Mark Dindal's Place in the Sun

Q: What do some non-dancing cats and a llama with an attitude have in common? A: Mark Dindal. Here the director of Cats Don't Dance and Disney's upcoming major holiday release, The Emperor's New Groove, sits down with Joe Strike and talks and talks and talks...

Disney's latest, The Emperor's New Groove. © Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.

Director Mark Dindal. Photo courtesy of Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.

The hotheaded young test pilot won't give in. He won't return the experimental rocket backpack that has fallen into his possession, even though a Nazi spy ring will kill to get their hands on it. Finally, its inventor -- aviation pioneer Howard Hughes -- shows the pilot a movie he hopes will change his mind. The room grows dark and a cartoon appears onscreen...

Art deco chiseled, rocketpack-equipped soldiers fly across the screen in multiplane formation...a swastika spreads tentacle-like arrows of domination that arc across the Atlantic and stab into the U.S...battalions of flying stormtroopers fill the sky as the U.S. Capitol building goes up in black and white flames...and an unfurling Nazi flag gives way to a chilling full-screen legend, "Heute Europa, Morgen Die Welt" ["Today Europe -- Tomorrow The World"].

"It cost a man's life to get this film out of Germany," notes Hughes.

Who Is This Man?

Well, not really. The eye-catching 47-second animated sequence in the midst of Disney's 1991 live-action adventure film The Rocketeer was actually the work of Mark Dindal, a creative and ambitious young staffer at the Disney feature animation studio. Animation buff that I am, I made a mental note of his name as the film's closing credits rolled by...and then promptly forgot all about him.

Dindal's work in Disney's Rocketeer powered his career in animation. © The Walt Disney Company. All rights reserved.

A few years later, in a trade magazine article on computer-based ink and paint systems, I saw a still for a yet-to-be released animated feature: a female cartoon cat posing wistfully by a street light against a stylized urban setting. Her defiantly non-Disney appearance (a bold-featured, oversized head with solid coloring and strong outlines), the subtle color scheme and the strength with which the picture conveyed its emotional content piqued my interest. I made another mental note to see the film, something called Cats Don't Dance, upon its release; this time I didn't forget.

The 1997 film, a funny and heartfelt valentine to the golden age of movie musicals, lived up to the promise of that one photograph. It followed the travails and ultimate triumph of Danny, a somewhat naïve "song-and-dance-cat" just off the bus from Kokomo and out to conquer 1939 Hollywood. By the end of the film Danny has bested evil child star Darla Dimple, put an end to the second class status endured by animal actors and won the heart of the beautiful Sawyer, the wistful cat in the above-mentioned publicity still.

Did I mention Cats Don't Dance was directed by Mark Dindal?

Darla Dimple, child star, laughs at Danny and Sawyer's dreams of stardom. © Turner Feature Animation.

For sheer entertainment value and as a beautifully animated film, Cats Don't Dance holds its own with any of Disney's contemporary releases. Unfortunately, Warner Bros. somehow decided the film wasn't worth its time of day, and after a cursory theatrical run and video release it dropped off the radar screen of public awareness. (It can still be found in the video stores, usually with me nearby trying to convince total strangers to rent or buy it.)

Let's Get Talking

About a year ago I learned that the next feature in the Disney pipeline was to be called Kingdom of the Sun, and would be co-directed by the self-same Mr. Dindal, together with The Lion King's Roger Allers. 'That's it,' I said to myself, 'I've got to talk to this guy.' Thanks to Animation World and Walt Disney Studios' publicity department, I was able to do just that on September 12, 2000. In the interim Kingdom of the Sun had become Kingdom in the Sun, and ultimately The Emperor's New Groove, but I was to learn far more had changed than just its title. First however I wanted to trace the steps and choices that had brought Mark Dindal to arguably the peak of the animation profession: directing a full-length Disney feature:

Joe Strike: So how did you get into this line of work?

Mark Dindal: As far back as I can remember, this was just something I wanted to do. Through grade school, high school, I just drew. I collected all the Disney books and any sort of animation books I could, which weren't very many at that time. I remember the one with Mickey on the cover holding a paintbrush. [Christopher Finch's The Art of Walt Disney.]

