Quint follows John Lasseter for a day as he makes his rounds for Disney's BOLT!
Published at: July 18, 2008, 10:16 p.m. CST by quint
Ahoy, squirts! Quint here. When I went out to New York to see Disney’s unveiling of their animation slate for the next four or more years I ended up having dinner with a pair of publicists from the company.
Over dinner we talked about what I’d do if I were running the studio. Of course, I fully trust John Lasseter on the animation side of things, but I was saying that I would love to see a return to the Disney horror film. I loved movies like WATCHER IN THE WOODS and SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES when I was little (and to this day). I think adults forget how much fun it was being scared as a kid. We loved it.
They didn’t laugh me out of the room, thank God, but we did switch topics to Lasseter at Disney and how he has reinvigorated the studio, how his fingers are dipped into every project going on at the moment. Which led us to BOLT, which I had seen some footage of earlier at the big presentation.
BOLT had the feeling of a Disney/Pixar love-child, traits of each parent showing through, but the whole not exactly one or the other. It was here that we really first discussed doing a series of articles on the film here on AICN.
The idea is that I’ll go visit Disney about once a month starting last month, in June, and ending with me seeing the finished film around October/November and with each visit we’ll look at a different aspect of the production ultimately providing a record of the behind the scenes of this project.
At the dinner, they weren’t sure if it would happen. Apparently, they’ve never let anyone cover an in-development project in such detail before, so they didn’t know if it would be approved.
It was and I found myself on the Disney lot last month to start it. And what a way to start.
My task was to meet with John Lasseter and shadow him as he made his rounds, gave notes to the filmmakers, watched a few rough edits of scenes and basically acted as creative foreman for the project.
I was told no less then 4 times (by as many people) that arranging 2 hours with John Lasseter for a report was unprecedented. Let me tell you, I needed every second of it.
My first impressions of Lasseter were that he was exactly who I thought he was going to be. His enthusiasm is so honest and pure that he couldn’t contain it and our informal meet and greet turned into a 45 minute long bullshitting session about classic Disney animation, what he’s done to make Disney animation more like Pixar and his work on the amusement parks. I would say a safe, conservative estimate on how the conversation broke down between him and me was about 85% Lasseter and 15% me talking.
If I didn’t know better I would have mistaken his enthusiasm for being high as a kite. I guess in a way he was. His love for everything Disney was displayed proudly on his sleeve and I could tell that it meant the world to him to be a creative force there. Eyes wide, he spoke with such force that he would occasionally even smack me in the arm to punctuate his point. Either that or I was being attacked by some crazy mosquito and didn’t know it.
We met outside of his office and he quickly showed me how he has centralized everything. He said that one of the first things he did when he got the job was to force interaction with the employees, just like at Pixar. The bathrooms, the commissary, the screening rooms and water fountains are all centrally located now, so you can’t just skip from your cubical to take a leak and dash back unnoticed. It forces chance meetings, opens up a dialogue. Lasseter said this was a strategy utilized by Steve Jobs and it’s what they do at Pixar.
Apparently it was a bit of a tonal shift when he came onboard, people not used to having access to their bosses on a daily basis. But he was quick to stress that he wasn’t going to turn Disney into Pixar II. He wants Disney Animation to have its own identity, but his goal was to transfer over the feeling, to make it a filmmaker led studio and not an executive led studio.
We sat down in Lasseter’s incredibly cool office. I’ve never been to his office at Pixar, but I’ve seen it on the DVDs. His Disney office isn’t as cluttered with toys from his flicks, but it is definitely the same man occupying both. There is framed Disney production art (reproductions, I’m told… he wouldn’t dare take the originals out of the vault) for Dumbo and tons of other, more obscure, Disney ‘toons on damn near every square inch of wall.
It was the art that started off our conversation and he told me that when he first entered Disney in his Chief Creative Officer role… “You know how as a kid you had Christmas and you thought you had opened all of your presents? Then you look under the tree and way under there is one more present, a big one, and it has your name on it? Remember how exciting that was? That’s what it felt like when I found out that the Animation Research Library, the ARL, which is basically the morgue which houses all the original animation art from the Disney history was under our jurisdiction.”
He then asked if I’d been over there. I told him I hadn’t, then he slapped the table and said, “Done.” I told him that was dangerous since I am a collector of many things, including animation cels, but I’d gladly take him up on it. Looks like my next trip to LA will possibly end with my arrest as I try to sneak out with Pinocchio cels stuffed down my shirt.
