Animation Interview Movies

Of Cyberspace and The Sea: A Magical Afternoon at Walt Disney Animation Studios

When I was 10, I wanted to be a Disney Animator. It happened around the time my single-parent mother, who was always working to make end’s meet for us, managed to scrounge up enough money to take us kids to Walt Disney World in the mid-90s. One of the parks we ended up visiting, the old MGM Studios Park, had this attraction called “The Magic of Disney Animation.” Sure that park also featured attractions for Star Wars and Indiana Jones, and not to mention the first-of-its-kind “Tower of Terror.” But for me, The Magic of Disney Animation was everything that made the park so special.

For 15-20 minutes, I got to see how true art was made. I learned about how the hundreds of talented artists came together and brought to life the iconic “Be Our Guest” sequence from Beauty and the Beast, and how those same people were working hard at that second to bring together future classics, Mulan and Lilo and Stitch. I went into that building a complacent boy who only watched movies, and exited a person inspired by a dream and a drive to make it come true.

That day, I learned what animation meant and still means to me: pure artistry. It embodies the symphonic harmony of ink and paint and pencil to create something out of thin air that could be so innocent, yet profoundly more mature than anything else Hollywood was making. It was a medium with the ultimate potential of telling the perfect story — capable of achieving fantasy and reality, while breaking audience hearts and still making them smile. It encapsulated the idea that through one story, one character, one line that didn’t have to be flesh and bone or blood, a child in the audience could grow up, and an adult could re-embrace their childhood spirit all at once.

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You’ll have to forgive the verbose nature of the article’s introduction. I’m absolutely not intending to impose my personal connection with animation on any of you readers (if I haven’t lost you by now). Nor am I anticipating that many out there could personally relate to this particular situation. My intent, pure and simple, if not a bit pretentious and long-winded, is simply meant to share with you the rationale behind why the following experience, our invitation to Walt Disney Animation Studios this month, two decades after my initial visit to the now non-operational Florida studio, was something much more than just a gig for me. It was an actual spiritual experience — and I want to share it with you.

Invitations and Introductions

Earlier this month, The Nerds of Color received an opportunity to cover a press day at Walt Disney Animation Studios in Burbank, CA. The intent was to commemorate three things: the home entertainment release of last year’s hit (and sequel to a personal Disney Animated favorite of mine, Wreck-It Ralph), Ralph Breaks the Internet, the release of Disney’s first VR short film, Cycles, and the 30th Anniversary 4K release of the classic that kicked off the Disney Renaissance in 1989 and impacted the childhoods of every child born between the ’80s and today, The Little Mermaid. In short, it was a celebration of the past, present, and future of feature animation.

Walking in through the building, I was greeted by several relics and drawings of classic Disney films, decorating the walls. Each served as a reminder of the amazing legacy of innovation the studio had, from traditional hand-drawn rotoscoping in classics like Snow White, multiplane camera wonders like Sleeping Beauty, and naturally today’s computer animation techniques. All of this leading up to a giant statue of Vanelope Von Schweetz and Wreck-It Ralph themselves welcoming me to the studio.

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The busy day kicked off with the Disney Animation team leading us into a theater, where we were met with an introduction from Clark Spencer — producer of Wreck-It Ralph, Zootopia, and Ralph Breaks the Internet. Spencer was proud to introduce us to a few key features that will be dropping with the Ralph Breaks the Internet home entertainment release: One segment called “How We Broke the Internet” and another called “Surfing for Easter Eggs.”

Both were very informative. And if you were like me and were a huge fan of Ralph Breaks the Internet, and wanted to see more, these were the perfect features to complement the movie’s content. Through “How We Broke The Internet,” the filmmakers went into very granular details about visiting One Wilshire Blvd., the most highly connected Internet point in the western United States, for inspiration about how best to animate the pivotal scene where Ralph and Vanellope arrive at the central hub of the Internet. They further go into inspirations behind characters like Shank, the difficulties of animating “Ralphzilla” (which I’ll elaborate more on later), and the emotion behind Ralph and Vanellope’s friendship by the finale of the movie. “Surfing for Easter Eggs” was a much lighter and quicker feature to preview, showcasing the sly hand of the animators working on the movie, as they identified hidden cameos from items like Anna’s rocking chair from Frozen in the eBay scene, or a Sorcerer Mickey atop the center of the Oh My Disney scene.

