Film '9' May Set New Animation Standard

Image from Focus Features' new animated adventure '9'

The new film “9” is not your typical Hollywood animated production. It’s a dark, post-apocalyptic action adventure with no talking animals, and the closest thing there is to a comic-relief sidekick is a character who is missing an eye.

Despite that fact, and that it doesn’t come from the hit-making Pixar or DreamWorks animation factories, advance word on “9” is strong as Focus Features prepares to release it in theaters Wednesday (09/09/09, if you’re into numerology).

It does feature an all-star voice cast that includes Oscar winner Jennifer Connolly, Christopher Plummer, and John C. Reilly. It does contain powerful, thought-provoking science fiction themes. But it's the vivid, computer-generated imagery that has some suggesting the movie could mark a turning point for animated films [for a look at 10 films that did change the course of animation, click here].

Director Shane Acker would rather not hear such talk before his film even opens. The first-time director has been somewhat overwhelmed by the press tour he’s undertaken to promote the film.

“It’s been a little crazy, but it’s fun,” said Acker.

The film is set during a near future in which humanity has been wiped out, a victim of destruction at the hands of the machines man himself created.

All that’s left of humanity resides within 9 tiny creations, man-made creatures that each carry with them a different piece of the human spirit. These 8-inch tall creatures, which Acker describes as "stitchpunk" beings, are pieced together from scraps of material, reflecting the desperation of the time. The title character #9 (voiced by Elijah Wood) is the one who leads the group on a thrilling, often frightening journey as they fight for survival against the dangerous machines still roaming the planet.

“We [Acker and screenwriter Pamela Pettler] imagined that this world, this society, they were in an age where they were worshipping the machine,” said Acker. “We wanted the characters to spring up out of the leftover bits and pieces of this mechanized world. So they themselves are kind of beautiful, intricately detailed machines.”

"We imagined that this was kind of like a Steampunk world.”

Started in college

It’s a world Acker first dreamed up a decade ago, while still a student at UCLA, going for dual Masters Degrees in Architecture and Animation.

“9” was originally an 11-minute short film Acker did for his thesis. Heavily influenced by his fondness for European stop-motion animation, it wound up earning him an Academy Award nomination in 2004 for Best Short Animated Film. Still, Acker most likely would never have gotten a chance to expand his short into a full-length adaptation, without the help of producer Jim Lemley, and directors Tim Burton and Timur Bekmambetov.

Bekmambetov, who directed the Angelina Jolie action hit “Wanted” (which Lemley produced) and Burton, the visionary behind movies such as “Beetlejuice,” “Batman Returns,” “Ed Wood” and “Sweeney Todd,” joined Lemley as producers on the movie.

During an interview in July to promote “9” at Comic-Con International: San Diego, Burton said he viewed his role on the film as more mentor than producer. Having an experienced voice to bounce ideas off of, Burton said, is something he wished he had early in his career.

“Tim and Timur and Jim Lemley, they were very respectful of what I was trying to do. They were able to provide different perspectives and see things through fresh eyes, which is always good.” Acker said. “It helps you kind of to step back from the work and see the larger picture.”

The big picture was something Acker admits to struggling to keep in sight.

Image from Focus Features' new animated adventure '9'

“It was hard just letting go and understanding that my role was going to be much different as a director on a feature film, versus the artist who’s making everything in the short. You can’t possibly solve every problem or even review every piece of work. So you’re just trying to get them [the animation artists] to be sort of, clones of you, in some way, thinking the way you think. What’s really rewarding about that experience is they’re always going to come back with something you didn’t quite expect.”

That could be said for the entire film. Newsarama columnist and animation historian Steve Fritz has high praise for “9,” saying it’s a groundbreaking achievement, albeit one that could take some time in finding its deserved audience.

“I’m putting '9' in the same category along the lines of 'The Nightmare Before Christmas' and 'Iron Giant,'” Fritz said. “It’s an incredible movie, but American audiences just aren’t ready for it. They’re not used to such experimental animation.”

On the cheap 

As with many breakthroughs, the unique visuals of “9” came about due to economic practicality. When he was still at UCLA, Acker wanted to use stop-motion animation for his short film. That plan was scratched because it would have been too expensive. When it came time to make the feature film, again working under tight financial conditions, he used a combination of CGI, matte paintings and inventive lighting and camera work to animate his world.

“It was all computer animated. Having said that, we relied a lot on photo reference,” Acker said. “Our characters were so small we scanned a lot of objects through a flatbed scanner to use for background reference.”

Old photos from Chernobyl and bombed-out European cities during World War II, as well as images from abandoned factories, were also used as visual markers for some of the film’s most striking backdrops.

“We had a lot of really talented matte painters on the project. We would basically create some of the sets just out of paintings and find ways to cut them apart and put them on planes so when we moved the cameras you’d still have dimension. And I think what was interesting about that is, you get that kind of realism.”

“What he did is, he took the best of European stop-motion and figured out a way to do it in CG,” Fritz added. “As such, the motion is much smoother, less jerky.”

Acker also wanted the camera work on “9” to be done as if they were shooting a live-action film.

“We wanted to use the cameras in realistic fashion, to reference classic cinematography. We studied a lot of amazing cinematography and found ways to kind of bring that into the film, to lend it a kind of realism, to ground it,” he said.

So is “9” a true game-changer for animated storytelling? It will depend on how it’s received by audiences. And even that often isn’t a valid indication of a movie’s impact or future influence.

“Toy Story,” the first Pixar feature and the first all-CGI animated movie, was an instant smash with crowds and critics back in 1995. But some innovative films, like “The Nightmare Before Christmas” and “Iron Giant,” took several years to attain ‘classic’ status, after initially struggling to make a dent at the box office in their debuts.

A true animation film buff who is as comfortable discussing experimental moviemaking as he is extolling the virtues of pop culture classics such as Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” Acker is aware that the hype surrounding his CG movie will be cited by some as another example of the imminent demise of traditional, hand-drawn animation. He does not agree with the prognosis.

“I think you can put just as much beauty into a hand-drawn, 2D movie and tell just as engaging a story, and once you do that, it will be reborn.”

Despite its technical and artistic innovation, perhaps Acker's emphasis on story will be what “9” is ultimately remembered for?

Twitter activity