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'Meet The Robinsons': Keep Moving Forward at Disney

Bill Desowitz speaks with some of the creative forces behind Disney's latest animated feature, Meet The Robinsons.

Based on the William Joyce illustrated book, Meet The Robinsons features a retro style influenced by everything from Technicolor movies to 40s architectural design. All images © Disney Enterprises Inc. All rights reserved.

Based on the William Joyce illustrated book, Meet The Robinsons features a retro style influenced by everything from Technicolor movies to 40s architectural design. All images © Disney Enterprises Inc. All rights reserved.

The theme of Meet The Robinsons (opening March 30) aptly ties directly to Walt Disney's own philosophy: " We keep moving forward " In fact, the movie ends with the full quote from Disney, yet begins with a new Walt Disney Feature Animation logo built around Steamboat Willie. Obviously it's that delicate balance between the past and the future that lies at the heart of Steve Anderson's directorial debut, and the implicit message by John Lasseter in re-imagining Walt's vision as Disney's new chief creative officer.

Based on William Joyce's illustrated book, A Day With Wilbur Robinson, this 3D-animated follow-up to Chicken Little is a witty, breathless, zip-a-dee-doo-dah adventure. It's about an orphan named Lewis who's a genius inventor on a quest to find his birth mother, who's whisked away in a time machine by a mysterious kid named Wilbur Robinson who needs him to save the future from a strange Bowler Hat Guy. It's a madcap cross between Back to the Future and Bringing Up Baby, and instantly appealed to Anderson, a Disney vet who was story supervisor on Brother Bear and The Emperor's New Groove, and storyboard artist on Tarzan.

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Director Steve Anderson had to find the balance between a realistic and a cartoony kind of human. He realized that the trick was to make choices that would never pull the audience out of the movie and distance them from the characters

We worked with Bill [Joyce, who served as an exec producer] with designing all the elements from the very beginning," Anderson confirms. "We loved the charm and warmth of his illustrations, and a lot of the ideas that he has in his book, like the hairstyles. Lewis has a broom bristle style and the Bob's Big Boy do of Wilbur, and Uncle Art, the guy who drives the spaceship, looks very much like he came out of a `50s sci-fi movie. We knew we had such a range of emotion after boarding our movie and the dynamics we'd have to achieve with our acting, so we kept pushing to find the balance between a realistic and cartoony kind of human. The trick for me was that the choices we made could never pull the audience out of the movie and distance them from the characters. That was the journey that we had from the very beginning. I'm really pleased with what we came up with because there's a very simple graphic language with a real appeal to their faces. But you feel the flesh, you feel the muscles, you feel the chins and knees."

"Steve had a very strong sense of the story and connected on a personal level because he had been adopted, and because they had only five people on story, they were asked to try an experiment unheard of at Disney: board the entire movie at once," recalls Dorothy McKim, the first-time producer who joined WDFA in 1984, working in production on The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King and Tarzan, who will now head Feature Animation's development.

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The filmmakers had to visually define the present and future time periods. They referred to Disney animation from the 50s as the present while in the future things zip around like Warner Bros. cartoons. 

After six months of boarding the movie and putting them up on reels, production began in 2004 with a crew of 350. Given Joyce's retro style -- influenced by everything from Technicolor movies to '40s architectural design -- Anderson and his design team looked for dramatic contrasts to depict the present and future. According to art director Robh Ruppel, who studied, among other things, the way cinematographers Vittorio Storaro (Reds) and Caleb Deschanel (The Natural) handle period looks, the philosophy could be summed up thusly: "We know that Lewis' answer lies in the future. Every time he thinks about the past, every time he gets further from his answer, we pull more color out. Every time we go into the past, we pull most of the blues and the higher saturated colors out. The present is in between those worlds, color wise: it's very warm, it's nice; we save those blue notes for the future: the blue sky, the bright magentas. In the shape design, we tried to keep the present day very boxy and square. Everything's on a grid, everything's a little repetitive, everything's a little busy. So that when you go to the future, the view is unobstructed, the building shapes are very curved. There's pleasantness to it." And there's a wonderful evil future dominated by Doris, the mechanical bowler hat, inspired by Ruppel's childhood memories of Pasadena, Texas: "an oil refinery town, which is very grimy and smoky, so we just exaggerated that where there is no human touch. It's just one big giant factory."

