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.


  1. Fascinating! You must be proud to know you were so instrumental in bringing such a memorable scene back into the mix. I'll have to get a copy of Castle of Cagliostro. It's one of the only Miyazaki films I haven't seen.

  2. Yes I am proud to have had some impact by pushing for computer imagery when it wasn't very evolved or accepted in the cinematic circles of feature animation. I'm also proud of the directors and crew that were able to make that dream a reality.