Stephen Anderson: Meet the Director Behind "Meet the Robinsons"

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Stephen Anderson Disney Meet Robinsons

Stephen Anderson has over ten years of experience working for Disney's animation department. Starting as a story artist on "Tarzan," Anderson continued with other successful Disney projects like "The Emperor's New Groove" and "Brother Bear."

Most recently, Anderson has graduated to directing for the Mouse House, and his latest venture, "Meet the Robinsons," is soon to appear on DVD. In advance of that release, we spoke with Anderson about animators directing animators, creating eccentric characters, and working with musicians and voice actors.

Disney lore has it that Walt knew so precisely how Mickey Mouse should sound that no voice audition was good enough, and he finally had to do it himself. With "Meet the Robinsons," was there any kind of voice casting for Bowler Hat Guy and Grandpa Bud, or did you go into this knowing in advance you would be voicing these characters for the film?

Well, we always do temporary voices before we cast actors, and we use ourselves -- our crew members -- as the cast. I did those characters very early on, and sometimes those voices in those early stages tend to stick to the characters, and it's very hard to separate them. People were very complimentary of what I had done with those characters, and it seemed like the voices kind of naturally fit with the characters, and other crew members also do voices in the film so it happened with quite a few of these characters. I think sometimes when you create characters, you don't just create them visually -- you create their entire being: you're thinking about what's going on inside their heads, what's going on inside their hearts, how they speak, the kind of actual voice patterns that they use. I think that's why you see a lot of creators voicing their characters, because of that really intimate connection you have as you create these characters.

With your hands-on experience with other animated projects, do you find that when you're directing other animators that you need to pull back a bit to avoid micromanaging, since you're so intimately familiar with the process?

Yeah, and it kind of depends on what particular stage of the process you're in. I think for the story end of things, the storyboarding, the story writing, it's not about micromanaging -- it's about always keeping the big picture in mind. I think when you get into something like animation -- when you're actually animating the characters, bringing them to life -- that does tend to end up being about minutiae and the details and the little... that slight angle you have on the eyebrow versus the cheeks being squashed just a little bit more. You really get into the minutiae there. Or in the final lighting of the shots, the atmosphere, where the lights are placed. So it kind of depends on where you are in the process, and some stages require -- maybe micromanaging isn't the right word -- but require looking at the details and really working on details, versus other stages that require much more of a big picture way of thinking.

The mascot for Lewis and Goob's school is a dinosaur. Why such a past mascot for a future-looking film? Is there some symbolism there?

It's actually a reference to another one of William Joyce's books. William Joyce is the author and illustrator of the book that our movie is based on, and he had another very popular book called Dinosaur Bob, which is about a giant green brontosaurus. So we were making a reference to Bill Joyce's other book by choosing the green brontosaurus and calling the team the Dinos. It was an inside joke to Bill Joyce.

You had such a diverse cast that I could spend the entire interview asking you to tell me about this person or that person and not get through them all. But one person you did cast is an actor near and dear to my childhood -- Adam West. What was behind that selection, and what was he like to work with?

He was unbelievable. He was somebody who... It's interesting, sometimes, with actors, especially when you have some of the more broad, comedic, crazier moments like we have in "Meet the Robinsons" with the family, and you tell the actors what they're going to be performing. You say, "Okay, now in this scene, it's the family dinner and suddenly one of your family members jumps up on the table and starts throwing meatballs across the table, and you're getting hit with the meatball." And sometimes you expect actors to go, "What are you talking about?" But Adam West would say, "O-kay," and we would roll and he would do it like it was real. He would never question the surreal nature of any of the stuff we were doing. He bought it, he believed it, and he did it in a very natural way. He never mugged, he never tried to make it silly or goofy or cartoony. He was a complete professional, such a joy to work with, the nicest man, and really just understood the subversive and childlike nature of the Robinsons and of the character he was playing. It was a real treat for me to be able to work with him.