Then I was lucky that my guidance counselor's secretary had a nephew who went to CalArts. She just happened to overhear a conversation and recommended it, so I came out with my dad to visit the school and ended up going. That was just a dream come true, because there was still Ken O'Connor, the layout man, Elmer Plummer, all these Disney veterans who were teaching at the time, so I got a chance to be exposed to them before they retired.

From CalArts to the effects department working on The Fox and the Hound Dindal made it to Disney. © Walt Disney Pictures. All rights reserved.

After a couple years there at the school I got offered a job as an effects animator on The Fox and The Hound in 1980. Ken O'Connor helped me out a lot; even though his specialty was layouts, he knew a lot about the effects world as well and really was my mentor through that.

That's how I got into Disney. The effects department wasn't very big at that time -- about 5 people total. I stayed with that for quite a while, working my way up through the ranks until I was the effects supervisor on The Little Mermaid and ran the department.

JS: I'm trying to find the point where you made the leap from effects animation -- which could be a possible career dead end if you get too good at it -- to working with character and story development which is a whole different area.

MD: What I think was good about being in effects was in that capacity you were involved in all the phases of production quite a bit. Maybe not so much storyboard, although we could sit in on storyboard pitches to anticipate the work that was coming. You got the chance to see the production in both directions: the production part as well as post-production.

So it gave me quite an awareness of what everybody does, which I think is important as a director, to have some knowledge. I couldn't tell you everything that they do, but at least I know the main gist of what they have to do, so it was a good path by which I ended up here.

JS: Was there some point where you had to show somebody, 'I can animate a character, I can get an emotion across?'

Mark was the effects supervisor on The Little Mermaid. © Walt Disney Pictures. All rights reserved.

MD: It was after Little Mermaid. That was such a pinnacle of effects animation. There were so many things in there; it just ran the gamut. I felt at the end of that movie that I had done everything I wanted to do in that category. But the experience of being in a leadership position was something I wanted to pursue further and be more involved with the story aspects of a film.

I talked to Peter Schneider [head of feature animation at Disney] about it and he was very supportive, but how old was I at the time, 27 or 29? Of course you want to go from effects supervisor to director right away. There's not a whole lot of patience and I probably had less than the usual person.

Peter was aware you can't make that kind of jump all at once, but you had to move slowly over. So he helped and got me to the next step, which was really the way to go.

JS: What was that?

MD: I went to Mickey's other featurette, not Christmas Carol, The Prince and The Pauper. I worked on that in kind of a dual layout/workbook phase and did some storyboarding as well. I got exposed to that side of it, which was a whole new angle.

JS: Workbook?

MD: After the storyboards are done but before they prepare for the actual, full-sized layouts, they go back in and do thumbnail-sized layouts for an entire sequence. It helps you see the flow and continuity or if there are any problems in the cutting. I actually found some in the morgue that Ken O'Connor did on Peter Pan, so it's something they did quite a while back.

JS: Did this give you the experience to say, 'I can do this -- I'm good at this?'

MD: It was more a matter of drawing, thinking in a way I hadn't done to that point. I remember early on thinking, as all artists do when you're starting something new, 'Boy, I really shoulda stayed where I was, because I can't draw this sort of thing.' It was more a case of moving into a new area and trying to gain confidence. I was just trying to feel comfortable doing that job.

JS: Sort of jumping into the deep end?

MD: Yeah, it really felt that way because everybody I worked with had a lot of experience. I was working with Don Gibbons -- he could draw the classic characters and was a real fan of Carl Barks. His drawings were so dynamic. He could handle the classic characters just fantastically.

I was sharing the room there with Don and I already felt like, 'Boy, this is a new thing for me,' and then to come in and work side by side with someone like that -- it was even more intimidating. But he was very supportive and very helpful.

So little by little I moved along. I started doing some storyboard work, and then got a little piece of animation in The Rocketeer.

JS: How did that come about?

MD: I had spent a lot of time talking with Tim Engel, who is one of the senior finance officers at the studio now. I had just finished Prince and the Pauper and I think I said to him in passing that I was dying to try something a little different, a little unusual. I might have even said, 'I wish I could do something in black and white' off the top of my head; a couple of days later he said, 'Well, there's this thing over in the live-action division...'

Another scene from the live-action feature that fueled Dindal's career. © The Walt Disney Company. All rights reserved.

I don't think the whole thing took more than 3 months or so. The piece wasn't very long, but it was exciting to be a part of a live-action film. It was fun and a very unusual type of thing.

