Department head, animation David Baas and director Shane Acker
Head animation David Baas and director Shane Acker. © Focus Features

In 2004, Shane Acker’s short film 9 was nominated for an Academy Award. Now, with filmmakers Tim Burton and Timur Bekmambetov as producers, the movie has been expanded into a full-length action-packed animated fantasy. Set in the near future, the world’s machines, powered by an invention known as the Great Machine, turn against mankind and decimate the human population before being shut down. In a desperate attempt to salvage the legacy of civilization, a scientist gives a group of small creations the spark of life to continue to exist in the post-apocalypse. Acker’s has called this extraordinary opportunity to fulfill his initial vision ‘a dream come true.’

Weren’t you heavily influenced when you were younger by Tim Burton?

The characters #6, #5, #8 and #9
The characters #6, #5, #8 and #9

Yeah, I was familiar with his work, and Nightmare Before Christmas is very inspirational, I think, to 9. But I was also really inspired by some of the Eastern European filmmakers, there’s a whole group of stop-motion animators that tell stories in these really interesting worlds made out of bits and pieces of found objects, that’s very theatrical.

In the movie, all the creatures or numbered from 1 to 9. In the press kit it says that numerology plays a part in the numbering of the characters, is that true?

I’m not big into numerology. I guess the design conceit that came from the short (movie) was as you get higher, the characters get more refined. So #1 is the crudest, the detailing is really loose. And so, as we’re approaching #10 as perfection, then the closest we can ever get to perfection is #9, which we are, we’re all flawed as humans, we can never get to 10. So 9 represents that flawed humanity, and that’s as we got.

Did you film the actors while they were doing their voice work as other animated movies do?

Elijah Wood and director Shane Acker
Actor Elijah Wood and director Shane Acker discuss a scene. © Focus Features

We did. We videotaped them and got all that raw material as reference, and then we go back to the storyboarders to fine-tune them and hand them over to the animators, who are again actors. You’ll have maybe a team of 12 or 15 different animators all working on the same character, so you’re all working to get them to have consistent performances. It’s a couple of months before you really start to figure out who your characters are, you know who #9 is, what he looks like and how he acts and reacts in certain situations.

Do you see Elijah Wood who voices the character of #9 or Jennifer Connelly, who voices #7 in their characters?

I do. I see bits and pieces and traces of them. And definitely with #1, who is played by Christopher Plummer. We used a lot of [him]. But there’s a lot of my animation director in those performance, there’s a lot of me in those performances, a lot of our animators are in those performances.

Was it hard to get Christopher Plummer to join the cast?

Christopher Plummer was one of the first to come on. He was relatively easy to bring onto the project. He’s a consummate actor and I don’t know if it’s the fear of never being asked to do another role, but he just loves performing and he was one of the most prepared actors to come into the recording sessions. He was the first to record, which was good because I’d never worked with an actor before, and it was really daunting, but he made it really comfortable because he was so professional, one of the greats.

What would you like the audience to take away from this film?

Characters #9, #7 and #5
Characters #9, #7 and #5

Hopefully they’re entertained. At the end of the day we wanted to make something that was accessible, that was entertaining, that people really had fun, that was purely escapist, like the movies that inspired me growing up were. But there’s also some challenging, more thought-provoking, material there too, and hopefully they can take away some of that. It’s kind of a meditation on what does it mean to be human in this age of technology when we’re inundated and surrounded constantly by technology, how do you maintain that balance?

Judy Sloane

Judy is Film Review Online's regular Los Angeles based reporter.