Get your numbers straight, folks: There’s the upcoming adaptation of the Broadway musical “Nine,” and this past summer’s sci-fi sensation “District 9” — which had CGI-based characters, but not as many as those in Shane Acker’s fully animated post-apocalyptic epic “9” (which comes out today, on 9/9/09, of course).
Based on his Student Academy Award-winning short film of the same name, Acker’s feature debut was co-produced by Tim Burton and “Night Watch” director Timur Bekmambetov, a pedigree that already hints we’re in for a dark, mystical and visually imaginative adventure. After mankind’s extinction, eight-inch tall mechanical sack puppets live in hiding from the giant junkyard robots that still roam the wasteland. #9 (voiced by Elijah Wood) awakens to discover his destiny and his “stitchpunk” brethren (Jennifer Connelly, John C. Reilly, Crispin Glover, et al.), who must band together to stop a villainous machine. I spoke with Acker about how “9” almost didn’t have dialogue, why he’s ready to become a cyborg (or maybe is one already), and whether or not animators are socially awkward.
Did you have any misgivings about expanding your short film, since that already existed in a self-contained world?
The most trepidation I had was that I just spent four and a half years in that world, and I was ready to move on mentally. But the possibility to see all nine of these characters got me excited about developing the feature. We’d only seen two of them in the short. I see these as two different films in a lot of ways. I’ve never really thought that the short has to fit in the feature in some way. It’s okay that we departed, and it became a different thing.
There are hints as to what the world in “9” looked like before it was obliterated. How much backstory was invented to establish the film’s post-apocalyptic present tense?
Politically, we thought it was somewhere between World War I and World War II, but of course, this is an alternate reality. We imagined there was a great war that had economically constrained society. The military leader usurped the power and invested all the money in this new military technology. The scientist was like a toymaker and inventor who was approached with a grant to develop a thinking machine.
It’s almost the way Oppenheimer was approached for this scientific endeavor to split an atom. There’s a much darker purpose behind the funding that the scientist was getting. The whole society was celebrating industrialization and The Machine, led by the propaganda of this dictator and wartime hero. Those ideas inform the design, because the sets and the destroyed world all participate in the storytelling as well. We created this timeline leading up to the point of its destruction, and then we slowly reveal some of those bits and pieces throughout the course of the film.
Much like the first half of “Wall-E,” I was secretly hoping that #9 wouldn’t have a voice, since the short film didn’t use any dialogue. Did that idea ever get knocked around?
It was considered early on. Tim [Burton] was a big proponent of how we could do the film non-verbally. When Pamela [Pettler] and I were first writing the script, we tried an approach in which we had no dialogue, but we found that it became cumbersome, a stumbling block. By the same token, we knew we wanted to keep dialogue to a minimum. We had a lot of fun inventing ways in which information could come across, whether it’s old snippets of newsreels, the hologram, or things we see in the environment: propaganda that’s left blowing down the street, posters on walls, books, the design itself — or #6, with his crazy drawings. There are also some long stretches, especially in the beginning and ending, in which we have no dialogue at all. We were thinking in terms of pure visual storytelling.
Plenty of films have featured man’s creations turning against humanity. Is “9” meant to warn us about technology’s potentially dangerous advancements?
It is a cautionary tale in some ways. We can’t overlook the moralistic questions about these pursuits. That’s why this [scientist] is at the core of this, because like Oppenheimer, he was blinded. For him, it was a pure scientific pursuit: how do I split an atom? He turned a blind eye to what would be done with this technology ultimately. When the warheads were used, he witnessed that, and for the rest of his life, he tried to undo what he did.
We’re living in that kind of age now, with the potential for these things we create to go wrong or fall into the wrong hands. [“9”] is different from other post-apocalyptic movies because we didn’t survive. We’re gone. We blew our chance, and now this is a post-human tale.
In real life, do you open the newspaper, maybe read about people embedding microchips under the skin, and think, “My god, what are we doing?”
You can’t not contemplate these things. There are definitely ideas of identity in this technological age that we live in. We live several different lives, in the real world or in these virtual expressions of ourselves. We conduct ourselves differently based on these interfaces, too. I’m not frightened of it, but it’s something we should think about. I believe what [inventor and futurist] Ray Kurzweil believes: at some point, we either merge with these machines, or they’re going to pass us by.
Humans can only possess so many thoughts, and our language is a finite thing. We only have so many words and ways of expressing ourselves. Physically, we have limitations. Insects can see more colors. Animals can hear on higher levels. It could be an amazing possibility for us to merge with our technology, so that we could see billions of colors, or hear radio waves happening outside in the universe. Inevitably, we’re going to have to evolve.