JS: The first time I saw it, it reminded me of the Fleischer Superman shorts, but more recently the spreading arrows made me think of [Disney's World War II-era short] Victory Through Air Power.

MD: Both of those influenced the sequence. I had all the Max Fleischer Superman shorts on tape. We also saw a little bit of [director Frank] Capra's Why We Fight series -- they have the same sort of arrows in there as well.

JS: Where did you go from there?

MD: From there I went over to development and tried to develop feature ideas. We were all in a brick building off the lot. There wasn't anything definite that I worked on. I just remember I was probably even more impatient than I was before, wanting this opportunity. I was probably 30 or so. I remember feeling, 'It just isn't going to happen here as fast as I would like it to.' I felt like I wanted to go on somewhere else and pursue this -- I didn't have the patience to wait there.

JS: Were they shooting down ideas, or was it just a slow process to move anything ahead?

MD: At that time they weren't making the number of movies they are now. That was when Jeffrey Katzenberg was at Disney, and his taste was for things that were much more 'real' and literal. We pitched a couple of things, and had the 'gong shows' as they called them. We tried to pitch an adaptation of Roald Dahl's Matilda. There was something with dragons that was on a more serious note, and then there was a comic version of that as well.

All of the ideas I was working on had more of a cartoon sensibility than where he wanted to go at the time. So it didn't seem like I was a match and I ended up leaving and trying to make something happen -- elsewhere. This was in '92. It was one of those things where it wasn't under the best circumstances that I left. When I look back, I think, 'Why did you go about it that way?' I would know how to handle it a lot better now then I did at that time.

I needed to go, I felt I had to go, and I sort of wrestled my way out and ended up at Turner on Cats Don't Dance. I wish it hadn't happened that way, but the lessons I learned by having gone out and now coming back to Disney, I don't know that I would've had this perspective that I have any other way; at the end it was valuable for me.

JS: Lessons in company politics, or relationships...

MD: In just sort of everything. The way to make a movie, the way to understand what the artists need, what the management is trying to deal with -- just having more of a global awareness of the whole animation industry. So you're not wrapped up in the one little thing that you're doing and throwing a fit and not realizing why things are. Even when you find out why things are it can be frustrating, but that's just sort of life on Planet Earth. In the end it ended up being a good thing. I wouldn't want to go through it again, but I think I'm smarter for having done it that way.

Woolie, the musically gifted elephant, confides his dreams to his friends Danny the cat and Pudge the penguin in Cats Don't Dance. © Turner Feature Animation.

JS: Was Cats Don't Dance a Turner property or did you come to them with it?

MD: No, they had it. They were developing it at the time. It was a much different story and had 5 other songs; Randy Newman was not involved.

JS: What was the original concept?

MD: It was more of a Broadway show and not the sort of Singin' in the Rain movie that it ended up being. The songs they had were written by Richard Maltby Jr. and David Shier, who had worked on the stage musicals Big and Baby.

There are stray cats that live among the sets and studio backlots and the film was originally a story about the lives of those cats. So the original story had actual cats on 4 legs that could speak; it was more along the lines of Lady and The Tramp.

I remember we did this big sort of analysis while we were pitching the idea of all the different ways that animals can appear in a movie. You had everything from an animal that doesn't speak, but behaves in an intelligent, 'Benji' sort of manner, all the way up to a Bugs Bunny universe where the animals coexist with humans, and no one says, 'I can't believe I'm talking to a rabbit.' You're accepted as another individual.

JS: But a lower class kind of individual.

MD: Right. So we were all excited about taking it to the furthest extreme and have it be in the world of people. It just was more fun and it made it quite a bit different: it went to the notion of being typecast simply by what you appear to be on the outside.

JS: It started taking off at that point?

MD: Yeah, quite a bit. It was one of those things that all the people working on it could feed ideas into. That's when you know you've got something that has potential; you'd say, 'Oh, I know, this could happen,' and you start drawing pictures and generating images....

JS: The characters don't look 'Disney' at all, which is usually the look other studios aspire to; was it hard to convince Turner to go in a different direction?

MD: Oh no, I don't remember that being an issue at all. When we worked on character design it was about giving them appeal. Whichever way you arrive at that, be it classic Disney or classic Warner Bros., or anything, it was just trying to go for an appeal that had the potential...

JS: Did a sort of WB look work its way into the film?