Following the feature showcase, directors Rich Moore and Phil Johnston came out, to do a group Q&A.

“Was this a mess for the Legal department?” they were asked, in regards to the use of companies like Twitter, Google, eBay, and other brands in the film.

“The interesting thing is between trademark and copyright, when you’re using logos, it’s not characters. So you can actually put logos into the film without having to get permission from the companies,” stated Spencer.

“Do you have a favorite moment?”

Moore chimed in, “I love the ‘Oh My Disney’ sequence… I love the 2D pieces that Mark Henn animated. Those are my favorites.”

“The shot where Ralph’s videos are going viral,” began Johnston, “It’s a one take actually. So it’s pulling back from screen to screen. And there are a few little props from here and there. Like there’s a mug on a guy’s desk that says ‘World’s Greatest Boss,’ and it’s crossed out and says ‘Dad.’ That’s a reference to Zootopia actually. On Bellweather’s desk it says ‘World’s Greatest Assistant Mayor.’ So that’s my favorite and it’s hard to spot.”

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When asked what it was like for the original voices of the Disney princesses to come back, Rich Moore said, “To me it was a dream come true to meet all these actresses who played these characters. And every one of them was really game to do this scene. I remember thinking early on ‘are they going to like this? Are they going to be on-board?’…Everyone was really excited to be a part of that. And they would help with the characters too.”

“It was so interesting to hear them talk about how they embraced those characters for their entire lives and careers, and how much those characters mean to them. And to be able to come back to the Animation studio and to be able to be a part of this film, and how much that meant to them,” said Spencer. “It was an amazing experience for everyone involved.”

When asked about what their inspiration for making animated all-ages movies, Moore and Johnston had this to say:

“My daughter was 3 when the first Wreck-It Ralph came out. It was the first movie she saw at the theater actually, so I draw great inspiration from my kids and from their imaginations,” stated Johnston. “And I also think that people who work in this industry haven’t quite fully developed themselves. So there’s probably a big part of my brain that still functions like a 9-year old, that hasn’t really evolved to where it should. So I think you try to at least hold on to the imagination. And the dumb jokes that make me laugh now are the same things that make my kids laugh.”

“I agree with Phil. I think that part of doing this job is that you do have to have some sort of relationship with that part of you, when you were a kid,” continued Moore. “I look at it and say, ‘would I have liked this as a 7-year old?’ And it’s easy to jump right into these shoes and remember if I’d like them, and what made sense to me. Because we do have to make these films for all ages. And part of our job is being able to hop into being an adult and a kid at the same time.”

Visual Effects and the Challenges of Ralphzilla

After the Q&A, we were led into a theater with a demonstration and discussion of the complex and innovative effects process behind putting Ralphzilla together. Scott Kersavage (Visual Effects Supervisor), Ernest J. Petti (Technical Supervisor), and Bradford Simonsen (Associate Producer) essentially elaborated on what was alluded to within the “How We Broke the Internet” feature we were just shown.

To Kersavage, Petti, and Simonsen, Ralph Breaks the Internet served as the biggest and most challenging film they had worked on to date. The entire movie consisted of 434 characters, with 6,752 variants on each character, and over 1-million color swings for each variant. For the film, they created 150 sets, and 5.7 unique assets, given that every sign and fictional app logo seen in the film had to be painstakingly constructed by the art department. Given the scope of the project, it would take 1.9 million render hours per day to bring Ralph together.

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However, as impressive as those stats were, the biggest challenge for the three effects whizzes was the concept they affectionately dubbed “Ralphzilla” from the climax of the movie. To recap, Ralph causes a virus to spread on the internet as a manifestation of his deepest insecurities at the notion of Vanellope moving on from their complacent lives at Litwacks. Within seconds, millions of Ralph virus clones chase after our heroes, and assemble into a massive, 783ft monster trying to destroy Ralph and smother Vanellope. For Kersavage, Petti, and Simonsen, this aspect of the film made it the most technically advanced and difficult film they’ve worked on, given that “Ralphzilla” was an idea that ended up coming to them 1-full year into the production of the film, and consisted of 5.4 million individually animated versions of Ralph. This put their teams to the ultimate test, as they had to make each individual Ralph emote, and each emotion had to influence the emotion of the larger monster. The challenge was so complex that they had to develop a brand new iterative process just to accommodate the needs of this story idea.

