THR‘s annual Animation Roundtable started with a discussion about what the phrase “animation is film” (inspired by the recent Animation Is Film Festival) means to each of these storytellers. “We often talk in our world about the idea that animation is a medium, not a genre, and the medium is film and cinema,” says Phil Lord, a producer on The Mitchells vs the Machines, which was produced by Sony Pictures Animation and released on Netflix. “And it really goes to the very beginning of our art form. To me, it’s no different, it’s sort of synonymous.”
For Flee writer-director Jonas Poher Rasmussen — whose documentary tells the harrowing story of a man who left Afghanistan as a child refugee — animation was “liberating” as it allowed the subject, Amin (a pseudonym), to tell his story while maintaining his anonymity. “Because Flee is really a story about memory and trauma, animation enabled us to be more expressive,” he says.
Lord and Rasmussen participated in the roundtable along with Elaine Bogan, director of DreamWorks Animation’s Spirit Untamed; Enrico Casarosa, writer-director of Disney/Pixar’s Luca; Quiara Alegría Hudes, who wrote the screenplay for Vivo (Sony Pictures Animation and Netflix) with director Kirk DeMicco; Carlos López Estrada, who helmed Disney’s Raya and the Last Dragon with Byron Howard; and Clark Spencer, one of the producers of Encanto as well as president of Walt Disney Animation Studios.
Which character in your movie did you most relate to and why? Enrico, Luca is set on the Italian Riviera, where you grew up. Would you like to start?
ENRICO CASAROSA I’m certainly very close to Luca [Jacob Tremblay]. When I was a shy 11-year-old, I met my best friend, and we left his name the same, Alberto, [for Luca’s friend] in the film. [But how do you] make the very personal universal? Luca was a kid who struggled a little bit to get out there and chase what he wanted, and I loved how that opened up these discussions with our collaborators about these friendships that we have when they’re with someone very different from us.
CLARK SPENCER For me, I think it’s Mirabel [Stephanie Beatriz]. She’s the main character [in Encanto] and she’s a character surrounded by a family where everyone has an extraordinary gift and she, for some reason, doesn’t. And she on the exterior tries to always have this sense of confidence and say that it’s OK, but on the interior she’s very insecure and wonders why. My career started on Wall Street and somehow ended up at Disney Animation. Every day, surrounded by the most talented people, I’m always pinching myself.
ELAINE BOGAN I think as soon as I became involved with Spirit Untamed, I had no choice but to relate myself to the main character, Lucky [Isabela Merced]. I’ve been a horse rider since I was 8 or 9 years old, and a lot of our story is about a human trying to form some sort of communication with a 1,200-pound animal and form a partnership with it in order to get where they need to go. A lot of that story was very much from life experience.
PHIL LORD Our protagonist [in The Mitchells vs the Machines] is Katie Mitchell [Abbi Jacobson], a 17-year-old film student. What I love about Katie is she’s trying all the film techniques for the first time. She’s using cardboard boxes and duct tape and drawing on top of the screen and just relishing in what it feels like to express yourself and show people who you are for the first time. We had to innovate a lot in order to express that visually. It was really liberating watching [the crew] take that on and bring a lot of freedom and innovation to the screen.
QUIARA ALEGRÍA HUDES I love hearing who everyone’s identifying with. This is like a writing watercooler. There’s a little bit of my heart in every character, and maybe a lot of myself in every character. [In Vivo,] Gabi [Ynairaly Simo] befriends our lead character, Vivo [Lin-Manuel Miranda], much to his chagrin. He does not really want to be friends with this chaotic wild child of a tween. But the thing I really love about Gabi is she has something that none of the more sophisticated and adult characters in the movie has, which is she is more in tune and in touch with her inner voice … I love that it’s all there for her, the volume 11 and the volume one and the search for the self inside of that.
JONAS POHER RASMUSSEN I’m in my own film [Flee]. (Laughs.) But I relate mostly to Amin, because it’s really his journey. His journey is going from Afghanistan to Denmark, but it’s really about finding a place in the world. So, it’s both his past, his sexuality and everything. And I think in every person’s life, there’s a point where you’re kind of looking for that place where you feel like you can be who you are.
