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Animation and Anime

Quint visits the Disney Animation Research Library, hangs with composer John Powell and wraps up his series on BOLT!

Ahoy, squirts! Quint here with my final piece on Disney’s BOLT. I have been granted a lot of crazy insights into what it takes to develop a Disney Animated movie under the watchful and caring creative gaze of John Lasseter. My first step on this journey, and probably still the most amazing part of it all, was getting to chat with and shadow Lasseter for a day as he made his rounds on the project. That consisted of watching Lasseter give notes and work with directors Byron Howard and Chris Williams on different scenes, frame by frame. My second visit was focused more on the daily ritual of the directors and top creative team members going over new shots by animators, some needing work, others okayed and moved forward to lighting. And today marks the final piece of this series. This one has everything and the kitchen sink, as they say. I’ll give you a brief rundown of my big press day visit to Disney before a more detailed (and exclusive) look at two much more interesting BOLT related visits: a half-day spent in the scoring booth with John Powell (THE BOURNE movies) and a half-day visit to the incredibly secretive Disney Animation Research Library (the ARL), where they archive billions of dollars worth of vintage Disney animation as a resource for current animators to see, up close and in person, the work of the genius animators going all the way back to Oswald, predating Mickey. Let’s start with the Mouse House visit. I’ll keep it brief, but Disney did a big, big press day that had giant hordes of press moving throughout the halls of Disney Animation. I was hanging out with my usual compatriots like Devin Faraci from CHUD and the other online peoples, but we did get to mingle with the crazy group of foreign press… Lots of Asian and European groups… the mix of accents was pretty awesome. They arranged the day so we’d all shuffle from room to room meeting different key people and getting a taste of the process. Since I’ve gotten my own, in-depth versions of much of these visits I’ll skip the animation coverage and discussion on the background technology and leave those to the previous articles. The highlights of this trip for me was watching Devin go into the sound booth and voice Rhino the Hamster in a scene. One, it was greatly entertaining watching Devin make weird sounds in a situation that doesn’t involve booze and tipsy studio publicists and two, he was actually really good in the booth. He could have another career in voice acting if he gets tired of hating the world on CHUD. Thirdly, this was one aspect of animation I haven’t gotten a chance to see and I loved watching people in a glass room try to sync up to animation. In all my time on the site I’ve only seen 2 sound-booth things… one was hanging out as Bruce Campbell recorded all his grunt and groans during his ADR session on BUBBA HO-TEP (also saw him do the TV edit version, replacing all the “fuck you”s with “forget you”s, which was awesome). The other was watching a close friend who also had a cameo in KING KONG go in and scream for an hour under the direction of Phillipa Boyens. I love seeing this stuff happen, the real nuts and bolts of filmmaking are in these sessions. Mark Walton, who actually voiced Rhino, joined us and this dude was a blast. He’s an animator who was brought in to do the voice as a placeholder and ended up being so nerdily perfect for the TV-addicted uber-fan character that they couldn’t find anyone better to replace him. Walton was not only super friendly and nice, but also seemed to be one of those genuinely happy people… you know what I mean? You see them all over the Pixar behind the scenes, people doing what they love and getting paid for it. I got a few pics of Mark when they brought out one of the hamsters they used as reference for the character during the animation process. Check ‘em out:

Speaking of the animation process, my second favorite part of this trip was getting to sit down at a computer and play around with Maya, the 3-D software used to create 3-D animation. Not just for cartoons, but it’s also the core that most visual effects are built on. Everyone had a model of Bolt on their computers and we had a Disney guy walk us through a kind of introduction to Maya, letting us play around with moving the character. I made Bolt an angry dog, eyes narrowed, tail down, ears back, teeth barred, but Devin put me to shame, twisting up limbs and contorting the poor dog until he looked like a Rob Bottin effect from THE THING. I’m not kidding… Bulbous eyes, disfigured body… it was a thing-dog, no question. It was a fun afternoon, no doubt, but it paled in comparison to my next day that was split between visiting the Fox lot to watch John Powell score the film and visiting the ARL. When I showed up on the Fox lot I was a little nervous. Would Tom Rothman sense my presence? He’s not exactly the world’s biggest fan of AICN and he probably has enough money to disappear me a few dozen times over if he wanted to… and my name was in the system! I’m sure there was some alarm going off somewhere. The orchestra building is the one used to score every episode of THE SIMPSONS and was expansive. There was a big, wide booth with billions of dials and nobs, looking out onto the orchestra.

