Storytelling school

‘The Mitchells vs. the Machines’ takes visual storytelling forward

“Making the film look like nothing that’s been done before.”

Scribbled on a production whiteboard, this guiding principle led Sony Pictures Animation’s “The Mitchells vs. the Machines” to break down barriers with its fresh perspectives, unique artistry, and richly drawn characters.

Released on Netflix last April to acclaim from audiences and critics alike, the feature has become one of the most honored animated films of the season, with 30 wins from critics, nominations for Best Feature BAFTA and Oscar-winning animation and eight nominations for Animation Industry Annies – a testament to the project’s bold animation style and broad storytelling appeal.

Family Bonds and Inspiration

The concept starts out grounded and relatable, with the Mitchell family driving across the country to drop off their artistic daughter Katie at film school. But the bonding effort turns into a struggle for survival when a tech company’s product upgrade sparks a robot uprising.

Creator Michael Rianda says the concept stems from “the combination of the thing I love the most, which is my crazy family, and the thing I loved the most when I was a kid, which was killer robots. “.

Rianda tapped her former CalArts classmate, Jeff Rowe, to co-write and co-direct the story.

“From the beginning, Mike’s goal was to make it look like real people,” says Rowe.

Authenticity came from extracting character traits and observed behaviors directly from Rianda’s family – and the story required equally fantastic original art.

Rianda set out to build an animation team whose creativity would be less impacted by outside influences. In other words: the noobs.

beginners club

“Often the most passionate people are the hungriest. They’ve never done it before and they always say, ‘I have ideas!’” says Rianda.

A former CalArts professor, the first feature film director assembled a team from the television world as well as recent graduates, giving them a shot at a studio film — and often their first leadership roles. This allowed them to mix 2D, 3D and live-action components.

Lindsay Olivares, a new producer and character designer, says the rookie’s enthusiasm was exciting.

“We had a similar energy. It was kind of infectious!” she says. “We want to do all these things that we love, that we want to see on screen, that we haven’t seen.”

New odds

Rianda says the art team “really pulled together” to create Katie Vision, an immersive visual experience based on the film’s main character, Katie Mitchell.

As an artist, Katie constantly doodles on everything: her pants, her shoes, her nails and her body. So it only makes sense that Katie, as an aspiring filmmaker, would also draw on the film’s 3D footage, bringing her life to life in real time.

When she and her younger brother Aaron communicate with their dinosaur roar, green doodles of dinosaur heads appear. When she feels a strong emotion or has an idea, scribbled hearts or lightning bolts float next to her head. And when she hatches a plan to escape the robots hunting her family, she envisions the sequence as an action movie, with a hand-drawn title card briefly appearing behind her.

Katie’s 2D sketches bring the audience right inside her head, allowing them to see the adventure through Katie’s creative lens. Innovation also adds a fourth dimension: emotional insight.

“Mike wanted the stakes to be real,” says Alan Hawkins, the film’s character animation lead. “He wanted the emotion to be real, and that tells an animator a lot right away. If a character can jump up and do a cartoon take and get out of frame, he wanted them to have real physical challenges. .

Chris Miller, who won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature with Phil Lord for ‘Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse’ in 2018, says it’s time to put aside standard conventions: “The technology is finally overtaken by the limits of our imagination. And therefore no more excuses to make an animated film that looks like all the others. It’s a medium that begs to have a personalized touch when anything is possible.

Katie Mitchell: a protagonist of today

Impressed with a very early cut, Miller and Lord came on board as producers a few years after “Mitchells” was produced. “We were absolutely smitten with both how funny it was, but also how sweet and emotional and warm-hearted, which are things you both don’t often see,” said Miller.

“From that first screening, it was very obvious that Mike and Jeff were putting all of their ideas into the film – all of their hearts,” adds Lord. “You just felt the creative energy, the enthusiasm and the drive.”

A dedication to authenticity in character building led to an eye-opener, says Rianda: “As we were developing the character, more and more people were asking, ‘Katie looks gay. Is she gay? It became something something we felt like we had to sort out.

Katie is the first explicitly queer protagonist in a major studio animated feature. Supporting characters in older animated features may have been flagged as LGBTQ+, but their sexual and gender identities have been left open to interpretation. Rianda says the whole crew is committed to “[showing] a gay kid in the theater that they deserved to be the protagonist of their own story.

Katie’s homosexuality is never treated as anything other than normal, and it’s only confirmed in one line in the epilogue – another example of how ‘The Mitchells vs. the Machines’ blazes a trail that has never been borrowed.

“Even though the story is about Rick and Katie disagreeing, it was never about his sexuality,” Lord said. “[Her parents] like the. He’s the first studio-animated protagonist to be gay in film, and that’s a big deal in some ways. But it shouldn’t look like it. Yes, she is gay. So what?”