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.