How to Hook Up Your Animated Short at Disney

Disney launches a new shorts program with a timely Goofy misadventure, and Bill Desowitz gets an AWN exclusive from some of the directors, animators and John Lasseter.

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How to Hook Up Your Home Theater kicks off the new animated shorts program at Walt Disney Animation Studios. All images © Disney Enterprises. 

When John Lasseter and Ed Catmull instituted the new shorts program at Walt Disney Animation Studios, they not only wanted it to emulate Pixar's successful program, but also to reinvigorate the Disney legacy characters in 2D.

"The shorts program to me at both studios is very, very important," emphasizes Lasseter, chief creative officer of Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios. "One: to develop talent. It's not just directors, but directing animators, technical directors and all these things. So it gives young people the chance to be a supervisor in a small setting and to try people out at different things. This is where talent development is really great. And it's great creatively to have these shorts because sometimes there are little ideas that aren't meant to be for features, but you just want to see them. And, at Disney, we have the added heritage of all these fantastic characters. It's so much fun to go back and try things with them."

Hence, launching with How to Hook Up Your Home Theater, starring Goofy in a very contemporary situation: buying a big-screen, HD TV, and then trying to set it up himself -- with all of the wiring and remotes -- in time for the big football game.

Written and helmed by longtime story partners Kevin Deters and Stevie Wermers (Walt Disney Animation Studio's first female director), How to Hook Up Your Home Theater wonderfully captures the spirit of the How to Goofy shorts from the '40s and '50s directed by Jack Kinney and animated by John Sibley -- but obviously with a contemporary spin.

"They were looking for story people to pitch ideas and also ways of bringing back classic characters," Deters recalls. "I had just purchased a new big-screen TV for the Super Bowl and Goofy was a natural. You look at those cartoons and think, 'I may be a dumb guy, but at least I'm not as dumb as him.' I pitched the idea to Stevie, and we brainstormed and developed a structure. John immediately recognized the great marriage of Disney and something you could relate to today. Great animation, as they know how to do here. One thing we discovered quickly was [that they had just come out] with The Complete Goofy on DVD, so that was a godsend. You recognized that everyone had a warm, fuzzy nostalgia for what they remember and that the Goofy shorts were really all over the map. So what we did was pick our favorites and acknowledge a little bit from different eras."

Wermers adds that they put it up on reels for a couple of months and boarded it, and they were off and running. "It's so broad that you can go to town and not feel restricted. Goofy is so pliable."

Lasseter agrees: "Getting back into hand-drawn animation with Goofy -- that was really a key thing: trying things out with the process and thinking about how we did it. There's a lot of development. I'm very proud of what Kevin and Stevie have done with How to Hook Up Your Home Theater because he's exactly in the style of the How to shorts, but it's subject matter that's totally relevant for today's audience, and that juxtaposition is so entertaining."

It begins with the pitch, of course. But unlike the old Gong Show days at Disney, Lasseter and Catmull prefer the more artist-friendly approach they've perfected at Pixar, in which you pitch a portfolio of three ideas, meeting initially with the Disney story trust, which consists of top directors and story artists. You have several minutes for the presentation, which usually contains visuals. And the story trust provides notes and constructively discusses them with you, and you can come back and pitch a second and third time. "The way this system works is that the directors have to be [true] to their vision but be able to sort through a lot of notes," explains Chuck Williams, director of the shorts program. "It's very frank and constructive. And what's cool is that, if I'm pitching later, I can come watch how you pitch and see how they work with you."

On How to Hook Up Your Home Theater, the directors collaborated with some of Disney's best 2D animators during their downtime, including Eric Goldberg, Mark Henn, Andreas Deja and Dale Baer. "I was intimate with Goofy, drawing him a lot, but I never actually animated him before," Goldberg admits. "Kevin and Stevie had an obvious preference for the Kinney Goofy and we all gravitated toward animator John Sibley, who had very smoothly drawn Goofys. In other words, he took the streamlining thing and made it fun and elastic, so if Goofy smiled, you could really see the splay on the jowels, and every time he grabbed something, his fingers would splay out -- the art of Goofyness, so to speak. He probably did the craziest animation too in those How to cartoons. And that's certainly who I tried to emulate. That said, when you're trying to emulate the guy who does it the most exuberantly and the most loosely, that's a tall order. You have to cut loose a little bit and not be tight. One of the fun scenes I did was Goofy tangled around the speakers. If you look at it frame-by-frame, you see I'm trying to do a zillion kinds of leg actions as an homage to the Sibley style of animation. There's a lot of overlapping. It's not just a question of Goofy going from A to Z; it's how he does it. It's daunting, but fun."