The overall conversation hit many points, but the theme was essentially Lasseter’s mantra. If you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life. He said he’s just a geek. People like him and Brad Bird and Andrew Stanton… they’re just geeks doing what they love, which led him to pay AICN an incredibly huge compliment, saying that he sees the same thing the writers on AICN and went so far as to compare AICN with Pixar, saying that it's clear we love movies here and we're doing what we love to be doing.
That’s incredibly flattering, especially coming from John Mother-Fathering Lasseter.
So after this chit-chat, we walked down to the theater for some animation layouts. On the way we bumped into an animator… and I’m terrible that I didn’t get his name… but this guy did the voice for the pigeon you see in the trailer, with a very distinct New York accent.
And that’s his real voice, too, which explains why the pigeon pushes past that stereotypical New York accent… because it’s not someone trying to put one on. The dude was really nice and when Lasseter introduced him he was very humble. I told him the scene played great in New York, getting a lot of laughs from the crowd. Lasseter said, with a smile, “We tried to replace him…” and the animator said, “Ohhhhh, dude! And I was feeling so good!” Lasseter, “I’M JUST KIDDING!” (Caps are for him literally yelling this over everybody laughing.)
We moved on the conversation came in snippets, changing as we’d walk by different art painted on the walls or posted on the walls. I pointed out some blown up pencil roughs for PINOCCHIO (my favorite Disney animated movie) as well as a display of those great Disney scene recreations, the Annie Leibovitz photo-shoots with Rachel Weisz as Snow White, Scarlett Johansson as Cinderella, etc… Lasseter geeked out about those, too.
When we got to the theater, I was re-introduced to the directors, Byron Howard and Chris Williams, each armed with a pad and pencil.
The sequence they ran was about 2 minutes long, with animation in various stages, but all pretty rough. We’re following Bolt, the TV superstar dog that was never told his life was a TV show, so he thinks he has all these superpowers which don’t exist in the real world, as he races back to LA where he’s sure his human, Penny, is held captive by his arch-nemesis, the evil Cat-controlling Dr. Calico (voiced by Malcolm McDowell in the movie).
Bolt has an over-caffeinated fanboy Hamster as a side-kick (voiced by animator Mark Walton) and a captive cat (voiced by Curb Your Enthusiasm’s Susie Essman) who he believes will lead him to Dr. Calico.
Of course they bond on the road back and the dry sarcasm of the street cat melts a bit. She teaches Bolt to be a dog and what they were going over was that montage.
In the movie they use a fast food placemat as a map. You know those things you get on the trays at fast food joints… very cartoonish version of the US, with giant cacti in Texas and Arizona and oversized landmarks, like the St. Louis Arch?
The animators took that to the next level and during this montage we track their progression across the US Indiana Jones style, except without the red line and dots over a nice old map, it’s over this ridiculous cartoon Fast Food tray version of the US.
But the heart of the scene is the hamster (almost always in his hamster ball) and the cat teaching Bolt to act like a real dog, showing him the proper dog etiquette, I guess. Teaching him how to dig, how to play with other dogs (that funny butt-up in the air, bowing down thing they do), how to enjoy sticking your head out of the window of a moving car, trying to bite water that comes out of a hose, etc.
We watched it all the way through once with no talking, no notes, just letting it play.
Lasseter brought out his laser pointer and they began again at the beginning, which takes place in a Waffle House parking lot and Lasseter started asking what the geography was, where the characters are in relation to the previous shot, how to make sure the audience knows why they are in relation to what came before, etc. After a couple minutes of discussion, they decided they didn’t need a bridging shot, but they would kind of cheat the top of a truck up a few inches, so that it’s not obscured by the parking lot perimeter wall.
Over the next few shots, Lasseter would pause and playback moments, using the laser pointer to ask questions of the rough animations.
There’s a shot of a truck taking an off ramp (with our guys hitching a ride) that looked fine to me, but Lasseter pointed at the guardrails and said they were too narrow. Once they played it back again everybody saw he was right. It looks like the truck is barely squeezing through it, so they’re going to widen the road a bit (even though I liked one of the directors’ suggestion of keeping it and adding sparks).
There’s another sequence where Bolt and his group are stowing away on the top of a dump truck carrying sand (would that be a sand truck then?) and Bolt is being taught how to dig and bury objects. While he digs, sand is thrown off the back of the moving truck onto the windshield of some poor bastard behind him.
