Martin Carr chats with Jim Capobianco…
One overcast Sunday afternoon I found myself on the phone to Jim Capobianco. Affable, Oscar nominated and busy on post production work for Mary Poppins Returns, we talked about his career in animation and a passion project known as The Inventor.
MC: What got you interested in animation as a career?
JC: When I was growing up I just loved Sunday morning comics and started to get interested in cartoons and drawing characters, which lead to reading about animation. In high school I took a class which was about graphic arts and making t-shirts and photography and such, which contained one assignment on animation. I told my teacher that I wanted to do hand drawn animation. He looked at me and said I don’t know how to teach you that but here’s a book and go forth.
So, I started animating this little film, which I didn’t finish obviously because animation takes so long, (but) he noticed how hard I was working and just said keep going. So, for the rest of that time and into my senior year I still hadn’t finished, so I took the second unit of his course and sort of created an animation programme for myself. Then I got into the Californian Institute of the Arts, CalArts, near Los Angeles, which, was sort of a feeder school for Walt Disney Studios at the time. When I got into animation there was only Disney and Don Bluth Studios, so there wasn’t much hope of a career in animation, but I sort of lucked out. Roger Rabbit and Little Mermaid had just been, released and they would usher in this new era of animation.
MC: So what was the next step for you?
JC: When I got into CalArts I just wanted to be an animator and thought animation consisted only the person who drew the characters and movement through the scene. Then, I realized there were all these other areas of film making that went into animation especially storyboarding and story development. A wonderful teacher named Joe Ranft, a huge mentor in my career, pointed the way for me to go into storyboarding, so after CalArts I knew that’s what I had to do and Disney was where I had to go. They were beginning to expand, having had success with Beauty and the Beast and then Aladdin. They were gearing up for The Lion King and Pocahontas and needed to staff up, my timing was perfect. I came in on The Lion King as an apprentice storyboard artist.
MC: So how did you go from storyboarding to a story artist then contributing to that screenplay?
JC: On IMDb I am credited as both writer and story artist on The Lion King which I have never corrected because I believe storyboard artists contribute to the writing, they are writers with pictures on feature film animation projects. When I came in on Lion King there had been a script, but it wasn’t quite working so they were redeveloping it. Two new writers had been brought on, who have since become good friends, they were rewriting while we were storyboarding, then they would see what we boarded, and rewrite and we would see what they wrote and re-board. It was a very collaborative environment.
JC: One sequence I had an impact on was when Mufasa and Simba are underneath the stars, right before Mufasa dies in a stampede. So, I got this little scene and they didn’t really know what they wanted but knew Mufasa had to teach Simba a lesson for going away into the hyena graveyard. So, I wasn’t handed script pages or anything. I had to figure out how it connected with the existing movie which already had the ghost scene where he comes back to Simba. So, I did some research and looked into African tribal myths and legends, where they have the belief that their ancestors are in the sky and stars, which I thought was perfect. I wrote that in and that way it connected, seamlessly, to the later scene. Later for the song Hakuna Matata they needed Simba to grow up and didn’t know how, so I suggested they do it in the song. So, we created this simple little moment of Simba growing up as they cross the log, which achieved that. Sometimes a little idea solves what seems like a big problem.
MC: Would you say it was a natural transition from Disney into your involvement with Pixar?
JC: I was with Disney for about five years and started getting tired of the way they were telling their musical stories. Only changing the names of the characters and the stories all seemed the same – another musical. I wanted to go into storytelling because I saw there was so much potential in animation to tell amazing stories. A lot of my education at school was looking at live action films and in addition to Joe I had another great teacher, Alexander MacKendrick, who was a director for Ealing Studios and head of CalArts’ film school. He opened my eyes to the power and variety of film storytelling and it was that power I wanted to bring to animation which is why I went into storytelling.
JC: So along comes Pixar with Toy Story and I thought here are these guys doing an animated film in a new way, not just with computers but also with their storytelling. Giving it an almost live action sensibility in the way they were handling character. So, Joe Ranft who I mentioned earlier had gone to Pixar, saw my work at Disney and said come up here. When I gave him a call, I lucked out again they were developing A Bug’s Life and in a real story crunch. That’s when all the story reels and storyboards are being made ready for a presentation to the executives. They needed help and they hired me right away. Within a month I was working there.
