For Joel Crawford, drawing was never just a hobby. The filmmaker and animator, a veteran of DreamWorks Animation who has been with the studio since the early 2000s, has drawn for as long as he remembers, but as he explains, "From a very young age, that was the way I saw the world, but also dealt with the world."
"When I was five, there was an accident where the ends of a couple of my toes ended up being amputated," Crawford recalls of one traumatic yet foundational moment from his youth. "As a 5-year-old, I didn't understand that toes don't grow back. I saw lizard tails grow back! So, I was in the hospital for a while after I had surgery, and that's where I found my love of drawing. I remember I drew my foot missing the ends of the toes and I gave it to each of my family members. Looking back, it was my way of expressing, 'This is my new reality.' It was my therapy. Because I had that love of drawing, it's connected to how I tell a story, and that's something I hold dear and special."
Crawford got his start at DreamWorks as a story artist on 2007's Bee Movie, and has since worked on the Kung Fu Panda movies, Shrek Forever After, and Trolls. He made his feature directorial debut with 2020's The Croods: A New Age, and most recently helmed Puss in Boots: The Last Wish, for which he is nominated for Best Animated Feature Film at the 95th Oscars. That, the filmmaker says, would have blown his 5-year-old self's mind.
"I never would've dreamed that I could direct an animated movie that taps into so many things that I love in film," he says. "I grew up loving Sergio Leone Spaghetti Westerns. Later, I discovered Akira Kurosawa and was blown away by his approach to samurai, but also the deep humanity in all of his work. It's epic but intimate at the same time. It sounds weird, but for me, Puss in Boots: The Last Wish embodies all these things I've loved about film. Being able to tell a story that really has been resonating with so many people personally, that alone is awesome. Then getting nominated for an Academy Award, I still don't quite believe it, but I am so grateful for it."
Below, Crawford shares with A.frame the five films that have most inspired his love of movies and approach to animation. "This is totally my palette here," he laughs. "Let's go!"
Directed by: Sergio Leone | Written by: Sergio Leone, Agenore Incrocci, Furio Scarpelli, and Luciano Vincenzoni
I love that kind of Spaghetti Western with the heroic cowboy. Those were the first superheroes to me, in those major close-ups and the epic wides. That really was a big one for me.
Directed by: Akira Kurosawa | Written by: Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto and Hideo Oguni
Seven Samurai delivered on an epic action drama, but it surprised me with the depth of the humanity in it. It was inspiring in, like, I want to tell stories that bring audiences in that way, where you come in for the fun, but you leave with the heart.
Directed by: Katsuhiro Ôtomo | Written by: Katsuhiro Ôtomo and Izô Hashimoto
The Akira anime movie was a huge inspiration to me when I saw it by mistake as a kid at Thanksgiving. It was put on for us to watch while our aunts and uncles were talking and hanging out, and we were just — our eyes were so big at how epic and visceral the explosions were. And these were all hand-drawn. I was like, 'Whoa, what is this? I love it.' That was a big one.
Directed by: Peter Farrelly | Written by: Peter Farrelly, Bobby Farrelly, and Bennett Yellin
Dumb and Dumber is the most beautiful love story ever made. It cracked me up when I saw it in the theater. The comedy was just so... You could not hold in your laugh. I was laughing so hard. And at the heart of it, there's such a sweetness. These two are looking for the perfect kind of soulmates and don't ever realize they're right in front of each other until the very end of the movie. These two were made for each other. I love that movie.
Written and directed by: Taika Waititi
It's a more contemporary one, and there's a theme with me: I love comedy, and then I love being surprised by genuine humanity that makes me care. Taika Waititi is amazing at finding that. That was something that just, when I saw it, I was like, 'I just love everything Taika does.'