At the end of the day, though, the results spoke for themselves. The team recently won an Annie award for their work on the film at this year’s Annies, and it was very understandable why. The amount of work and effort it took to make this film look phenomenal truly was a demonstration of their talent, patience, and innovative skills.

Chasing the Dream of Becoming an Animator

Once we completed our crash course in the visual effects of the film, we were treated to something really unique and special. We were brought from the visual effects studio to a room affectionately called “The Princess Hub,” where we were introduced to Nicklas Puetz (Character Rigging Supervisor) and Renato dos Anjos (co-head of Animation). The room was lined up with monitors and computer towers in about eight different stations, and we were asked to take our position at one of them.

It was then that dos Anjos, who had been at Walt Disney Animation since their 2008 offering, Bolt, said something I had been dreaming about my whole life: “Today you will get a chance to try your hand at becoming an animator.”

All at once I was filled with joy as I glanced up at my monitor to see on-screen a software I had been familiar with, but never properly mastered — Autodesk Maya. However, unlike the crude efforts during my endeavors to train myself how to use the software, I was greeted by a professionally created model of Vanellope Von Schweetz!

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Puetz and dos Anjos, being the masters of their craft, instantly took to instructing like they would animating, and introduced us to the various tools and options we had at our disposal to manipulate and set frames influencing the movement of the Vanellope model that was on our screens. In short, they were teaching us how to bring her to life and animate her. After a few swift and awkward actions, I quickly picked up on the process as well as I could. The joys of seeing the character come to life as I took action with the mouse, like a conductor to an orchestra, were surging through my fingers. I was doing something that felt so natural!

After 15 minutes, they finally called out the last step, told us to set our final key frame, and hit the play button. After a moment of hesitation brought about by the nervousness that maybe what I would be seeing played back to me would look odd or awkward, I took a big gulp, and tapped “play.” And to my extreme relief, I found I had succeeded. The character was waving at me. For those 15 to 20 minutes, I was an animator!

Meeting Legends from Under The Sea

As glorious as it had felt to finally do something I had dreamt of since I walked away from The Magic of Disney Animation, the day had to press on. And while the feeling of pride and accomplishment, as well as the sheer honor in trying my hand at true animation, persisted, we knew we had to be on to better things and bigger surprises. And thus, we moved upstairs to a setting I’m more familiar with in my day-to-day lifestyle: a conference room.

Throughout the day, we had been accompanied by several other outlets from all over the country. And among those reporters, one stood out to everyone, as she had dressed as Ariel, The Little Mermaid. The day was such that if I were to have my fantasy fulfilled in the form of our animation lesson, it only made sense for that reporter, as well as others who were impacted by The Littler Mermaid growing up to have theirs come true as well. And thus, there we sat in that conference room awaiting a Skype call from Ariel herself, Disney Legend, Jodi Benson.

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As the conversation began, Benson was promptly asked about her experience working with her family on the 30th anniversary material for The Little Mermaid. She had this to say:

“It’s really unbelievable… I think I’d been at [Disney] for over 33 years, long before we had kids. And with this 30th Anniversary, Disney had called and said we would be going to New York to do all these wonderful things for the bonus features. And they asked what my kids were doing right now… And so we got into this conversation about McKinley, our son, who’s a filmmaker… And then it turned into… we worked together this summer in New York, and it was the most bizarre thing… and I was just watching him working and thought to myself ‘I’m losing it!’ It was so surreal! How amazing is this opportunity. To get to work with him — I never would have dreamt this would have happened in a million years and only Disney could make that happen.”

She was then asked if she knew 30 years ago how special The Little Mermaid would become.

“No. I had absolutely no clue whatsoever. Which is what makes this movie and this project absolutely unique and once in a lifetime… [when I got the job] I started flying back and forth to California, and I didn’t know anything. I had never been behind the mic. You have to understand that this was not a great job back then. Because that was what you did when your career was tanking! But it literally was six weeks before when I got the call saying ‘Are you ready to hit 22 cities in 20 days?’ And I was like ‘What are you talking about?’ And Disney was like ‘We’re going to send you on a press tour.’… And it wasn’t until after the press tour and after the release that I was like ‘Oh wow!’ I think this was something different than what I had anticipated, which was ‘Go to the studio, record, go back to Broadway, and you’re done.’ I had no idea my relationship with the Disney family would change the course of my life forever and my family’s. I think that’s what makes it so special was that there were no expectations, no format. It was just wonderful surprises at every turn.”

