BAFTA held a Masterclass with Animation Nominees in London

On Saturday afternoon, the day before the British Academy Awards ceremony, the directors of Pixar’s „Inside Out” and Aardman’s „Shaun the Sheep Movie” made an appearance at Picturehouse Central for a Masterclass on their BAFTA-nominated films. It all happened without much fanfare; indeed, I found out about the event by accident through an unrelated Google search, and I overheard other audience members saying that marketing for it had been very low-key. In any case, the theatre was full, and perhaps it was meant to be „pour les connaisseurs”, since it was a BAFTA event where half the attendees seemed to know the other half, judging by how they greeted each other across the room. The world of adults interested in animation must be a small one (and apparently most of them, myself included, wear plastic-rimmed hipster spectacles).

The host of the talk was film critic Ian Haydn Smith, who moderated a panel made of Pete Docter (director of „Monsters Inc.”, „Up” and „Inside Out”) and „Shaun the Sheep” creators Mark Burton and Richard Starzak. (The third nominee in the BAFTA Animated Feature category, „Minions”, had no representative in the panel, and frankly, the few clips showed from the film as lip service to its nomination only served to highlight that it really doesn’t belong in a competition with Pixar and Aardman work.) For about two hours, the guests talked about their creative process, answered questions from the audience and, most interestingly, occasionally interrogated each other as well.

As usual with such events, it was not as much a ‘class’ as an extended interview, in which nothing earth-shattering was revealed, but the main point that came through was the astonishing amount of work that goes into a mainstream animated feature. According to Docter, the process at Pixar involves re-doing the film’s animatic about 8 times before beginning production, while Starzak and Burton talked about the danger of getting tired of your own jokes and forgetting what made them funny in the first place after working on the film for years. The filmmakers seemed interested in knowing more about the techniques and habits of the other studio (I would not be opposed to a panel on animation where artists just ask each other questions). An important difference is in the limitations of stop-motion, a medium which deals with physical objects and forces the filmmakers to mould their creative choices around it, like giving up on an aerial shot because the camera has already hit the studio ceiling and can’t go further up. The Aardman directors also prepare the animation process by acting out the physical comedy themselves, and they necessarily have to leave much less room for animators to interpret the performance than would be the case in a CGI studio.

All speakers seemed to agree that animation is all about emotion; Haydn Smith told several anecdotes which involved crying while watching various Pixar movies. On the Aardman side, Burton and Starzak explained that turning „Shaun” into a feature film involved finding an emotional core: from the ‘workplace comedy’ of the TV series, it became a family-themed story. Pete Docter opined that animation can get away with emotional moments that would have, perhaps, seemed schmaltzy otherwise: would the opening montage in „Up” be such a universally effective tearjerker in live-action?

It was comedy that took center-stage more than emotional moments, though: the Aardman directors mentioned Jacques Tati as an influence on the use of silence and comic timing in their film; Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton also popped up in the conversation. Docter argued that it is the comedy, indeed, which makes emotional scenes more effective, and that relentlessly sad films can become ridiculous in their dourness, or make you numb. Personally, I’m not sure that pinning animation as a medium for comedy, or worse, a comedic sub-genre, is doing it any particular favours; indeed, if only for variety and exploring artistic possibilities, I’d like to see more animated films which aren’t straightforward comedies, like this year’s Oscar nominee „Anomalisa”. Aardman and Pixar (and all other mainstream studios) however, are in the business of funny family movies, and what they do, they do well.

The chat revealed some bits of amusing trivia from both movies, for example:

-„Inside Out” originally included other Emotions that were discarded along the way, including a major Pride character and small parts for Schadenfreude and Ennui;

-Burton and Starzak based the appearance of the evil dogcatcher in „Shaun the Sheep” on a former Aardman guard with right-wing tendencies at whom everyone at the studio poked fun a bit; (Haydn Smith remarked that this information is now sure to appear in a hundred papers on film studies, and the Aardman men joked about being sued by their former employee once he figures this out)

-The initial „external” plot for „Inside Out” involved Riley’s distress at being unable to decide what flavour of chips to bring to a school party;

-World-building efforts at Pixar included writing a complete user’s manual for the control panel in Riley’s head, so that any newly-employed Emotion could reasonably use it to learn the job.

The highlight of the afternoon came up at the very end, though, when Richard Starzak revealed the content of his mysterious suitcase: a few puppets from the Shaun movie, which we were allowed to touch, photograph and play with for a few moments. (Why does Aardman not have a permanent exhibition of props and puppets somewhere, by the way?)

In any case, I was glad to be able to hear these superstars of animation talk, and I can only wish such events would happen more often. As for the BAFTA award for Best Animated Feature, I’d agree with a guy I overheard in the row behind me: we already knew who was going to win, right?