Thursday, September 9, 2010

Cauldron of Chaos, PART 3

The original Black Caudlron given to Patty Peraza by Joe Hale
When they started having screenings for the public at the studio theater to gather their reactions to our rough cut film, I remembered the window at the end of the hallway where Walt would sometimes stand looking out over his studio while checking people's reaction as they left a screening. There are some great shots of him at that window as the afternoon light creeped through the panes and threw his shadow on the wall behind. I knew that the "un-dead" section would most likely be revolting to some in the audience who would not expect to see a bunch of rotted corpses slowly fermenting and in full gorious, I mean glorious color in a Disney animated feature.

I had that section timed so I knew when it would come on screen after the picture began. I brought along a few of my closest cronies to enjoy my hunch. We stood in the back of the theater until the film began, then left quietly and snuck up to the third floor. There had been sightings of "suits" on the third floor so we had to be on the look out for anyone wearing a tie. As we slowly approached the zombie, er... zero hour, we looked to the theater below. Right on cue, the doors opened and a mom was angrily leaving with her two wailing children in tow. She was followed by another, and soon there was a sizable exodus of crying kids and upset parents fleeing from the theater. You couldn't hear what they were saying but I doubt it was along the lines of, "If only they could have held longer on the decayed flesh dripping off that cute zombie's face.  I can't wait to go out and buy some happy meals of those incredibly entertaining undead fellows." By this time a security guard had been making rounds and gave us the stink eye so we hopped back downstairs to our domiciles chuckling all the way. Afterwards as the directors and producer met, they didn't need to read the ARI cards to admit that particular problem and the un-dead sections were quickly cut down and in some cases cut out completely. Unfortunately those simple cuts could not repair the rips in the  fabric of the storyline or magically make the film the fantasy epic it should have been.

Most of the effects were still handrawn
Cauldron included some terrific visuals by its stellar effects animation staff who really went above and beyond to create their hand drawn magic. Animator Don Paul even shot live action of dry ice mists coming out of the cauldron for placement directly into the film for dramatic impact while Ted Keirsey, Mark Dindal, Jeff Howard, Patty Peraza and many many other FX wizards created amazing imagery  across "bedsheets" of wide screen animation paper. There were however some new tricks coming out of the Disney hat. Some of the new advances made by Disney during this film included the first computer animation done by Disney that was released to the public.

Along with a few others, I had left Cauldron to join Producer Berni Mattenson on his project, "Basil of Baker Street." I was inspired by Miyazaki's 's "Castle Calliostro" and wanted to do computer graphics inside Big Ben which was definitely not written into the story. I sketched out some pastels to try and sell the idea and was rewarded with John Musker and Roy Disney's support.  I gathered a couple of guys from WED and we got right on it. Don Griffith told Joe Hale about the computer imagery I was exploring and he came down and likewise got excited at the possibilities. Joe had a varied background at Disney that also included effects and he had proven his abilities time and again on films like "Black Hole" and "Watcher in the Woods". He commandeered my little crew and used them to creat a row boat, a floating orb of light and some flying witch props for Cauldron. So officially "Basil" was the first Disney animated feature to use computer graphics but "Cauldron" was the first to be released showing it.  Yeah, get it right you gol- dern film historians!  A new process was also developed during Cauldron called APT which was meant to replace Xerography at the studio. Dave Spencer would go on to receive an technical merit Aademy Award for the process however it never did take the place of Xerox as foretold. Computers would eventually provide that little change.

I recently spoke with Producer Joe Hale and asked him for his recollections about "Cauldron." Joe's long Disney experience included being Ollie Johnston's assistant on "Peter Pan" working on Smee and later with Woolie while on "Lady and the Tramp,"  and Ward Kimball on "Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom." It was on "Sleeping Beauty" that Joe moved over into the Layout department and under Don Griffith's mentoring. Joe had originally been doing story development on Cauldron working closely with Vance Gerry and Mel Shaw.  When asked by Ron Miller to take on the role of Producer, he turned it down not wanting to step on toes or have to deal with the mounting politics in the studio. Of course he did eventually take on that mantle when frustration rose within the crew and someone had to step up to the responsibility.  Later after the new management team came on board, he faced yet another level of frustration. "When Katzenberg first screened the film (Cauldron) he told us to cut it by 10 minutes.  Roy Disney and I got together and found some scenes we could get rid of that didn't affect the story that much." When they ran it agin for Jeffrey and the film finished he asked Roy, "Is that 10 minutes?" When Roy replied that no it was only around 6 minutes.  Jeffrey stated, "I said 10 minutes!" 

Joe continued, "Eventually he (Jeffrey) cut out about 12 minutes which really hurt the picture. " I'll jump back in and add that It's always an expensive and intensely muddled action when editing an animated feature after it is in full color. Those steps were always meant to be edited while in the storyboard stage or at least before animation. I'd rather see a story or layout guy do a hand full of drawings and test the flow on a leica reel than an animator slave over a hundred pages of sweat only to see it cut out of the picture. Going all the way into final color and then making those decisions is just ludicrous. Of course even the classic films have their "soup eating sequences" so it is not unheard of to edit after animation, just an unfortunate screwup when it does occur. Joe received an early copy of the new DVD release of "Cauldron" yesterday and he and his lovely wife Bev informed me that the image is sharp, bright and colorful.  They also briefed me that they included about 8 minutes or so of previously unseen footage, mainly of the Faire Folk sequence that was cut before the film was released.  This will now be included as part of the bonus features so we can better imagine what Joe Hale, Ron Miller and their team may have had in mind for this feature.

