This summer, a pink wave swept across our world in the form of a live-action comedy directed by Greta Gerwig and featuring the famous doll. But what about the Barbie films that existed long before that? Will Lau tells us more.
In 2001, Mattel, the company that owns Barbie, launched its in-house entertainment division. They began working on a series of films adapting classical stories featuring the blond doll and done by computer-generated animation at the Canadian studio Mainframe Entertainment. In the same year the division was founded, Barbie in the Nutcracker, directed by Owen Hurley, was released. Up to this day, there are 42 direct-to-DVD Barbie movies. Over the years, the franchise has seen the work of no fewer than 13 directors. One, however, stands out from the crowd.
Will Lau is from Vancouver, Canada. He studied a media resource program at Capilano University (which was a college at the time). When he graduated, he started working at Mainframe as an editor on ReBoot!, the first computer-generated TV show. Since then, he has worked on several well-known franchises —Hot Wheels, My Little Pony— and received many awards. He was also one of those 13 directors. While some stayed for just one, up to 5 movies, Will Lau directed 9 Barbie animated films: more than anyone.
Why take the opportunity of working with Barbie?
Lau: I’ve always been a boys’ action kind of director. I’ve always loved cars and other cool things like that. But I also love fashion and wanted to explore performance and music. When I was working on Hot Wheels, an opportunity came up to do Barbie. I knew I needed to expand, even though it was a “girls’ property”. I ended up discovering that it wasn’t that different. In a way, the musical parts in Barbie are like the action pieces in a Hot Wheels type of show. It’s the exciting part, where the sweet center is.
What’s the recipe for a Barbie movie?
Lau: So many creative people actually create the Barbie character: writers, character designers, actors… We salvaged it all together to create this amalgamation that had been touched by so many artists. Back then, a movie would take us about a year to make. For me, it was kind of like micro-directing all the way through, so I needed to have a strong vision because it could go anywhere.
To make those movies, you used motion capture (mo-cap), a technique that uses sensors to record an actor’s movements on a computer. How did you work with it?
Lau: Barbie has always been “mo-caped” up until the late 2000s. Voice actors first gave life to the characters, and we used the voice acting for motion capture actors to sync with. Then, the animators needed to polish all that and give it emotion, especially in the faces because, at the time, we didn’t have the technology to capture them in that way. When using that technology, actors need specific training to give it a more heightened performance than in live-action movies. It’s almost like theatrical work, where the movements are more expressive.
How did you guys come up with the stories?
Lau: We went through the classics, at the beginning, because that is a great place to start. It was genius to replace the main character of these amazing stories with Barbie. But we started getting into this old sort of storytelling. Mattel wanted us to bring the spectator to the present, so we started changing it up. For example, each year they would have their sales of a certain type of Barbie and the movies had to coincide with that. A lot of times, we received cool prototypes, like the one we got for Barbie: A Fairy Secret. The doll had wings that folded into a dress, and we had to design the character to work with that functionality.
What are the storytelling challenges when working with such an iconic character?
Lau: Barbie always had to be graceful and polite. She was more than just a fashion icon; she represented the best in terms of manners. Very rarely we see Barbie mad or rude. She has always been a character to look up to, which made it difficult to engage our audience. When we watch a movie or read a book, we like to see our main characters change. Usually, they start off with a flaw and as they go through the journey, they improve. Barbie is always perfect. So, we usually wrote a secondary character that went along with her and who had more of a character arc. Barbie was more like a mentor.
One of the most popular characters is Preminger, the villain in Barbie: The Princess and the Pauper. How did he come to life?
Lau: Martin Short is an amazing comedian. He brought so much character with just his voice. He made it so easy to just come up with him. Of course, the character concepts tell you a lot. We really wanted to make him look like a villain who was trying too hard to look big and masculine, but who could be feared still. Comedy was very important for him as well: we tried to have him shorter, and we gave him heels. When it came to motion capture the character, we cast an actress. That’s the secret. She did an amazing job at taking this male character and trying to be as masculine as possible, but of course, naturally, femininity would still come through. It made a difference when it came to giving him that look.
Why do you think he became such a meme?
Lau: I don’t know. Because he is so eccentric and because of the way he moves, I suppose? We made sure he ate up the scenery all the time. It’s almost like he knew the camera was on him. It’s amazing that people are keeping it alive, that the new generation is having fun with Preminger and all the things Barbie brought.
What did you think of Greta Gerwig’s interpretation of Barbie?
Lau: It was brilliant. They did an amazing job. It was definitely not what I expected. They made a very meaningful film about patriarchy and how men and women live together. It was really powerful in that way. I don’t know how they could possibly make a sequel, because the story seems finished, but I’m sure Mattel is going to do something with it. It’ll be interesting to see what happens.
When you look back on your career working with Barbie, what do you take with you?
Lau: I’m grateful to have had those opportunities, to make all those movies. When you are actually working on them, you don’t think about their legacy. All you have in mind is the next project. But sometimes, when we had special showings in movie theaters, I got to see children happy, dancing in the theater, wearing wings and beautiful dresses. It’s the best feeling in the world.
CREDITS: Text by Malena Cortizo A.