Film critics The Massie Twins recently had a chance to sit down with director Shane Acker at the San Diego Comic-Con International to talk about his new computer-animated film “9,” which opens wide September 9th, 2009.
The Massie Twins: We noticed that two of the stitchpunk dolls in “9” are twins. They will probably be our favorite characters.
Shane Acker: They don’t have voices but they have this really unique way of communicating. They shoot visual imagery back and forth and also project imagery. We actually have twin storyboard artists, and we gave them the Twins’ sequences and it’s really interesting to see their process. They’ve been doing this for years and we caught them one day both drawing on the same drawing.
MT: So it’s their version of telepathy.
SA: It is. And they’re almost extensions of the same person.
MT: Well, we hate to ask you the generic questions, but that’s probably what most people want to read about. Can you tell us a little bit about the short film and the process of turning it into a feature?
SA: Yeah, definitely. It was in large part because of the short film that I was able to make the feature. This is a strange film to pitch. Having the short as a proof of concept was helpful because it’s all visual storytelling with no dialogue – people responded because they felt an emotional connection with these characters. It got people excited about the potential of making a larger film. I was going around Hollywood doing hundreds of meetings, but nobody was really going to take the first step. Jim Lemley chased me down the hallway and said, “I think we’ve got something amazing here. Let’s find something and do something.” After I told him about the backstory and the short, he said, “I think we’ve got a movie here. We need to get this in front of someone big to break the ice and push this forward.” He had a relationship with Tim Burton’s agent, so he got it to Tim, who liked the short, and then a week later I did a telephone pitch to Tim about the feature version. Tim said, “I love this project, I love this film. I want to help you out any way I can.” That’s what really got the ball rolling. It’s a little bit of hard work and a little bit of luck.
MT: Is this your first Comic-Con?
SA: No, I come down often. I live in LA, and I’m a comic book nerd. The short film was here about four years ago at the film festival and I got an award and got to talk about it. It’s fun to be back with the feature version.
MT: When you were making the short film, had you ever thought about doing a feature?
SA: No. It took four and a half years to make it, and by the end I was so ready to be done with it. But I put a lot of heart and soul into the film and wanted to make it as good as it could be as a director’s piece to allow me to go on and do something else. I was a little apprehensive to pick it up again, but once I started thinking about the larger world, the history of the world and the possibility of creating more of these characters, I got really excited about the potential again.
MT: Is there significance behind the number 9?
SA: The numbers are versions, so 9 is the newest or latest to come along. Each one gets slightly more refined as they go. The conceptual idea was that 9 was the closest to perfection – if 10 is perfect, 9 is as close as you can get. As humans are all flawed, we can never be perfect. It doesn’t play a role in the film, however. That’s where the scientist stopped. 9 is as near-perfect of a human doll that he could have made.
MT: Obviously we don’t know yet how it will end, but now that you’ve got this massive world built up, do you have further stories behind it? Do you want to continue with this set of ideas?
SA: We do leave a little hook in the movie that suggests a new chapter could emerge in this world, and I’ve talked to the producers about it. We have some fun stuff, so we may return to it for a sequel. There are a lot of possibilities for prequels and things as well, and now we’re talking about doing a video game. That would be a great way to tell more about the characters that we couldn’t get into in the movie. How the creatures came to be and involvement in the past.
MT: You mentioned on the panel that you were getting an action figure line?
SA: Yeah, there’s a NECA booth on the floor that has a couple of the prototypes for the toys. I’ve really been putting pressure on those guys to make the beasts.
MT: What a perfect film for collectibles and toys! How did you come up with the visual designs, especially for the “stitchpunk” characters – and can you tell us about the origin of that name?
SA: I’m a big fan of steampunk. I love the Jules Verneian, turn of the century design aesthetic. It celebrates mechanics but at the same time there’s a kind of ornamentation. I think it’s really beautiful and expressive and visual. I wanted to bring that to the world. It’s as if the industrial revolution had progressed another 300 years and we hadn’t gone into the digital age. There’s sort of computer technology but it’s all mechanical. If the Victorian era were to collapse in some post-apocalyptic event, then these creatures are made from all the bits and pieces that are left over. That’s the idea behind “stitchpunk.” It’s not steampunk, which fell away, but the bits and pieces of steampunk that got stitched together. I wish I could say I came up with “stitchpunk” but I didn’t. It was someone on a blog, but it really hit the nail on the head.