Ron Miller and Roy Disney in happier times
Speaking of Ron Miller, Joe and I were both disappointed that so called "film historians" tend to sweep much of his innovative accomplishments under the rug or just give credit to Eisner's regime albeit they also produced some great results. I wonder how many readers realize that Miller's rein was responsible for the creation of  The Disney Channel, Buena Vista Home Entertainment, actual construction of Walt's dream of EPCOT, funded Disney's FIRST Broadway show, gave Tim Burton his break as well as many of the future wonderkids of animation, acquired "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" and put it into development, Tokyo Disneyland, initiated Disney's first attempts at computer animation with projects like "Tron", started the Touchstone label for films HE produced like "Splash" and many more achievements. 

When Disney became the target of corporate raiders like Saul Steinberg, certain shareholders criticized Miller's leadership even though he had done wonders since becoming president of Walt Disney Productions just recently in 1980 and then CEO in 1983. Unfortunately just as Miller was truly waking the Sleeping Beauty, he was ousted. Keep in mind that I'm not saying he was perfect or that he was Walt but then again has anyone truly filled that void? I am saying that he was trying to do a good job with the company and I believe that for the most part he did exactly that. Not to take anything away from Eisner and what his troupe accomplished but they certainly reaped many rewards from the foundation set by Miller's team. 

Thank goodness Michael Eisner rewarded Roy Disney's support with control of Disney animation when other new management staff originally wanted nothing to do with that division and some would just as soon see it shut down and weren't shy about letting that be known.  Ironically in 2004, and by now fed up with Michael Eisner's leadership, Roy would spearhead the "Save Disney" rally which led to the ouster of Eisner a year later. I can only guess at the wonders we might have have witnessed if Ron and Roy could have remained united and taken Disney into the future together. 

Our Invite to the Cauldron Wrap Party
As always, the wrap parties were a joyous time when hurt feelings had had enough time to mellow and sometimes even heal completely and we were able to reflect on the accomplishments of everyone involved. I was glad to see Ron Miller's name still attached to the credits as executive Producer although I'm certain the film didn't exactly mirror his hopes and dreams.

On a warm Monday night, July 1, 1985, Disney Studios threw a fantastic wrap party at Chasens and the food and music were first class as usual for this kind of an event. Chasen's had been one of the trendier spots in Hollywood dating back to the Golden Age of the thirties. Sadly that classy icon of yesteryear closed its doors in 1995 and now has a grocery store with a drop or two of chili to mark the spot. Of course we still have the film, "The Black Cauldron" and the Disney feature Animation department is even now working on new releases, despite the rumors that it would close its hallowed doors. It may have been uprooted and moved to new addresses, but it's still around thank goodness and only just recently finished their latest effort "The Princess and the Frog" as a commitment to keeping quality 2D animation alive and kicking.

Producer Joe Hale and animator Patty Peraza
at the Black Cauldron Wrap Party
Looking back I guess I'll always wish  Cauldron could have been better and if it sounds like I've been knocking it, I really don't mean to, just chalk it up to personal disappointment. There had been so much hype for this particular project it was difficult to imagine anything less than a new masterpiece on the scale of the afore mentioned, "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs". I was really yearning to see our generation create something epic and awe inspiring for today's audiences but that quest was made even more difficult through the many unusual and unforeseen obstacles we endured during its development. Joe and his crew actually accomplished quite a feat when you realize what they had to contend with while creating this film. Black Cauldron was our 25th Full-Length Animated Feature and I guess I just wanted to be a part of another icon that would draw lines of folks wanting to experience the magic of a new Disney classic.

While researching this story, I met some wonderful folks who consider Cauldron among their favorite Disney films and if I learned nothing else, time has taught me that there are other points of views beside mine as to what makes a good film. However while it may not have been the classic some of us had hoped for  it nevertheless has gained a very appreciative audience for its endeavor and I'm sure that with the further re-release on DVD it will only brew into more fans.  What was also gained on this project was the nurturing of the multitude of  talent we had with the further training we all received in Story, Direction, Layout, Animation, and BG Painting.

The grand Disney experiment called "The Black Cauldron" that we all faced together was definitely worth the effort in the long run. The intense sometimes painful labors and likewise sparkling discoveries we made while working on this feature made us all a bit more ready when we soon tried our hands on new animated undertakings like "Basil of Baker Street." That delightful Victoria era film in turn eventually made it possible to go on and make what would someday be hailed as the beginning of the Disney renaissance, a fantasy fish tale or perhaps  fish tail called "The Little Mermaid."

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Cauldron of Chaos, PART 2

Don Bluth's Banjo project definitely got everyone's interest
A lot has been said and in too many cases in a rather disparaging and often over stated manner but yes there were various camps forming at the Disney studio at this time that on the cynical side could almost be described as a peaceful and loving boxing ring without the gloves.

In this corner, the veterans, including what was left of Walt's "9 Old Men" were almost  all gone by then although thankfully some would still come by and check in with us from time to time.  In another corner there was a generation of great artists that hadn't really had their opportunity to strut their stuff  with the old guard in place and were hoping to soon get their chance.  There was also the corner with Don Bluth's group who were also talented, well trained and believed to be the next leaders of Disney animation.  And let's not forget yet another corner containing the sometimes brash but equally talented  Cal Arts trained kids which found their leadership in people like John Musker who captained the "Rat's Nest" as they called his cacaphony of comedic cartoon cut ups.

