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By Christopher Stipp

The Archives, Right Here

I was able to sit down for a couple of years and pump out a book. It’s got little to do with movies. Download and read “Thank You, Goodnight” right HERE for free.

And now, you can follow me on TWITTER under the name: Stipp

Item #1 - THE OFFICE - SEASON FIVE GIVEAWAY

the-office-season-5-dvd-art-the-office-6839913-500-793I didn’t start watching The Office until this summer. I’m really late to this party.

While I don’t think it’s the funniest program to ever hit the airwaves I did find that it helped me get through the summer months and I have found its presence on my TiVo to be comforting when there is nothing left to watch.

It stands to reason whether or not it will keep its place atop my favorite program list as the fall season kicks into high gear but I do know that this is a real keeper of a season for those who enjoyed it. If you weren’t able to get out yet to buy your own copy I have a few I am looking to get into the hands of those who want them.

Send me a note at Christopher_Stipp@yahoo.com and let me know if you’re interested. It’s. Just. That. Easy.

The obligatory product description:

Scranton’s most outrageous workforce is back to give their clients the business in the fifth hilarious season of The Office. Join obnoxious regional manager Michael Scott (Steve Carell) and his fellow paper pushers Dwight (Rainn Wilson), Jim (John Krasinski), Pam (Jenna Fischer) and Ryan (B.J. Novak) as they steal customers, frame co-workers, indulge in intra-office love affairs and just plain behave badly while a documentary film crew captures their every word and misdeed. Developed for American television by Primetime Emmy® Award-winner Greg Daniels, The Office: Season Five features 26 uproarious episodes – including two one-hour specials, exclusive commentaries, webisodes, deleted scenes and more in a sidesplitting five-disc collection no true fan of The Office can afford to miss!

Shane Acker - Interview

Looking back on it, I was completely right to bring up SNEAKERS as my lead-off with Shane Acker.

Besides being one of those films I just enjoy as a well-made creation I was right in saying that Shane Acker’s resume looks a lot like that scene where Robert Redford is faced with a manila folder that has nothing in it. It’s bare but you know there’s reason behind its apparent blankness. While Acker will constantly be referred to as a first-time director it ought to be noted the man has created Oscar nominated material. While he’s taken his short and stretched it out to contain his vision for a world where zippered steampunk creations roam the Earth after the humans inherited, and lost, their grasp as the highest lifeforms on the food chain.

Make no mistake, Shane has a firm grasp on his vision as a director. His animated world is a fully realized creation for what has been his life’s work for years. He didn’t have a Pixar sized crew at his beck and call and his animated world is one that doesn’t quite fit in the profile for a market filled with talking sharks, rats and a bevy of inanimate objects. Shane’s work with 9 should be seen as a victory to those who want animation that breaks traditional boundaries of what’s accepted and he was kind enough to spend some time with me recently to talk about his film.

9_final_movie_posterCHRISTOPHER STIPP:  I apologize to you in advance.  In doing research on this, trying to figure out how this compares to previous works I looked at your resume and it was like a scene out of SNEAKERS when they open a file and there’s nothing in it…

(Laughs)

CS:  Timur was telling me that you had sent him a 10 minute short.  Can you tell me how this got started and how you got to that point?

SHANE ACKER: Sure.  The short that you are talking about was my thesis project at UCLA animation school.  But, I spent a couple years on it and it became honestly something more than just a school piece.  Something more of a director’s piece.  So I spent another 2 ½ years on it … so that makes it about 4 years on it to make the short.  It really was a labor of love.  But it was protracted because I left school for 2 years and started working in industries as an animator.  I would go work for 6 months, save my money, go back to my spare bedroom and keep pushing the short film along until the money ran out and then go back and do the same thing.  I was really inspired and fell in love with the world and the characters and just wanted to make it the best I could.

And then when that short came out it was amazing.

It was really well received and started sending it out to festivals and did ended up getting an agent and sent it to Hollywood.  So it was just this vehicle that opened a lot of doors for me and I was just sort of chasing after it, which was great.  And then to get a hold of Timur and Tim Burton and get a response from amazing filmmakers like that and to be excited about it and wanted to know how we can blow it up into something larger.  It was something amazing.

CS:  I’m amazed.  It took 4 years.  Can you explain a little of the technical aspects?

ACKER: The great thing and the bad thing was I started it back in 1999 which was when this technology which was exclusive to studios was starting to get to the consumer market.  Myah had just been released.  I think it was version 1.5 or 2 and computers were really powerful enough that I realized that you are able to make your own film, produce your own film, by yourself, if you had the commitment to do it, which is what probably kept some people from doing that.  But it was really an amazing time that you could do this thing by yourself and have it be at a quality that would inspire people from Hollywood that there could be something here.  That’s what was great.  But the challenge was that I didn’t know how to animate in 3D at all.