How closely do you work with the musicians? Obviously with Danny Elfman who did the composition, but also with the soundtrack contributors like Rob Thomas and Rufus Wainwright?

It's an interesting... We were talking before about micromanaging versus big picture. As far as the songs go, my involvement is early on. We met with Rufus and with Rob and just talked overall about the movie and about the moments we would like them to have songs with. We talked thematically, talked emotionally, and about the arc of the film -- and then sort of let it be, and let them go away and absorb that and express what they were thinking and feeling about those particular moments. So the specifics of the songs is all them, and it was really just up to me to kind of give them the context. And the songs that they came up with, I couldn't be happier with. I'm so proud of the music in this film. I think it's a very diverse group of musicians, different for a Disney movie, and with so much emotion and so much soul. Rob Thomas, Rufus Wainwright -- they have so much emotion in what they do. And then working with Danny was just... I kept pinching myself, saying, "I'm sitting next to Danny Elfman, in the studio, in his house, listening to demos for a movie that I'm getting to direct -- this can't be real." And Danny's process is similar, too. You talk very generally, then he goes away and he comes up with the music. He doesn't like to overthink, overtalk. It was a great collaboration with all of them.

You talk in the special features of your personal connection felt with the main character of Lewis, because of your being adopted and the themes of letting go of the past and pursuing happiness as Lewis eventually does. How did working with animation become your own pursuit of happiness?

My first memory of going to a movie at all was seeing "Snow White" at a re-release at a drive-in movie theater, and there was just something about animation that connected with me. Since I've been doing these interviews and talking about the movie, I've been trying to think back as to what it was about animation, and it's very hard to put my finger on. I think overall, though, the notion of telling stories through graphics -- through shapes, through color, through movement, through line -- we all react to it on a gut level as humans, both children and adults. It doesn't matter what culture you're from, it doesn't matter your age. There's something very primal about graphics. I think it's one of the reasons why animation is so universal, because we can all react to it that way. I think there was something about that graphic nature of animation that I really took to, and it led to me drawing, it led to me reading about movies, about writing, about Disney, and just really became the thing that I wanted to do.

So what's next for you, and is it from Disney?

I'm developong a couple of stories that I'm going to pitch to John Lasseter in November, and hopefully he will like one of them and I'll get to do it again. I love the experience of directing. I love being at Disney. I really don't want to be anywhere else doing anything else, so I hope to be able to do this again.

John Lasseter was the former head honcho at Pixar. Have things changed much at Disney Animation since he became the boss there?

John has creatively injected so much health into our studio. At Pixar, the responsibility for the movies being great, being successful, are on the filmmakers, so they have empowered the filmmakers here -- the producers, the directors, and everyone else on the films -- to really take responsibilities for the movies, and it's up to the filmmakers to make them great. And it wasn't always the case here that the control or responsibility was in the filmmaker's hand. It's been great, what they've done, and they've really empowered all of us to make these films from inside of us, from our hearts. It's not just about, "Is it a cool idea?" It's about, "Is it an idea that means something to you as a filmmaker?" "Is it something that comes from inside of you?" And I think that's great.

The reviews on "Meet the Robinsons" were generally positive. The film was family friendly, and solidly heartwarming. But the box office just didn't reflect that. Is this a sign that perhaps other studios are starting to catch up in terms of animation quality and family entertainment, and that the Disney label just doesn't carry the prestige it once did?

We can never lose sight of the fact that it's a very competitive market right now. There are a lot of studios producing movies. We can't just coast on our name -- the movies have to be the thing that speaks for who we are, and for our identity, and we always have to put 150% into the movies we make to make them great. It certainly is a competitive world right now, and there are a lot of movies being made, but all we can do is make the best movie we possibly can and pour all of our heart and soul into what we do, and then give it to the world and hope that the world responds to it. That part of it is out of our control. But we all love making movies, so we're going to keep making movies and we're going to keep making great movies.