Directors for ‘Elemental,’ ‘Spider-Man’ and More Oscar Noms on Why Serious Themes Shine in Animation (2024)

A boyhood spent with a magical, symbolic bird. Lovers made of opposing elements. A far-flung journey across multiple universes. Knights questing to prove innocence and justice. The inner life of a robotic being.

It would be challenging to think of a year in which more diverse, deeply personal, and ambitious films were nommed for best animated feature. The filmmakers behind each film arrived at their specific storytelling themes and stylistic approach through their own experiences and influences.

Directors for ‘Elemental,’ ‘Spider-Man’ and More Oscar Noms on Why Serious Themes Shine in Animation (1)

“I don’t know who I would be and how this film would be different if I hadn’t lost my parents while making this movie,” says Pete Sohn, helmer of “Elemental.” “The beginning of the film is really my parents’ story of immigrating to this country in search of a better life. And the differences you have seen between the main characters are born out of what I went through falling in love with someone who was outside of my culture.”

It was Sohn’s mother who loved films and introduced him to new movies at every opportunity. Soon he found himself fascinated by the work of (Walter) Peregoy, a Disney animation legend who worked on “101 Dalmatians” and “Sleeping Beauty.” He also loved Tyrus Wong’s art, set design and storyboards, which were used in animated films like “Bambi” and live action cinema such as “Rebel Without a Cause” and “The Wild Bunch.” Wong work was important for Sohn because the helmer was “overwhelmed to see someone of an Asian background doing the work he did.”

Directors for ‘Elemental,’ ‘Spider-Man’ and More Oscar Noms on Why Serious Themes Shine in Animation (2)

“The Boy and the Heron” is also a film marked by family relationships and, even more deeply, the difficulty in growing up and becoming an adult. Hayao Miyazaki’s story closely parallels moments from his own childhood as his main character forms a bond with Heron, who takes on symbolic significance.

“This is not Miyazaki’s exact life as a boy but it has the feelings that he wanted to share with the audience,” says producer Toshio Suzuki through a translator. “He struggled as we all do when we’re leaving childhood and becoming an adult. These experiences shaped him as a person. There is something of his childhood in almost everything he does. And I don’t’ think he will ever be able to stop making movies as long as he is alive. I believe we have time for him to make one more film.”

Directors for ‘Elemental,’ ‘Spider-Man’ and More Oscar Noms on Why Serious Themes Shine in Animation (3)

Pablo Berger’s “Robot Dreams,” a film told with an emotional score but no spoken dialogue, explores the connection between a lonely dog and the robot he builds to keep him company. As the story moves on, questions about. It seemed a perfect fit to adapt the book of the same name without spoken word.

“Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton were masters at creating feeling through their faces, their expressions and their gestures,” says Berger. “They are a big influence on me and they show what is possible in this visual medium. The thing I really love about (Charlie) Chaplin is that when things are getting too sentimental, he can really punch you in the stomach and make you laugh. His movie ‘City Lights’ is one of the best in history because of this. If you don’t cry at the end of it, it’s because you’re dead.”

Directors for ‘Elemental,’ ‘Spider-Man’ and More Oscar Noms on Why Serious Themes Shine in Animation (4)

Classic cinema was also a deep influence on the helmers of “Nimona,” Troy Quane and Nick Bruno. Their story focuses on a knight who lives in a kingdom that’s both medieval and futuristic. After being falsely accused of a crime, the knight is forced on a journey to clear his name.

“Initially it was a love of all those Disney films like ‘Sleeping Beauty’ and ‘Cinderella’ that brought us into this world,” says Quane. “And the love story in our film between (two male leads), wanting that to be seen as part of the idea of a classic love story.”

“It was really important to us that this movie is all about those who feel that they are ‘other,’ who feel they are misunderstood, and we wanted the style of this movie to stand out as other so it doesn’t look like typical CG or typical 2D,” adds Bruno.

Directors for ‘Elemental,’ ‘Spider-Man’ and More Oscar Noms on Why Serious Themes Shine in Animation (5)

“Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse” also lived between CG and 2D influences as it leapt from one stylistic approach to another throughout the multiverse. Co-helmers Joaquim Dos Santos, Kemp Powers and Justin K. Thompson each brought their own inspirations.

For Thompson it was how he felt seeing “Cinderella” and noting the backgrounds changed color as the evil stepsisters ripped her dress to shreds. One the most influential classic animated films, “Cinderella” also inspired Thompson when the good fairies Flora, Fauna and Merryweather battled over the color of the dress they made for the famous ball, resulting in puffs of smoke in different colors appearing on screen. The filmmakers used this to inspire color changes in Gwen Stacy’s world when she reacted to a confrontation with her dad.

Powers’ admiration for romantic comedies like “Say Anything” brought in “long, lingering looks” that don’t usually appear in animation since scenes are often edited so tightly. Interested in giving their film the same opportunities to explore character and emotion, Powers elevated scenes in “Spider-Man” to include moments with a slower pace.

For dos Santos, Shinichirō Watanabe’s “Cowboy Bepop” and “Samurai Champloo” were a powerful draw.

“I’ve waited my entire career for feature animation to get to that place where we’re making films that play to these broad audiences, challenge kids with some heavier themes and allow adults to feel like kids at times,” says Dos Santos.

Directors for ‘Elemental,’ ‘Spider-Man’ and More Oscar Noms on Why Serious Themes Shine in Animation (2024)
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