But it was fascinating watching Lasseter making suggestions, small things about camera placement, movement being wrong, ideas for adding layers to these jokes or character moments. I’ve been blessed to have visited many sets in my time at AICN and I’ve seen some master directors working. I’ve seen scenes get better and better take after take as the director fine tunes the performance and I’ve gotten to be able to anticipate how that happens and can see where the progression is going earlier than when I first started.
Here I felt like a newborn. The ideas that Lasseter was having, the problems he was catching and the creative way around them that not only he came up with, but what he inspired in his collaboration with Byron Howard and Chris Williams, were problems I would never have caught until the finished product was before me, let alone figured out how to fix.
My favorite part was actually a piece from the montage… Let me set the scene. You have Bolt in a park with the cat nearby and a dog comes running up, excited… It’s tail is wagging, it runs around him and does the playful puppy-butt-up-in-the-air thing. The cat motions for Bolt to do the same. It’s a cute scene where Bolt for the first time really acts like a dog and gets carried away. He gets playful and chases the dog around and they end up running up a hill with a giant tree on the top, disappearing from view.
It’s a cute scene. Even in this rough form.
Lasseter was untraditionally quiet about it and then made a comment. “I don’t want to… I don’t want the audience to think this… is… a love moment, with Bolt falling in love with a female dog… and then running off…”
There were ideas thrown around, the directors envisioned the other dog a younger male dog, full of puppy-ish enthusiasm, so they talked about how to make it more playful and not so much “romantic.” An idea was formed by all three of them that they could move a swingset from the background of the shot in closer and have Bolt chase the other dog around that, instead of “going off to have sex… under the sex tree.”
Everybody had a laugh over that and then we rewatched the scene and sure enough it plays like flirting. Everybody was quiet and Lasseter said, “Now you can’t watch it, right?”
We watched a few more scenes, then left for a different session, to watch the roughest piece yet, with voice work just recorded and edited to still pencil drawings.
This was from when Bolt gets to LA finally and runs into another set of pigeons. At the beginning of the story he meets the pigeons in New York, being stereotypical New Yorkers and in LA… well, the pigeons speak biz-talk, acting like Hollywood douche-bags trying to pitch Bolt a spin-off. Bolt tricks them into leading him to the studio and the whole way along they’re pitching him the spin-off show (featuring Aliens) in absurd terms (“We open on Ext. Space – Mid-morning…”)
It actually is a really funny sequence, especially if you’ve ever been exposed to that side of Hollywood. Those people do exist.
But this went very much like the rough animation we saw, but was much bigger, with an editor, writer (Dan Fogelman, who worked with Lasseter on CARS). Lots of brainstorming, maybe even more-so here because there wasn’t any animation locked yet. Fogelman was throwing out suggested line changes and different ways of hearing the pitch as Bolt rushes to the studio.
Then Mr. Lasseter had to be pulled away to another meeting and I said my good-byes to Howard and Williams and started walking out. But I didn’t get far before Lasseter found me and apologized for running off without saying good-bye. I wasn’t offended… after all I spent the last bit as a fly on the wall, watching him work, however it was very nice of him to actually come back to say good-bye in person.
He said he was looking forward to having me come back for the next Bolt visit, where it looks like I’ll be following around the Directors as they do their daily job. He stressed one more time that I need to go to the animation morgue and check out the original cels and then said good-bye.
It’s pretty nuts, guys. I haven’t seen enough of the movie to really say if it’ll be a huge success or not, but the creativity that surrounds Lasseter is tangible and infectious. It seemed that inspired creative discussion wherever he went and even if he didn’t have the best idea or the one that everybody agreed with, it was almost always him starting the discussion that led to the solution.
It was an honor following him around and getting some time to bullshit about storytelling, animation and his overall philosophy. Along with “If you love what you do you’ll never work a day in your life” there was one I had heard attributed to him and repeated many times, but this time I got to hear it with my own hears from his own mouth, without a speaker in-between us. “Quality is the best business plan.”
Without a doubt Lasseter is deeply invested in how the Disney Animation is going and from what I’ve seen of BOLT (from pencil drawings to fully realized scenes) I think we’re going to find a strange amalgam of traditional Disney style (with the process that allows them to give painterly backgrounds to the computer animation) and Pixar’s unerring level of quality and character humor.
I look forward to seeing how this shakes down as the movie gets closer and closer to completion.
I hope you guys enjoyed reading along with my adventures at Disney and will keep an eye out for the next installment, hitting sometime next month, I believe.