CARLOS LÓPEZ ESTRADA [In Raya and the Last Dragon,] I relate to Raya [Kelly Marie Tran]. The time where we were telling this story and where we are at in this country and beyond has been really challenging. I think last year was very difficult. [Raya] really sees how broken people are, someone who is just really jaded by our ways and who has to learn to trust again, who has to figure out how to see eye to eye with people with completely different ideologies and eventually is able to coexist with all these people who are just seemingly impossibly different from her. For me, I related so much to the struggles she goes through. Her journey back to trust is one that I just felt was so necessary, not just for me, but for all of the people around me.
Let’s talk about the voice casting decisions you made.
CASAROSA Both Jacob Tremblay and Jack Dylan Grazer [who plays Alberto] are some of the most professional kids out there, but they were very playful. We were after a certain naturalism, and anything that felt too polished never feels right to me. I wanted mistakes. I wanted low repetition. Both Jacob and Jack were so game to take the page away.
LORD I once had to take gaff tape out and put an X on the ground where a young actor was only allowed to stand. I was like, “There’s a microphone. You could move however you want, as long as you stand on this X.” Often [producer Chris Miller] and I will audition a bunch of professional actors — and Jacob is great — but we’d rather put somebody who’s not professional on the microphone. I don’t know if I’d be willing to do it for a whole movie, but a lot of times it winds up being somebody’s nephew with like an interesting voice. And thus you need the gaff tape and the X. (Laughs.)
SPENCER Going off of what you said, Phil, in animation, we’re looking for the voice. [In Encanto] Stephanie Beatriz, who plays Mirabel, came in to read for a different role, because we all know Stephanie from Brooklyn Nine-Nine, where she plays a very tough character and has a very deep voice. But when we met her and she came in and she just started to talk … we immediately knew in that conversation that she actually was our Mirabel. Mirabel’s a character who has to be both quirky and flawed. She’s got to be funny. She’s also got to be able to sing throughout this entire film.
LORD Steph is amazing because she plays to win every time.
HUDES I have to hop in as a Steph fan, myself. She was actually in my first professionally produced play in 2004 in Portland, Maine. And then to work with her on In the Heights was really wild. In terms of Vivo, one of my favorite experiences working with an actor was with Juan de Marcos [González], who plays Andrés, one of the elder characters. They’re both musicians. We thought, first of all, we have to get real musicians to voice these parts. And Juan de Marcos had never acted before, but he is the carrier of the Buena Vista Social Club legacy. He is the carrier of the Afro Cuban All-Stars legacy. And so he brings this treasure trove of life experience. You can hear that legacy.
In the areas of diversity, where are you seeing progress, and what needs the most attention?
SPENCER There’s been incredible progress, and there’s still an immense amount of work to do. There is more inclusive and diverse storytelling that’s happening. [At Disney, we’re] really looking to tell stories that are representative of people who love our movies and want to see themselves on the screen. And I think that means you have a responsibility to figure out how do you always bring that to the table. But the area that I think is in most in need is behind the camera. … When Jennifer Lee stepped into her position [as chief creative officer] three and a half years ago, she set it as her top initiative. And I think that’s where you see creatively where we’re headed and the projects we’re doing. You also see what’s changed internally in terms of who is telling those stories.
LORD I agree with everything you’re saying. As a business, we’re a work in progress. One of the things that’s really exciting is that the schools are much more diverse and there are a lot more women, and beyond the schools, people are learning this craft online on YouTube. The access is a lot greater than it’s ever been. One of the challenges is leadership and making sure that we’re inviting people into those positions and helping them. Our production designer on Mitchells is Lindsey Olivares, and she was somebody we noticed on Instagram, who just had an incredible body of personal work. I remember being in a meeting, going, “We need to find a production designer who can draw like this woman.” We were like, “Well, why don’t we hire this woman?” We’ve got a million people who can teach you how to manage a team, we have a lot of support here at the studio. What we need are poets and inspiration. And it was a really great success story.
Elaine, you just made your feature directorial debut with Spirit Untamed. But we still don’t see a lot of female directors. What are you seeing?
BOGAN I went to Sheridan College, and I remember in my first year I was something like one of five girls in our class, out of 30 people. I’ve talked to some people who are now graduating from Sheridan, who said there’s probably 60 percent girls in their class. I really am starting to see that reflected in the people around me at the studio. [For Spirit,] we were telling a story about three young women who come from diverse backgrounds, and [producer Karen Foster and I] made it [our] mission to make sure that we reflected that behind the camera as well. We did end up with a lot of female leadership on the crew — our VFX supervisor, our production managers, our story artists. I think we had something like 60/40 percent women on the story team.