So, at the same time I had this vision, it was really cumbersome because I had to wade through all the technology in order to create it.  So, it was just a lot of intense learning and self teaching and creative problem solving.  I knew what I wanted to do, which was probably the hardest thing because I knew the story and knew the characters and knowing what you want propels you to figure out how to do it.  I had other friends who were trying to learn the software and they would do exercises and then said forget it.  It was too challenging.  But for me it was like how do I get this thing to do this and be this way?  It was both overcoming the technology of it as well as making the project – designing the world and the characters and to telling the story.

CS:  How did that process go for you?  You had 10 minutes and they wanted to blow it up, literally and figuratively, to larger size and length.  When you started pulling it longer and longer and longer, did you find that it was easy to do?  Or was there some challenges on your part to say, “Can I fill this other 80 minutes?”

ACKER: Much like the short, it’s always hard.  This is the first time in long form.  So learning long form story structure and this and that is a challenge.  I had to quickly learn that on my feet.  Literally I was working with an experienced writer and with Pamela Pettler who came on to help me organize my ideas into a longer form structure.  Have you seen the short?

CS:  I have not.

ACKER: The short really feels like a shorter view into a much longer narrative.  It’s 10 minutes long and does have a beginning, middle and an end but you get the sense that there is something that happened before and something that happens after.  And it really is a new world.  So it wasn’t just taking that and pulling it out like an accordion, it was taking that window and making the window wider.  There was a lot of raw material there.  We see two of these creatures in the short but we get a sense that 9 of them existed.  So, when we went to do the feature, now we had the idea of opening it up and seeing 7 different characters which was a lot of fun.  And then as well as there is this struggle between these mechanical creatures that were chasing these stick punk creatures and they are all fighting.  And they got this device, this talisman, that both sides are trying to get.

And then when we did the long form, we got to explain where these things came from, where these creatures came from, what set the struggle in place and realized that there was a downfall with humanity that led to the world being the way it did and these creatures are the results of the downfall in humanity.  We had lots of raw material to play with.  So when it came to making the feature, there was just this opportunity to explore all those bits and pieces that were touched on but not really explored.

CS:  You don’t have Pixar sized resources or dozens of people who can help you flesh out what you have done, so when someone said “OK, let’s make it bigger, let’s start sketching out who these others should be” what was it like for you to have to come up with these other creatures, other steampunk creatures?

ackerACKER: It was really fun.  I came from architecture school, so I have a strong design background as well as study in sculpture and painting and things like that.  That’s why I love the animation medium because it combines all my interests together into one thing.  When you see the film, I think you will see that the architecture influence on it.  It’s really about world making and there is a sense of reality to this world and like the real world it’s pushed, it’s a little different.  The industrial revolution was allowed to progress for 300 years and never got to digital.  Always stayed in this analog space.  So for me, that’s the fun stuff.

If someone is going to pay me to sort of sit around and create a world, that was great.  I just dove right in as a designer would.  What’s the problem?  How do you solve it?  What’s the solution?  So for me it was not that daunting because it was something I was used to.  Understanding that it’s a process.  What you are going to do is come up with all the bad ideas first and you have to wade through all those bad ideas before you get to the good ones.  So it was just trusting the process and putting the hard work and hours into until you come up with the things that really work.

CS:  Timur and Tim Burton.  When they came in as producers what was their relationship to you like?  I talked to Timur and he said their responsibility was go sort of guide you through what you do…so how did the two of them – two directors – guiding you – how did they come to you and say, “We will help you produce this?”

ACKER: There are actually 3 producers involved.  There’s Jim Lamley, Timur Beckmambetov, and Tim Burton.  Jim Lamley is the one who first – I took a meeting – I taking hundreds of meetings in Hollywood.  And everyone was like that’s cool, I should find something to do, but Jim was the guy who chased me down the hall after the meeting was over and said, we’re going to do something, we’re going to find something.  He really championed me and this project.  And started getting out to people like Tim Burton and trying to figure out how we were going to put this thing together.  So that was pretty amazing that there were people behind me that really believed in it.

So when Timur and Tim came on and said this is worth doing, there is something interesting and amazing here it just validated it and empowered me to a certain extent and motivated me a lot to know that these amazing filmmakers are behind it and believed in it and just gave me the confidence and energy to really start working on it.  And knowing that these are the guys who are going to start reviewing the cuts of your film….just keeps you on your toes and makes you concentrate and be critical and think about it.  And what’s also great is, I was so involved in every little aspect in making it come together so I was down in the trenches and it’s hard to see the forest through the trees.

