9, Shane Acker’s first feature film, is out this week. Adapted from an award-winning (and Academy Award-nominated) short film from 2005, 9 is a dark, imaginative, dystopic 3D animated film that is full of expressive design and mad bouts of inspiration, as little ‘stitchpunk’ ragdolls live and survive in a post-apocalyptic world.
I recently had the chance to speak with Acker, about his background in architecture and sculpture, the process of adapting the short into a feature (with the help of producers Tim Burton and Timur Bekmambetov), as well as the processes and influences that go into creating a disinctive, affecting world.
9 started off as an award-winning short some years ago. What’s the story behind it being transformed into a feature?
It wasn’t very long after I got the short done, that I got paired up with an agent, and he started sending me out and the short out, to give me the room to look into further projects. And that’s when I met Jim Lemley, the creative producer on the feature. And he already had a relationship with Timur Bekmambetov and also with Mike Simpson, who was Tim Burton’s agent. So we had a conversation about projects, and about 9, and some of the ideas behind that, and he said ‘well, I think there might be a film there. You should start working on a treatment’.
So that led to Tim Burton seeing, and being really taken by, the short, and subsequently I pitched the feature treatment to him, and he said right there in the meeting that he wanted to be a part of it, and help me out in any way that he could. So it was really the short that opened all those doors; if I didn’t have that short film, I don’t think the feature would ever have been made.What were the big hurdles for the production? With the short, you seemed to do all of the animation work yourself. Was it different working with a team? And, likewise, working with voice actors?
Yeah. Well, it’s a bit like the dog who’s chasing the car, and the car stops, and he slams into the back of it. I’d arrived at this place where I wasn’t entirely prepared to be! And so, I found that you just end up going with your instincts – that’s all you really have when you’re in an unknown situation. And, you know, trying to direct with confidence, but leaving a little bit of space open for the creative process to take place with whatever artist you’re working with – whether it’s a voice actor, or a writer, or the 3D artists that are creating the work. And then, you have to be able to make a decision, and be firm with it, and then be able to weather the storm that comes with the fallout of that decision.
Just becoming comfortable with being uncomfortable – that was the modus operandi I was under. So I surrounded myself with really talented people, I trusted them, and gave them a lot of responsibility too, and a big piece of the creative pie. And it seemed to work out.
Speaking of the creative process, I’d love to talk with you about the design work behind the film. It’s quite astounding, really, and such an interesting mix of very different elements of sci-fi, fantasy, and cultural touchstones from the 1930s to the 1950s. What were your influences?
Well, I start from a point with lots of research and reference, and once you figure out the broad-stroke ideas, you go in there, and use as much historical information you can, and use that as raw inspiration for creating the world.
I come from an architectural background, and as well I’m a sculptor and a woodworker, so I love the way things come together in the detail. And one of the concepts that we had on the film, was that everything that was in the world could be built and be in our real world, so we wanted a real tactile quality to it.
The world is made up of little pieces of things left over, so how do you recombine those in a creative way, to create these characters and creatures? And then we’d take trips out to these junkyards here in LA, and go and get bags and bags of junk, and take them back to the studio and look at them, and use that to inspire us, and find little ideas in that.
I’m a designer by background, and I really have a lot of fun with that, because all that stuff really helps to create a world and tell a story. Even set design, and the backgrounds, can tell a story. So we spent a lot of time with the design, trying to figure out what this world is, and what the history of this world was. And then just finding a way to mess it up.That’s noticeable from the film, with the little details in the characters and creatures. Some of the images from the film have definitely stuck with me, especially the monster-creatures, such as the ‘Seamstress’ and ‘Winged Beast’ – they’re some of the more terrifying creations I’ve seen at the cinema in a long time.
[Laughs] That’s great!
And that tactile, everyday aspect made it all the more vivid.
Yeah, we wanted something that was familiar, but something that was different and new. So a lot of the creatures are based loosely on mythological creatures, whether it’s the Seamstress being like Medusa, or the Machine that makes the beasts being like the Cyclops. So, we had some ideas to hang our hat on, but that would become the sandbox that we’d play in, to figure out how we’d put these things together.
A lot of it would be how would they locomote, how would they move. That would form the design. So we’d do these study models, just with simple shapes; we’d sculpt the creatures, and make them move the way we wanted them to move, and then go back and say, okay, what can these shapes be?
And we had fun, putting anchors into every creature, something that was familiar, so the audience would be like, ‘oh wow, that’s a bellows’. It’s a bit ironic, that the flying machine is pumping these bellows very quick, in order for it to move or float in the air. Or there’s a little blow torch that’s attached to it. Or there’s a little phone receiver, that the screams of the Winged Beast come out of. So we had a lot of fun with that.It’s quite obvious! And I think that’s part of the fun for the audience, too. As a filmmaker, do you have any animators or directors that you look up to, especially in making your first feature film?
Oh, yeah. I love the work of Terry Gilliam. And he comes from animation, although he does a lot of his films in live action now. Also, I love Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro – Delicatessen and City Of Lost Children. They’re really wonderful films, and they create their own worlds, but a lot of the story is told through the visuals and the design. They have very strong design sensibilities.
So, I think there’s a lot of looking at that, and bringing it into our film as well. And they’re all kind of period pieces, as well. Delicatessen is a post-apocalyptic period piece, and City Of Lost Children has this sort of antiquated, retro, steampunk kind of feel to it as well, and that film is pretty much non-narrative, too.
And it’s almost the same with Brazil, with this very visual, but it’s a low-tech sort of dystopian future.
Yeah! I think Terry Gilliam has this fascination with the machine. I think that’s why we decided to make our film very 1930s – although it’s not 1930s, there’s a good helping of the Industrial Revolution in there as well – because, it was the age of the fascination with the machine, and the celebration of the machine. And if you look at the sort of stuff that was built back then, even under the hood, there’s a real beauty in the detailing, and a degree of ornamentation. That was the kind of world that we wanted, because the core of our film, that was their downfall – putting too much faith in the machine. It’s a kind of Oppenheimer tale.
9 certainly doesn’t feel like a traditional animated film. In fact, there are quite a few non-conventional animated films that have, or are, coming out this year – like Coraline, or Fantastic Mr. Fox. Even Up is a little different from the usual Pixar style. Do you think there’s an opening up in Hollywood to these slightly different kinds of films?
Yeah, I think part of it – at least for me – is that the technology has now come down to the independent filmmaker level. You don’t need your own software, you can get off the shelf software, and it’s really robust. It’s pretty much solved all of the technical hurdles for you.
It’s really about what sort of story you want to tell. And you can tell it with a much smaller budget – as we did in our case. And that’s the shift for me, and that’s allowed me to make a film like this, the kind of film that’s a bit riskier, because it’s not as expensive to do. But, you know, it was still risky, and I thank Focus that they were willing to try it, as they did with Coraline as well.
These PG-13 animated films have never been seen before, so I think there’s an audience there. We’ve seen that there’s an audience there, that can respond to this kind of material, and get excited by it. And hopefully we can open the doors for other, young filmmakers to do the same, to tell different stories and create different worlds in this medium.