I was there for the strings and woodwinds, the brass instruments were coming in later. I can’t describe to you the feeling of sitting in the room as an orchestra plays different cues. It’s like listening to Dark Side of the Moon out of a Mono speaker, then slipping on a pair of stereo headphones… there’s an immersion factor when you sit feet away from 60 plus musicians playing in harmony that I’ve never experienced before.

It wasn’t like going to an orchestral concert… I’ve done that before, but it wasn’t as immediate, personal. I suppose it has to do with the size of the room. Instead of a giant concert hall, all this was in a room smaller than an elementary school gym and instead of sitting out in an audience, I got to sit amongst the orchestra members, in the empty seats that would later be filled with trumpet and trombone players.

Powell himself stayed in the recording booth. Because he was doing these cues in pieces, with only half the orchestra, he had to stay in the booth where it was being mixed with the other pieces as they played live, so he could make sure everything was coming out as he intended.

In my time there, I got to hear a wide variety of themes since they were recording the end of the movie, which goes from action elements to the sweet family love theme as it hits the end credits. There is even a comedy beat as a very annoying character gets thrown out of an automobile, which was especially fun watching them tinker with, trying to nail the stinger that punctuates that annoying jackass’ tumble to the pavement. I divided my time between sitting out in the orchestra and in the sound booth with Powell. I didn’t speak with him too much, not wanting to bother him as he worked, but he did come over and introduce himself. I found him to be a very funny guy in my brief interaction with him, obviously enjoying himself.

Before I left, Chris Williams, co-director of Bolt, came by to oversee some of the scoring. I got a shot of him standing, watching the session:

It was an amazing experience that I wish every movie fan could have a chance to see at least once in their life. Feeling the vibration of sound completely envelop you as a soundtrack is created is damn near a religious experience for a movie lover. It is magic, pure and simple. Before I departed the scoring stage, Powell handed me a manila envelope that had one of his sheets of score (Titled Meet Bolt) with a note thanking me for coming down. It was a very nice gesture.

The next and final stop on this whirlwind tour was actually something that made this whole experience come full circle. When I did my first trip a few months ago, I met with John Lasseter who raved and raved about the Animation Research Library. He said finding out that his new position at Disney put him in control of the ARL it was like being a kid a Christmas thinking he has opened all of his presents, only to spot the biggest one tucked way under the tree with his name on it. They don’t typically let non-animators visit, but being that Lasseter and I spent a good portion of our meeting geeking out about traditional animation he insisted that I make a trip out there. To give you an example of how secretive this place is, there was talk… serious talk… about blindfolding me on the drive down there. They settled for me swearing I would not reveal the location (I was never given an address). I can see why. Before I left Austin for this trip I was asked what my favorite Disney animated movie was. Without a doubt my favorite is PINOCCHIO. I don’t know why I love that movie so much, but since I was kid that was my favorite of the classic Disney, beating out the princess stories. When I arrived I was told that I couldn’t bring in my camera, but I could take some pictures of the lobby, so you’ll some of those sprinkled throughout. I was introduced to a very nice guy and I’m a terrible man because I’ve forgotten his name. But this guy lead me and a couple of the Disney/Pixar reps on a tour of the ARL and went out of his way to indulge me.