We hit a milestone and I would present a cut to the team and it was great because they had the critical distance to say “Well, you ought to think about this and this, and character things, big global ideas,” which is always frightening.  But it allows you to step back and get that critical distance that you need.  So it was great to have people like that.  They are idea wells.  Timur has an amazing mind.  It’s an idea a minute.  And unedited.  Great to have these creative people there to help you when you have a problem or are stuck on something.  Timur was busy making WANTED and when that was done he had more time to spend on our project.  And we were at a stage where we had a lot of the footage put together and do re-cuts and fine tune and I was able to work with him in the editing room which was great to see the tricks that he can do in editing.  I really learned a lot from that experience which was good.

CS:  Did you ever feel, I don’t want to say, over your head, but like I said about your resume not being huge, was it a film school in a box experience?  Did you go in thinking this is the way or once Timur and Tim came in, did they steer you toward a better way?  A lot of people will say that you can learn a lot in business school but the rules all go out the window when you hit the real world.

ACKER: Yes.  Naturally, I was scared shitless from time to time.  And better for worse I’m an over confident individual, not arrogance but I really believe in myself and in what I’m doing.  I think you have to because you have to go with your gut and your instincts.  You have so many things you have to solve everyday as a director and director of an animated film, you have to trust your instincts.  And again, coming from a design background I usually find a concept, a core set of ideas, and that becomes the well and I try to keep that intact.  So, anytime you are out there in the story and trying to figure out a solution you can always go back to the well, that core set of ideas, and use that as a way to generate the right solution for that time and that moment.

For me it was about the process and setting it up the way it did as a designer and the experience of doing the short, because I was the producer, the director, the writer, the animator, the cinematographer, which was great.  Because, as a director you’re the jack of all trades and master of none, if that makes sense.  So I was familiar with all aspects of the movie making but on a smaller scale.  But that was great because I could put myself in every artist’s shoes and understand what that is and how to solve problems from that point of view and understanding the process that there’s lots of ways to get story points and emotion across.  I mean if you don’t get it in the performance and animation you can start to manipulate the camera to get the emotion and also start to manipulate the editing.  We were moving very quickly.  So if we didn’t get something in animation, I knew that OK, the second layer would be how do we use the camera to try and get that emotion across.  And if that didn’t work, how do we use editing to get it across.  And if we ran out of that, then how do we use the lighting.  So lots of different layers and ways to solve problems as it’s going down the pipeline as well.

And that was just stuff I learned from doing the short.

9_imageIt’s just trusting the process and trusting the artist.  You can’t do it all yourself.  Empower and educate them in a way so they can make the right choices and solutions and understanding what the core idea is and the aesthetic that we are going with.   I think a lot of that is that I spent a lot of time as a teacher, as well.  Design classes and 3D classes and it’s really about educating and empowering and playing to people’s strengths, lifting them up and giving them the best crib space and environment.  So, I try to do that.  As an artist myself, no artist likes to be told what to do.  No one wants to paint by numbers.  You are just trying to give them the creative space and give them the right direction and let them solve it.  You are always going to get the best work that way.  So, yea, for me it was difficult and challenging but I was always respectful to the artist to try and keep us all on the same playing field.  Anyone could come in and see the film and offer criticism or suggestions.  Because that’s how I did the short.  I showed it to so many people and always solicited opinions and advice because you never know who is going to have a great idea.  Everyone has a valid opinion.

CS:  That’s a very un-Michael Bay of you to say about the collaborative process.

(Laughs)

CS:  You talk a lot about design and this world is not talking giraffe’s and talking toys and what have you.  It’s a real dark, post-apocalyptic, world. Where do you come in with designing this type of world that you want to make feel moody, dramatic, but also want to entertain?  Where did you balance those two?

ACKER: I think the characters are what balances it because the characters represent humanity and hope and we’re gone, post-human, we screwed up, we’re dead and this is now what’s carrying on all the hope and promise of humanity.  The darker we make the world, the more empathetic we are with the characters and we want them to succeed.  We realize that they are like children, trying to figure out who they are and why they are there and tying to figure out what their significance is and not until later they realize they are humanity and carry with them human souls and hope and potential that we have.

So even though the world has darkened and is dangerous and decaying, there is this hope and creativity that these characters embody as they are pushing forward.  So it’s like us and as things get darker, will they succumb to it or will they find away to rise above it.  So, it’s really the characters.  We fall in love with them.  They have real personalities, they are flawed and human and make mistakes and go through the emotion and that what makes it not so dark in the end.  It’s really like a dysfunctional family drama in away.  And 9 comes along and starts to collect them and empower them and challenges them and provokes them to get motivated to get out of the stagnant place they are – just hiding in the place of fear and start to take on the challenges that the humans have left for them to solve.  It’s entertaining.