Benson was then asked what it was like to get the call for Ralph Breaks the Internet and what she thought of her treatment of Ariel in the movie.

“When my agent called, I was like ‘Oh my gosh, this is BRILLIANT! I have got to meet the people who have put this idea together’… Taking them out of their element and mixing them up all together was genius… And I was so excited… And part of it was that I hadn’t met everybody. I had known their names, but I hadn’t met a lot of the girls. So at D23, when we were out there… I was freaking out in the green room… I was so excited. I had so much fun in that room just to meet people. It was a very special club to be a part of… And working with Rich Moore was like working with Howard [Ashman]… He came in the booth with me… reading me in and playing all the parts… I loved that. And it felt like home for me. And he reminds me so much of Howard and his brilliance. So to me it was like walking through history, going back to the studio, working on Ariel with a brilliant director who was very passionate about the character… those memories are priceless to me. So it was really exciting to see her again and bring her to the screen for a new generation.”

Following the conversation with Jodi, we were met with more Disney legends, as Ron Clements, co-director of The Little Mermaid, and Mark Henn, the Animation Supervisor, were brought in to give the room a brief Q&A.

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Clements, celebrating his 45th year with the studio spoke of his relationship with animation legend Frank Thomas, his mentor — and one of Disney’s original Nine Old Men. In the years that they’d worked on The Little Mermaid, Clements and Henn screened the movie before Thomas and his animation partner Ollie Johnson, which ended up being one of the most nerve-wracking moments of his career.

Henn, celebrating his 39th year at Disney Animation, reminisced about the time that Frank and Ollie viewed the “he loves me, he loves me not” scene in the movie — one of the first scenes to be voiced by Benson. After they reviewed it, Ollie turned to Henn and said “That’s a pretty good scene.” Which ended up being a huge highlight for him, having been a fan of those legends his entire career.

Clements recalled that he was 34 when he started working on the movie. And since it was a fairy tale he and Henn were both nervous that the movie was going to be compared to the legendary classics of Disney Animation, such as Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty. However what ultimately separated this film from the others was the fact that Ariel was intended to be a princess for the modern day generation; a proactive character rather than a reactive character. She was intended to be a real character and a real teenager: headstrong, rebellious, and flawed, but also believable and accessible. Ultimately, 30 years later, we view Ariel today as the princess that set the pattern for all modern day princesses.

When asked about what made The Little Mermaid timeless, Clements had this to say:

“The heart of any good movie are the story and characters,” stated Clements. “You want to believe in the characters, you want to like characters, you want to get sucked into the story… believing in the characters [in an animated movie] is tough because they’re totally made up. These characters have to be invented from scratch, and yet you have to believe with them. I think music helps, because if you love the music you just want to keep hearing the music.The nice thing about musicals is that you can watch them many times and keep enjoying them even though you know what’s there.”

Interviews and Recording Sessions

As the day pressed on, it held much more surprises. While it was very special being present for the earlier Q&As with Moore, Johnston, Clements, and Henn, it meant the world to me that I would get the opportunities to talk face-to-face and 1:1 with the legends who made Ralph Breaks the Internet and The Little Mermaid possible. And one by one I was able to meet with them in-person for a series of intimate on-camera interviews

Both of those experiences can be viewed here:

Rich Moore and Phil Johnston:

 

 

 

Ron Clements and Mark Henn:

 

In addition to these legendary directors/animators, we were also given the opportunity to sit with the amazing Alan Tudyk, who was kind enough to give us a fun and fantastic 1:1 interview.

Then having spoken to the real Knowsmore, it seemed only fitting that following our interview with Alan, the Disney Animation team would allow me to fulfill another one of my animation dreams — voicing a character in Ralph Breaks the Internet!

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The interview with Alan and my voice-over session can be viewed here:

Alan Tudyk and my Recording Session:

 

 

Cycles

As the day wore down, we had one final stop: Checking out Disney’s first VR short, Cycles.

Cycles was a short I had only heard about through social media and news sites. It was expected to break new ground for Disney, being the studio’s first short shot entirely in VR. Upon first reading of it, I was unclear on how I was going to watch it. And as such, when the opportunity came up to view it during the press day presentations, I couldn’t refuse.

