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Big screen Bruno: Alums contribute to Oscar-nominated films

One professor and three alums were involved in films up for the industry’s highest awards

As the darlings of the film industry descend upon Los Angeles’ Dolby Theatre for the 85th Academy Awards Sunday, audiences on College Hill could be cheering for homegrown contenders. Three alums — a producer, a composer and an actor — and a current professor were involved with Academy Award-nominated films this year.


Animation acclaim

Allison Abbate ’87 has earned praise as producer of “Frankenweenie” — Tim Burton’s latest stop-motion film about a boy and his twice-resurrected dog — that has been nominated for Best Animated Feature Film. Over the course of her career, Abbate has also worked with Wes Anderson on Oscar-nominated “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” won a BAFTA — the British Academy Film and Television Awards — for Brad Bird’s “Iron Giant” and co-produced the Michael Jordan blockbuster “Space Jam.”

Before rubbing shoulders with the likes of Meryl Streep and Johnny Depp, Abbate studied semiotics at Brown, a first-of-its-kind concentration that was incorporated into the Department of Modern Culture and Media in the 1990s.

“It was a pretty exciting major to have and definitely very unique to Brown,” she said.

Abbate moved to California to make movies soon after graduating, though she did not plan to pursue a career in animation, she said. “It was a pretty dynamic time in the business, and I got to work with amazing people like Tim, so I sort of kept going from there,” she said in reference to her decision to be an animator.

Working with Tim Burton is “wonderful,” she said. “He is incredibly … artistic and creative, and he has amazing ideas — amazing visuals — but he is also one of the sweetest people I have ever met and … the most collaborative.” In addition to “Frankenweenie,” she also worked with Burton on “The Nightmare Before Christmas” and “The Corpse Bride,” which received an Oscar nomination.

Though she will attend Sunday’s ceremony, she will not go home with any hardware. “The animation category is an odd one, because they only give one statuette and it goes to the director,” she said. “But I will definitely be there.”

“Frankenweenie” faces stiff competition from Disney’s “Brave” and “Wreck It Ralph,” but Abbate says she thinks the movie has a shot. “I think our movie is the most artistic of offerings that is up there,” she said. “It’s such a personal project for Tim — it’s black-and-white. It was such a labor of love.”

And who will she be wearing? “Jenny Packham, an English designer,” she said, laughing. “And you’re the only person who will ask me.”


A score for the sea

Composer Theodore Shapiro ’93 was also involved in a stop-motion film nominated for Best Animated Feature this year. He wrote the score for “The Pirates! Band of Misfits,” which follows a ragtag team of amateur pirates on their quest to prove themselves on the high seas. It is the fifth feature from Aardman Animations, the English production company that brought “Wallace and Gromit” to the world, according to its website.

After graduating from Brown with a degree in music, Shapiro went on to the Juilliard School to study composition and has since made a name for himself writing film scores. He wrote the music for “The Devil Wears Prada,” “Marley and Me” and “Hope Springs,” according to the International Movie Database.

The combination of the “intellectual background” he received at Brown with “the purely practical approach” he found at Juilliard was  “a very fortunate confluence of experience,” he said.

Early in his career, he said, he toed the line between writing for film and writing for the concert hall. “Both paths really were attractive and enjoyable,” he said. “But ultimately, the thing I love doing the most is writing music for narrative forms, and film is one that’s always intrigued me the most.”

Writing the music for a comedy like “The Pirates! Band of Misfits” is not much different from composing for drama, he said. “Your job as a film composer is to assist the filmmakers as a storyteller,” he added. He has also worked on “Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story,” “Tropic Thunder” and “Blades of Glory.”

Working with Aardman “was such a dream job for me because I’m such a fan of (the studio’s) work,” he said. “I’m thrilled that it got the nomination, because I hope that it will promote more people to see it.”

Composers do not traditionally attend the Oscars, but Shapiro said he does not miss the invitation. “I’m not a big awards ceremony person,” he said. “I think I’m going to tape them. Maybe I’ll watch them afterwards.”


Links to ‘Lincoln’

With 12 nominations, Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” is this year’s most lauded film. Tim Blake Nelson ’86 has a supporting role, playing former Congressman Richard Schell of New York. Nelson was a classics concentrator at Brown and served as senior orator during graduation.

After graduation, Nelson moved from studying the classics to living them — he starred in the Coen brothers’ Academy Award-winning “O Brother, Where Art Thou?,” which set Homer’s Odyssey in 1930s Mississippi. He was also featured on the film’s soundtrack, which won the 2002 Grammy Award for Album of the Year. Nelson could not be reached for comment.

Campus conversation about “Lincoln” has centered on the influence of Associate Professor of History Professor Michael Vorenberg and his book, “Final Freedom: The Civil War, the Abolition of Slavery and the Thirteenth Amendment.” A Jan. 10 New Republic article suggested Vorenberg’s book is a more likely candidate for the source material than Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln,” which screenwriter Tony Kushner has credited. In a follow-up article, Kushner listed Vorenberg’s book as among 20 or 30 he read as part of his research for the film.

“I think it would be a mistake to say that my book was the source for the film,” Vorenberg said. “I know that my book was a source used by the screenwriter, Tony Kushner, and he has been generous in saying that he used it as a source. But he used a number of books, and he certainly used Doris Kearns Goodwin’s ‘Team of Rivals’ quite a bit.”

But Vorenberg said he does not think filmmakers are obligated to specifically acknowledge their source materials. “I think it’s a question better asked of screenwriters, film producers and film historians. … It’s clear that the tradition has been not to cite sources, and I think that’s fine.”

Questions of the accuracy of the representations of historical reality in films like “Lincoln,” “Zero Dark Thirty” and “Argo” — all of which were nominated for Best Picture — have figured prominently in critical discourse this season.

Vorenberg declined to pick favorite films because he has not yet seen all of those up for awards Sunday night. “I wouldn’t have a preference in an election where I didn’t have a sense of the candidates running,” he said.


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