s first fully animated stereoscopic film and is a grand epic adventure tracing the exciting journey of its title character as he battles the forces of evil. Could it be Bollywood’s year in this category?
One of several horror-themed entries, Sony Animation’s fall hit features Adam Sandler as Dracula, who operates a plush resort that caters to the monster crowd and is designed to keep humans away. Sony Animation hasn’t been in the race since Surf’s Up, but this is one of the more high-profile films on the list—though critics didn’t bite.
ICE AGE: CONTINENTAL DRIFT
The fourth film in the wildly successful series from Blue Sky and Fox was a cash cow for the studio, but generally was perceived to be a by-the-numbers entry that wasn’t distinguished by any “wow” factor that would help gain it entry into the golden circle of five. A case of been there,
done that, as far as Oscars go this year.
A LIAR’S AUTOBIOGRAPHY: THE UNTRUE STORY OF MONTY PYTHON’S GRAHAM CHAPMAN
A 3D animation romp through the late, great Graham Chapman’s life as seen through the eyes of his fellow Monty Python gang. It is one of the most distinctive entries this year, and Python fans should spark to the storytelling.
MADAGASCAR 3: EUROPE’S MOST WANTED
Three is the charm, as this not only became the most successful and critically admired edition of the zoo gang’s tales but also the series’ biggest hit. Nevertheless what movie with a “3” in the title gets Oscar recognition here besides Toy Story?
THE MYSTICAL LAWS
This Japanese scifi entry envisions a world where Asia has become the Earth’s superpower, against a weakened and powerless United States. This type of action anime rarely wins nominations, and that’s unlikely to change this year.
GKIDS is qualifying the original French-language version of this beautifully animated piece from auteur Jean-Francois Laguionie. The film is almost painterly in nature and, therefore, the artiest entry of all 21 films in contention. With animated worlds inside of each painting, Laguionie creates a unique visual look. A real threat to grab an indie slot and steal a spot from a major.
From Focus and Laika, the groups responsible for past nominee Coraline, comes the tale of Norman, who fights off zombies, parents, and other distractions to save his town in this clever horror spoof that is one of the best reviewed animated films of the year. Can lightning strike twice for Laika?
THE PIRATES! BAND OF MISFITS
Aardman strikes again with the fiendishly clever and engaging pirate saga. It was not a boxoffice smash for Sony in the U.S., but its distinctly British sensibility and hip script make it one of the year’s most entertaining toons, one that could surprise pundits who might have written off its chances.
THE RABBI’S CAT
Another GKIDS product from France, this 1930s-set trifle concerns a rabbi and his talking philosopher of a cat, who gains the power of speech by dining on the family parrot. Clever, but weird. Last year, the company scored with a Sam Spade-like cat in the noir takeoff A Cat in Paris, so why not turn to the felines again?
RISE OF THE GUARDIANS
It’s The Avengers of animation, and DreamWorks can only hope to grab just part of that boxoffice. Bringing together childhood icons the Easter Bunny, Santa Claus, Tooth Fairy, Jack Frost, and Sandman to fight the evil boogieman Pitch, this is gorgeously animated stuff from William Joyce’s books. Expect DreamWorks Animation to really make a play for the gold here.
SECRET OF THE WINGS
Yet another in the direct-to-video Tinker Bell series for Disney. The company played it for a week in Hollywood to qualify, just to make sure there would be enough entries in the category to have the maximum five nominees. Disney’s money is on their other three films, not this one.
WALTER & TANDOORI’S CHRISTMAS
With a nice message and a holiday spirit, this entry from Sylvain Viau concerns the pair’s efforts to save their town from an ecological disaster just before Christmas. If Arthur Christmas couldn’t make the cut last year, don’t expect Walter Christmas to do the trick, either.
A terrifically funny and clever toon about videogame villain Ralph trying to become a good guy for a change. Great voice work from John C. Reilly and Sarah Silverman, plus a really amusing script, make this one for the hip crowd and a potential spoiler in the race for the triumphant return of the Disney Animation label.
GKIDS’ Belgium-produced French boxoffice hit centers on a true story of a giraffe given as a gift to France’s King Charles X from the Pasha of Egypt. Shown in the original French-language version, this film has at least one awards consultant worried that it could charm its way into contention. A possible sleeper?