Mike Rianda was the creative director of Disney Channel’s “Gravity Falls,” but “The Mitchells vs. the Machines” marked his feature film directorial debut and he realized something right away when he started working on the film.
“The biggest difference between TV and movies, I’ve found, is [in film] you so wonderfully get so much time to go over everything hundreds of times and let all these wonderful collaborators that sometimes when you’re on TV, you’re like, ‘I have no time! The world’s on fire!’ And in a movie, it’s like, ‘Hey, we’ve got a couple years. What are you guys’ ideas?'” Rianda tells Gold Derby at our Meet the Experts: Film Directors panel (watch above). “You really get to sort of let the best idea win.”
Rianda, who co-wrote the the Netflix film with Jeff Rowe, had been working on “Mitchells” for years, but you could say he spent his entire life preparing for it because it’s inspired by his family. The Netflix animated film follows a 17-year-old girl named Katie (voiced by Abbi Jacobson), an aspiring filmmaker about to leave for film school when her father, Rick (Danny McBride), hoping to repair his fractured bond with his daughter, decides to take a family road trip to drop her off at school. Along the way, the Mitchells have to save the world from a robot uprising, led by a spurned AI, PAL (Olivia Colman). Rianda voices younger brother Aaron and Maya Rudolph plays matriarch Linda. “I would watch animated movies and the families would be like, ‘I love you, honey!’ and then they’d hug. And I was like, ‘I don’t understand these people.’ I wanted to show an actual dysfunctional family and sort of have them work through their issues,” Rianda says.
To bring a perfectly imperfect family to life, Rianda didn’t want the Mitchells to have a sleek, glossy finish — save that for the robots. He wanted them to look messy and hand-drawn, so the animators, who also used tools employed by the “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” (2018) team (Phil Lord and Christopher Miller are producers on “Mitchells”), had to teach the computer not to make the characters look too good.
“It was really a challenge of making the visuals match the story. The perfect robots were all symmetrical and straight and look like they’re out of a Stanley Kubrick movie, and the Mitchells were sort of wobbly and showed their imperfect imperfections on their sleeve. We tried everything that we could to push technology to accentuate that and not eliminate it because a lot of the computer wants to smooth things out and make them look perfect,” Rianda explains. “We had to teach the computer to draw like a person, which is not easy, I’ve been told by the people who did it.”
What was easy was actually getting Colman onboard and keeping her. The actress had agreed to voice PAL before her Oscar run for “The Favourite” (2018), and after she prevailed, Rianda figured she would drop out. “When she was up for the Oscar, I was hoping for that to win it and hoping for us that she didn’t because I was like, ‘She’ll never agree to do this if she has an Oscar.’ But God love her. She won the Oscar and like the next week, she’s like, ‘I’ll do your movie,'” he recalls. “She was such a benefit. I really think she sort of makes the whole movie move up a letter grade in quality. As soon as we put her voice in there, all of the sudden, the villain was scary and funny. Also, every time we recorded with her, someone in the room — and this is not an exaggeration, I swear to God, this happened like five to six times — would quietly whisper, ‘Oh my God’ to themselves because she was so good, like, ‘Oh my God, she’s incredible!'”
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