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9: Interviews with Shane Acker and Elijah Wood

From Student Film to Hollywood Feature

Above: Shane Acker's "9"

Audio

Aired 9/8/09

KPBS film critic Beth Accomando interview Shane Acker and Elijah Wood at Comic-Con 2009 about the new animated feature "9."

Transcript

It's not often that a film finds a perfect date for its release. But the animated feature "9" opens today, which is 9-9-09. I spoke with the director about the new feature and the short film that inspired it.

Four years ago Shane Acker appeared at Comic-Con with a short animated film but this past July he came with a Hollywood feature. "It was great," said Acker, "because I was never able to get into Hall H so the first time I was able to get in I was presenting something. So it was pretty fun."

The film he brought was "9" and it packed the 6000-plus venue at Comic-Con. Back in 2005 Acker brought his UCLA short film of the same name to Comic-Con and walked away with an award for best animated film.

"I was able to make the short film on my own in my spare bedroom," said Acker, "the technology had come down to a level where independent artists and filmmakers could use it and you don't need the whole infrastructure of a studio to produce your own short film. Everything is at your disposal if you just have the energy and enthusiasm to stick with it for four-and-a-half-years."

A mechanical creature from "9"

Universal

Above: A mechanical creature from "9"

Acker not only stuck with it but managed to impress filmmakers Tim Burton and Timur Bekmambetov. They then signed on to produce a feature length version of his short. The film is set in a post-apocalyptic future and the title "9" refers to a nine inch tall hand sewn character who discovers he's not alone in this desolate landscape. Acker describes the look of the film as painterly in a kind of old school romantic style, "it's an interesting world and space that we enter, and even though it's post-apocalyptic, but we're really trying to find the beauty in this kind of landscape, and we're exploring the world from a completely different perspective, we're nine inches off the ground and we're experiencing the world through these creatures and inhabit spaces that we don't or can't. It's not the ruins of our world it's the ruins of this retro futuristic world that's very steam punk in nature. So it's as if a steam punk world collapsed."

Bringing an animated world to life involves directing the film once with the voice actors and again with the animators. Acker says the process is a highly collaborative one: "So it will go from script then usually we will get some scratch voice actors to come in and do a dry run on the performance of the characters then the storyboard artists have their take on the characters and their personalities and then we'll go and record the actual actors who will have a different take on the personality and then we'll take all that raw material to the animators."

The animators also look to the actors says Elijah Wood who voices the character of 9.

"When we were in the studio recording," Wood told me, "and this is true of all the actors we were filmed for reference and they use our face and facial expressions as help for them to inform on how they would animate."

Wood has plenty of experience with blue screen acting from "Sin City" and "Lord of the Rings." But he enjoys going to a recording studio to voice a character.

"It's a lot of fun," Wood said, "and it becomes very singularly about creating that character through voice. I think the process is very interesting. You are kind of unhindered about the physical and you don't have to worry about all of those exterior elements you are only worried about how to emote and bring the character to life vocally and how to do that physically in that space because that certainly helps especially if it's an action sequence you find yourself having to move to imbue the voice with a sense of movement.

A human character is added to the feature length version of "9"

Universal

Above: A human character is added to the feature length version of "9"

"9" delivers a visually stunning animation but what may be most surprising is that Acker's student film looks almost as good as the Hollywood feature. Technology has come a long way but some things never change. At Comic-Con, Acker found himself offering advice to struggling student filmmakers.

"Keep pushing it forward," Acker advised them, "people will respond to the enthusiasm and the momentum you create and they will see when someone's really poured their heart into something."

Acker has obviously put his heart into "9" (rated PG-13 for violence and scary images). But in some ways the increased budget and longer length has not improved on his ten-minute, wordless short. The Feature length version of "9" creates an amazing world that inspires our imaginations, but Acker loses us at the end with a quasi-religious conclusion that's very different from his short film. In this case different is not batter. But up until that final half hour, "9" proves

Companion viewing: "Wall-E," "Steamboy," "Wonderful Days"

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