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9 Director Shane Acker on Playing Mouse Trap With Puppets

9 Director Shane Acker on Playing Mouse Trap With Puppets” width=”560″/>

Animator and filmmaker Shane Acker makes his feature debut in the Tim Burton-produced “stitchpunk” movie 9, based on his own award-winning short. Acker describes building a world for humans — and destroying it for his creatures.

Q: How did this movie evolve from your short?

A: I spent four and a half years making the short, and it was intended to be a director’s reel piece to lead me into other projects. So the idea of going back into this world made me a little apprehensive. My way in was just imagining who these other little creatures were — you see two of the creatures in the short, but now we get to see all nine of them. And it kind of explains where they came from. But you know, story is hard — and we were always chasing the clock the whole time. I wish we had more time, because we could have invested more in the characters and really developed them more.

Q: You did animation for the third Lord of the Rings movie. What did you learn from that experience that you were able to bring to 9?

A: That was real animation boot camp for me. Just being around those artists and seeing how they worked, I really learned a lot. It really felt like it was an artist-friendly environment there. So I tried to bring some of that to the production of 9, and just tried to inspire the artists and make creative space to work with them and not dictate everything — just to get in the trenches with them and work shoulder-to-shoulder to try to inspire people to do their best.

Q: Both the movie and short deal with elaborate Rube Goldberg traps the creatures set. What was your inspiration there? Did you play Mouse Trap as a kid?

A: [Laughs] I did play Mouse Trap as a kid, that’s where it’s all coming from! No, I’m a huge fan of the Marc Caro films like The City of Lost Children. They have this real magical, fun chain of events that happens. It’s kind of a haphazard approach to solving a problem, and that’s who these creatures are. They’re trying to use their intelligence more than their brawn to solve their problems and defeat the beasts.

Q: How did your background in architecture come into play in this movie?

A: In architecture you’re always trying to make not just a building that functions, but also a sense of place; something that has a sense of identity and uniqueness. And you always imagine how the people are going to live in that space. So that was the human world, but then we’re going to destroy it and these creatures are going to interact with it in a completely different way, on a much smaller scale. And they’re going to go into the cracks and crevices that the humans couldn’t occupy. These new spaces that are created through the destruction are the ones they are going to live within. So it was a lot of fun to play with that.

Q: Why did you choose numbers for the characters?

A: I saw this amazing Academy Award-winning film called Balance by the Lauenstein brothers back in the ’80s. And all the characters are identical puppets, but they have different numbers on their backs. And what’s amazing is, through the course of the film these different personalities emerge from the identical puppets. From an economical standpoint it’s really smart, because you just make a couple of puppets and change the numbers. Once I started getting into that world, I thought we really need to separate these characters more, so that whole design idea went out the window. The loose idea is that the puppets are versions, so as they increase the characters get more and more refined. Let’s say 10 is the perfect doll, the closest we can get to perfection as humans is 9 because we’re all flawed in some way.

Q: What number are you?

A: I think I’m the scientist actually — I’m the creator of all of them. And 9, I guess, in some way. That’s probably where my strengths lie.

Q: Steampunk movies have traditionally been unsuccessful in Hollywood. Why do you think that is?

A: I don’t know. I think it just takes the kind of filmmaker that tells a good story with interesting characters that brings it into a new light. Everyone said that fantasy was dead, and then Peter Jackson comes along and makes these amazing Lord of the Rings films, and then fantasy is the order of the day for the last eight years. I don’t think there’s something wrong with the genre, I think it’s just no one’s told an interesting story in that medium.

Q: Will stitchpunk push it over?

A: I hope so [laughs]. I’m just afraid that kids are going to start playing with rusty knives. The best compliment you can get as an artist is that you’ve inspired somebody to be creative or to make something. So if that’s what comes out of this I’ll be really happy.

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