MD: When I grew up I was influenced first by the Disney movies. I think my grandmother took me to Sword in the Stone when I was 3, which might've been one of the first influences to set me down that path. Then I was exposed to the Warner Bros. cartoons on Saturday morning TV at the time. So I think those were the two biggest influences for me. Probably Cats Don't Dance reflects kind of a blending of what I liked about both of those styles.

Pudge and Danny share a cup of tea in Cats Don't Dance. © Turner Feature Animation.

JS: The snappiness of the action, the quick cutting and posing reminded me of [WB animation director Bob] Clampett.

MD: Yeah, we looked at those -- I liked the heightened reality that they achieved in those cartoons. One thing we're always trying to do is increase the productivity of the animators without making it obvious to the audience that you had to cut corners. Something that Chuck Jones was very clever with was putting a lot of attitude and a lot of entertainment on the screen. When you actually studied those cartoons you'd see how long he would actually hold things. The style in which the characters would move would still be very entertaining, but they were far more economically animated than in a feature production.

JS: Was it smooth sailing once you took the story in this direction?

MD: The person that was in charge of the Turner animation division changed several times. There may have been at least five different people over the course of the production, and with each person came a new take on how we should do the story... That tended to slow the process down.

JS: Was this during pre-production?

MD: Oh no, we were right in the middle of it.

JS: It looks pretty seamless.

MD: It was rocky going. There were some drastic suggestions, like changing it from the '40s era to 1950s rock & roll, pretty much in the middle of the movie. It's pretty hard to try and keep what you have finished so far, and then suddenly transition into a different period of time or introduce a different character or have a completely different ending that doesn't seem to fit the beginning you have.

JS: Were the end posters showing the film's characters starring in modern-day films a result of last minute tinkering from on high?

MD: We had all the characters done up in classic movies -- to us they were so much more fun. They were films like Casablanca, that everyone knew. I think Singin' in the Rain was the only one that made it into the film. It was funnier to see these guys having taken those roles, as opposed to Grumpy Old Men or Twister, but that was one of those 'how to survive' decisions. The films we ended up using were all Warner Bros. or Turner titles. If we used others, we would've had to pay fees for the rights to use them. At that point there was just enough money left to finish it in color.

JS: Well, you said you wanted to work in black and white... Was providing [Darla's evil, gargantuan butler] Max's voice yourself a director's perk?

MD: I recorded a temporary scratch track for Max, which we intended to replace with a professional actor later on. When we ran out of money at the end of production, my voice wound up staying in the film.

JS: Gene Kelly is credited with the film's choreography. Did he have an active role in its production?

MD: We probably saw him three or four times. I think we first met him a little more than a year before he died. It wasn't like he would demonstrate steps or anything -- we talked more about the philosophy of approaching musicals and what they were originally thinking back when musicals were being made all the time.

It was interesting, because he said, 'Now we're in a very analytical age, because there's so many books to read and films to watch.' I got a similar response from Ward Kimball when I asked him the same question. But at that time there wasn't the history we have now, so they were just trying things. They basically said, 'We would try stuff, and if it worked we kept it and if it didn't we would try something else.'

JS: Was there anything that just didn't work in Cats Don't Dance?

MD: Oh, yeah, but I can't remember anything in particular...and on New Groove too. Again, that's part of the process that you have to go through en route to the final product. It made the people without the experience at Turner nervous, because obviously money's going out the door and you're not seeing any results. At Disney they realize there's gonna be a certain amount of that. They're not stupid, they're not just gonna let things go out the door endlessly, but they realize that's part of it.

Introducing Kuzco, an emperor transformed into a llama, voiced by David Spade, and Pacha, a good-hearted peasant, voiced by John Goodman, in The Emperor's New Groove. © Walt Disney Pictures. All rights reserved.

JS: An investment, sure.

MD: And that it will pay off. If you've never done it before, you think, 'Oh my gosh, the meter's running and this guy's not driving at all.'

JS: Do you think it was Turner's lack of experience in animation, or the Turner merger into Time Warner that deprived Cats Don't Dance of a bigger opening?

MD: Well, when we were at Turner I certainly got the feeling that it was going to be a major launch, that it was a bigger fish for them. I was much more encouraged with what they were talking about doing, how they were going to position it.

At the time they had successfully launched quite a few things with effective ad campaigns. But when the film went to Warner Bros. everybody felt it was going to become a smaller fish and it would get lost; I was trying to remain optimistic that it wouldn't happen.

