Stephen Anderson (Director - 'Meet The Robinsons')
'So Here's To You, Mr. Robinson!'
Stephen J. Anderson joined Walt Disney Feature Animation in 1995 as a story artist on Tarzan. Prior to joining Disney, Anderson worked as an animator at Hyperion Animation on Rover Dangerfield and Bebe’s Kids. He made his directorial debut with the TV series The Itsy Bitsy Spider.
Anderson grew up in Plano, Texas before attending the prestigious California Institute of the Arts, where he also served as a story instructor for five years.
Following Tarzan, Steve continued his success in the story department with The Emperor’s New Groove, taking on the role of story supervisor. Then in 2003, Steve lent his talents once again as story supervisor on Brother Bear. Most recently, Anderson directed Disney’s animated feature 'Meet the Robinsons.'
Steve currently resides in Canyon Country, California with his wife Heather and their son Jacob.
Chatting recently with Stephen, and with the DVD release of 'Meet The Robinsons' now imminent, we first wondered just how exactly does one ‘direct’ an animated film such as ‘Meet The Robinsons’? Stephen J. Anderson - "Well, there's obviously the same things you do in live action in the terms of designing the film, working on the script, working on the visuals, the art direction, casting, acting, giving the story emotional context for everything. But I think the biggest thing for me is that as it takes place over a long period of time, longer than a live action film, it takes place in a room full of many people brainstorming, throwing around many ideas around."
"So, the most important thing for me to do is to create an environment of freedom here for everybody. In that these movies are fiercely collaborative and take place over a long period of time, and people can't create freely if they are afraid. We were about 300 people strong that worked on this movie over the course of four and a half years that the movie was actively going. And so my job is to eliminate fear from the process so that everybody can contribute and nobody feels that their ideas are going to be judged harshly - or that they're not allowed to speak in the room. So, that's my philosophy in terms of how to direct one of these films."
So, 'Meet The Robinsons' really took @ four and a half years from conception to completion to create?! "Yes, I got the first draft of the script in December of '02 and then the movie was released in March of '07. Which is about average for animation. Anywhere between 3 to 5 years is the norm, but this was certainly the longest amount of time I've ever spent on a project. Obviously because as the director you're more involved with it intimately then I would be if I was a story artist or something."
You also co-wrote the Screenplay for this film, but was it indeed based on William Joyce's "A Day with Wilbur Robinson" – a book that up until now had been adapted and expanded by no fewer than seven other screenwriters? "Yes, but I actually didn't have the benefit of knowing any of the other ideas for it. I had no idea what other stories had been developed - and the first draft was actually written without my involvement. And that writer was the one who came up with the time travel and the orphan angle where Lewis wants to find out about his birth mom."
"So, those aspects were in there when I got it. Then, after that it was about finding the emotional core of the film; the emotional statement that the movie wanted to make. And what was the main characters emotional journey. That's what I find important in the work that I do and in the movies that I watch is that emotional aspect. Certainly the book has a lot of great fantasy elements. There's a lot of quirky characters and amazing set pieces visually. It's a very eccentric world that you get to play within."
"But if you don't have any emotional foundation it's just a lot of fun pictures. And perhaps, and I don't know, but perhaps that's what some of the other incarnations stressed over the emotion of the story. But, I certainly felt that that foundation was necessary."
Being adopted yourself, how much of a true connection to this storyline did you surprisingly encounter? "Well, they were different circumstances. I wasn't in an orphanage like Lewis. I was adopted as an infant. Maybe a few months old at the most. So, I've never lacked for a family. But I certainly understood the questions that this boy was asking. And when I read the first draft of the script I immediately felt I knew this boy and all that was going on in his head. I asked the same questions as I was growing up; Where did I come from? Who were my birth parents; Why did my mother give me up? So I immediately identified with this boy and felt like I knew how to tell the story. I understood what this story was about."
'Meet the Robinsons' motto seems to be the untypically spoken: "Be glad when you fail, because that's how you learn." "Yeah, I really liked that aspect of the film. I like the notion of letting go of the past and keep moving forward. We say that a lot in the film, but then to be able to also develop it a little farther with the Robinson family and actually say that failure is actually the beginning and not the end; and that it's a chance to learn and grow - I think it's a very important lesson."
"I think it's important for anybody no matter what culture you're from, no matter how old you are, everybody can benefit from the fact that failure is human. It's one of the most human things we go through. So, I like being able to have that kind of statement in the movie. And I think it's also something that I've also tried to learn in life as well; with this movie and before this movie and now since this movie. How to conquer that obsession with mistakes and beating yourself up about the things you wish you hadn't done. I do that a lot, I've always done that. It's kind of in my nature. So, the movie has kinda helped me get over that and not be afraid to make mistakes."
You also voice-acted in the film re: Bowler Hat Guy/Tallulah/Grandpa Bud, but were you always the first choice for taking on these vocal personas? "We always provide our own temporary voices as place holders before we cast actors. We use ourselves here at the studio to do that. And, so that's what I had done - I had done those temp voices for those characters. And as we have many of our crew members doing temp voices what ends up happening sometimes is very early on - when you have those temp voices - they tend to stick, to glue themselves to those characters. They start to define the character. And sometimes it's very hard to then separate them."
"So, myself and several other crew members ended up doing the final voices because those voices became organic to those characters. And I think you see that a lot with animation. Brad Bird doing a voice in The Incredibles, Chris Sanders doing the voice of Stitch in Lilo & Stitch, Walt Disney even doing Mickey Mouse. I think when you create characters in animation you're not just doing them visually, you're just not designing them or drawing them you're also thinking about what's inside of them and how they speak; how they get their their thoughts across; what their speech patterns are. So, I think you see that sometimes because you know those characters so well that sometimes the creators are the ones that really understand how those characters should speak."
Will there be a sequel? "I don't know. I certainly love these characters and have lots of ideas for further adventures and for how to continue the story. For me there's still a lot to mine with these characters. So, we'll see. I have some thoughts, but I'm currently working on some non-Meet The Robinsons ideas to pitch to John Lasseter [the Head of Walt Disney Animation and Pixar Studios] for some new movies. So that's really my focus right now. But yes, in some way or another I'd love to be able continue the story of Lewis and the Robinsons."
Finally, do you think that you would ever become a director of a live action movie some time in the near future? "I think that it's a challenge that I'd love to tackle some day. I'm certainly very happy with animation right now and I have a lot more stories I'd like to tell in animation. So yes, maybe some day. I think that would be very exciting."
Interviewed by Russell A. Trunk
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