After taking the biggest risk of his professional career, Chris Williams – the Kitchener-raised animator who won an Oscar for directing Disney blockbuster Big Hero 6 – will turn himself in on March 12 after announcing his Netflix Strip’s return to the red carpet on Tuesday The Sea Beast was nominated for Best Animated Feature.
“It’s so fuzzy,” notes the soft-spoken director, whose earliest film memory is of riding his bike in the rain to Kitchener’s Lyric Theater to see Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Terminator.
“It happened so early in the morning. I woke up and got a text from someone who was nominated in the Best Animated Short Film category and texted me, “See you at the Oscars!” And then I checked my phone and my computer and I had a million messages.”
He laughs. “It’s a bit of a whirlwind. I’m still processing it and trying to understand it.”
It’s a vindication for the 54-year-old filmmaker, who wrote, produced and directed his sprawling seafaring epic over three and a half years – mostly during the pandemic – after leaving a lucrative gig at Disney for burgeoning streaming service Netflix.
“It feels a little different this time,” he admits, “because I left the creative home I’d been in for 25 years and decided to venture out and make this film a little outside of what the People expect North American feature animation.
“It feels special, especially because this has been an incredible year for animation, with so many great films nominated.”
The proud Canadian filmmaker – whose roots are often overlooked because he works in the US – attended Waterloo’s Bluevale Collegiate in the ’80s and studied fine arts at the University of Waterloo before enrolling in the animation program at Sheridan College in Oakville, where he got accepted by Disney recruiters and moved to Los Angeles before he graduated.
In 2008 he received his first Oscar nomination for the animated film “Bolt”, in 2014 he won the same award for “Big Hero 6” and in 2016 he co-directed the Oscar-nominated “Moana”.
Even so, The Sea Beast — with its edgy shifts in tone and unconventional storyline — was still a risky proposition.
“There are absolutely no guarantees when it comes to making movies,” Williams insists, noting that the film springs from his love of action epics like King Kong, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Lawrence of Arabia “It creates a sense of stepping out of the known world and into the unknown, with a real sense of danger, danger and high stakes.”
“There’s an alchemy behind it. Even with really talented people working under the best of circumstances, there’s no guarantee it will come together. There is always an emotional and creative risk.”
Pandemic filmmaking has also presented challenges.
“We were all sent home when we first started production,” recalls Williams, who at one point directed a voice actor in England while noise from his neighbor’s renovations blasted through the walls.
“The entire infrastructure of Netflix animation was being built right next to the film, which also presented some challenges.”
In the end, “Sea Beast” – advertised as “the must-watch family movie of the summer” – became Netflix’s highest-grossing animated film of all time with 165 million viewers and sparked a sequel also helmed by Williams.
“Ultimately, it’s a credit to the hundreds of people who have been with me on this journey,” says the humble filmmaker, who oversaw a vast team of animators, voice actors, lighting and effects artists.
“It was a really ambitious film made under very difficult circumstances.”
Along with The Sea Beast, Guillermo del Toros Pinocchio, Marcel The Shell With Shoes On, Puss In Boots: The Last Wish and Turning Red, directed by fellow Canadian Domee Shi, are nominated for Best Animated Feature .