There’s a topic of conversation in animation circles that comes and goes in waves, but is presented as such: Where are all the directors in feature animation going? The main concern seems to be that we are seeing an ‘exodus’ of sorts of talented directors from the world of animation into live action. Opinions (as always) are very split on this issue, but while I won’t go too deep into it (that would be another article for another day), I would like to say that that’s not entirely true.
Thus, I present to you my own personal list of five animation directors who are proof that there are still some good, strong talent still working in the industry.
Dean DeBlois (Lilo & Stitch, How To Train Your Dragon 1 & 2)
There are few directors in feature animation who think as big and grand as Dean DeBlois, and even fewer who actually posses the talent and sure-handed confidence to pull it off on screen. For Dean, nowhere is this more evident than with How To Train Your Dragon 2.
With that film, DeBlois made a film that we almost never see done in the animation medium: an epic adventure tale in the old-fashioned tradition. Awash with gorgeous visuals, large-scale action scenes, and a top-class handling of mature themes and subject matter. Very rarely do adult characters get their own character arcs!
DeBlois is very much a big fan of the wide-angle shot in this movie. And with much of the film taking place outside of Berk, it gives Dean ample opportunities to utilize this technique to great effect. One moment that will forever be implanted in my memory is Hiccup and Toothless flying side by side with each other. It’s one of those magical cinematic moments that you really have to see on a theater screen (or a really big plasma TV) to believe.
While not a first time director (he co-directed the first film and Lilo & Stitch with his regular collaborator, Chris Sanders), this was the first time he directed and wrote a animated feature film on his own. And if this is anything to judge by, I’d say he’s more than capable of carrying an ambitious project on his own. He’s no stranger to live-action either. In 2006, he directed Heima, a documentary film about the concert tour of Icelandic rock band Sigur Ros. In 2010 he directed Go Quiet, a music film featuring Sigur Ros frontman Jonsi, who also contributed songs for both How To Train Your Dragon films.
It’s not much of a stretch to say that DeBlois may head back towards live-action after finishing the Dragon films. But in any case, he’s readily become one of my favorite directors and I can’t wait to see more from him, animated or otherwise.
Jennifer Yuh Nelson (Kung Fu Panda 2)
Kung Fu Panda 2 is an amazing case, as it marked Jennfer Yuh Nelson’s very first directorial effort. Prior to that, she had been a storyboard artist at DWA since 1998 and had severed as head of story for the first Kung Fu Panda (she directed the hand-drawn dream sequence). Shortly after the film’s release, she had been approached by DWA’s CEO, Jeffery Katzenberg, about taking the director’s chair for the second. While hesitant at first, she eventually took the job after being convinced by the producers.
What resulted in 2011, was (and still is) among DWA’s best work yet. Like How To Train Your Dragon 2, we see the progression of Po’s arc and the maturation of his character. It’s pretty meaty stuff, especially with a flashback scene that packs a giant emotional punch that takes the story above and beyond your normal animated fare. It’s also a really darn good action film, as Nelson’s love for martial arts movies, video games, and anime shine through in the masterful choreography and staging of the various set pieces. There’s really no wonder why Jennifer won the 2012 Annie award for directing (and being the first female director to do so).
She’ll be back in the director’s chair for Kung Fu Panda 3, set for release in December of 2015. At this point, I have nothing but complete faith in Jennifer for delivering another great installment in the franchise.
Jorge Gutierrez (The Book of Life)
While Jorge’s first directorial effort hasn’t reached theaters yet, he nevertheless makes it onto the list for what appears to be some of the most creative and distinctive visual designs I’ve seen in a while.
Known best for his award-winning animated series El Tigre: The Adventures Of Manny Rivera, his creative vision is very evident in The Book of Life‘s visual style. Again, we are seeing what’s often considered rare in feature animation: a film that looks and feels like the product of a singular vision. It’s a love letter to his cultural roots while crafting a story that appeals to all audiences.
I’m very confidant that The Book of Life will redeem Reel FX after the false start that was Free Birds, in addition to launching Jorge into a successful start as a newcomer in feature animation.
Lee Unkrich (Toy Story 3)
Continuing with the tradition of first-time directors who blow expectations away, Lee Unkrich has been a staple at Pixar since he first started as an editor on the first Toy Story. But it wasn’t until February 2007 that Lee was hired to be a full-time director for Toy Story 3.
Despite admitting that he felt the pressure to avoid creating the first dud for Pixar (a task that, unfortunately, was realized in 2011 by Cars 2), what resulted on the big screen on June 18, 2010 was an emotionally fulfilling and ultimately satisfying conclusion to one of the most iconic animated franchises in the history of film. It’s just as much a commentary on the difficulty of growing up, the fear of an uncertain future, and the longing of days gone by as it is a knockout finale that says goodbye to characters that we’ve known and loved since childhood. And once again, this was Lee’s first film. Absolutely incredible.
His second directorial outing will be an untitled film about the Mexican holiday Dìa de los Muertos (more commonly known as the Day of the Dead), set for a 2016 release window. Asides from the fact that it will be Lee’s second directorial effort in six years, there’s another day of the dead-centered film coming out this October (The Book of Life). Not to mention there had been a controversy some time back about Disney trying to trademark the Dìa de los Muertos name in preparation for the film. The trademark has since been withdrawn, as the film will go by a different name.
Will Pixar be able to do the Mexican holiday justice? It could, provided Lee’s directorial skills can produce a film that retains the authentic integrity of the holiday. It’s been a while, but he just might pull it off.
Pete Docter (Monster’s Inc., Up, Inside Out)
Another Pixar mainstay, Pete Docter gave us Monster’s Inc., a charming and heartwarming tale that creatively answers the question where our childhood ‘monsters from the closet’ really come from. And he also gave us Up, a film that shows us that, even as we grow old, we can still have adventures in life. His next outing is Inside Out, a film that takes a look into the consciousness of a young girl as her five primary emotions lead her throughout her everyday life upended with major changes.
Just from looking at these three films, it’s obvious that Pete has a gift for taking strange and risky ideas and turning them into critical gold. He’s a pro at taking concepts from real life and delving into them with deft innovation and loads of heart.
At this point in time, all signs seem to be pointing at Inside Out being another case of Pete delivering another awe-worthy animated cinematic experience. We’ll see if this is the case (I’m confidant that it will) when Inside Out hits theaters on June 19, 2015.
And that does it for our list of exciting directors in feature animation. All of which are visionaries who continue to breathe life and spirit into feature animation, one film at a time.