There were of course other innocent and equally talented folks of all ages and backgrounds contributing but these heavyweight contenders were the main event so to speak. I can only believe that with a person like Walt in charge, we would still have many of the same situations that go along with managing so many creative types but we would have been expected to channel more of the efforts into the films under his guidance. I once asked a man who worked alongside Walt for many years about just this problem and Woolie Reitherman's response was, "Walt wouldn't put up with that crap, he was too busy making movies." ( I always did like Woolie's frankness )  Unfortunately of course, Walt had passed away 10 years earlier and he was the irreplaceable piece of the puzzle. I liked and had friends in all of the groups which sometimes made it awkward when having people over to the house for get togethers who usually didn't get together. Nevertheless these folks and the overwhelming studio population for the most part worked together very well and operated as a team.

Cauldron Directors don their caps as  "Fare Folks"
As months boiled over into years, the cauldron directors Art Stevens, Ted Berman and Rick Rich had started to perceive a staleness regarding their sequences as the storylines morphed and were re-written. At one point it was finally decided that maybe a change would kick-start the creative process all over again. They traded sequences, yep, you heard right, they traded their sequences to each other to help get some fresh ideas going. Well, it was certainly an interesting gamble and in some ways it did get people excited.  Problems arose however in the fact that we were once again re-staging some of the layouts for the newest proposals while on the animation side, some scenes were being re-animated to encompass the latest director's new directions.

The tension on this film was relieved somewhat with the help of some wickedly funny pranks and gag sketches. An example on the right is one of literally hundreds of gag drawings that permeated the production and helped the crew keep their spirits up while laughing at management, the directors, and each other. The artist who doodled out the "Fare Folk" sketch was and still is a top animator and storyman and was hands down my favorite gagster. I wish I had room here for a lot more of these. It still cracks me every time I look at it. Sorry Joe, heh, heh, heh.

I was also called in by Joe to look into new film presentation processes. Joe was very interested in trying to find a gimmick that might help this film stand out among the rest. I looked into a variety of processes including 3d (I hated the glasses but couldn't find a way around them), stop motion background elements, xeroxing onto paper from actual models I built and other experiments including projecting onto a lenticular screen. We actually got some incredible results that drew applause from out little sweatbox audience using model sets during the "meltdown" sequence that gave us what looked a very intricate animated line drawing (one of the models is shown to the left). Why was it not used on the final film you ask? Well when I eventually left to work on Basil, no one stepped forward to see it through.

More sweeping shots, less camera moves.
Cauldron's format also brewed into a consomm√© of concern regarding the staging. We were shooting this film in 70mm which was the second to be attempted  after Walt Disney's "Sleeping Beauty." The layout department could explore bold compositions with this format understanding that at least the theatrical release would be seen correctly even if it suffered a possible "pan & scan" disfigurement through a later conversion 4:3. We often employed Don's favorite saying, "Less is more." as far as camera movement while envisioning our widescreen setups.

The layout department was given gorgeous new 70mm widescreen charts from our Scene Planning Department to compose their scenes but after using them for a few weeks I found myself comparing them to an old set Don Griffith had given to me from "Sleeping Beauty" and noticed a marked difference in the width versus height ratio. Unfortunately by the time I discovered the discrepancy and went to Dave Thomson in Scene Planning to show him, quite a few scenes were already handed out to the animators and thus had to be adjusted as we were given the new improved and corrected field charts.

First week on the Picket line
The puddles were just drying from this latest bubbling belch when out of nowhere there suddenly erupted an unforeseen calamity, WE WENT ON STRIKE! One second we found ourselves herded into the studio theater where VP of Disney Animation Ed Hansen explained that our Local 839 had gone on strike. The next moment we were pounding the pavement with ready made picket signs decorated with Disney characters handed to us as we left the studio entrance.

(The strike was an important and difficult time for all of us that suffered through it so I'll save that part of the story for another time to be illustrated with pictures I took from the first day we went out, the picket lines, the fight at the Union meeting and how many of us coped with having no salary for months)   

The gist of why I mentioned the Cartoonist's Strike was that it added yet another road block on Cauldron's path to completion. Almost as soon as the strike was settled another upheaval rocked the magic Kingdom of animation. This latest storm was not to be found in the artist's camps or on the sidewalks but was unfortunately brewing at the top of Disney management. Through a series of colorful idioms like green mail and golden parachutes, we soon found the head honcho, Ron Miller, Walt Disney's son-in-law and hand picked successor gone and replaced by non-Disney people we had never even heard of:  Michael Eisner, Frank Wells and Jeffrey Katzenberg.

The mouse factory behind closed doors
I remember all too well standing besides Darrell Van Citters along with other animators on the "Something Wicked" abomination to our old Fred MacMurray era back lot square and hearing Michael Eisner announce how happy he was to be at Disney. He explained that he grew up loving all the wonderful Disney characters, "After all, who could ever forget Heckle and Jeckle and Mighty Mouse?" That is an exact quote folks. The backlot was dead quiet. After a silent pause that would have made a fart sound like Mount St Helens there was a very noticeable groan from the animation portion of the audience. It was soon apparent that Michael, Frank and Jeffrey were all just a little ignorant about animation and the steps it took to create the magic. One new exec was overheard explaining the process he obviously knew nothing about to a fellow new suit, "They draw 24 drawings a second." Well I don't know if even legendary animator Freddie Moore could have achieved that speedy feat.