I think very objectively they looked at it and decided there wouldn't be a market for it. It wasn't something they responded to, they didn't think people would eat it up.

All the good reviews we got came too late to have a positive effect. The first responses from test screenings were very rough because the film was still very rough -- a lot of sequences were still only pencil tests. I don't know if most audiences can look at this black and white coloring book they see on the screen and imagine what it's going to look like when it's finished.

So the test screenings didn't go very well. All of it just pointed to not throwing too much money at the film. But after it was released there were quite a few reviews that were very favorable. It would've helped had they come out earlier.

JS: Was Cats Don't Dance a labor of love?

MD: It had to be because it went through so much 'changing of the guard.' We had so many problems in making it, and this went on for a little over five years. That was a long time to be hanging with that, and so -- it was a labor of love. All of us really liked it. We wanted to make a movie that wasn't just an 'edgy cartoon' and they kept pushing that. It was a family movie, and not Beavis & Butthead. I don't have the taste, I don't have the desire, to do that -- this is what I'd like to do.

You remember The Ed Sullivan Show where they had the plate spinner? I remember as a kid thinking one of the most exciting things on TV was watching that guy. At times during Cats Don't Dance I felt just like him; we would have several 'plates' going and then they would all start wobbling at the same time.

In the end we got it all to come together. And again, I think it was a valuable experience -- it contributed to the great appreciation I have now for the way the process works at Disney.

JS: They're more supportive here?

MD: Yeah, they're aware of the process and they trust the process. They know what to expect it to look like, what'll work and not work, because they've been through it.

JS: What happened after Cats Don't Dance? Did Time Warner close down the Turner animation unit?

MD: They didn't close it down, but it just seemed to all of us there that the future was really uncertain. I had had enough of trying to push a movie through under those circumstances. Then I got a call from a friend at Disney, Randy Fullmer. We had known each other for quite a while, 10 years or so since we worked together on Little Mermaid. He was going to produce Groove and he gave me a call to come back over to Disney.

I felt I had gotten all of the 'roaming' out of my system, and had really learned a lot of valuable things, and I was really ready at that time to come back to a place that had a history and understood the process of animation.

JS: When was this call?

Kuzco and Pacha sizing up the situation. © Walt Disney Pictures. All rights reserved.

MD: That was the beginning of '97, when we were finishing CDD. I finished and then two months later I started at Disney. I didn't take much time off -- Groove was something they were already working on. I just got on -- I felt like it was an opportunity I didn't want to pass up.

JS: They basically said, 'Would you like to direct this for us?'

MD: Well, I started as a co-director with Roger Allers from Lion King. He had been working on this idea for at least a year or a couple of years. I was to come on and be a co-director, which was kind of an apprentice to a director type of role, plus it was an opportunity to get back into the Disney studio.

JS: I understand it started out as a more serious story.

MD: It was originally much more epic. Sting was writing songs for it, but it was still more of a serious movie.

JS: It still had the prince turning into a llama?

Pacha helps Kuzco get a handle on things in The Emperor's New Groove. © Walt Disney Pictures. All rights reserved.

MD: The prince did turn into a llama -- that was one of the few things that remains, but once he turned into the llama he was mute, so he didn't speak through the rest of the movie. The prince was not really the main character; it was Pacha the peasant. In New Groove he's played by John Goodman, but originally it was supposed to be Owen Wilson, who was a kid at the time, so it was just a different movie altogether.

JS: The kid became the llama's protector?

MD: No it was more like The Prisoner of Zenda or The Prince and The Pauper where the kid substitutes for the prince; it was a completely different story altogether.

JS: Turning into a llama doesn't sound like the premise for a serious story.

MD: It wasn't a serious drama like Prince of Egypt. It had comic elements of which the prince's transformation was one. But it had bigger life or death stakes; the serious moments were much more serious than what we did. It did have Eartha Kitt playing the evil character [Yzma]; hers and David [Spade as the vain Prince Kuzco]'s were the two characters that survived our changes.

JS: I understand Allers isn't involved with the film at this point.

MD: No. When we shifted the film's focus it turned into something he didn't feel a connection to anymore. He moved on and he's now developing another film of his own.

