Disney's latest hand-drawn short is a blast from the past.
Well, The Ballad of Nessie isn't really a lost Disney short: it's made to seem like something newly discovered, evoking the classic look and feel of Mary Blair and Bill Peet, among others. The five-minute short appropriately opens Friday with Disney's latest hand-drawn feature, Winnie the Pooh.
Nessie is a gentle story told in rhyme (narrated by Billy Connolly) and set in the bonny blue highlands of Scotland, in which the friendly Loch Ness monster and her best friend, a rubber duck named MacQuack, are made homeless when a land developer, MacFroogle, constructs a golf empire atop Nessie's peaceful home.
The hand-drawn short is the creation of Stevie Wermers, who previously worked on the Goofy short, How to Hook Up Your Home Theater, with Kevin Deters. In fact, Wermers pitched Nessie on the same day that Deters pitched Goofy in 2006. It's an outgrowth of her student short at CalArts from the early '90s. After she assisted Deters as co-director on Goofy, he reciprocated on Nessie to help her realize her dream. In between, they co-directed the CG-animated ABC special, Prep & Landing, in 2009.
"For me, doing the initial pitch to a bunch of directors here at Disney Animation was the most difficult moment," she confesses. "The stakes were high because I'd been waiting 15 years to get this opportunity. I was already a little nervous. And the day that we were supposed to pitch, we found out that John Lasseter was going to sit in on the meeting. And it was only three or four months after Disney acquired Pixar. So he hadn't been in the building that much. I had never met him before but it worked out."
Indeed, Lasseter appreciated the homage to classic Disney, according to Deters. "He definitely got what we were going for with this and the Goofy short," he adds. "We wanted to reconnect with the history of the studio, but not be slavish to it. And find a venue for a modern audience. And I think the message comes through, which John liked, that it's OK to express emotion in a society where people are often afraid."
We wanted it to feel like a lost Disney short in terms of art direction and production values and character design," Deters suggests. "We very deliberately wanted it to look like something made back in the day. Mary Blair was a key influence along with The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Johnny Appleseed. Art director Andy Harkness' colors are rich and vibrant; and Lorelay Bove, the vis dev artist, is a rising talent."
But it was a start and stop process all the way through, given the top priority of The Princess and the Frog. And yet the dream team's participation only enhanced the beauty, grace, and pathos of Nessie. Serving as supervising animators were Ruben Aquino, Dale Baer, Andreas Deja, Randy Haycock and Mark Henn, who ended up animating about half the short.
"When Nessie gives up hope and is about to cry, you really want to feel her pain," Deters continues. He also says that hearing composer Michael Giacchino's theme was very fulfilling. "Originally, Michael had written this particular piece of music a long time ago, and never really found a home for it, much like the Nessie short itself, which sat in a drawer. Then when he saw it, he realized it was the perfect venue for it."
Meanwhile, Wermers and Deters are prepping the Prep & Landing sequel, Naughty vs. Nice, which will air this holiday season. Lanny and Wayne discover that old elf technology has fallen into the hands of a naughty child; and they need to retrieve it because the kid is a proficient computer hacker and is wreaking havoc in the North Pole right before Christmas.
Just another nod to the past intended for a new generation of viewers.
Bill Desowitz is former senior editor of AWN and editor of VFXWorld. He has a new blog, Immersed in Movies (www.billdesowitz.com), and is currently writing a book about the evolution of James Bond from Connery to Craig, scheduled for publication next year, which is the 50th anniversary of the franchise.