John Lasseter is proud of how Deters and Wermers have handled Goofy, in a juxtaposition of the past and present that's totally relevant for today's audience -- and so entertaining.

Goldberg's main contribution was animating an early football fantasy, and he was allowed to implement a crucial suggestion: "When Goofy first fantasized that he was on the football field, they had him scared -- seeing the oncoming players and going, 'Wow!' But I said, no, this is his fantasy and he'd be smiling all the way through it."

Goldberg, who is currently animating a character for The Princess and the Frog 2D feature, is also boarding his own short involving Mickey, Donald & Goofy. "It's in the vein of Boat Builders. The format allows each of the characters to have their own personality set pieces. That's what makes them, them, and so fun to watch. It's as if you could transplant a great comedian from the past, in their prime, and bring them into the present. That's the great thing about animation. With Goofy, he's always in the round. As much as you can distort him, he's always volumetric -- he will always turn around in space. And then there are the little things: Goofy's eyes can be very bland if you don't put them slightly together. And also the pupils have to be very long. Otherwise, they look like they're unfocused."

For Henn, returning Goofy to his roots consisted of animating most of the football sequences, along with some other early odds and ends. He had the added benefit of utilizing the original football stadium background from How to Play Football and the same exterior house from Motor Mania. "In designing the football players, we went for more of a contemporary look to their uniforms, while keeping it simple. There's sophistication to animating Goofy, even though he's zany. He has structure and you want to give weight, which is what makes it all so believable. As I've said about Mickey Mouse, it's easy to draw badly.

"By the same token, those characters are fairly forgiving when you're drawing. You can have some wild and crazy poses and expressions, but there's a realm that still says this is Goofy." Henn also got to inject some amusing inside jokes during the pile-up at the end, including a character from Hockey Homicide, Goofy and the horse from How to Ride a Horse and the little chalk stick figure from How to Play Golf.

There was an epiphany of sorts for Deja, who had actually given up on the legacy characters. "Believe it or not, there was a time when I thought that maybe you could no longer draw these characters in a modern environment in an appealing toy-world kind of way. And I was proven wrong with the right idea and the right story.

On How to Hook Up Your Home Theater, the directors collaborated with some of Disney's best 2D animators during their downtime, including Eric Goldberg (l) and Andreas Deja.

"I think the one discovery for me was how to get that looseness in Goofy's clothes because he's not wearing all that much -- basically pants and a T-shirt. But even that you can play with in terms of wrinkles and secondary action in the way that he moves. And, somehow, even though that sounds like a technical thing, it adds to the personality and a comic quality to the way he moves like an acrobat. I kept one thing in mind. I got to meet Art Babbitt way back a few times and he gave Goofy the personality in the beginning. He defined Goofy as somebody who thinks about something long and hard and then does it wrong. The first scene I got was Goofy trying to open up the cable box. Like so many people, I've been there: that and DVD boxes. I get so frustrated that I hurt myself. That whole business of him trying to pull it apart, hammering on it and the thing is unchanged. And then he relaxes for a second and this drop of sweat comes down... it's so classic -- just the whole agony of it."

As with the Pixar program, there's also a certain element of technical experimentation with the new Disney shorts. On How to Hook Up Your Home Theater, it was going 50% paperless with Toon Boom's Harmony software (including cleanup and ink-and-paint) using Wacom's Cintiq tablets.

"The whole idea of going primarily paperless with the Harmony/Cintiq package was not only to make the short efficiently, but also to set the table for the 2D features coming down the road [starting with The Princess and the Frog]," explains Deters. "What they wanted to do from a leadership standpoint is examine how we did things in the past and figure out what we could do better.

