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'9': It's easy to root for the animated rag dolls

Making Shane Acker's award-winning short into a full-length feature was all about creating empathy for the small heroes in their battle for survival.

December 09, 2009

When it came time for Shane Acker to expand his award-winning short "9" into a feature-length film, he had no problem inventing a rich back story for the characters who inhabit his darkly imagined post-apocalyptic landscape.

"I just vomited all these ideas out," Acker said of his first meeting with screenwriter Pamela Pettler, whose credits include the animated outings "Corpse Bride" and "Monster House." "I'd never done long form before, I didn't really know narrative structure. She was great at figuring out how we could start to put these different narrative threads through the whole."

It couldn't have been easy. Acker's unconventional story takes place in an alternate future that bears a striking resemblance to post-World War II Europe. Humanity is extinct; the only survivors of an implied nuclear war are nine tiny beings who look like rag dolls fashioned out of burlap. The small creatures, who have numbers instead of names, are relentlessly pursued by a group of predatory machines, the largest of which is a hulking animatronic spider with a glowing red eye. The heroic 9 (Elijah Wood) convinces his compatriots to fight back -- a decision that carries with it some serious consequences.

The movie's rich visuals help ground the premise, and Acker said that he and the creative team, which included big-name producers Tim Burton and Timur Bekmambetov, took several measures to ensure that moviegoers felt invested in the characters and their plight.

"Whether it's character design, the voice performance, our approach to staging and cinematography, you're using all those tools to create empathy in the audience," Acker said. "On a very basic level, they've got big round eyes, they're made of soft materials. It's like a bunny rabbit, you like something soft and cute. You start to empathize with them -- how do we further reinforce that? We make the world destroyed and dark and there's horrific sharp metal creatures that are trying to kill them."

-- Gina McIntyre

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