Mel Shaw contributed countless Character Designs
like this one of Gurgi to be voiced by John Byner.
As Cauldron was screened for the new management, Jeffrey Katzenberg proceeded to ask for "... cover shots" during sweat box meetings not fully understanding that extra shots to "cover" a scene was only done in live action. In animation, we DREW each shot as they were needed depending directly on the story board/workbook. Multiple animated variations would have made the already expensive process out of financial reach even for Disney.

Since his background was only in live action up to this film, this point of view isn't really that unusual. Jeffrey however proved to be a very hard working exec and showed how serious he was in rectifying his lack of knowledge by immediately going into a thorough self education process involving  every step of the creative and production processes used by Disney feature animation. He soon became a hands on manager who garnered the respect of quite a few on the staff  (including me)  and along with Roy Disney's help and guidance would see Disney animation eventually regain its prominence in the field.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Cauldron of Chaos, PART 1

One of Mel Shaw's many inspirational masterpieces.
If you were interested in a career in art in the 1970s, you might have seen a beautiful flier created by Disney Studios that was used as a recruitment tool to attract new young talent to the Disney Animation crew. The colorful booklet featured the classic scenes showcasing Disney films along with stunning pastels from Mel Shaw that were inspirational pitch pieces for a new feature.  This new film had roots in Welsh mythology  and was based on Lloyd Alexander's "Chronicles of Prydain" book series which would eventually be called "The Black Cauldron." It was to be an epic project for Walt Disney Feature animation. The official line from the studio was that it would be in effect a "Snow White" for the new generation referring to the first animated full length feature from Walt Disney which had helped launch a veritable empire of magical entertainment.

"The Back Cauldron" was the tale of Taran, a young boy who daydreams of being a great warrior fighting the legendary Horned King. Since he lives in the peaceful countryside with a kindly old enchanter and his oracular pig, that doesn't seem to be something that will happen anytime soon, or is it? After facing witches, elven fairfolk magic swords and the evil black cauldron itself, Taran eventually learns what being a real hero is all about and that some things are more important than simple glory. Well Cauldron did indeed get made and it was created during a very hectic time in the studio's history. During its early genesis we saw the exit of some of the most experienced and talented people from the Disney ranks, a industry wide Strike was called, we also witnessed a power struggle that sadly replaced studio insider Ron Miller with Paramount outsider Michael Eisner. Under Ron's leadership, a new label called Touchstone had given the studio another outlet for more mature offerings like the box office smash, "Splash". Would that label along with the animation division be in trouble? There were hushed talks of corporate raiders selling off the animation department much like MGM had been conquered and divided earlier. Thankfully Roy Disney returned to the reins and eventually helped supervise a renaissance for Disney animation. As someone who was there during all these tumultuous events, I hope you'll enjoy this bumpy road down memory lane as I recall the "The Black Cauldron of Chaos."

Just a quick sketch from the "Griff"
Although the production actually began back in 1971 when Disney Studio first purchased the rights, it would be almost 10 years later in 1980 when veteran Disney artist Joe Hale would assume command of the helm. Joe had the tough role of shrinking the sprawling story that had taken 5 volumes to unfold into a more manageable and tighter tale. One of the best things he did was to take what was a minor role of the Horned King and make him into the major villian. Joe also decided early on to open up the potential for visual design and encouraged the studio to contact accomplished artists outside the Disney realm known for creating fantasy illustrations from the Hildebrants to Frank Frazetta. Many of the top name illustrators were swamped with committed deadlines but we did bring accomplished artists such as Mike Ploog into the fold. Besides our resident master Art Director Don Griffith, the other one responsible for much of the look of the film was a talented new comer to Disney, Mike Hodgson. Mike's lush pencil renderings were reminisent of the type done by layout artists of yesterday such as Charlie Philippi during classics like Pinocchio. With Don Griffith's (whose Disney Career started with Pinocchio) keen eye to mentor him, those guys made a heck of a one-two punch for some wonderful visual storytelling.

One of the maquettes I made for the film 
Other efforts came from within the new kids on the block. Tim Burton and myself were briefly singled out to provide some conceptual inspiration for Cauldron. Tim's work was fresh and resembled what could best be described as "Beetlejuice" meets "Nightmare Before Christmas" although both wouldn't  become reality until much later under Tim's visionary direction. Joe ran films such as Warner's 1967 classic, "Camelot" for inspiration and for me it really was awesome to see it up on the screen for the first time.  I didn't want to create another Sleeping Beauty style castle but instead designed one constructed from human skeletons and other creature's bones. My character suggestions were more toward the mold of Peter Pan styling. Did I mention that I was also pushing for songs? Tim and I didn't stay long as far as doing the concepts but to Joe Hale's ever lasting credit, at least he was open to new approaches and gave us both a shot.

Mel Shaw reviews Cauldron story
outline with animator Gary Goldman
Undoubtably the most outstanding visual guide to this film was laid out in a masterly fashion by Mel Shaw who had provided the inspiration for all of us to begin with. His room was full of glorious pastel paintings depicting the story and were the inspiring bait that had hooked all of us for the entire fishing trip. Mel had graciously come out to Cal Arts and given us a presentation of his tremendous work for "The Black Cauldron" which certainly inspired our classes. Looking back at his beautiful work I would have to credit that moment and that particular Disney artist for igniting my love for working in pastels. Don Griffith re-introduced me to Mel and Woolie Reitherman when I first started at Disney. Woolie's room was next door to my corner room and he used it as a direct route to the dripping coffee maker that steamed constantly in Don's room. I could hear Woolie and Mel discuss at length the new picture they had been developing called, "Little Broomstick". The music they were playing on their record player as background for their reel was stimulating. They had both already done a tremendous amount of visual work and had the sketches pinned up on boards surrounding the entire room.  Woolie would stop by my desk and talk every once in a while and eventually took an interest in some of my little pastels I had pinned up over my desk. Before I knew it he had  invited me to work on the flying sequence where the little girl first takes her ride up into the clouds. My proudest moment in what I call my career was having my pastels pinned up on those boards among Mel's masterworks. Woolie and Mel were 100% supportive with this fresh wide-eyed geek and I was a kid in the candy store. Before my goosebumps could settle though, I was suddenly removed from "Broomstick,"  and dipped into a scalding hot Cauldron of chaos. 

