Feature Stories

Shane Acker: Envisioning a World

Tim Burton mentors animation alum as thesis film "9" becomes a feature


"I didn't learn all the technical stuff at UCLA. On a lot of that I was essentially self-taught. What I really learned was storytelling and filmmaking, which prepared me to be a director." — Shane Acker, writer/animator/director, "9"

"I saw Shane's short film and it just blew me away," says visionary director Tim Burton ("Sweeny Todd"), describing his first encounter with "9," the Director's Spotlight-winning Animation Workshop thesis film by Shane Acker MA '98, MFA '04. Set in a blasted futuristic landscape, the film centers on a plucky rag doll with oddly metallic, camera-like eyes, who battles a mysterious mechanical antagonist, The Beast.

The short went on to play at dozens of film festivals. It was named "Best of Show" at SIGGRAPH 2005 and snagged the Gold Medal, the top prize, at the 2005 Student Academy Awards.

In 2006 it was nominated for an Oscar in the Best Animated Short Film category.

Acker traveled a winding road to his career as an animator. Born in Wheaton, Illinois, he began his academic career at the University of Florida, intending to become an architect. At UCLA he earned a master's degree in the subject from the School of Arts and Architecture before signing on at the world-famous Animation Workshop.

"When I started working in architecture," Acker explains. "I realized right away what a long arduous journey it would be to get the freedom to do what I wanted. But I was also trained in the computer graphics side of things, and I began to see that possibility to create something all by yourself, with just your own computer and software. The potential of that is really limitless."

It took Acker more than four years to make the short version of “9.” That extreme solitary dedication is, for Tim Burton, is what truly separates the men from the boys in the field of animation.

"I got out of animation because I couldn't do that," Burton says. "I just don't' have the patience for it. I was a really unhappy animator. In fact, when I was working at Disney [on shorts such as the 1982 "Vincent"] I slept half the day. I learned how to sleep at my desk in case they ever walked in."

In contrast, Acker recalls,“That's when I discovered that I was an artist, because I could not walk away from '9' once I started. I had to see it through.”

Acker's work on the short had to be postponed from time to time because the filmmaker was already getting lucrative day jobs, including a lengthy stint in New Zealand at Peter Jackson's special effects and animation studio WETA Workshop. Acker says he "killed a lot things, virtually," on Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings,” notably some giant elephants in the final battle sequence in "The Return of the King."

He also animated the iconic Eye of Sauron that dominates the fantasy epic's last two installments.

"I really got some animation legs from that experience," Acker says. "Being in such a prestigious place, with some of the top animation talent in the world — I consider that my animation boot camp."

The feature version of “9“ opens worldwide on September 9, 2009 – 9/9/09.

In our exclusive interview below, which includes material gathered by Sheila Roberts at San Diego Comic-Con 2009, Shane Acker comments on:

Animation and Architecture

Becoming a Director

His Influences

"9" – From Short to Feature

Mentors Tim Burton and Timur Bekmambetov

Realism in Animation

Sheila Roberts: Did you have a good experience at the UCLA Animation Workshop?

Shane Acker: I had a great experience. I was fortunate, I think, because I had already gone through one masters program, in architecture, so I knew what a masters program was all about. It's really about making the space for yourself to do your own work. You have to be self-motivated and you have to know what you want to get out of it. I knew how precious that time was and that it was really up to me to make the best of it.

And it was amazing working with [the Animation Workshop's founding director, now retired] Dan McLaughlin. He had so much knowledge, such a history. And he was really good at story. I didn't learn all the technical stuff at UCLA. On a lot of it I was essentially self-taught. What I really learned was storytelling and filmmaking, which prepared me to be a director.


SR: UCLA alumna Catherine Hardwicke ("Twilight") is another director who started as an architect. It doesn't seem like the most obvious first step to becoming a filmmaker.

SA: It makes more sense than you might think. In architecture school you're not so much making a building as telling a story about a building that you want to make someday. You're trying to sell that, and you wrap it up in a narrative. You talk about how people will live in this space, and then you present drawings and imagery that will sell this idea to people.

It's a world. When you study architecture you're studying anthropology. You're trying to understand how all these fragments come together to create a world. For me filmmaking, too, is about creating a world and saying, "Who are the people who live here, and why?"

I've always had a very broad artistic background. I loved sculpting, drawing, cartooning. I loved architecture, the pursuit of creating space, but I saw that in architecture I could only do some of that, not all of it. Animation opened up the possibility of all my interests coming into play. And on top of that is storytelling, the element of time. Here was the opportunity to create, from nothing, a whole world. I thought, "That's what I really want to try to do."


SR: Going from the "one person, one film" approach of the UCLA Animation Workshop to being a leader at the head of a huge crew, that must have been a bit of an adjustment.