It’s an action/adventure movie at the same time.  It has dark tones, it’s a dark world, it’s a cautionary tale but is a lot of fun.  The action sequences are amazing and spectacular.  In the end, there is a real heart to the movie as well.  Not trying to be malicious or dark for darkness sake.  It’s just the landscape these creatures are in and about the potential to overcome that situation.

CS:  Where did you come up with the idea for this kind of a story?  It came out of the short and you obviously have been living this story for a long time.  What initially drew you to the idea to create this movie or this story in general?

ACKER: When I started the short there was a bit of a knee jerk reaction to the thrust of CG animation – all very pastel and very brightly lit and very cheerful and very happy, lots of talking animal things.  That just didn’t fit my aesthetic and I really felt like animation was really going in the wrong direction.  I think those forms are great and they should exist but the world of animation should be much broader.  I was attracted to a lot of Eastern European filmmakers, like Brothers Quay, Lowenstein Brothers, who inhabit these other kinds of strange worlds.  It’s really interesting that it kind of enters this metaphorical space.  And a lot of those films are esoteric and hard to understand, almost like sculptures in some way.

If you find any narrative in them, it’s really loose.  It’s more like images watching over you and at some point they affect you emotionally.  You engage with them.  So I wanted to make a film that would sort of inhabit that world but had more traditional storytelling aspects of it.  That’s what pulled me into creating that world for the short.  And then when we went to do the feature, we started talking about humanity and the world before these creatures came.

shane-ackers-9It really is an Oppeheimer/Geppeto tale at the heart of it all.  It’s about the scientist who was blinded by the pursuit of technology to create something that turned the wrong way.  It ended up destroying the world and as sort of the lack act that he did as the world was collapsing was to create new creatures that was the opposite of that represent all the hope and humanity and they are vessels for soul and he sends them out after all the humans fall apart as the way of making up for the sins of his past.  Much like Oppenheimer after inventing the bomb was full of regret.  He knew what the thing was that he was doing, but it was that blind pursuit of technology.  It’s an incredible thing, but yet a horrific thing that he made.  It changed the landscape of the world.  So that’s what’s at the core but the story of the rag dolls is them looking back and figuring out their father was the one who brought the world down.  What does that make them and will they make the same mistake that the humans made or will they create a new world in the ashes of that.

CS:  Like Robert McNamara who said we made a mistake, fucked up and we shouldn’t have done what we did.

ACKER: Exactly.

CS:  There seems to be like these mistakes that are made and change the course of human history.  And hindsight is 20/20 but looking back on it you can see how these things could have been avoided.  It seems so simple but nothing got done.

ACKER: Or are they inevitable?  If we imagine it, we will do it in someway.  Really it becomes a moral question because there is a scientific solution if you pursue it, you will solve it but the moral question is do you pursue it or do you stop it and cut it short?  I think it’s inevitable in some sense.  Doomed to it.  And I think the creatures, the scientists, the nemesis, the fabrication machine, they are all creative in some way.  They all make things.  They all build and construct things.

Those creations – were they good for mankind or are they bad for mankind?  Should they be made or not be made?  I guess that’s a lot of the territory we are exploring.

CS:  It’s funny too about the posters. The QR codes. It’s fascinating how technology is moving and we depend so much on it.  Is this movie kind of a tale about morality of humanity going forward but is it also some kind of dissertation on technology itself or the harbingers of what it might bring if we rely too heavily on it?

ACKER: It definitely is, yes.  It’s about at what point do we become so dependent on technology that we lose our own soul, our own identity, our own humanity in some way.  That is a question that we wrestled with.  Even these creatures are mechanical in some way.  There’s the beast and then there’s the little rag doll, mechanical in nature, but they have a human soul in them and are these things end up being more human than some of the humans at the end when they fall apart?  These are all questions.  We don’t answer them but it’s what these characters are wrestling with and dealing with.

CS:  And at the end of the day, my final question, people who go see this, what do you hope they walk away with after seeing it?  What is the common theme?  What do you want people to talk about after seeing this movie?

ACKER: I think we raise a lot of issues and don’t answer many of them.  The movie plays on many levels.  You can go in and have just a fun popcorn experience.  Just let the movie wash over you or you can go in and start to see some of these larger issues we were wrestling about.  Different people in different walks of life and ages in the audience will take something away and hopefully will generate some excitement and conversation based on it.  Hopefully people will come out and their brain is still stimulated from all the imagery.  It’s really dense.  Like I said, there’s lots of layers and I think people will be encouraged to go back and see it again and start to pick up on some of those other layers that are in the movie and sort of re-engage with the material from it in a new way, which would be great.

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