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Ariel's Undersea Adventure

        I recently had the pleasure of spending the day at WED, now referred to as Walt Disney Imagineering, to see a couple old friends and to get a tour of one of their latest attractions, "The Little Mermaid" ride. The people there are old school friendly but definitely high tech with innovations when creating these wonders for the Disney parks.
        Bob Weis set up an in depth session for me with the lead imagineer on the project, Larry Nikolai. I was met at the door by Tori, a young lady whose smile was contagious, and she led me through the maze to my destination while answering my many questions.
        I was shown models, audio animatronics, paintings, and even got to see some of the scenes up and running with animation. The ride will be narrated by Scuttle while the guests ride on a Disney omnimover which is what is used in the Haunted Mansion. The effect of going down into the water is fantastic! You will love it. Many classic scenes from the Disney film have been recreated for this adventure with a delightful embellishment added for the ending that I was happy to see. Jody Benson, who was our voice of Ariel reprised her role so with all the care the imagineers have taken here it really has the feeling and soul of the film in this wonderful new attraction.
Disney Fine Art presents new works from Disney Art Director Mike Peraza

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

House Party Host Passes

 Art Linkletter passed away today at the age of 97 although I believe he was still young kid at heart. His original "Kids Say the Darndest Things" was priceless and was never equaled. I Remember squirming in the audience in some kind of CBS Studio City complex in the 60s watching "House Party" with my family on vacation and laughing even though I didn't understand why we were laughing half the time.  

I have Art's 1957 book, "Kids Say the Darndest Things," based on his TV show. It was illustrated throughout by Sparky and the forward was by Walt Disney who praised Art's ability to showcase a child's unbridled imagination in ways Walt had been described. They were both known in Walt's words, "... for never having quite grown up." Wish we had more people today giving young people a chance to enjoy their innocent childhood a bit longer than they seem to be allowed. 

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Basil of Baker Street, Part 4

First time director gives Vincent (Ratigan) Price the
background of his character at the recording session.
Vincent Price was perfect as the vocal embodiment of nefarious villian, RATIGAN!  Or as his character would remark, "... an extremely large mouse!" I usually didn't attend voice recording sessions because I really liked having only the audio in my mind when testing for new characters, unblemished by the live session although the expressions and physical traits could be helpful at times to study if we choose that person to provide the voice. You wouldn't believe the physical theatrics I've seen when someone was trying out for a role waving their arms, making faces and jumping around instead of concentrating on their vocal acting. A few times after such a session a director would be excited after what he thought was a great recording test only to find the rest of us who hadn't attended the recording less than enthused because we were able to concentrate solely on the voice. My other excuse was that I was usually swamped with work. When Vincent Price came in though, well that was different. As we all knew who he was mainly due to his horror themed later films and the booth was packed with most of our small crew. John Musker was directing the recording on the floor with Vincent Price when he asked for the same take one too many times.  We were dying in the booth, laughing and I'm sure John thought it was funny in time too. 

Me and my pal "Big Ben"
 We had a lot of fun in those days at Disney. John instigated the first of many Caricature Shows in the studio library where his wife Gail worked. Everyone at the studio was invited to contribute and most of us did.  At Halloween, the animation staff would wear their finest and strangest mostly homemade costumes. I'll have to post some of those around October.  And any Disney animation artist worth their salt could flip a pushpin into a facing wall or ceiling and hit the spot. It was a benefit of long hours of having so much ready ammunition around. We became adept with whipping out those tiny terrors of pintacular precision. 

Sometimes we used the wall, other times the ceiling. We could toss them with a curve or slight rise, like a baseball player on the mound pitching to a heavy hitter. On Basil we took it up a notch. We used to make blowguns out of pan cels and shoot special darts which were our solid lead pushpins from the 1930's and 1940's. We could hit the target from one end of the hall to the other. The pins hit so hard that when we pulled the softer lead, the steel points stayed in the back side of the closed door. Wonder what they thought after the animation staff left to relocate to Glendale? Must have looked liked a metal porcupine had farted cold steel quills!  Tons of silly sketches flew back and forth among artists during production a lot of which I kept copies of thankfully. A funny gag drawing could make a long day seem a lot shorter. A prop I had brought in for the Toyshop sequence was an old hand crank bubble machine I had picked up in an antique store on London.  I put it to good use when Musker had to leave his office across the hall to attend a meeting one afternoon. I had found some "Super-Duper Long Lasting Bubble Liquid"  for the fuel but when John returned, there were bubbles over his desk, moviola, floor, everywhere. Those bubbles just stayed, and stayed! Luckily when they finally went away they didn't leave behind any damage, only that springtime fresh clean smell, ahhh.

