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'Lorenzo': A ‘Moving Painting’ with a Wild Tail

Bill Desowitz gets a first look at Disneys new animated short, Lorenzo, about a narcissistic cat that boasts a unique look.

Lorenzo is a departure for Disney in terms of the visual style and tone of the story. All images © Disney.

Lorenzo is a departure for Disney in terms of the visual style and tone of the story. All images © Disney.

Lorenzo, which premiered this month at the Florida Film Festival and is bound for Annecy 2004 in June, is quite a departure for Walt Disney Pictures, even for a short. Its zany and dark and playfully sadistic. At first glance, it has the anarchic spirit of a Looney Tune. And yet Lorenzo is more artistically ambitious. The five-minute short possesses a look thats strikingly original: a moving painting that digitally captures the loose, dry, rough, texture of a brushstroke. Its premise is very inventive too. Lorenzo is about a snooty and spoiled cat in a sleepy South American town that receives his comeuppance when his tail becomes hexed and takes on an uncontrollable personality of its own. Vexed into frenzy, Lorenzo tries everything to kill his tail in a madcap pas de deux, highlighted by their doing the tango known as milango.

Needless to say, its a hoot. Then again, if you think back to the wild and crazy Silly Symphonies or the early mischief of Mickey Mouse, Lorenzo isnt such a stretch for Disney. Walt wouldve loved Lorenzo for its clever gags and groundbreaking hybrid approach. And he wouldve been proud of nephew Roy Disney running with Joe Grants inspired premise and giving it over completely to Mike Gabriel. Grant, who will be 96 in May, and is best known as the designer of the Witch/Queen for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, as well as his work on Dumbo and Alice in Wonderland, still has a witty and agile mind. And Gabriel, the character designer who previously directed The Rescuers Down Under and Pocahontas, reveals the breadth of his talent with this tour-de-force. He wrote, directed, designed, storyboarded and background-painted Lorenzo.

One door closes, another opens: Mike Gabriel left one Disney project under a cloud and found inspiration and freedom in the tango and a blue cat.

One door closes, another opens: Mike Gabriel left one Disney project under a cloud and found inspiration and freedom in the tango and a blue cat.

Originally intended as part of a follow-up musical anthology to Fantasia 2000, Lorenzo was exec produced by Roy Disney (the force behind last years Destino) and Don Hahn (The Lion King), who came up with the idea of setting it to the tango. As with Destino, producer Baker Bloodworth closely guiding the creative and technical teams at Disneys Paris and Burbank animation studios. Lorenzo was animated in Paris, with digital and post-production work completed in Burbank. Dave Bossert, an associate producer on Destino and a key collaborator in developing Disneys animated shorts, served as artistic coordinator and visual effects supervisor. He worked with digital supervisor John Murrah and CG supervisor Dan Teece, who created a software program called Sable that was integral to the distinctive visual style of Lorenzo.

Gabriel was offered Lorenzo in early 2001. He had just been dismissed from Sweating Bullets over creative differences, which then became Home on the Range. However, rather than just sitting out the remainder of his contract at Disney, Gabriel was given the opportunity to work on a short for the first time in his career.

After accepting Hahns offer (it was either Lorenzo or a Tahitian short), Gabriel bolted for Virgin Megastore, where he spent $346 of his own money buying 40 tango CDs. As luck or fate would have it, the first track on the very first CD that he popped into the player in his office immediately hooked him. It was the tantalizing Bordoneo y 900, performed by the internationally renowned Juan Jose Mosalini and his Big Tango Orchestra.

Gabriel looked at Grants designs for inspiration: a huge, fluffy cat drawn in blobbish blue pastels, with a droopy mouth and large tail. You cant even see its feet. But since Gabriel cant draw with chalk, he took his wide, flat brush and painted his own blobs of blue cat with no outline of any kind.

Dan Teece created Sable, a software program that captured Gabriels rough brushstroke style. In the panel above are sample brushstrokes; the rigged curve set over pencil animation in Maya; and the final Sable render.

Dan Teece created Sable, a software program that captured Gabriels rough brushstroke style. In the panel above are sample brushstrokes; the rigged curve set over pencil animation in Maya; and the final Sable render.

As Mike explored the look of the film, he painted with acrylic paints on black construction paper, Bloodworth explains. He kept saying, I want the movie to look like this. You know, Destino was an awe-inspiring, jaw dropping, oh, my gosh; were working on a Dali picture kind of experience. And treated with great reverence and quite serious filmmaking. Every meeting was very careful. This was not that way. This was Mike having fun in his room showing paintings, us showing our notes, his listening to that collaborating, changing, adapting. Mike was very collaborative. The Dali piece was really about reconstructing and resurrecting, and this was [about] creating from nothing, allowing Mike to do what he wanted to do hes one of the best character designers weve ever had at Disney.

Indeed, the filmmakers insist that theres never been a Disney film that brings the artists vision to the screen in such a pure, undiluted way. Gabriel, for his part, claims hes never experienced such freedom and discipline in features and is a better filmmaker as a result of his Lorenzo experience.

Taming the Tail: Lorenzo does a furious tango with his posterior appendage. Joe Grants original story premise and designs became the basis for this moving painting.