As I stood in line to demo the film, the short film’s animators and director, Jeff Gipson, were on hand to introduce us to the movie and give us a back story of the film’s inspirations. Jeff explained that he was heavily inspired by the relationship he had with his grandmother, when he eventually had to introduce her to an assisted living facility. I already felt like the tears were about to come, and I hadn’t even put on the headset yet.

As soon as it was ready, I was led into a small circle by one of the animators. He fitted the VR headset on my head, and before I knew it, I saw and heard the iconic Walt Disney Animation logo in front of me. The short had begun.

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Before my eyes, I had experienced a film that was completely unique. I saw myself as a first-person observer within a house that was soon to be vacated, as indicated by boxes filled with items about to be moved. I heard the conversations of the main characters — an elderly woman and her adult daughter, discussing her circumstance of needing to move the elderly woman to an assisted living facility. As the movie progressed, one scene would fade and another would appear to the right of it, forcing me, the viewer, to become the character of the house, as I continued to move my head and position to view the rest of the tale in an immersive 360-degree VR medium. The story played out chronologically in reverse, showing the origins of the house and its occupants — the life lived by this beautiful family within the house they had fallen in love with and had taken care of for decades. Once the final frame was shown, the viewer was left with an empty house — lonely, abandoned, and once loved. The aforementioned tear slid very subtly down my left cheek. I had just watched an animation accomplishment on both a storytelling and technical level.

More than that, I was witnessing a metaphor — one that was most apt for both the day and the cathartic feelings brewing within me. The house, as well as the family, in the short was constantly changing, evolving, and growing as time was passing; sometimes in sad ways, but ultimately for the better.

In that same vein, I couldn’t help but reflect on the fact that we, as audiences and fans who had grown up with Disney Animation’s classic films, had seen the history of Disney Animation evolve from the hand-drawn depths of the seas in The Little Mermaid to the CGI advancements in Ralph Breaks the Internet, to the VR wonder that was Cycles right before our eyes; in some ways leaving behind traditions set up under Walt Disney himself, but in many other ways pushing those traditions further into the future while never forgetting trails that had been blazed.

And yet ultimately, on a personal level, I also reflected upon how my life and dreams themselves had also gone through cycles. From the moment I walked inside Walt Disney Animation Studios that day, I saw the cycles of my life and dreams transforming and evolving — seeing myself as a 10-year old with bright-eyed aspirations of making animated features, to an entertainment reporter in his 30s, chasing new dreams, and reminiscing about the old ones. And I was reminded that as you grow older, and as you start to accept the necessary practicalities of life, it becomes easier to leave behind the life goals you once planned for yourself, much like leaving behind an empty once-loved house.

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However as my visit to this magical facility finally came to a close, and I once more passed by the old priceless artwork depicting scenes from both the historical and modern-day classics of Disney Animation, I thought back to the start of the day, and the experiences I had; from the insightful panels I watched, to the animation and voice over sessions I experienced, and the amazing talented people I had met who brought life to some of the best films of our generation and continue to inspire me. And I realized through all of those experiences, my love of animation and the artistry it represents was still alive and would always be, so long as the medium continues to exist, and evolve, and grow like myself. And thus, as I left the building, I came to finally understand what people meant when they said cartoons can never die. Because apparently, some dreams never do either.


Now as a special treat (and something of a reward for making it to the end of this horribly verbose and over-saccharine cheese-fest of an article), we are spreading the Disney Animation love with you, our readers!

As a huge fan of Ralph Breaks the Internet, and in honor of its Digital release today, we happen to have a fun bundle of awesome Wreck-It Ralph Swag for one lucky reader — a few figures, a Funko Pop!, and even your own little mini Fix-It Felix arcade game.

How do you get your hands on this baby? It’s simple. Simply share your favorite, most memorable, or gifable moments from Ralph Breaks the Internet and tag us (@TheNerdsofColor) on Twitter or Instagram and use the hashtag #RalphNOCsTheInternet.

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We’ll go through all submissions and select the most worthy player to receive this free bag of goodies!

Good luck, and game on!

Ralph Breaks the Internet and The Little Mermaid: 30th Anniversary Edition will be available on Digital 4K Ultra HD and Movies Anywhere on February 12, and 4K Ultra HD and Blu-ray on February 26, 2019.

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