Our favorite little corner of the world
 The film was enjoyable to be a part of because it all seemed to work. The story and the crew were a good matchup. The directors were all top notch. I was lucky to work with people like Matt O'Callahan whose story sketches were great inspiration to all of us. Rob Minkoff and Mark Henn  breathed life into the violin playing mighty mouse of deductions and his trusty sidekick Dawson. Glen Keane was unleased for one of his best performances to date with his portrayal of the notorious Ratigan. Henry Mancini was and still is one of my favorite composers and I was able to work with him on other films besides Basil and he even invited me to his studio office early one morning for a chance to see and hear his latest magic. Then out of the blue, the title was questioned. Management decided to test market the name "Basil of Baker Street" to some small kids and came back to us that it wasn't working and that the children preferred the name, "The Great Mouse Detective" much better. 

They were also concerned over the recent box office failure of Steven Spielberg's "Young Sherlock Holmes" and wanted to distance themselves from that film. This totally ridiculous move by management led to the infamous memo that went out with new titles for all the classic Disney Animated features to date. One inside joke of course was that "Aristocats" was the sole title unchanged in the fake memo. This memo circulated throughout the company and internationally and the animation staff thought it was hilarious. Management was furious besides being embarrassed and called an inquisition to nab the perpetrator but to no avail. No one on the crew was going to rat out the culprit although we all knew the author. It's funny that decades later the current  Disney management team has renamed, "Rapunzel" to "Tangled"  somehow because "The Princess and the Frog" didn't meet someone's box office expectations (I thought it did well) and they are blaming both titles with attracting girls only. As the old saying goes, "... only the names change," especially at later day Disney.
Sherlock Holmes Musem London
  By this time Don Griffith had retired, along with Woolie, Frank, Ollie, Milt, and other great disney alumni. Part of the magic for me was seeing these guys and learning what I could from their immense talent. I also missed hanging with the veterans during break times or lunch and hearing some great stories of "the old days" with Walt. Brad Bird, Tim Burton and John Lasseter had also moved on and so the studio had lost even recently acquired top talent. In addition to the creative ranks being depleted, we had also been moved in the middle of production, to a converted warehouse in Glendale off the studio lot and out of the old animation building. I missed our old digs, the backlot walks, the morgue and its history. At this point I also decided it was  time to move on. 

Setting up what would become DTV
All the locations on Basil were set and the background keys were done. There was tons of reference we had collected and donated if anyone needed to go back to the source. I went to work for the Bagdasarians on, "The Chipmunk Adventure", and for Disney TV on their new small screen offerings, "Gummi Bears" and "Ducktales". Ken Anderson was also brought on board for the launch of "Gummi Bears" designing the main tree so that was a highlight to be paired with the maestro again if only for a brief stint on publicity concept art. Some of my former crewmates on "Basil", Ed Gombert, Toby Sheldon, and others soon joined the party at Disney TV which added to the fun we had over in North Hollywood.

Basil Wrap Party with me attempting to channel Miami Vice
        My wife and I were eventually invited back to the House of Mouse for the wrap party with the film officially entitled, "The Great Mouse Detective". We could each bring a guest so I brought Bill Frake and my wife invited his lovely wife Kathy. Bill had introduced us to Rowland Wilson and his equally talented wife Suz. We had quite the adventure one night at the Magic Castle which for time I won't go into here. Bill was a layout man I had known and worked with and he had contributed a bit to Basil and I wanted him there to enjoy the party . As the evening went on, two of the film's directors, John and Ron came by to say hi and catch up. As he sat down at our table, John Musker leaned forward and asked if I was interested in Art Directing a new film he and Ron were going to direct, something called, "The Little Mermaid."

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Basil of Baker Street, Part 3

My wife and I made hurried plans for a trip to London to gather reference for the film.We contacted Eva Redfern who managed the Disney Studio in our London branch and she worked tirelessly to set up the things we requested. Paramount to our quest for reference was a trip inside Big Ben itself. Security was and probably still is very tight around Big Ben as it is not only a famous London landmark but is considered part of the Palace of Westminister. We took our video equipment up those steps into the bell chamber. In those days, video equipment was heavy and in multiple pieces (camera and recording deck). After trudging up never ending sets of stairs, we found ourselves literally standing behind the huge face of Big Ben's milky white glass face. 

A reference shot I took just behind the
huge white clock faces of Big Ben
When the unseen bells were struck by the hammers above us, the tower actually vibrated with the sound. After that treat we then crawled up and lifted a sort of trap door with a pillow on top and found ourselves face to face within the bell chamber including the big one, BIG BEN. While being up in the bell chamber, we only had about 10 minutes to snap pictures and run video before the bells would chime on the quarter hour. Being close to noon, we knew we were in for some real ear splitting harmony and the ear muffs were very welcome. We spent the afternoon going inside, outside and around the structure until we were sure we had plenty of reference material of the tower for my needs as well as the crew back home.

One of the hundreds of photos
I took laying on the ground to
get a "mouse's point of view"
We must have been quite a sight to the British as I was perpetually lying down on the ground trying to get Basil's 6 inch high POV of London with my Nikon lens. We performed the same antics in front of Buckingham Palace,Tower Bridge and everywhere else that our brave intrepid little mouse might travel. Patty and I spent a late night in the East End of London because at that time it was filled with dilapidated buidlings bordering the waterfront dating back to the Victorian age and beyond which was perfect for the Ratigan section. When the tube stopped off in Whitechapel, Patty and I were the only ones to step off into a deserted station. During our quest we also crossed the footsteps of Jack the Ripper while taking our photos. We became uneasy as we realized that we were alone in a deadend rundown section of cobblestone. The cabs didn't come to this part of town so we starting walking to the nearest tube which wasn't as close as we were hoping. As our imaginations kicked in, our pace got quicker until we eventually found ourselves safe and warm in our B&B back in Kensington Gardens. We hit Toystores while in London and brought back a collection of wind up tin toys and Victorian styled dolls that would make your hair stand on end. I made a corner of my room at Disney into a sort of turn of the century toyshop complete with fake iron window mullions made of balsa and cardboard.

