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Great cartoons need top stories

RONNIE Carmen has plotted on storyboards many acclaimed animation features such as "Up" (2009), "Wall-E" (2008),"Ratatouille" (2007), and "Finding Nemo" (2003).

The storyboard writer, artist and designer was the story supervisor on Pixar's 3D full-length computer-animated film "Up," which won Best Animated Feature Film in the 2010 Academy Awards.

Carmen works for Disney's Pixar Animation Studios in Emeryville, California, and previously worked at DreamWorks and Warner Bros - all in the capacity of story artist, story supervisor, character designer, illustrator and all-around pest. He's been dabbling in comics for years and self-publishes his own comic book, "Paper Biscuit."

At the recent CCG Expo, an international animation and cartoon game exhibition in July, Carmen talked with Shanghai Daily on how to make an animation with a great story and universal appeal.

Q: Why was "Up" so successful?

A: Because we immediately care what happens to Carl, the old balloon seller who sails away. After seeing his life with his wife Ellie and understanding his unfulfilled promise we start to feel for him. Now you want him to succeed even though the odds are against him. The movie also takes you to a place you've never been before, on an adventure that you've never seen undertaken. The audience may expect our hero to prevail but while you're watching you're in suspense because you can't see how this frail old man is going to accomplish his goal against such seemingly insurmountable odds. That's why you watch movies.

Q: What inspired you to present "Up"?

A: Bob Peterson is the writer. It's Pete Docter's movie so he puts it all together and guides it. But Pete, Bob, I and the story crew all contributed to writing. When we storyboard our "writing," it is done with drawings. We draw our ideas and make the characters do what we believe they might do in situations we put them in. Pete Docter's inspiration comes from within. He has stories about old men because of the animation mentors who were around for him. Their stories are like Carl's. There are enough movies about strong young people conquering armies or other worlds. Older people have adventures too. It was time they had a movie about them.

Q: What's the trend for Hollywood animated films?

A: The current trend is about 3D and somewhere beyond there will be something else. Regardless of trends, Pixar stays true to it's dedication to making movies with good and emotional stories. That comes first and is most important. Without it a movie can have all the current trendy things but it will fail in delivering a meaningful experience.

Q: Are stunts important?

A: The most important work we do is make movies with a great story. A great story will require great images, experiences, thrills and spills. But if it's just about the thrills then audiences will not care. One explosion or set piece after another and you'll get bored. Audiences have to care about what's happening to the characters in the movie.

Q: What about cooperation between Chinese animators and Hollywood?

A: Working in the United States, there is very little opportunity to catch animated projects from China. But after this, my first visit, I will definitely make it part of my animation fare. I just learned about China's highest grossing animated movie, "Pleasant Goat and Big Big Wolf - The Super Snail Adventure." That's fantastic and it means audiences are excited to see animated features. It's a good bet this will continue. I'm not much of a Hollywood insider, but I believed US animation studios and Chinese animation studios can first learn about each other's processes and work culture. That way if a collaboration were to arise then there is already a familiarity established. Each may be able to offer something new to learn and assimilate. But it may just need to start soon. As for plans, that's for others to decide. I can have my hopes for a more global sharing of stories and experiences but it may just end there. But I would be more than happy to express these wishes to those who can really do something about it.

Q: Chinese animation once flourished but now is in difficult times. There are many remakes. Is originality important?

A: Original work is my personal preferred way, because as creators we want to say something about our world through our own stories. Remakes, reimaginings are fun, too, don't get me wrong. There are properties out there that I'd like to direct. But what really matters is whether there is a compelling and emotional story there to tell that a director/writer can make his own. Let it be filtered through the experience and stories of the director. Then it has a chance at capturing hearts and minds.

Q: How do you make animation that appeals to children and adults?

A: Most early animation was just about gags; cats and dogs chasing each other with rolling pins. Funny stuff. But that changed when Walt Disney wanted his characters and stories to be believable. That was the beginning of true storytelling in animation. People want to see and experience good stories. Children and adults. Audiences recognize a good story and they will pay to watch it again and again. Is it based on real people? The experience we want on screen are experiences we can recognize. Situations and emotions that can happen to us - real people. We can tell the story about a toy but make the toy behave as if they were little parents, or aunts and uncles who care deeply about their child. That is part of the reason you care about the characters in "Toy Story." You recognize your parents or yourselves. So, real people stories.


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