The Legacy of Disney Animation
Right after we discovered our toes we were introduced to Mickey Mouse, Goofy and Donald Duck. Disney’s stories gave us our earliest understanding of good and evil. It’s true, a great story can change how we see the world.
This session presented 70 years of Disney storytelling and gave top film makers the opportunity to speak about the changes within the company as Disney makes the transition from hand drawn 2D animation to computer graphics and 3D animation techniques. The filmmakers were notably positive about the transformation and the incoming technology. The audience was treated to clips of early works from the Disney archives, screen shots and clips from the upcoming movie Chicken Little, as well as glimpses into future work that will be at least five years in the making.
Steve Goldberg worked on some of the first computer graphics (CG) characters Disney ever produced in the movie Aladdin. He explained that the goal of Disney has always been to make believable stories. This involves creating an illusion of depth and space and the greatest degree of tangibility possible; computer graphics is a natural step in the evolution of these goals. Goldberg stressed that Disney’s changes are not about abandoning a medium, they are about embracing the elements that are integral to animation. These elements include story telling, art and direction and design. It is possible to celebrate the elements of the past and continue to apply them within a new medium.
Next to speak were Randy Fulmer and Mark Dindal. Fulmer opened with “Is our heritage the pencil? No, our heritage is great story telling and great characters.” Fulmer and Dindal spoke on the short history of computer graphics at Disney. Recruiting for CG people began only five years ago and both men agree it’s an exciting time to be in the studio. Fulmer elaborated, “It’s exciting to work in a new medium where you don’t know everything, there’s always an element of fear when you don’t know what you’re doing or where you’re going.”
Regardless of the medium, the elements of the narrative stay the same and without the proper foundation you won’t connect with people though your stories.
Fulmer and Dindal worked closely with the soon to be released movie Chicken Little. The first clip from the movie showed Chicken Little distraught, holding a piece of fallen sky. They explained that in every sequence it’s important to have just one idea and each character must have a unique and interesting point of view.
After four years of working on the movie Fulmer and Dindal were aware they couldn’t see their work objectively. In order to see if their narrative and characters were on the mark they conducted 10 screening with 3rd graders.
On the day the school kids came in, Fulmer and Dindal admitted they were in a cold sweat. These kids didn’t know or care about how much work had gone into the movie. Would they laugh? Fulmer and Dindal noticed that kids will squirm when they are not interested and will sit still when they are entertained. This became very valuable information and was a tool to monitor what was working and what was not.
Eamonn Butler spoke next, he also began by talking about Chicken Little. When the concept for the film was first introduced the company was wondering who they could get to animate the film. At that point only about half of the staff had any computer graphic skills and the other half couldn’t even operate a computer. A training “boot camp” was started to get the traditional animators up to speed, with the goal being to leverage the talents of existing artists.
When Disney began creating their first CG characters for this film, they noticed that many CG characters in other movies looked stiff and plastic. Disney wanted to continue in their trend of creating flexible whimsical characters (think Goofy on the pitcher's mound - his exaggerated wind-up and rubbery arms). Other goals for this new medium included a strong line of action, pose to pose animation, and fast snappy timing. Butler stressed, “Don’t see it, feel it!”
All animators are encouraged to remember it’s a movie and not a science project. It is easy in the CG world to get distracted by the medium, but the audience should always be the primary focus. If there is a way to cheat the medium to get what you want then go for it. This point was illustrated with another clip from Chicken Little where Abby, the ugly ducking, wraps an egg in fabric. The actual “wrapping” is mostly cropped out of the shot. In the next sequence she stands with a fully wrapped egg. Actually she never wrapped the egg at all as far as the 3D software was concerned. Instead, a fully wrapped egg was swapped in when she stood up.
Butlers talk became slightly more technical as he introduced the rigging system of the characters. Most of the systems were intentionally broken to allow for more flexibility. He then showed screen shots of the interface the animators used to interact with the 3D software. Interestingly the interface resembled the Imagineering Anacon used to control puppets in 1950s Disney World shows.
Ian Gooding and Dan Cooper spoke next. Which of the many past Disney styles did the director of Chicken Little like the most? His answer was the style of the 1950’s: simple, colorful and theatrical. Gooding and Cooper emersed themselves in the films of this time period and came up with a style guide. The guide called for detail in the shadows to be limited or non-existent, strong lighting on the character of focus and solid geometry, as well as good composition and contrast in the grayscale version before color is added. Anything that does not directly support what the scene is about should not be there at all. Gooding and Cooper went though more than 30 before and after slides of scenes from Chicken Little showing the application of good lighting and color design.
So what’s next for Disney? Films that are in the planning stages include “A Day with Wilber Robinson”, “American Dog” and “Rapunzel”.
The final speaker was Glen Keane, who got his start as a pizza delivery boy and installing toilet paper racks in hotels. He began by talking about the last time he spoke at SIGGRAPH in 1986. Back then the multiplane camera was the biggest invention Disney had seen.
When Keane was a boy he drew space men and dinosaurs, not because he wanted to make a good space man or a perfect dinosaur but because he wanted to live there in the jungle or outer space. He created entire worlds with a pencil, something that hasn’t changed through the duration of his life. Keane created some of the most memorable characters in Disney’s history including Ariel from The Little Mermaid, Beast from Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Pocahontas, and Tarzan.
Keane once claimed “I love the feel of graphite across the paper and I’ll kill any man who tries to take the pencil away from me”. Now he says he’s eating his words. What he meant at the time was simply that he didn’t want to loose his expression as an artist.
When Keane was first introduced to CG he was skeptical. He didn’t believe that CG could capture the same organic fluidity that he coveted in his hand drawn animations. He decided to conduct a test. He animated by hand 5 seconds of a ballerina gracefully spinning across the dance floor. He played this clip for the audience.
He said he took his ballerina to the CG people and asked what they could do. In the next clip he played a 3D version that wowed the audience. But once you create something in 3D there is nothing keeping you from changing your camera’s viewpoint on the animation and the third clip of the ballerina is what took the audience’s breath away. The same ballerina with the same fluid motion danced across the floor as the camera spun around her ending above as she tilted her face skyward for the finale. We were all ready to drop pencils forever and embrace the wonders of computer graphics.
For Keane, the computer kept entering the equation. It was the obvious direction for where his art should be going. Computer graphics forced him to draw better with more dimension and a better sense of space, and although new and frightening, he like it.
Just how much Keane was embracing computer graphics became clear when he played a clip of his famous character Ariel, re-created in 3D. The “golden poses” were identical between the hand drawn animation and the 3D version. These are what Keane says are the heart of the animation. It was evident from the extended applause that the audience was again impressed.
His current project, Rapunzel, will still be years in the making. Keane is facing the challenge of how to push CG, and use it to tell his story. As conclusion to the special session the audience got to see a short clip from Rapunzel, where the style of the characters is remarkably historical, reminiscent of Disney classics Cinderella and Snow White.
In closing Keane remarked that he has learned two things in his life, “ Frustration is good and fear is healthy. There is a nice balance between art and fear, and the fear is what keeps you humble.”