For starters, they had a big display set up for me featuring a ton of original hand-painted backgrounds from PINOCCHIO. These things took my breath away… to be able to smell the paint of Geppetto’s workshop, see the brushstrokes used to make a scene that has been burnt into my psyche since before I have solid memories… it’s amazing. The ARL is an archive, meant to preserve original drawings, backgrounds, glass paintings, animation cells, sketches, etc going back to the very first Disney cartoons. They have giant rooms carefully air-conditioned, de-humidified and protected with a foamless, waterless fire prevention service in order to make sure the history of Disney does not ever go up in if a fire, like what happened at the Universal lot earlier this year, should ever break out. White-gloved employees were going through page after page after page of original Snow White artists sketches, logging them into the computer system as I watched. It looked like a complete scene featuring Snow White, each scene number in line with the one before it. If they weren’t 70 some years old you could flip through them and see Snow White come to life with your bare eyes. The point of the ARL is to give current Disney animators the chance to make appointments to come in and look through the original work of the forefathers. I was told that high-res digital files were being made of all of the pieces in case of catastrophe, but there is nothing like holding the paper up yourself, being able to see the imprint of pencil to paper or paint to cell. It allows animators to see evidence of technique of the 9 Old Men and everyone who worked on the animated classics. The storage rooms are incredible. You could set a heist movie around this place. If you have seen those older movies with libraries that have the shelves on a rack system, controlled by wheels on the sides, that’s what they had in place here. Each rack was numbered and the ends had a list of the films represented. Each file box had an enveloped collection of original artwork. One in particular came out and put a big, big smile on my face. I like Oswald the Rabbit, but I’m not a big geek for him, so when they brought that out I was impressed with the history of it… but when they brought out the original hand-drawn pencils of Mickey’s first appearance in STEAMBOAT WILLIE, my heart skipped a beat. It’s like Indy finding the Idol, I was probably rubbing my face and thinking if there was any possible way I could pull of a snatch and dash. As Belloq said, we merely pass through history. What I was seeing WAS history.

The poor tour guide was then forced to be my own personal radio DJ. I kept requesting certain things and he’d go find me something. I saw original color backgrounds from SONG OF THE SOUTH (the briar patch), pencils from ROBIN HOOD and some absolutely mind-blowing glass art (used for multiplane purposes… they’d paint on glass and set them up in a row, combining into a single image with incredible depth of field). The two that stood out to me the most were the log across the chasm from SLEEPING BEAUTY and the long shot of Pleasure Island from PINOCCHIO. What is different about these glass pieces were just how vibrant the art has stayed. It’s literally the difference between color and Technicolor. I understood why they were so secretive immediately. The ARL housed not just the physical history of Disney Animation, but literally billions of dollars worth of art. I have to admit, my palms were getting mighty itchy and if I was unobserved I don’t know if I could have helped myself from “borrowing” some pieces for my own art collection. They were smart enough to keep a close eye on me and take away that temptation. It was an incredible trip and probably the most geeky-cool moment of any of these visits. I don’t know how many of you have seen the movie yet, but I found BOLT to be a really sweet film. I knew pieces worked out of context, but it was a relief to see them all gel together. It might not have the cool-factor of something like THE INCREDIBLES or WALL-E, but it has the heart, a great amalgam of Pixar’s heart and Disney’s sensibilities. I haven’t seen it in 3-D yet, but I plan on catching it again so I can check that out. That wraps up my BOLT coverage. I thank all of you following along with me on these journeys and a big thanks to Andrew Runyan, Jack Pan, the folks at Disney, the creative team behind BOLT and Mr. John Lasseter for letting me take a gander behind the curtain and share with you guys what I saw lurking there.

I’m diving headlong into the Holiday Gift Guide (to be delivered this Thursday on Turkey Day, as usual) and it’s going great so far, but if you have any last minute suggestions, I’m still looking for cool stuff to include. Feel free to drop me a line! -Quint

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