Goofy is hand-drawn in Home Theater, but in true 21st century style, the short was 50% paperless thanks to Toon Boom's Harmony software (including cleanup and ink-and-paint) using Wacom's Cintiq tablets.

"Dale Baer, who worked on Winnie the Pooh and Robin Hood, embraced the paperless experiment. Andreas, Eric and Mark worked on paper. It's about finding what works best for individuals, what works best for the pipeline and as an ongoing process that will continue to evolve on some of the other features we're working on as well."

For Baer, who had no problem learning Maya a few years back, he was just as eager to be a guinea pig on the Goofy short. "Frankly, I like drawing on the Cintiq. I like the size and it's comfortable to hold and it's got the best eraser in the world. Your work comes out cleaner. You can shoot an instant test automatically without having to take out all the drawings. When Toon Boom brought Harmony to the studio, it was intriguing but it was missing facets that animators were accustomed to. Toon Boom made the necessary modifications for more high-end productions. They have so many tools now that I don't even touch 75%. They developed the texture brush, which acts more like a pencil. That was revolutionary. It's great for pencil tests. They have a bottom light where you can see where your characters bend and where they're going, so you can actually check out your arcs. And you can put the background level down. You don't have level problems with your drawings. No paper flicker, so you have cleaner pencil tests. You can control the thickness of lines. There's lots of latitude."

Thus far, How to Hook Up Your Home Theater has played at the Ottawa Animation Festival and the Chicago Children's Festival, qualifying for Oscar consideration. However, the Goofy short will screen theatrically with National Treasure: Book of Secrets on Dec. 21.

Home Theater's Deters and Wermers are halfway through their second short, The Ballad of Nessie, a sweet origin story about a female Loch Ness monster.

Meanwhile, Deters and Wermers are halfway through their second short, The Ballad of Nessie, a sweet origin story about a female Loch Ness monster. Nessie, also in 2D, is a continuation of a student project Wermers began at CalArts. Baer, Deja and Henn have been recruited once again. Nessie, according to Wermers, "is very different from crazy Goofy, with much more subtle acting." Inspired by Mary Blair, it has the painterly look and feel of a lovely children's book. After that, Deters and Wermers would like to do another Goofy short.

However, next up for Disney is Glago's Guest, a 3D, stereoscopic short by Chris Williams. It's about a Russian soldier guarding a Siberian outpost who has a strange encounter with an extraterrestrial. The director of the shorts program describes it as "serious, suspenseful and arty," with new texture development as its technical innovation. "On Glago, they are really pushing 3D animation," adds Chuck Williams. "There's human animation and a step toward what they're doing on Rapunzel, but also the hair and cloth were a challenge beyond what has ever been done before at Disney. Shapes are stylized and pushed, and the proportions are exaggerated, but the environments and detail are photoreal."

Disney's next short is Glago's Guest, a 3D, stereoscopic work by Chris Williams that is serious, suspenseful and arty, containing innovative texture development for the studio.

In fact, Lasseter was so impressed with Glago that he assigned Williams to take over the 3D-animated Bolt feature (formerly Chris Sanders' American Dog). Glago's Guest is scheduled to debut at the Annecy Animated Film Festival next year and play theatrically with Bolt (Nov. 26, 2008).

"It's also nice to stay in touch because all around the world there's this wonderful community of animators that get together at animation festivals," Lasseter suggests. "It's great to send a film to these festivals... Pixar's been doing it for a long time; I used to do it with my films. I have lifelong friends from these festivals. And it's very artistic -- these festivals are about the art of animation, not just the commerce. I love both studios being a part of that."

And to further nurture talent, the shorts program has been extended into the "Shorts Club," in which anyone in animation can pitch a short and make it on their own if they can get volunteers to help out. There are five projects currently in production, including a spin-off of Meet the Robinsons.

"It's a wonderful opportunity to utilize studio talent and equipment in their spare time, downtime or on weekends," Williams offers. "Currently there are a trainer, a layout artist and an animator making shorts. The ability to lead and inspire is a big plus. These are people that are learning on their own."

Bill Desowitz is editor of VFXWorld.

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