Taming the Tail: Lorenzo does a furious tango with his posterior appendage. Joe Grants original story premise and designs became the basis for this moving painting.

But he had lots of help. Hahns pictures from a trip to Buenos Aires inspired Lorenzos South American feel with brightly colored buildings, kitschy souvenirs, great wrought iron lamps and music pouring out of every window. I love [Lorenzo] because its so personal, Hahn opines. I love the idea of taking one guys artwork and making it into a short because animation is so collaborative and very hard for an artist. Occasionally you see it. I mean, maybe in Triplets of Belleville or maybe in Sleeping Beauty you saw Eyvind Earles hand in it. But its rare.

Gabriel continues: Everyone seemed to love the bright neon blue paintings I did in the beginning. They were loose and simple, with very little detail and no exterior lines. Lorenzo almost had a sloppy feel to him with white eyes and a little button nose. I wanted to be able to see the brushstrokes on screen and to give everything a facile, effortless quality, even though we would paint things 50 times to make it look that way.

His painting became a brushstroke of genius, especially after an all-3D approach was rejected as too costly much to Grants disappointment. The challenge then was figuring out how to translate Gabriels artwork to the screen because when they got the animation back from Paris, the form was there but not the outlines of the concept art. The filmmakers realized that neither traditional ink-and-paint nor typical CGI (including Disneys painterly yet procedural Deep Canvas) would preserve the distinct visual style of the artwork, so they created new rendering tools. After six weeks, Teece came up with Sable, a painterly renderer, as the solution. It was a way of mapping very rough paint strokes onto the pencil animation.

Bossert observes, Mike wanted the viewers to feel like they were watching a painting move; as if the character was painted frame-by-frame. In a traditional animated film, there is a hard edge to most characters. With the characters in Lorenzo, there is a dry brush feeling as if each drawing was hand-painted.

Color design plays a big role in the short. Above is Molly, the cat, who puts a hex on Lorenzos tail.

Color design plays a big role in the short. Above is Molly, the cat, who puts a hex on Lorenzos tail.

In order to achieve the hand-painted effect, the individual drawings were scanned into the computer. Gabriel painted a series of 18 different brushstroke styles, which were also scanned into the computer. A team of 25 CG artists then put curves 3D placeholders or indicators on the key drawings. Using Sable they were able to attach the brushstrokes to the curves. If a curve wiggled around and moved in any way, that brushstroke would wiggle around and move the same way, Murrah explains.

Not only did Sable allow the animators to dictate the application of base strokes in the final composition, but also such parameters as width, color, alpha gradations and visibility cues. And it allowed the animators in Paris to work traditionally, concentrate on performance and remain independent of the stroke rendering process.

Teece recalls: So wed get some of these [brushstrokes] and say, OK, this one would be useful and that one would be useful and then once we had scanned them in, wed clean them up with Shake and Photoshop and just doctor them a little bit. There were some that had different end shapes an ear or a finger that might be useful. So as this library of brushstrokes grew, it added flexibility in terms of being able to look at one of these paintings and then just match it with the computer version.

Teece was also impressed with Gabriels color scheme in Lorenzo. I think its one of the things about the piece that people really enjoy and certainly how it changes throughout. Youve got a lot of blues and then the red of the streetlight, so youve got the contrast there, and then in the fountain water shots youve got that emerald green. And then toward the end, theres some amazing reds and oranges that come through with intensity.

Teece says placing the stroke lines into groups controlled the color of the brushstroke. And we had a Website set up with certain standard colors. So we had a standard Lorenzo body blue and then we had a standard blue for the outlines, a standard white for the eyes and so on. And then users could just cut and paste those colors they use. And there was a relatively small palette for those maybe eight or 10 and then there are other scenes like where Lorenzo is standing in the fountain where the lighting is changed and the blue, the fur blue, is a different blue. And so for those scenes it was a different palette. In general, we were doing quite a small number of colors and brush strokes.

Lorenzo is a tour-de-force turn for Gabriel. He wrote, directed, designed, storyboarded and background-painted the short.

Lorenzo is a tour-de-force turn for Gabriel. He wrote, directed, designed, storyboarded and background-painted the short.

Murrah says Sable was able to utilize Gabriels background paintings as well. He would paint the backgrounds and wed either put them on cards or composite them in directly. You could have gone into his office and looked at all his background paintings and all the inspirational art on the walls, and then gone into a theater and seen a lot of that exact material up on the screen. But with the moving animation in front rendered to look like his painting.

According to the filmmakers, Roy Disneys notes were very helpful in improving Lorenzos execution. For example, when Lorenzo first taunts the black cat (Molly) that puts a curse on his tail, Disney suggested that Lorenzos tail should be bigger and fluffier to exaggerate the animation. In a later scene when Lorenzo dances with a rattle, Disney suggested that he swing his hips more to accentuate the rhythm of the music.

Disney praises Lorenzo as a nice, simple, idea that goes straight through from one end to the other. Its kind of a traditional short in the sense of the way they used to be. All the gags in the world about that theme and get it over with. But the look of it is pretty sensational and I was intrigued from the start with the approach. If you made it as a normal 2D short, youd say, That was cute. This one gives you more to think about.

Bill Desowitz is the editor of VFXWorld.

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