Shane Acker's animated movie 9 features nine plucky ragdolls facing an army of beast machines after the human race has died off. We talked to Acker a while back, and he told us nine rules for great post-apocalyptic films.
By now you've had a chance to see 9 for yourself, and appreciate its lush visuals and brilliant action. Our own review is here. But for those of you who haven't gotten to it yet, there are some minor spoilers in this interview.
So here are Shane Acker's 9 unbreakable rules for great post-apocalyptic movies, culled from the interview:
1) Keep it short but sweet. Acker's own movie, 9, is only about 79 minutes long, including credits. "You can tell an enormous amount of a story in a very short time. It's very dense, and it's fast-paced... I think nowadays movies tend to be a little too long, and a little bloated in some ways," says Acker.
2) Show characters banding together to survive. In 9's "dysfunctional family drama," we discover that the ragdolls each have separate strengths and weaknesses, "and separately they're not strong, and together is when they can really do the best work and try to overcome the dangers of this world."
3) Focus on worldbuilding. We don't just want to see how people cope with the aftermath of the devastation — we want to see how it happened, and why. Acker says he uses his original Academy Award-winning short film, also called 9, as a departure point for this film, and in the process he thought a lot more about the backstory: "How this world came to be, what was the history before these creatures came to be, what is this artifact that is the artifact of contention between the monsters and the little ragdoll-like creatures. And so it was great because we were able to explore the history of the world and introduce seven more of these (ragdoll) creatures."
4) Don't forget that post-apocalyptic movies are, in part, about hope for survival. Part of why we love post-apocalyptic films is their promise that someone, or something, worth saving will survive after our world ends. So the best post-apocalyptic stories are the ones which give us hope for the resilience of humanity — in the case of the ragdolls, they carry on the legacy of humanity. "It's post-human, but humanity lives on," says Acker. "They're a manifestation of humans that can survive in this landscape where we, as organic beings, could not." The ragdolls embody "hope and potential." Where there is darkness in the movie, it's there "so we can really see how important it is for these creatures to struggle."
5) Never forget the MacGyvering. The other thing that every good post-apocalyptic movie has is the spirit of MacGyver, the action hero who can create incredible technological marvels out of whatever random junk he finds laying around. And 9 fully embodies the MacGyver spirit, showing the ragdolls approaching the wreckage as building blocks. "For some of them, becuase they're very creative creatures, this is a world full of amazing raw materials with which they can create their own inventions."
6) Let the visuals tell the story. The original short film had no dialog whatsoever, and a lot of fans were apprehensive that adding dialog to the feature-length film would ruin it. Says Acker, "We actually set out trying to make the feature without dialogue, but we found that it just became so cumbersome to the storytelling, that that kind of conceit was a disadvantage... to making as rich an experience as we wanted for the film." So instead, he struck a compromise: out of 79 minutes, there's only about 19 minutes of dialog. "A lot of it is still told through visual storytelling, and pantomime, and through a lot of the design elements of the world."
7) Don't forget the cautionary message. The best post-apocalyptic films contain a serious warning about where we're heading if we don't slow down and pay attention, and 9 is no different. Acker says his film about killer robots trying to crush the benign ragdoll creatures asks the question, "At what point do we become so technologically advanced and so embraced in technology that we start to lose our own soul?" The ragdolls represent technology with a soul, and the monster machines represent soulless, hateful technology. "What is it to find the ghost in the machine, in some way?" He asks. "That really is in the end what separates [the ragdolls from the monsters]. They realize they have to live up to the standard of humanity, and the hope and the potential. That even though they're machine-like in some ways, that their true essence is that of the human spirit."
8) Don't forget the humor. You can't just be grim and knife-edge all of the time. Acker says that of his two producers, he was much more familiar with Tim Burton's work than Timur Bekmambetov's, and he loved Burton's work for its "rich amazing characters," but also its "comedy and charm." The actual screenplay for 9 was written by Pamela Pettler, who also worked on Monster House and Corpse Bride.
9) Don't be afraid to take risks. Acker says that 9 might not have found such acceptance without the support of both Burton and Bekmambetov, who both saw something of their own sensibilities. It's a tough time in Hollywood right now, because of the economic downturn. He's hopeful that if the movie does well, it'll open the doors for more edgy animation projects and films that blend science fiction and fantasy in creative ways. "Things like that don't seem like easy sells in Hollywood."