Timothy Reckart: Animating Features for More Than the Kiddos

Timothy Reckart: Animating Features for More Than the Kiddos

Timothy Reckart poses for a portrait at Sony Pictures Animation's headquarters in Culver City, California.

SourceAlex Washburn / OZY

Why you should care

Animation’s just the medium for complex concepts.

A graying woman and a crotchety old man are fighting. It’s a domestic scene of marital disagreement. She fiddles with their wedding photo; he walks down the hall and rejiggers it to his particular fancy. He wants to watch TV. She’d like to vacuum. It’s a simple, clear concept: Sometimes, we fight with each other. Except that these two are not butting heads because they’re old or bored, but because they’re not even on the same plane — literally.

It’s a Claymation couple starring in this animated short film, Head Over Heels, in which the woman lives on the ceiling, while her husband dwells below, on the ground. It’s a neat little metaphor, one good enough to win its creator, Timothy Reckart, an Oscar nomination. With an Academy nod, as well as a hat tip from Variety — which named Reckart one of 10 animators to watch — and a Cartoon d’Or award, 29-year-old Reckart is headed mainstream. Bred with indie sensibilities, Reckart will make his first foray into the big-time budget range with his upcoming directorial debut in features: the “Untitled Nativity Movie,” which was previously announced as The Lamb, a computer-generated animation film from Sony, set to come out in 2017.

Though I’ve been sworn to secrecy on all things yeanling, there’s plenty to discuss about Reckart’s intimidatingly impressive four years in the industry. A lanky millennial with blue-green eyes and dimples, Reckart looks like an animated character himself. He’s more than a decade and a half younger than most of his colleagues here at Sony Pictures Animation’s headquarters in Culver City, California. Other than a few boyish quips — he’s considering getting a collegiate-style beer fridge for his office — he owns the space. Walking through the poster-plastered animators’ floor, where the blue-faced Smurfs, the studio’s signature animation franchise, grin down on the artists, Reckart is less interested in Sony’s history than the in-progress stories the multibillion-dollar company plans to release in the next few years.

That’s exactly why Sony’s brought on the cerebral director — to catch up with the animation-boom times. Put simply: Sony’s no Pixar. Sure, it’s had some hits:Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, The Smurfs, Hotel Transylvania; coming soon, an animated Spider-Man, a third Smurf venture and, of course, Reckart’s flick. Things are moving unusually fast here, but despite the thrill, this doesn’t feel like Reckart’s baby, he tells me: Doing a mainstream feature is kind of like raising “an adopted child,” he says.

Forty years ago, mainstream used to mean kiddos. Today, thanks in part to the rise of CG technology in 1995 ( milestone: Toy Story), the $200-some billion global animation market is considerably more crowded. With the growth comes change — and maturation, says Steve Hulett, a business representative for the Animation Guild. Adults are going for it: parents who expect some entertainment right alongside their kids, and even those with no little tykes in tow.

Though well-respected in industry circles, Reckart was an unlikely candidate for the job — he’s never made a feature in his life, and animation came late to him. He took his first class in college, at Harvard, and while “most people who dabbled in animation realized they hated it,” Reckart says, just like running cross-country in high school, he found that his advantage was his ability to be patient and tolerate what others couldn’t stand. He tried to pull off bigger flicks: While growing up in Tucson, Arizona, Reckart cast his younger siblings in his homemade gangster films. His dad starred as the devil in a 40-minute short called Corporate Hell, which hit a roadblock when police officers surrounded him with weapons. He learned the lesson of getting a permit after a prop gun looked a little too real.

Which might explain why he stuck to the high-concept stuff. It worked out: Paul Bush, a former tutor at the National Film and Television School in England, describes Reckart’s conceptual ability as “rarer in the animation field.” In college Reckart studied history and literature, taking animation classes on the side. One film’s idea: a hunchback complaining about being typecast in Frankenstein -esque movies. After college, he shipped off to the National Film and Television School for a graduate degree in animation. Head Over Heels, his final project there, got him into the audience of the Oscars.

And yet, the night of the awards saw then 26-year-old Reckart a little lackluster. He was a highly accoladed Harvard grad, and also … unemployed. Patience prevailed: A winding trail of meetings and intros led him to Sony, and the execs grabbed him for this debut. Once it’s finished, another feature, or even a live-action film, sounds good to Reckart. He could make that transition, says Hulett, “because of the commercial power of animation,” citing directors like Brad Bird, who has directed animated films (The Incredibles) and live-action (Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol) alike.

Reckart’s dream project: A 70-year-old aristocrat sleeps on the floor next to his bed because of post-traumatic stress disorder from conquistadoring with Cortés in the 1500s. It’s intellectual, much like the upside-down short, which he tells me was inspired in part by polarized political coverage of the 2012 election. But of course, all concept has a gooey center, this one included: It was also inspired by a long-distance patch with a girlfriend — now wife.

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