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Animation’s Bold Artistic Choices, Analyzed at Variety’s Annecy Panel

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Studios shouldn’t rely just on IP-based content to make artistically bold choices, said director Jeff Rowe at Annecy.

“Right now, things like ‘Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse Sperverse’ are this Trojan horse – they are taking a well-known IP and using that to break artistic boundaries and move the medium forward. My hope is that the studios will take these kinds of risks also with original ideas.”

Rowe, now behind “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem,” spoke out at Variety’s “Breaking the Borders of Animation” panel, moderated by its chief film critic Peter Debruge. 

“There are some borders being broken right there,” quipped Debruge, mentioning his well-received film.

As noted by Rowe, the pandemic got rid of some traditional barriers in animation, with artists from all over the world able to work on big productions from home.

“On ‘Ninja Turtles,’ we had one artist working in South Korea, another in Thailand, we found this amazing guy on Twitter in Scotland. It really opened up the talent pool and with no loss of quality,” he said.

Latifa Ouaou, EVP of Paramount and Nickelodeon Animation, agreed:

“It’s really easy to target specific artists for their skills now. We don’t look for people to just be in house anymore,” she noted, with Slovenian director Špela Čadež pointing out that there is still one instance where people need to work together in the same room, however: “This is the new world: we are everywhere, all the time. But not when it comes to stop-motion.”

With Debruge observing that the audience is finally getting used to “the great expressionistic use of the medium,” filmmakers are daring to go bold. Just like Mike Rianda, who co-directed “The Mitchells vs. the Machines” with Jeff Rowe.

“We had a list of things we wanted to have in the movie. ‘It’s not boring.’ ‘It’s the greatest animated film of all time,’” he laughed. 

“One was: ‘Make this movie unlike anything else you have ever seen.’ We had this production designer, Lindsey Olivares, and we wanted it to look like her drawings. That’s what’s exciting right now. Instead of the artist’s vision bending to match the tools, the tools are bending to match the artist’s vision.” 

Rowe decided to take it one step further when developing “Ninja Turtles.”   

“With ‘The Mitchells vs. the Machines,’ we weren’t timid, but there was a little bit of: ‘Can we do this?!’ Going into this movie, I wanted it to look 100% like the concept artwork. It’s achievable now, and necessary. The success of ‘Spider-Verse’ has proven it’s profitable and audiences love it. They don’t want to see pores on characters’ faces.” 

Also because, as noted by Cartoon Saloon’s Nora Twomey, human beings tend to respond to imperfections. 

“We look for a companion who is as flawed as we are but they still manage to survive and learn something,” she said. Previously, Twomey told Variety that “rather than a race to visual realism, we are witnessing a race to amazing artistic expression.”

Or, noted Čadež, sometimes the artists just like to “get their fingers dirty.” 

“In [her 2016 short] ‘Nighthawk,’ I wanted to get this drunken point of view. I was making lasagna at home and looked through this thick glass. I ended up putting it in front of the camera,” she shared with the audience. 

“A lot of our franchises are being rebooted and creators are looking for new ways to tell these stories. We have so many different projects and none of them look the same,” said Ouaou.

“With ‘Ninja Turtles,’ every frame has the hand of an artist in it. It’s specific to the nostalgia of the Turtles, but it’s such a different version. We are really leaning into the talent we bring into every project and we never want them to conform.”

Aspiring filmmakers, as well as the audience, can now access animated films easier than ever, which leads to less homogenized landscape, observed Rianda and Rowe. “We see this democratization of animation education. It’s easier to go deeper, faster,” said the latter. But there is more to come. 

“Animation still has so much to offer in the future,” summed up Čadež.

“As I am observing my son and teenagers, they are growing up with Asian culture and a more mature world of animation. They are the new audience and we will have to start thinking about them soon.”

A highlight of an event-packed Tuesday at Annecy, Variety’s panel was organised with partner Nickelodeon.



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