CASAROSA Great points you’re all making. We had an interesting journey on our movie because we were producing a story set in 1950s Italy, and you can start asking yourself, “How do you bring some representation here?” We realized that would have been hard to do with authenticity, and so we found other different ways that we could represent some diversity. We thought, for example, more about disability and bringing people that are not always seeing themselves in movies in there. Our Massimo character was a wonderful collaboration with the filmmakers from Crip Camp. And those are things that we talk a lot about in each movie. I don’t think that every movie has to check all the boxes, because I think it can feel like tokenism, but it’s so important that we’re all having these conversations and really trying to think about ways kids need to see themselves on the screen, wherever they’re from or whatever their situations.
LÓPEZ ESTRADA Elaine, you were talking about your relationship with your producer, and I feel like this a good opportunity for me to give a shout-out to ours, who was so integral in building the relationship that we have with our cultural consultants. [Raya’s Southeast story thrust] was made up of cultural anthropologists, architects, dancers, musicians. It just became integral to everything we did.
LORD It’s really important to make sure that our crews are not just, like you say, checking a box, but really creating a community. On Mitchells, our protagonist Katie is LGBTQ+, and having those rooms with our crewmembers who identify that way, sitting around and talking about how best to represent her, was really powerful.
HUDES In my writing for Vivo, two things were really present in my mind. With the accent casting, [we] really wanted to steer clear of putting accents onto people that don’t naturally have them. I can hear when it’s not someone’s natural speaking pattern. Honoring the diversity of accents that exist within a community that is multilingual, that have different first languages, even within families — the two languages, Spanish and English, might have been acquired at different ages, therefore leading to different accents.
The other one being body type. I just really wanted to push on the body types and in particular for more plus-size and round-figured females, to not still have a kind of hourglass shape that just feels enlarged, but to push against that silhouette and have females —more than one, so again, it’s not tokenism, but it’s the relationship of many characters and visuals — and one where the waist is not smaller than the hips. This is a female silhouette that I still feel imprinted on these wonderful animation heroes growing up, but they all had that body type, and none of the girls in my life did. Encanto has some really interesting silhouettes, which got me excited. We’re far from alone in doing that, but it was nice to add another stone to that path.
RASMUSSEN We don’t have a big bunch of Afghan actors in Denmark. For Flee, it was really about getting into the Afghan communities and finding people who could represent Amin and his family. Most of them had refugee backgrounds and had identical stories to Amin’s or [knew] family members [who] had gone through the same thing, so they could really relate to what happens in the film. You could tell that when they did the voice acting.
SPENCER Building on what Jonas and Quiara said, if you only cast from within, it will never expand. When we were thinking about a three-generation family in Encanto, we wanted to think about how, to your point, Quiara, how would the accents be within three generations? We worked very hard to figure out who we were going to cast for the Abuela role. We had to go into Colombia, and we found this incredible actress, María Cecilia Botero, who, by the way, is very big in Colombia. To your point, Jonas, it’s about doing that hard work.
LORD One of the interesting things about this moment is a lot of the names that are on the top of everybody’s list are working and are not available. And I think the critical thing is not to find diverse casting when it’s convenient, but when it’s inconvenient.
LÓPEZ ESTRADA Yeah. And it just feels like [there’s a need for] specificity and authenticity — you can’t get away with faking it anymore. I think that people see through lazy decision-making and see through irresponsible decision-making. In a great way, it allows us all to look in places that probably you would not look at normally.
BOGAN A lot of the reason why I’m probably here in a director’s chair as a woman is because of all the people around me and the people who have been around me for the past 10 years, pushing me to take opportunities I didn’t necessarily feel ready for. Coming up through the industry, it wasn’t the norm for a woman to be pushed into this role. The people around me [were] continuously supporting me and providing me the skills that I needed to fully learn what that role was as I was doing it — [which] was a terrifying process. But the environment in animation particularly is so collaborative and so supportive. It’s not just filling those roles, but taking them and running with them so that we can start seeing bigger changes in the near future.