SA: It was very strange. It was frightening! It took a long time to get past the desire to push the artists out of the way and just sit down and do it myself. It's a really frustrating thing at first. But then you start to collaborate with people who, frankly, are much more talented and have more experience than you do, and they bring something to it that you never could. That's where the joy begins.


SR: The film has such an unusual style and tone – were there any earlier films that served as touchstones for you?

SA: I was inspired by a lot of stop-motion filmmaking – The Brothers Quay ("Street of Crocodiles"), Jan Svanmajer ("Alice"), and Tim Burton's productions. I just love the tactile quality, the texture and the type of movement that stop-motion creates, an organic kind of decayed nature. I initially started playing with stop-motion and then realized, at UCLA, that I wasn't going to be able to do the camera moves and the visual storytelling that I wanted, so I quickly went into the CG world. But I took with me those qualities of stop-motion. I even designed the characters in “9” as you would a stop-motion armature so that they'd behave the way metal and cloth behaves. I think that lent a kind of believability to the film.


SR: Tell us something about the story of "9" and how the short differs from the feature. No spoilers, but whatever you feel comfortable saying.

SA: In the short we pick up in the middle of a conflict between our lovable heroes, these rag dolls who each have a number, and this awful creature, The Beast. The beast has been hunting the dolls and taking their life force, and making trophies of their numbers. And then the doll who is number 9, who appears to be a newcomer, gets an idea about how to overcome this creature.

In the feature version we wake up with 9 in this world and it's really a process of self-discovery: who are we and why are we here and what has happened to us? And 9's journey of self discovery awakens something from the past, the force that led to the downfall of humanity. Now the dolls have to overcome this thing, and in so doing they find the answers.

It's really a struggle for what it is to be human. I guess, and at what point do we dehumanize ourselves? But it's also just a big action adventure movie!

SR: Many, many details of the backstory and the landscape are left implicit in the short. Was there a push to make things more explicit in the feature version, to spell things out more?

SA: Those are questions we grappled with constantly. My instinct would be that the filmmakers need to know, but the audience doesn't necessarily need to know all that stuff. That's what makes watching the short so engaging, because something you glimpse in the background or some small gesture from a character will suggest all that history. In animation there's always a huge leap of faith. You can't solve every problem. There won't be an answer for everything. It's about where you put the focus, or how hard do you sell it, how do you project it in a way that it's believable, so people will say, "We'll go along with it."


SR: Tim Burton and Timur Bekmambetov were major collaborators in the process of developing this premise from short to feature. How did they help you?

SA: Tim was instrumental in getting the whole thing up and running. He was the umbrella who made a creative space for me to work. But both Tim and Timur were super busy, so there were only periods off and on where we could get together. Most of the time it was me working with the writer, Pamela Cutler, and the producer, Jim Lemley, and all the artists and designers. And then there would be moments when we could get together and present this material to the producers.

The later part of the project, where I really got to work with Timur after he finished "Wanted," was a great experience, because he's just an incredibly creative artist and filmmaker. I would say that while Timur directs live action what he also does is make worlds, pretty much in the same way that "9" does.


SR: Were you actively trying to apply what we might call a live action sensibility to animation?

SA: As far as the cinematography, I was trying to approach this from a realistic standpoint, even though it's as far-fetched as it can be, with these little burlap guys running around. One of the problems that I have with first time CG directors is that they do everything with the camera, way beyond what you can do with a real camera rig. And I really wanted to embed this film in the classic language of cinema and treat the virtual camera as if there was a cameraman there, following the action; that he's not on some kind of crazy spaceship flying around. I want to make it as real as possible

And that's also the way we approached the voice acting [with a cast that includes Elijah Wood, John C. Reilly and Jennifer Connolly] . A lot of and times in animated film it's so broad and so pushed and so loud. We wanted a real naturalism. We sought out actors who had characteristics similar to the characters they were playing, and the actors speak in their own voices and we're very earnest about everything we're doing. We believe so much that these characters exist and that they're real.

SR: You used no motion capture on this film.

SA: That's true, no motion capture. But we did shoot tons and tons of reference. We shot the voice actors and used that footage as reference. And we were constantly acting out scenes – as animators always do. It's interesting because in that sense the animators are the actors who create the characters, but we also have the voice actors. So the thing that you see on screen is several actors all coming together to create a performance.

It's a process of discovery. First the story board guys will sort of kick it off by investigating how these guys will behave in the scenes. And then you go and capture the voice performance and then you talk with the animators and finally through this whole process the character emerges. You almost have to be a couple of months into the work of animating before you really understand who these characters are.

That's the focus. I didn't set out to shake the foundation of animation. I just wanted to tell the story that I wanted to tell, and show this world and its characters, and the way I see things. It's exciting to see that something like this can come out and get the backing of a studio. I'm very happy.