Although Focus Features (who brought us Coraline) has—in a clever bit of marketing—scheduled the theatrical release of Shane Acker's feature-length version of his award-winning short 9 for September 9, 2009, animation director Joe Ksander and Elijah Wood (voice actor for the character 9) attended WonderCon to thrum up interest.
Ksander synopsized that six-seven years ago Acker made his short film while a student in UCLA's three-year animation program. That's when Ksander met Acker after being impressed with his short reel and offered his services. Four years later Shane Acker completed his short film, winning a student Academy Award® as well as being nominated for an Academy Award®. Acker showed his short at ComicCon, SIGGRAPH, and Sundance and—based on those screenings—the short caught the attention of Jim Lemley, who had been working with Timur Bekmambetov on Wanted. He pulled a team together to make a presentation to Tim Burton who agreed the short was exciting and worthy of turning into a feature-length version.
The major difference between the short and the feature film is that the short had no spoken dialogue whereas the feature has secured such voice talent as Elijah Wood, John C. Reilly, Jennifer Connelly, Crispin Glover, Martin Landau, Christopher Plummer and Fred Tatasciore.
Wood detailed that the project had been brought to his attention along with the short film and—though he found the script exciting enough—all he really needed to come on board was to see Acker's short. He immediately wanted to be part of Acker's unique vision. Ksander confirmed that the short has proved immensely helpful because it has such a distinct look and feel—"dark and unusual especially for animation"—and if they had tried to just pitch the idea, it might have proved difficult; whereas, since Acker had a finished product to show of what the film would look and feel like, it generated excitement all the way down the line, not just with the casting but when they were organizing the animation crew, several who migrated from other large studios specifically to work on this project.
Most recently, Danny Elfman has been brought on to write some music for the film. The reason Shane Acker couldn't attend the WonderCon panel, in fact, was because he was in London scoring the film.
A young boy asked Wood what it felt like to bring the character 9 to life? Wood replied that 9 comes into the post-apocalyptic world seen in the film a little late; ragdolls 1-8 have already been created and 1 moreorless rules over the others in the sense of protecting them from the machines. Without any knowledge of the others or the machines, 9 comes completely innocent into this world, which earmarks a certain courage and questioning spirit. He brings these qualities to the others who have stopped questioning and looking for answers and who have sequestered themselves. Thus, 9 is not hindered by the fears of the others and arrives open and searching.
When asked how he would compare his performance in 9 with that of Frodo Baggins in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Wood sighed wearily (though good-naturedly) and murmured, "This is going to happen for the rest of my life." But he rallied and conceded that there were parallels between the two projects in that they're both adventure stories. Though the characters are distinct, they are both similarly given a sense of questing responsibility. In 9 his character drives the others to search; his function is to put pressure on those characters. Interestingly enough, Shane Acker was actually one of the animators at Weta Digital who worked on Return of the King. Wood and he probably "passed each other in the hall" without knowing they would work together on the feature-length version of 9.
Ksander qualified that—when they were animating the film—they looked at Elijah's other films to see how he might play something and the performance they found specifically useful was the role of Patrick in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
Asked how voice acting differed from physical acting, Wood admitted there are pros and cons either way; but, for him, voice acting harbors a certain flexibility, not the least of which is the freedom of not needing a physical cast or accommodating conflicting schedules. The down side of that is, of course, working solo with headphones, sometimes even without the voices of the other actors, which makes it more challenging not having someone to bounce off of. An actor can't rely on body and face and must imbue his voice with motion to fulfill action sequences.
Ksander and Wood then offered the thrilling world premiere clip of the scene where 9 meets the other 8 ragdolls as they combat a winged creature that—as IMdb synopsizes—is "a split-headed flying being that resembles both a bat and a manta ray in wing shape." Summer is going to be one long anticipation until September.
Cross-published on Twitch.