MC: Having worked on so many projects across Disney and Pixar what makes a good story?
JC: I think first and foremost it must have interesting and compelling characters. They don’t have to be nice or likable. Often when we are developing the story executives say the character isn’t nice, what I think they mean is they aren’t compelling. In live-action movies there are always characters who are despicable, such as in The Godfather films, but you gravitate towards those characters because of their family dynamic, you can relate to it. So, I think it is important to develop characters which you, as an audience member, can relate to on some level and live vicariously through. I always think of storytelling as educational which is why people used to tell stories around camp fires to pass on information. Even with narratives in film we put characters into awful situations where they have to figure a way out, so they are inadvertently educational. The audience learns how not to do things and how to do things and it’s entertaining, hopefully. I think you can have a film with really strong characters, but a weak plot and people will still love it.
MC: Speaking of character and having worked in catering for so long, when it came to Ratatouille I love how much you got the kitchen environment right. How did you achieve this?
JC: Research. I was brought on board by the original director Jan Pinkava as his story supervisor and we were the only ones developing it. At some point I suggested we write it because he was having trouble getting it on paper, which is when I got my first writing credit. We ended up researching the heck out of that because it was just a rough outline of a rat in Paris who cooks, which made me think how are we ever going to make this work?
During the research you see what you can pull out to add drama and excitement. When you really study kitchens, people who become cooks and filter through those restaurants, you discover they have varying backgrounds of a dicey nature. So, we saw them as a gang of pirates. Then we found out about the passion which is an artist’s passion, just as in writing or animation but through cooking. I am a big believer in research when you are making films, because that is where all the little gems are. We also had to go to Michelin three-star restaurants in Paris and see the kitchens, how they work and get that more viscerally. Especially the food, we really suffered for our art!
MC: Does your approach differ between say a Disney or Pixar project depending on what elements you are involved in?
JC: Each project is similar yet they all have different requirements depending on those areas which need development. For something like Mary Poppins Returns which is an actual sequel, it’s much more about respecting the old film. Both paying homage to that but also giving the audience a new and exciting experience. In this particular process I am the animation sequence supervisor, so I oversee the 2D animated section, which sits inside a larger idea, allowing me to work with the writer and director together.
The Inventor, on the other hand, is about Leonardo DaVinci. So what story do you tell? He had this huge life with lots of different adventures of his own. I chose to focus on the end of his life where he moved to France. I thought that was fascinating because here is a man who has always lived in Italy, who has to move to a different country and environment. Also, it’s how he has had a huge career and he has done all these amazing things and so it becomes a question of what is left. Exploring that aspect comes back to character again.
What drew me to Leonardo is that we see him as this super genius but researching and learning about him you realize he was just a human being with flaws and emotions. In his notes there are grocery lists, he procrastinated and got distracted by other things he wanted to learn. So, there was this passion to do more which makes him more like us and it was that aspect I wanted to portray. So, you asked me with my projects what was the thing which connects them all and I think it’s finding a window in which to enter the subject matter. You have to find a foundation to build on and with Leonardo it’s the idea that he was human like all of us.
MC: What attracts you to a project?
JC: Mostly I am put on the project so it becomes about what is it I can grab onto and get excited about, that window in. Like in Toy Story 2, we had a different ending where there was a chase on a freeway. We knew they were going to the airport but never got there. We then thought, wouldn’t it be exciting to have a chase through an airport from a toys point of view. I took this idea and developed a third act with a chase through the luggage compartment, onto the plane and then like an old Western train chase onto the aircraft itself. It was something I wanted to see! This is ultimately what gets me excited about stories and for me goes back to character. I want to see Leonardo as a human going through that Renaissance world. Or discovering how a rat cooks in a kitchen and survives. Which is when you realize you have the power to make those ideas a reality.
MC: So finally completely off topic I have to ask whether you are a Marvel or DC fan considering Avengers: Infinity War has just been released.
JC: I’d have to say Marvel!
MC: Many thanks for taking the time to talk to me about your career and your current projects.