Shane Acker: big worlds, little stories – counting up to 9

I read an interview between Shane Acker, the director of 9 and Paul Wells at the Holland Animation Film Festival at Utrecht in November 2010. 9 is a short animated film directed by Acker and Produced by Tim Burton. Voice actors for this short included Elijah woods and John C Reilly.

Paul wells asks Shane how he became a film maker after doing an Architecture graduate course in UCLA (University of California at Los Angeles). Shane explains how he starting bringing animation into his architectural designs and decided that this was what he wanted to do.

“Also, I was always a cartoonist and illustrator, though I was never formally trained, and I was attracted to constructing different worlds. In my architectural studies, I focused a lot on computeraided design, learned modelling, texturing, etc., and having started to learn that ‘tool set’, towards the end of my architectural education, I started taking some animation electives from the animation programme at UCLA.” Shane Acker. 

He talks of how the UCLA was unique and encouraged their students to be ambitious in film making and had alot of freedom. His first animation was The Hangnail (1999) – a simple 2D film. In 2009 his short film 9 was release altho it originally was only meant to be 3 minutes long, they final production was over 10.

The Inspiration 

When creating 9 Shane started of with the characters, which was inspired by the Quay’s puppets but also the experimental stop-motion work by the Lauenstein brothers. He mentioned the short film ‘Balanced’. I had a watch myself and personally thought they were really creepy. In the interview Shane Acker described them as ‘haunted’ and really like the look of them. Shane liked how throughout this short, although the puppets looked the same they showed different personalities in a non verbal way. He wanted to explore this in 9 and make it a challenge for himself.

“I saw that I could create numerous copies of the same puppet on the computer, and differentiate them with numbers on their backs, but more importantly through their performances. I wanted to prove myself in animation by setting up such challenges to respond to.” 


He decribes this as  Pantomimic which Paul asks him to elaborate on.

” It’s about the idea that even as I express myself now, it is not just verbally but physically. When we just communicate non-verbally, it becomes pantomimic and takes on a universal dimension. There is a kind of common experience through body language.  Humans are all cut from the same cloth in some ways, despite cultural differences, and in approaching something through pantomime I am trying to reach that universal dimension, which is basically ‘emotional’, whether comic or dramatic. It creates a tabula rasa, a commonality, which professional mimes exploit to achieve crosscultural communication.”  Shane Acker. Tablula Rosa means an absence of preconceived ideas or predetermined goals; a clean slate.

Shane talks of how, as a film maker, he has the challenge of tell the story though lights and camera directing.

“My challenge is not only to tell a story in this way, but to create it in a fashion where the audience can participate in it, too. The movement of a camera, in itself, can direct the emotional experience of the audience, and the pantomime invites interpretation by, and correspondence with, the audience, which hopefully works to secure responses the world over. Lots of different cultures can embrace the universality of the themes and ideas, and hopefully take some value away from what I am trying to create.”

Film appearance

In a certain level 9 is a classic science fiction film. Shane was asked if this was the genre he original had in mind. Shane describes 9 as a ‘Spiritual film’ but still grounded in a humanist approach. He wanted the film to be a post – human world, with the reason for the Apocalypse to be humans themselves. He didn’t want to explain this in the short film, but allowed it to visually express the haunting scenes of  machinery destroying man kind. I find this man versus machine genre has been made various times in different ways. 9 has a different, more rustic look to their own type of apocalypse.

“They are using old, now redundant objects, as new tools, but infuse them with an incredible creative spirit. But there is this remaining threat from the past that is more mechanical in nature. It has become more instinctive and animalistic, though, and is hunting these new creatures. It is trying to assimilate their energy, so it is very much a man versus nature tale, but reinterpreted in this abstract way.” Shane Acker.

9 has been set World War I yet pre-World War II, but also in an alternative world characterized by what might be seen as a ‘steampunk’ aesthetic. Shane was asked if this was the type of look he wanted to achieve.

“I wanted to tell my story by placing it between the Great Wars because this was one of the darkest and most uncertain times in human history, and when we almost brought an end to our world and our civilization altogether. The way I have created it, it is almost a parallel universe, which suggests that things did go wrong, and we did destroy ourselves in some way”

Next Paul wells talks about the look of the film and the colour used throughout. My opinion of the colouring and style is that shows age, damage and rust. Shane explained:

“This is a world of abandoned, left-over, inanimate objects. The world is dead. The natural world has gone. The way that I could allude to nature was to use all the earth tones. In its way it was a very organic and natural colour palette. For me what is interesting is when things start to decay, and our civilization starts to merge back into the landscape. I like the idea of when the grass overtakes the world and the vines grow, and when metal rusts, and concrete gets stained. It is almost like the manmade is returning to nature in some ways. I like the way the world becomes distressed as a consequence of humankind’s desire to separate itself from nature, but nature resisting and starting to claim back its space. Man can never really separate himself from nature and the earth, and the colours were definitely chosen with that idea in mind. It was important to think about how you bring life to a dead world; how do you construct such a landscape? It can be dead grass slightly blowing in the wind, or torn fabric swaying, and this can bring a subtle naturalism to a very unnatural world.”