JS: The current crop of Disney features seem to alternate between serious films with comic elements like Lion King or Tarzan, and more humor-driven efforts like Aladdin or Hercules. The Emperor's New Groove definitely belongs in the latter category. The studio was satisifed this was the best direction to go with the project?

MD: As we worked on it, there were several notes in the original version that couldn't seem to be addressed. So we just took a very bold move and went to a different direction altogether, and that became the thing that people responded to and liked. Once we did that it really took off; it was less than two years ago that the change was made.

Kuzco and Pacha working together in The Emperor's New Groove. © Walt Disney Pictures. All rights reserved.

JS: That's a very short time to turn around a feature.

MD: It really was. There was a lot of development art that had been done for the earlier version that inspired things and definitely helped, but as it changed its tone people just jumped on.

It's an amazing bunch of people at the studio. If you give them a clear idea of what to do, you just do that and step out of the way. It's not just the talent that's phenomenal, but there's all the support as well. If you focus on what you want, it can really happen quite fast.

JS: Was there a 'eureka' moment when you realized a humorous approach worked best with the story?

MD: For me that's the stuff where my instincts lie. So when we were given the opportunity to make that shift, or at least explore it, I felt liberated. That's just where I tend to go.

JS: When did it happen?

MD: That was September, 2 years ago ['98].

JS: What was the catalyst for that?

MD: The thing just wasn't jelling. It wasn't coming together to [Walt Disney Studios chairman] Peter [Schneider] or [Feature Animation president] Tom [Schumacher]'s satisfaction. So we needed to do something, or I think there was the option that they would just shelve it and the film simply wouldn't be made. So something needed to be done, and a couple of us had this notion of taking it in this direction. We went with it and there was definitely nothing to lose.

JS: Was the title change dictated by the film's new direction?

MD: Definitely. It was formerly Kingdom of the Sun.

Kuzco and Pacha. © Walt Disney Pictures. All rights reserved.

JS: Then the pronoun changed.

MD: Yes, to Kingdom in the Sun. Kingdom of the Sun sounded much more dramatic. In certain translations around the world it would almost take on a religious tone and that made it sound even more dramatic and not representative of where we were taking the movie.

We had several choices that we came up with for a new title. They were presented to several small focus groups that included kids 6 to 8, all the way up to adults around 45. We got to watch behind the glass. They were told the story, shown the characters, given cards with the different titles on them, and this is the title that in 8 or 9 focus groups was chosen by the majority.

It was really interesting with the children. I heard certain adults say, 'I don't even know what that means,' and when the moderator asked the children, 'What does it mean? Do you understand it?' They went, 'Oh sure!' So it was another one of those things where kids aren't so wrapped up in all this stuff that they can't understand something. They go, 'Oh yeah, he's like changing his attitude.' I thought, 'Wasn't that nice? They just get it.' There's no fuss about it; they were pretty clear. They just looked at each other like, 'Why wouldn't we understand that?' It was really kind of fun to watch their faces as they were given the question.

JS: From the trailer I can see it's coming from a very tongue in cheek direction.

MD: It's meant to be fun. It's gonna come out at Christmas -- it's just the perfect time for families to go and have a good time. There's a message there that's moral and valid, and it should be fun. I think that it sets you down that path.

JS: The characters look very angular, their design is very sharp-edged; at first glance it doesn't resemble what one might think of as the house 'Disney style.'

Dindal relates the backgrounds of Peter Pan to an empty stage waiting for actors to perform. © Walt Disney Pictures. All rights reserved.

MD: Perhaps when you see more of the style of the backgrounds. Peter Pan was an influence in terms of the brighter colors we're using, and in what we call the 'pool of light' look. It's very theatrical -- they've lit the set for the place where the character is going to perform. When you look at the backgrounds without the characters, they feel like an empty stage waiting for the actors to come on.

Character design-wise, all the characters were designed by Joe Moshier, who was very influenced by the later years of Milt Kahl [directing animator and character designer on Disney's Sleeping Beauty and The Sword in the Stone]. There was a sense of having a straight look and not an all-round, curved kind of design. He touched all the characters, even the smallest and most insignificant walk-ons. He did them all and it looks really nice to have them have that angled look.

JS: I understand there aren't any songs in the body of the movie.

MD: Sting is still in the film -- he has a ballad over the closing credits that's about the friendship, the relationship between Pacha and Kuzco. He also wrote the song that Tom Jones sings at the beginning and at the end that bookends the movie and describes the character's transformation.

