Monday, March 15, 2010

The Making of a Mermaid!

John Musker and Mike Peraza, Basil wrap party
The night of the wrap party for "Basil of Baker Street," er... I mean "Great Mouse Detective", John Musker asked if I would be interested in Art Directing the new film he and Ron Clements were developing for Disney features. That new film was to be called, "The Little Mermaid".  As strange as it may sound, I was apprehensive and didn't jump on it right away. The reason being that I had grown up reading original versions of fairy tales from around the world and that the original versions in many cases can be quite gruesome. Case in point that in Hans Christian Anderson's original telling of his tale, the mermaid is instructed by the sea witch to thrust a knife into her prince while he is asleep in what amounts to,"... it's either his life or yours dear!" If she performs that deadly deed, his blood will run over her feet, her fins and tail will grow back and she can return to her sisters in the Mer-kingdom.

Well, being that she kind of has a thing for this handsome prince, she can't go through with it and as tosses the knife away, (fortunately missing the prince) as the sun sets she slowly dissolves into the foam we see on the wave crests. Yeah, not the happy ending one would expect in a fairy tale as told by Disney right? You might be surprised at how many of the original fairy tales have rather gruesome endings which would seem opposed to our current sanitised traditions and thoughts.

     When I asked John about the ending, he just replied, "Just read the script."  "But does she die at the end..." I asked again. "Just read it.." he kept saying. I did read it, and I was hooked (to use a term merpeople might not want to hear). So I called John back on Monday and told him, "Yes!! I was on board." I was further informed by John that Howard Ashman had been hired to write the songs. I said t, "That's fantastic!" John was taken back that I actually knew who Howard was until I told him I had seen and heard his and Alan Menken's work at the Westwood Playhouse when they exhibited, "The Little Shop of Horrors"a couple of years earlier. I had even worn out the audio cassette I had made of that extremely entertaining soundtrack record. You see, in those days after the play ended at Westwood, you could hang out with the cast backstage and were offered the opportunity to purchase the original cast recording which I eagerly jumped at. Back then it was on vinyl records, not cassettes, CDs or DVDs; and the sound was richer and much better in my opinion.

A close up of one of my charcoal Roger Rabbit concept pieces
I had been on loan to Amblin by Disney Studios to work on preliminary concepts for Roger Rabitt" with Bob Zemekis. I would show up at Amblin by 8:00 in the morning and go right to Bob's conference room. Mark Kausler and Joe Raft were also there to do early story boards. I had never met Mark before but was impressed with his knowledge of animation history. Of course I knew Joe from CalArts and the studio and as always, he was a joy to be around.

It was during this time that Urusla had a revelation. She of course was the sea witch from the original story and in various versions of the current tale was described as Triton's sister. Apparently she had been banished for trying to take over the kingdom, something not appreciated by the current king. As such she was a mermaid herself and was drawn in that direction. Patty and I had been watching a Jacques Cousteau special presented by National Geographic on TV and that night it was all about the octopus.We watched transfixed as the creature skulked along the ocean floor. Later in a laboratory we were really amazed as the octopus unscrewed a lid to a jar to get some food and then climb out of her aquarium, drop onto the floor and attempt an escape.

I got on the phone and called Musker.

Unfortunately I couldn't be around long as I had to leave by noon everyday  and head over to Disney Television to work on Ducktales,  then leave to go home at 5:00 to work on Mermaid concepts at home.
DuckTales concept art
Those were incredibly full days and to top it off, my wife Patty was pregnant. This lasted for a few weeks until I was called by Peter Snyder who was a new management person at Features. He told me I had to choose a film project to work on because they needed a full time Art Director on Little Mermaid. Patty and I left on a trip to unwind before the beginning of another big film. As she was 8 months pregnant, we also wanted to get out one more time before the birth of our first child. We planned stops at places like the Monterey Bay Aquarium to gather some reference along the way. Nothing was planned, we just got in our 4-wheel drive and blew out of Burbank early one dark morning.

The original development team on Little Mermaid
I went over to the Ink and Paint building to check in. Many of the familiar faces I had know before were now gone. The current administration seemed to like to hire management heads that had no artistic background or animation experience. Disney paints at this time were actually milled, yes milled, in the Ink and Paint building. You could call up and order, " I'm running low on Witmer Red." and they would send some over or you could go over and pick it up yourself. That hue by the way was named in honor of a wonderful and gracious background painter by the name of Thelma Witmer.

They hired a new guy to head up Ink and Paint who had a background in chemistry. His first act to modernize was to get rid of the agent Disney Studios had used since they began to stabilize the paint. The agent was formaldehyde bcause it was now labeled a toxic substance. I asked, "But you still have the pigments, right?" There was a quiet pause. His face kind of scrunched up slowly as he realized he had needlessly thrown out decades of Disney pigments collected from around the world along with the paint. I went back to John Musker and told him about the paint issues. We wound up ordering paint from Cartoon Colour for our cel paints instead of using our own for the first time in studio history. Ironically about the only cels were ever painted using true Disney paint from the old formula and those were concept setups or color models I did at the beginning with my own set at home. Mermaid was also the last feature done by Disney to use hand painted cels as from Beauty onward the process became a digital one.

Alan and Howard
My daughter Kim was born during the beginning of the pre-production phase and she was a flaming, and I mean flaming redhead. That fact definitely contributed to Ariel's red follicles as it was mentioned by quite a few of the crew at the time. Unfortunately the leading contender for hair color was a blonde version based on Jeffrey's favorite super model Christie Brinkley. I argued to John and Ron (and eventually Jeff) that since so much of the film was going to have Ariel against blue and turquoise, that we needed to contrast it so our main star would stand out. I then showed the guys some pastels, watercolors and even cel mockups that my wife Patty (who was hoping to be color model) painted and they were both supportive of the visuals and my spiel. We had a meeting with Jeffrey when we moved back across the street from the trailers and he was not exactly sold on the red hair but my argument and visuals made sense so he said OK. Glen Keane took the idea and really ran.. or swam, with it creating some really beautiful designs with our rough versions of Ariel donning red hair that now led the way.