Paul wells talks about Shane’s oppurtunity make his short film into a full feature length and asks him how that came about.

“The short took me about four and a half years to make, which was both a burden and a luxury. As I was creating the assets, learning the tools, doing the rigging, creating the characters – all the things you have to do to make such a film – I was concentrating on story and developing a story reel. I kept putting it to one side, and engaging with something technical, and then coming back to it. I developed a kind of critical distance, which enabled me to think about how all the elements – characters, action, design, etc. – could combine to successfully tell the story. The short was essentially a finished and complete piece as a result; then the opportunity to do the feature arose. The producers (Jim Lemley, Tim Burton, Timur Bekmambetov, Dana Ginsberg) felt, though, that it was merely a window into a world for them, and they were excited about how it might be developed. It then became a major design project.”

Paul wells talks of how Tim Burton was notice and was interested in Shane Ackers work. He asks how that made him feel and how did he take the extraordinary opportunity.

“It was, but at the time, I had just come off finally making my short, and was quite stressed, and I was making a living in the industry – I did some work at WETA when they were making Lord of the Rings – and then I was propelled into this Hollywood world I was not used to, of course, with all the pressures that go with that. It was so foreign from the world that I was coming from. I was moving from the world of independent film-making and animation festivals to a commercial environment in which I felt quite overwhelmed. Pitching to executives and major production companies about your proposed ideas is very different from showing your work. The reality is a lot less glamorous than some may think, because I made 9, the short, in a hand-to-mouth way. I would work for three or four months, save the money, work on the short, then work for three or four months, work on the short again, etc. until it was finished. Even when I was pitching the movie, I actually had no money, so I had to keep working even though I had this opportunity. I had to then put in the work of thinking through what I might do in the movie in order to present it. Even though my short had been very well received, and I was confident, perhaps overly confident, and Tim Burton had endorsed and supported my work, this really was a major step-up, and though exciting, was a major test, as you can never be sure if you will meet the challenge. I had never worked with a writer before; I had never done a piece with dialogue before; I had never worked in the long form, so you worry that you’re in over your head. You have to learn from the professionals around you who have done many films before.”

During the planning of the feature length Shane realised that he had no experience in long term story telling and had to put his trust of the writer. He found this a little challenging as the write would have their own take of the story. This was what he called the ‘melting pot’ of influences and ideas.

The characters 

Shane wanted each character to have their own personalities, even though they look kind of  the same and sound the same. He designed  them this way in hopes that the characters will develop as the story plays out. He found that during the feature film of 72 minutes he had to find a balance between character centred view and the backstory.

“Each character does indeed start off as a ‘one liner’ that all the crew can accrue around and understand, but you hope that your characters will develop through the story arcs they play out. Through the course of thinking about story and animating the character starts to emerge. Even though there were nine characters who looked sort of the same, there still had to be distinctive aspects that defined them. You want to give them distinct voices, which I don’t think in all cases we do, because they speak the same, do the same things, but it happens with the main characters. My instinct was that I wanted the experience the story as it was happening to the characters, and that the backstory was less significant. The producers were really concerned with the backstory, though, and felt that it was important to have a strong sense of the history of this world. The very mandate of a 72-minute feature and a certain budget, meant that we had to balance between my charactercentred view and the ‘big-picture’ backstory. The ‘push and pull’ between these things meant, for me, there was a lot of exposition, the sometimes unnecessary and illogical presence of humans, too much dialogue and not enough character-centred story. I was fortunate, though, that I could really trust my lead animators and artists, who helped me solve as many of the significant problems that arose as possible.”

To finish of the interview Paul wells ask Shane Acker what his hopes are for the future. Shane’s responses:

“9 was successful, and won its money back, and found an audience, at the same time as remaining a little bit ‘avant-garde’ and ‘off the beaten track’. I want to carry on and make films that are mature and serious, but animated, too. There still doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of space, particularly in the West, for that kind of film, so I want to pursue that. Basically, the cheaper you can make a film, the more creative freedom you might have, the more risks you might take. While budgets expand though, the independent sector shrinks; the smaller-budget projects seem to be folded into much larger film projects. This is the landscape I am trying to find my way in. What’s encouraging is that even the big players like Pixar are trying to explore more mature, emotional work, and though there is still a lot of understandable commitment to family stories and gag-driven material, I hope there may be a place for emotionally driven work with more unusual aesthetic and narrative possibilities.”


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