JS: You're talking about his emotional transformation as opposed to his physical one. But there aren't songs or production numbers throughout the course of the film; there hasn't been a song-free Disney cartoon since The Rescuers Down Under in 1990.

MD: If you don't count the Pixar films.

JS: I'm talking about the traditionally animated features. Were there any qualms about that?

MD: They definitely were aware that they had played that hand quite a bit, and they wanted to move into different areas using music. But the music's very important. Everyone realizes the value of music, and the emotional potential of having strong music in a movie, so I don't think music will ever be completely absent. It's just too valuable. So I think you'll see different applications of music and songs in the next movies that are coming up.

JS: The idea of someone turning into a llama reminds me of Lampwick's donkey transformation in Pinocchio; was that an influence?

MD: We definitely looked at that. That was much more of a horror moment; this is played for the comedy. Kuzco's completely unaware that he's changing. He continues to be the arrogant insensitive person that he is. He's just babbling on about something, completely oblivious to the fact that the other two characters are watching him and realizing something very strange is happening.

JS: In Saludos Amigos Donald Duck has a run-in with a llama...

MD: Yeah, we saw that too. What I really liked in that film was the way they caricatured the South American landscape. Some of our people who went down there said it's not caricatured all that much; it's a very dramatic landscape with breathtaking mountain shapes. I wanted to get that impact -- not to represent anything completely photo-realistically, but to have a sense of how, in your imagination, it seems to be; to create that heightened reality that you see when you go to Disneyland or Disney World. It's the way it looks, but it's better.

JS: You feel good about the film.

MD: Yeah I do. As we finish it up we've been listening to the score that's being composed by John Debney. As I was saying earlier, it's amazing what an effect music has upon the picture. It really helps the audience know how they're supposed to feel, because music certainly gives you that cue. The pieces that we've heard either create such dramatic weight or emotional weight, or they let me know its okay to laugh at this point, that Kuzco's being mean but you're supposed to be amused by it and not appalled by it.

Mark Dindal with producer Randy Fullmer. Photo courtesy of Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.

It's really fun to watch because we had a terrific scratch score on the movie, but when you get somebody who's really tailor-making it for the movie itself with a 90-piece orchestra, boy what a jump it is -- it feels like a film. Movie music sounds a certain way and does a certain thing.

JS: What's next?

MD: We've already started to explore the next project Randy and I would like to work on. We want to get back into the production rotation as soon as we can. I don't want to wait too long, because for one thing I want to be busy. Also, the more you go through the process of making these, the more you learn when you go from start to finish. So I don't want the finish of the next one to be too many years away.

JS: Isn't it usually a 5-year span from conception to release?

MD: We may be able to cut that by maybe a year, but it's still good to keep thinking and moving on, and not take too much time off sitting back and taking a break.

JS: Is your next project anything you can talk about right now?

MD: It's still too far in the future at the moment.

The Emperor with Kronk, voiced by Patrick Warburton, whose brawn is equally matched with the brains of Yzma, the Emperor's advisor, voiced by Eartha Kitt. © Walt Disney Pictures. All rights reserved.

JS: Any last words?

MD: The caliber of talent support at Disney is a big part of what made this so enjoyable for me. I was the sole director on this, instead of being part of a team. Even though it could have been overwhelming, I just can't say enough about the ability of the people here to make movies. And that made it so much fun. It never got to be something like, oh my gosh, I felt like I was drowning. It's really something to see what they can do. It's completely fascinating, really enjoyable.

JS: The way you describe it reminds me of the old Disneyland TV shows where Walt would take you behind the scenes to show animators doing sketches and working on the next film.

MD: It was really fun like that. I've been on things where it doesn't end up being that enjoyable, but that's the face you put on for the public. But this actually was. It could be that having experienced the other thing at Turner, I was just in a different place to be able to appreciate things, so it ended up being a fun production. People did a lot of terrific work on it. The only thing left now is for folks to go see it.

Joe Strike is a writer and TV producer with a lifelong interest in animation. His work has appeared on Bravo, USA Network, the Sci-Fi Channel and many other outlets. His articles on film, TV and popular culture have been published in numerous trade and general interest publications, including the New York Daily News, Starlog and the Village Voice. He lives in New York City with his wife Deena and sons Max and Ben, all of whom have caught his cartoon bug.

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