However, Joyce's simultaneous work as production designer on Robots meant that certain stylistic adjustments had to be made. "When Robots came out, Bill was very good to steer us away from any similarities," Anderson adds. "For Todayland, which is our homage to Walt Disney's Tomorrowland, think about an iPod instead of a metallic future. We talked a lot about Apple products: a lot of gel-like material, a lot of glass, a lot of soft stucco. Soft, happy, puffy clouds, blue skies and bubbles." As opposed to the present, which has "textures like brick and concrete and hardwood floors and rusty pipes -- earth tones."

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Meanwhile, Meet The Robinsons was obviously more ambitious than Chicken Little because it marked the first time WDFA tackled CG humans: "We knew our movie was going to be less cartoony than Chicken Little and a little more like our world," Anderson remarks. "So we had some different challenges: we had skin texture we had to work out, we had to grow hair off of characters' heads and we had to find an animation style that was still fun and loose and had some caricature to it, but could portray humans in a believable way. The Incredibles was a definite inspiration for this. It was eye-popping to me, and certainly part of my education in 3D and how to do character animation with all of its subtleties. We looked at a lot of Warner Bros. cartoons for our inspiration as well. Alice in Wonderland, Cinderella and Peter Pan were Disney inspirations as far as combining believable characters with much more caricatured ones in the same scenes. In defining the two time periods, we define the present as Disney animation from the `50s, where it's caricatured but very grounded, believable, dimensional animation. In the future, things move a little bit faster and are quirkier and more off beat, with characters that can zip around like Warner Bros. cartoons, and where characters from the present day follow all the rules of The Illusion of Life.

"One really interesting technique that we used is occlusion. It creates shadows based on the proximity of one object to another. It's a way to avoid that glowy feel that computer animation has or the way mouths look like they're illuminated from inside. Occlusion, because it's a closed space in there, will darken that mouth immediately. Then when we add our texture and lighting on top of that, you have a bit more real look to the images you're creating. It's that extra layer of believability that computer animation is so great at

"For me, personally, there was an overall shift in how I picture things in my head, `cause I picture them in 2D. It took a while because I'm so used to how you create the impression of space in 2D: texture or fabric or hair. In 3D, it's still an impression, it's still an illusion, but it's that much greater. What is the texture of a certain character or a certain building material? I never would think of those things. That really opened up a whole new world for me. So I went from impressionistic thinking to realistic thinking. Because our movie got off and running so quickly, it was a matter of me getting thrown into it and watching what everyone was doing. They would ask me questions like: `What do you want the hair to feel like?' Do you want it to be coarse, soft, matted hair? My education was leaning on people around me and relying on them. "

According to overall animation supervisor Michael Belzer, they looked at what they had at Disney and tried to piggyback on the success of Chicken Little. "I met with Chicken Little supervisor Eamonn Butler beforehand and capitalized off of their gain. The rig was based on Chicken Little, but departed somewhat with an automated rig setup that allowed them to churn out a number of rigs that the rigging department wouldn't have to build from scratch. These base set templates allowed certain blend shapes to be spread across a similar topology on different types of rig structures. For instance, characters with large chins like Bowler Hat Guy [or Uncle Art]."

As always, they used Maya for animation, modeling and rigging, but created more proprietary tools within each department to offer as much control as possible to the animators. "One thing we were lacking in our department was any procedural secondary tool," Belzer continues. "We had something in place that was more animator driven than relying on the power of the computer. After Shock is a dynamics tool built off of Maya's tool that allowed them to calculate speed, velocity and direction of, say, Lewis' head turning. And the animator could dial in the amount of drag and resistance and to spit that out basically for free. We could then bake it out and then simplify the baking out so that the animator could use every bit of it or hand-tweak [what they don't like] themselves, or run a simulation on that part if they like. Just ways to speed things up and give them more time for the performance, because that's where Steve and I really wanted to focus. That's why he hired assistants to deal with wrinkles and interpenetrations of characters."

As for Bowler Hat Guy, who resembles Snidley Whiplash, they wanted him to be as fluid as possible. "The philosophy between the two worlds -- in the present with Lewis and in the future with Wilbur -- we have different looks and different color palettes," Belzer explains. "Steve and I talked about a different feeling of animation. With Lewis, you get much more grounded, traditional Disney animation, classic Peter Pan, strong anticipation, nice round arcs, whereas the future with Wilbur is much snappier, to look at characters like Daffy Duck, where you get into a one-frame pose, very sharp, very abrasive in their nature. We had a nice time playing with those two worlds in animation. With Bowler Hat Guy, he fits into both nicely, and we really had a lot of deformers within the rig to bend him around until he gets nice S shapes, say, in his arm or his spine to really distort him, not that you're reading that distortion, but in fast movements, it's a very snake-like quality."