A rough pastel concept for Basil's domicile
We also searched for the home of London's most famous detective. Although the 221 B Baker Street address of Sherlock Holmes didn't exist when Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote the adventure, we were able to find the Shelock Holmes Museum which is situated in a 1815 house similar to the one described in the stories. We also spent the afternoon in the Sherlock Holmes Pub which featured an extremely detailed replica of Mr. Holmes' apartment along with his collection of oddities. Don Griffith and Vance Gerry had both tipped me off about this place and I was glad they did. 

The basic structure for Basil's flat came from underneath my house. I crawled under my bathroom to take shot photos of the plumbing and wood/concrete construction. The sewer pipe was a wonderful device to set into the ceiling for proportion. Items like that gave it the identity of an area UNDERNEATH another living quarters and not just a miniature Holmes flat. I kept the large nails and wood grain which enhanced the scale and turned a piece of short pipe into a framed window. 

After sketching out the layout of Basil's flat I built a fairly detailed model of it that could be viewed from all directions. I even sculpted small posable figures of Basil and Dawson to scale to place into the set. This technique of building small set models had been done at the Disney Studio since before Snow White as an aid to directors, layout, BG artists and animators in visualizing scene settings. 

Ken Anderson had built a mill model for Walt Disney's classic 1937 Silly Symphonies, "The Old Mill ,"with detailed movable parts before production on that Academy Award winning short for those reasons. It was invaluable to many departments especially layout and story in planning unique angles and lighting patterns. With Walt's encouragement he went on to build a model set of Snow White's cottage for the next film also with great visual results.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Basil of Baker Street, Part 2

It was a joy to arrive at work in the morning at Disney in those days. It was like a second home to most of us and we enjoyed the comradery of good friends who were all working towards creating something special. My wife Patty was an effects animator on the film (just off her duties on Cauldron) and created things from exploding feather pillows, menacing shadows to soap bubbles for Basil.
She was the first female to make full animator at Disney since Retta Scott in the early 1940's. Joan Lunden from Good Morning America flew out to the Disney Animation where she interviewed Patty from her office in the animation building. It was great working on the same production because we both were understanding when the other had to work late on a scene or two to get it out for the production. Rob Minkoff, future director of "Lion King" was new to the animation department and would hang out in the corner of my room releasing a constant stream of doodles of Basil, Dawson and other character designs. His designs would be combined with those of others like Matt O"Callahan, Glen Keane and many others. In animation, there is always quite a few people contributing to the final result through a lot of stages. Then of course you don't truly know if the design works until the animator breathes life into the form with his stack of drawings and with the added element of the voice. Bruce Morris was another Cal Arts alumni who was excellent in multiple areas, one of which was story development. He fleshed out Basil's motives and also came up with a Victorian twist to an elaborate mouse trap that would put Rube Goldberg to shame. The crew list could go on and on and I apologize for omitting anyone but I fear this will never get posted if I don't draw a line somewhere.

A few of the endless designs and angles I did as concept art for Basil's flat
On Basil we employed the old unit system which had a director set up with his own little team within a team. I was thrilled to be in John's unit as I thought he had the most exciting sections in the film but everyone pitched in ideas or sketches to help the entire creative process. One of his sequences I was assigned to early on was the climactic fight on Big Ben. I had known of Hayao Miyazaki's "Castle of Cagliostro" and had copies of his storyboard and concepts. I was very impressed with his staging and idea of placing the characters amidst giant turing gears. When John Lasseter brought that film among others to show in the Disney theater I was really blown away seeing it on the big screen so when I read about the clock tower in the script, my imagination went into overdrive. At the time the original script called for the fight between Basil and Ratigan to take place on the hands of Big Ben until Ratigan falls to his demise but I wanted something more. I've always been a fan of big finales using interesting locales a prime example being Alfred Hitchcock's, "North by Northwest" on the gigantic and potentially dangerous faces of Mount Rushmore. I went into John Musker's office, and told John I had a new idea for the climax. Knowing John I expected a devastating but witty retort but instead he listened as I explained my idea of having the fight break through the face of Big Ben and continue inside amidst the menacing gears as a sort of homage to the Miyazaki film. John liked the idea and told me to develop it. Now all I needed was a way to make it all come together.

A corner of my old office at the Disney Studio
(This photo courtesy of the company newsletter)
Dave English and I met while I was creating some multiplane shots using his Academy Award winning computerized rig called ACES for Epcot and Walt Disney World. Unlike the old multiplane, we could repeat camera moves using the computer system which gave us more flexibility with layering. It was also set up like our old horizontal multiplane as opposed to the vertical one which gave us more room for trucking into the scenes. With his rig I created visuals that were later combined with audio-animatronic figures for the parks. I told him about Basil and my hopes for a computer sequence and he introduced me to a fellow at WED, Lem Davis. I would go over after hours (without permission) and we put together plot drawings of computer graphic settings for the gears turning and the chess board sequence. I chose those two setups because they were made up of simple (or so I thought) geometric shapes that we could easily reproduce in the new digital format. In those days, the computer systems didn't use a mouse and everything was input using a keyboard. Yeah, not easy. For the gears I had to get mechanical drawing made over in the machine shop on the backlot that would then be input point by point into the system. Did I mention that the system liked to crash? It did, frequently especially with the heat those machines built up. I took the colored line plots and sent them to our camera department to be shot with my animation poses exposed on top. After seeing the clips, John and Ron were enthusiastic over the possibilities. However the producer felt it might not fit into the look and it was dropped. Now I didn't agree with the decision but you have to understand that at the time it was a radical new concept and if not handled properly could indeed have stopped the visual flow so I understood his point of view.