Meanwhile, "Oliver and Company" was being groomed as the-hit for Disney Animated Features and they had pretty much taken over the main warehouse space on Flower Street in Glendale where management had relocated animation to from the old main lot. Roger Rabbit had part of their American crew working across the street in another warehouse. We had our offices across the street in a group of trailers that were arranged in a bug connecting square.

One major thing we had in our favor with Mermaid is that with the other two big budget animated films in production, our little film was flying under the radar. That really gave all of our creative juices a chance to flow like the old days. We had a real music room for the first time in ages during "Mermaid".

My room was across from the room Howard and Alan used whenever they were in town. It was exciting to hear them working out new songs while tweaking the ones they had already written. Howard would ask me to come in and listen to their latest tune and then give  me a cassette of the performance to take back to my room to enjoy. My room was adorned with undersea souvenirs from Nautilus shells to huge conch shells to starfish, even a huge collection of coral and (plastic) seaweed. I set up a light that played over a revolving core of aluminum foil that projected an underwater feel onto the walls when the room was darkened.  An old live-action film gimmick that I had learned from my old friend and former teacher Ken O'Connor.

Early concept drawing
For relaxation breaks during Little Mermaid we had lots of choices. We had ping pong tables, radio controlled cars in the parking lot, lazer tag and bowling besides other treats. For lazer tag we turned off the main ceiling lights at the main complex across the street to get the cubicle area nice and dark, the we ran, jumped knocked over trash cans on our way to becoming action heroes of sorts.

We also had a full size bowling alley adjacent to our trailer compound and a few of us would sneak over to bowl a couple rounds before stealthily returning to our desks. Management wasn't keen on people away from their desks and if they had their way they some would have barred breaks of any kind but it was difficult for them to watch all of us, and we had the union protecting us. What they didn't realize then and a few never will is that it gives a chance to blow of a little steam besides promoting teamwork and a chance to unwind for a few minutes. One side note, if Rob Minkoff tells you he's not much of a bowler, don't believe him. "Gee, these bowling balls are heavy." "Is this how you hold it?" "Oh my, did I just bowl a perfect game?" Rob, you make me sick.

Pastel concept artwork for Disney's Little Mermaid by Art Director Mike Peraza
I wanted the beginning to look more sepia and umber so that when we transition to the magical underwater kingdom it would have more of an impact. I wanted the world of man while not to be one of smog and pollution yet to still be desaturated when compared to the world under the sea.

Eric's Castle concept Mike Peraza
Eric's castle was a mediteranean theme and I designed it as a thick broad collection of shapes with straights infused throughout. Again this was to contrast the undersea structures that I wanted to be whimsically thin and full of curves in an Art Noveau attitude. Ursula's domain was a big disappointment to me as I really wanted something that had more of a feeling of a skeletal remains of a sea dragon twined around a thin mountaintop until you reached its open mouth at the bottom. What we ended up with was a committee design monstrosity.  the interior however was one that I got to use without any changes.

Ursula's Domain concept designed by Mike Peraza
I showed John and Ron some charcoals and pastels I did usiung Portugese man of war tenacles as sort of curtain material and the polyps as a shag carpet.  I wanted her to live inside a shell budior where she could ooze out of it like some kind of slimey creature. John and Ron were supportive and let me run with it. This was to be amidst undersea volcanoes. As usual back in those days, asking for effects was a tough battle and I was usually on the losing end when arguing with the management of that day. 

Kelly Asbury had done some very nice studies of how the village married with water for example, waterwheels, Venice type canals. I put those and also ideas from Rowland Wilson into a shot that was to be a multiplane reminiscent of the magnitude of Pinocchio. We were watching dailies and when that rough black and white test came on the screen, it garnered applause, which was high praise coming from that audience. Before we could go further with it however, that section was cut drastically along with other sections from a decree from management to trim back. I don't think a film has to be one long nonstop chase or adventure and I like the lulls and breathing room that a few beauty shots can buy the film. Management stood firm. Luckily with John and Ron's eye, the cuts were made but the movie still worked.

Kay Nielson's stunning pastel & charcoal concept art for Little Mermaid 1930s
Disney had tried making "Little Mermaid" as far back as the late 1930 and we looked at what had been created from the Disney Morgue (Oops, they call it something like,"Animation Research" nowadays). Leroy brought out some pieces that illustrator Kay Nielson had drawn in charcoal and we were immediately drawn to a couple of pieces that showed a ship silhouetted again a lightning flash while cresting a huge wave. They were inspiring and we used his staging for that very scene in the film 50 years after the fact! The story department was solid with talented new additions Roger Allers, Tom Enriquez and Gary Trousdale along with veterans like Ed Gombert.

The Mermaid wrap party was a first rate bash with an Under the Sea theme at the Beverly Hills Hotel. As usual, it was nice seeing familiar faces again. We were greeted just outside the ballroom by Roy Disney and his charming wife Patty. Roy and I had a chuckle over our two Pattys and then we were off getting some seafood at the buffet. It always seemed ironic to me that here we were celebrating The Little Mermaid's completion by eating so many denizens of the deep from oysters to shrimp and yes even crab meat. If Sebastian only knew. Wonder what our crustacean friend would say... hey come to think of it, I didn't see him there! (Gulp)

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