Interestingly, Belzer says the most difficult sequence to animate was the very first one they attempted, "where Lewis goes up to the rooftop in an emotional state. That is the hardest stuff to do in animation -- it isn't just moving the character from point A to point B. The character has to emote and you have to get that to an audience. And when you haven't had the chance to learn the rig and understand that character, that's a tall order to get. We did that, we got the emotional beat, we got through 85% of the film, and that's when Pixar was acquired."

Indeed, that's when Lasseter, Ed Catmull and the rest of the Pixar brain trust re-evaluated Meet The Robinsons and decided to push back the release of the film last year for a great deal of fine-tuning. But Anderson did not dismay when reviewing the set of notes. "Luckily, we had the time to stop and pause and incorporate many of those ideas," he suggests. "How to make this funnier; new thoughts about Lewis' quest to find his birth mother. It simplified the process and made it more emotional. Without knowing it, they helped us return to an idea we had very early on for this particular moment [when he finds her], so it was interesting to come full-circle and take it a different way."

"John really responded to the story and what we were doing visually, "McKim adds. "They provided a set of fresh eyes. What is the relationship between Doris, the bowler hat, and Bowler Hat Guy? He's a villain, but he's really not that evil or bungling, which one are we going to choose? So the relationship between them became more of a mother and son where she's really the evil one. We were able to make the notes our own. We pushed the emotion and got a real sense of family with the Robinsons."

Belzer confirms that they took the changes in stride. "They came in, they gave us some notes, we addressed the notes and peeled back to 30% of the animation, which was a lot to redo. It could've been demoralizing, but since we were well into the film and knew these characters, we were prepared to beef up certain shots or redo certain sequences. What was really great was that the crew reacted to it positively: everyone wanted to make the film better. Watching how the crew handled that adversity was my proudest moment. Things were pulled out and put back in. Emotional beats such as the rooftop or the interplay between Mildred and Lewis at the orphanage wasn't previously there. Bowler Hat Guy's thread through the story was improved. Were able to play up Lewis' emotional journey and confidence. And build off of key moments."

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Disney Digital 3-D is once again utilized on Meet The Robinsons, and itll be the largest 3-D rollout ever with more than 600 screens domestically. 

And on top of everything else, Disney Digital 3-D was once again utilized on Meet The Robinsons, after being hatched on Chicken Little. And it'll be the largest 3-D rollout ever, on more than 600 screens domestically. However, this time, 3-D preparation began early in production. Stereoscopic supervisor Phil McNally, who will now spearhead rival DreamWorks Animation's nascent 3-D program, oversaw the restrained approach at greater depth of field.

"We wanted to get away from throwing things at the audience and really work at: What's the story?" suggests McNally. "What's the point of this shot? What's the emotional arc? And how can we increase or decrease the amount of depth? What's happened on Meet The Robinsons is that all the creative work has been kept in-house it's all in the camera. But there was the need to talk to Digital Domain to help us create the finished color for the right eye because everyone else was working on the left eye over here. Digital Domain did a fantastic job of creating that right eye for us and they were able to make the absolute most out of the rain effects and smoke and all those types of things.

"The hardest part was getting the arc across the movie to make it feel like it's natural and smooth. What you are able to see is the contrast between shots that are very literally composed and shots with the dinosaur, which is literally breaking out of the frame. And when you get to the future city for the first time, it opens up to a space that we haven't seen before because we've previously limited the space we've experienced in the present. So we purposely managed the depth to be in sync with the story points. One change: when the frog snaps his tongue out, they altered the animation so to take advantage of the Z depth."

And what did director Anderson think of the additional element of 3-D? "To me, anytime someone can give me a tool I can use to tell my story better, I'm all for it you can control the amount of depth going through your movie, whatever the emotion of the story is, you can use 3-D to support it. You can dial it down or up, depending on the moment. I could sit down and go through the movie with Phil and we could say, `This is the kind of feeling we want to create, so let's use the 3-D to make that happen.'"

Bill Desowitz is editor of VFXWorld.

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