I pinned the pastels and charcoals I had done next to the plotted line drawings and they were forgotten, for a while. At least until a visitor came in one afternoon, Roy Disney. He was showing Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg around the studio and came in to see what was up in our wing. During the tour, Roy was looking over my corner intensely and smiled, "Glad to see we're putting some computer images into the mix." After they left, I was given the go ahead to put the computer graphics into production. I remember John Musker's grin as he left the room was almost as big as mine.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Basil of Baker Street, Part 1

"The Black Cauldron" was to be a return of greatness for Disney Feature animation. There was a lot of fresh new talent alongside veteran Disney artists to bring it to the screen. Somewhere along the way as it slowly creeped through production, I just found it difficult to get excited about the direction Cauldron was taking. I wasn't as thrilled about it as I had been when I first saw Mel Shaw's dramatic pastels for the film. He had captured a tale of sweeping adventure and fantasy in brilliant colors. For me, that excitement had been watered down. I wasn't alone. There were others too who wanted to work on something else. That something else became, "Basil of Baker Street."

One of two desks I used simultaneously during Basil.
Here I'm working out the staging outside the toyshop
Mel Shaw had also been sketching pastels for a new film with the working title, "Basil of Baker Street." Among the early participants were Producer Burny Mattinson, Directors, John Musker, Ron Clements, Dave Michener, animator/character designer Ed Gombert and storyman Vance Gerry and Don Griffith and I doing concepts. Don Griffith provided some excellent visuals for the Dancehall/Waterfront dive area and I likewise did my best to keep up with my mentor. The group was dynamic to say the least. Burny could make these gorgeous charcoal story sketches with lots of appeal and he was an upbeat person to be around. I knew John from Cal Arts days and he was a mark above most even back then with a satirically sharp edge on his drawings. Ron had heart, plenty of it and really studied film techniques as in the 3 C's. Dave was a true veteran of Disney, working close with Milt Kahl for years, and his draughtsmanship was impeccable. Ed was a keen talent in many areas whether designing a character or executing a story sketch and I enjoyed his offbeat humor. Vance was just an easy going mellow soul who was fun to talk to and he could knock out beautiful story panels that nailed each moment in the story arc.

The story was based on a series of children's books by Eve Titus where a mouse fashioned after London's greatest detective lives just beneath that famous 221B Baker street address. His archenemy is Professor Ratigan, a nod to Professor Moriarty from the Sherlock Holmes world. At one point the little girl, Olivia, was older and a possible love interest for Basil but it was deicided a small girl searching for her father would gain more feeling between our leads in the story dynamic. Basil also plays the violin quite well in our movie whereas in the books he's horrible with the instrument. Basil was named in honor of Basil Rathbone who played the detective role famously for MGM and Universal studios for many years.

Ken Anderson had done a marvelous workbook for "Ben and Me", and I was using copies of those as a guide to workbooking for Basil. The productions hadn't been using workbooks in their planning for many years. I'm guessing because the older crew with icons like Don Griffith and Mac Stewart and others had gained so much experience that they could just go from story sketch to layout with a minimum of problems. Well I wasn't as experienced or comfortable doing that so I liked relying on workbooks to aid in the staging process. I did all my thumbnails and even full size layouts in charcoal, sometimes using a carbon pencil for tight detail line work. I also made what I called "Color Ribbons" in small thumbnails to show the progression of color which is so important to setting mood and having an emotional impact. I got that idea from Fantasia, where they had these great little charts showing the abstract color in a sequence and how it would flow through the story. These were then set using workable fixative.

A rather messy corner of my room at the old Disney Studio
In those days we were still in the original animation building where they had done everything from Pinocchio onward and thank goodness the windows could be opened. This way I wasn't asphyxiating myself or my crewmates although that fixative odor could really linger. John Musker would routinely enter my room and ham up his gagging when he heard me spraying. HA, HA, HA, what a card, sheesh, hey I had to do something to make that stuff quit rubbing off! The sequences I was mainly responsible for designing were the opening title, Basil's flat (Basil's introduction), the Toyshop and the climactic fight (chase across sky onto and into Big Ben). Gil Dicicco who was also an Art Director on Basil for a while and did Ratigan's Lair along with the final waterfront look with marvelous watercolor studies. He introduced me to using FW Inks which gave you these brilliant colors and had an excellent permanence in light. Sadly the FW formula changed from carbon to acrylic about 10 years ago and the colors are milky these days. Brian Mcentee did Mr. Sherlock Holmes' flat upstairs and exterior streets of London with wonderful pastels. He did a series of those pastels set in the early morning just after my toyshop chase as Basil, Olivia and Dawson trot homeward on the back of bloodhound Toby while the lamplighter douses the gaslights one by one. Henry Mancini set music to them based on Big Ben's bell chimes and the total effect which brought tears to your eyes. It had the potential of, "Feed the Birds" from "Mary Poppins", to my mind. Unfortunately it was cut. It's a shame because the pacing gave us a heartfelt piece of emotion and a breather between two chase sequences and I really thought that helped the overall pacing.