LÓPEZ ESTRADA Same here. I was, I think, the first director they hired after Jen came on [as CCO], and I found out that in the [Disney Animation] studio’s nearly 97-year history I was the first director of color to have been in there. I think that in the next five years, we’re going to see stories and people that we have never seen before onscreen. I hope that it’s the beginning of a new era and that we never go back.
LORD You have to break the pattern before you can see how pernicious the pattern is, right? One of the things I think is really important is to make sure to make the affirmative case for this movement, which is that the movies get better, the audience is better served and you can make more money, as I feel like so often we make the punitive case that like, we’re doing this so that we don’t get called out, but we’re doing this because it’s better for the medium and better for the audience.
HUDES [On Halloween,] it was really cool to see a bunch of young Latinas of all hues, just out there with their different body types, dressed up as Gabi.
SPENCER Same for us. Qui [Nguyen], one of our screenwriters on Raya, tells this beautiful story about Halloween. He was walking around with his kids, and they started seeing all of these women dressed up as Raya. And one of his kids just looks up at him and says, “Dad, you did this.” And I think [about] what it meant for him to hear those words and what it meant for his kids.
CASAROSA Going back to the idea of casting from afar, there’s a silver lining about this pandemic. We actually ended up casting way more from Italy than we would’ve have thought normally, because normally it’d be like, “You have to come into the studio.” Now it’s a little difficult when you’re recording from people’s closets, but it actually is opening opportunities to really work all over the world with talent.
LÓPEZ ESTRADA It’s voice talent, but it’s also behind the scenes. All of a sudden the geographical boundaries really don’t mean anything. We’re able to bring in story artists, voice talents. It’s unfortunate that it took this for us to realize that it was so easy to break these borders, but here we are.
LORD We’ve always been a worldwide art form. It really is exciting to know that you can hire a board artist from anywhere and they can work and be part of your crew. They might lose a little sleep, but it’s remarkable how fluid the work process [can be].
BOGAN I actually found when we were recording younger actors — our Snips character was played by Lucian Perez, who I think was less than 10 years old when we were recording him — I’m pretty sure we had a big silver lining because he was sitting in his bedroom surrounded by his own things [while we were recording]. He wasn’t sent into this weird sound booth with lights pointing at him and all the microphones. And because of that, I feel like he was really able to be a kid and sound like a kid. That was one of the lucky parts of recording from home.
In recent years, we’ve also seen an explosion of animated work, particularly from the streaming services. Where do you see animation heading?
LORD It’s such an exciting time. The work always blows me away. The work in television is so experimental. This is an experimental medium … The student work is so scary because it’s so good. We’re all doomed. I just hope they hire me, because I need my insurance. (Laughs.)
CASAROSA I love that it’s pushing the medium in several different ways. Jonas, I was very excited by what you were doing with Flee and that’s pushing documentary in a new direction. Elizabeth Ito comes to mind with City of Ghosts.
LORD The best!
CASAROSA That is such a unique, beautiful, new way to take an animated TV show. You see these wonderful sparks that are completely new, and it wouldn’t have happened without this request from streaming. [At Pixar,] it gives an opportunity to diverse creators and gives creators an opportunity to play with longer form. For a studio like Pixar that has been focused on only shorts and features, now we have a TV series. It’s really exciting.
LÓPEZ ESTRADA I think the independent world is so exciting. And Phil, to hear that you found your production designer on Instagram, it’s just such an incredible story. And I feel like those are going to become more and more popular. The accessibility and the ease that you have to upload something and to find an audience and to all of a sudden become a known entity just from the work that you’re doing in your bedroom or your garage — I hope those filmmakers get more and bigger opportunities in the next few years. When the Instagram artists and the Instagram animators and illustrators start to get feature film and studio support, the industry as a whole is going to grow in such a beautiful, unexpected way.
SPENCER As Enrico was saying, because of Disney+, we literally expanded into series that we’ve never done before at Disney Animation, and we have five in development and production. … And I think we’ve been limited in a way by the number of shows either television needed in the day and or theaters wanted in the day or the amount of money a studio might have to invest into either of those two things. But now it’s not that way. It’s unlimited in a way — even though there’s only so much money in the world, there is so much more money being invested into creative talent and what’s going out there because these services exist. Whether it’s theaters or whether it’s streaming or whether it’s television as we knew it before streaming, it needs creative product, and they’re willing to experiment and take risks they would never have been able to do before.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in a November stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.