MT: What are your thoughts on the PG-13 rating for a computer animated film? Are you breaking new ground? Are you afraid littler kids will think this is for them?
SA: Here’s the thing. We’ve been testing it, and the kids 8-12 just love it. The problem is the parents aren’t sure whether it’s suitable for them. So it’s our job to convince them that it’s a dark film with some scary moments, but there’s some real heart in the film too. It’s a drama about a dysfunctional family who has to put aside their differences to work together. And there’s a real heart and emotion, even though the backdrops are dark and the creatures are opposing, with some jumps and some frights. It’s actually a really engaging family film, too.
MT: You mentioned that there’s no blood, no nudity.
SA: No, no blood or anything. We didn’t set out to make a PG-13 movie. We set out to tell the story we wanted to tell. That’s where it ended up. Some of the things necessary for the dramatic journey turned out to be a little dark. For us it’s about contrast. We like the horror, the science-fiction, the comedy, the drama. We just put it all together. That’s the texture we made the film out of.
MT: Was it a very solid PG-13, or was it bordering on PG? It reminds be of Narnia – how did THAT get a PG?
SA: Yeah – I don’t know. Maybe they just sit in a room and throw cards at a hat. I think one of the things that played against us is that it’s animation. It has this stigma that it’s for kids, and “oh you can’t do that in animation!” For me it’s more of an action adventure film that harkens back to the Spielberg films of the 80s. Those films are PG, but if you were to look at them today, they would be PG-13 too.
MT: I like the PG-13 rating. I think some of the older audiences might shy away if it were PG.
SA: I think there’s a sweet spot. PG for older audiences might be too soft. PG-13 for younger kids is kind of exciting for littler kids. It’s kind of dangerous.
MT: It’s like sneaking into the R-rated movie.
SA: Exactly right. But it’s still safe at the end of the day!
MT: We actually started our careers in animation. How did you get into it?
SA: I actually went to school for architecture. When I was getting my Master’s I focused a lot on computer generated designs and that’s what got me into 3D. At the same time I started taking some classes in the animation building and I just fell in love with it. I have lots of interests and it seems that the animated medium collects them all together. Architecture, sculpture, painting and time-based media – I get to do it all. You don’t have to worry about a building falling down because it’s all virtual.
MT: Nobody gets hurt.
SA: Nobody gets hurt (laughs)!
MT: 9 is your feature film debut. A lot of directors say that when they go from a short film or a TV series into a feature film, it’s pretty much the same thing, just longer. Did you feel that way?
SA: Naturally it’s a challenge, and I’d never tried to tell a story in long form before. I think there was enough material suggested in the short that allowed us to expand it without it feeling like we just inflated the bag. Because we only see two of the characters in the short, now we have the possibility of seeing all nine. And they all have very distinct personalities. Once we started thinking about that, it just started growing. As well as to explain how the world came to be and how these characters were created. In the short I just throw you in and it leaves a lot of questions unanswered.
MT: Was the short film all you, or did you have a team of people working on it?
SA: I didn’t really have a team per se. It was me pushing the boulder up a hill, and people would come in. Anyone who was idly sitting around, I would say, “Come on in and make a set or render a shot.” Toward the end a lot of my friends came on board to help me.
MT: How many people worked on the feature film?
SA: Oh, man. It was hard to tell because it was so protracted. We started with one company and went to another. We probably had about 200 + working on it at one time, and as you go down the pipeline, you grow.
MT: Did you personally do most of the character designs?
SA: Yeah, I did a lot of it. When it came to the creatures, I had an amazing production designer, Robert Saint Pierre, who helped flesh out designs. We had a lot of fun. It was a tremendous amount of work – any time you make a world. You get nothing for free, especially when you stylize the world in this way. It was a bit daunting, but in the end it’s unique and it feels like a world you’ve never seen before.
MT: Tell us about the Academy Award nomination for the short film.
SA: I was really aggressive getting the short film out into the festival circuit. It premiered at Sundance. At the same time I had picked up an agent. While the film was doing the festival circuit, the agent was meeting people in Hollywood. It was good because people were starting to hear about it. The short really started opening doors for me.
MT: You got a great voice cast. Tell us about that.
SA: A lot of it is through the producers and relationships with Tim Burton. But once we had written the story and figured out who these characters were, we approached artists who we thought had personalities similar to the characters in the film. We wanted it to feel naturalistic. We wanted actors to speak with their own voices, not pushed or broadened. Over time you start to forget that these are little stitchpunk characters, and you start to feel the human inside of them.