Today we get the second part of our Little Matchgirl interviews — this time chatting with director Roger Allers. The veteran Disney story man made his directing debut on The Lion King. Talk about hitting one out of the ballpark on your first at bat. Allers not only worked with producer Don Hahn on The Lion King, but also the Oscar nominated Beauty and the Beast. Allers, who wasn’t even awake when the nominations were announced, doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who makes films to win awards, however, I still wanted to find out what the Oscar experience has been like for him as well as his feelings about making Matchgirl and his other work.
Rick: I talked to [ Little Matchgirl producer] Don Hahn and he said that he had called you in the morning and left a message on your answering machine on the morning of the nominations, when you heard that message what was your feeling?
Actually, I didn’t hear his message first. I was still up in bed and the phone was down in my home office so I didn’t hear the message. I heard the phone ring, but I didn’t hear it. It was actually a call I got up to answer, which was from an animator friend who actually worked on the show. But, be that as it may, it was thrilling. It was a big thrill. Before that I wasn’t thinking about it very much and I was surprised at how much it sort of made my head spin (laughs).
Rick: Because of the nominations, nominees sometimes get an opportunity to meet people that they admire but they’ve never talked to before, has that happened?
Roger: At the nominee lunch, I was really happy to meet one of the other guys who was nominated for his short — Geza Toth, the Hungarian animator who animated Maestro. I really admire his short, so I was really happy to meet him. And hopefully, we’ll get more time to talk when we’re doing the AWN tour. But at my table… Lon Bender who is a sound designer, sound mixer who worked on Blood Diamond. And it was fun talking to him and his wife. She has also worked at Disney previously. That was nice. Always fun to talk with people who are involved in other creative aspects of the film world.
Rick: What made this particular project special for you?
Roger: Well… one thing was the story had always moved me. I used to read it to my kids and we were always very moved — me and the kids — we were always pretty much reduced to tears by the end of reading the story. So it was a really touching story and I’ve always loved Hans Christian Andersen’s stories. I was really happy to have had the chance to work on The Little Mermaid. I actually really looked forward to doing a Hans Christian Andersen story for Disney and try to keep true to the ending, because I know a lot of times his stories, the endings have been happied up. And I understand the reason why they did it, but I really did want to stay true to his ending.
Rick: Don had said that you were really a driving force in making the case for the sadder ending, was that something that was difficult for you to do or was this something that ‘this is the way I want to do it and I’m willing to fight for it’?
Roger: Yeah, it was something that I felt really strongly about, because for two to three years we actually had to do alternative endings and we tried them and put them up and I had several meetings with… hmmm how personal should I get with this interview… with certain executives at Disney and argued the case. And none of [the alternative endings] seemed to really work for me and the more you took out the sense of her actually dying at the end, the more it robbed the meaning of the movie, I thought. So, I felt very strongly about it.
Rick: How did you originally get involved with the project? And what convinced you that this something you wanted to work on outside of the fact that you had known the story?
Roger: Quite honestly, one of my favorite films of all time is Fantasia. And I always thought it would so wonderful to work on a Fantasia piece that was just pure music. Pure music and images and perhaps story as well, not all of them had a story. I loved the idea of working with just pure music. No dialogue. Don asked me if I’d like to do this and proposed the story of Little Matchgirl and I just leapt at it. I thought that would just be a fantastic story to do. As I said, it’s a very personal story to me and I thought it would be interesting the challenge of telling it in a very short period of time. We started off with a different piece of music at first and then switched over to the Borodin piece. And really the Borodin piece was such a fantastic piece of music to work with. It informed so many choices in the construction of the story and the way the story was told. The images.
Rick: One of things that I found interesting that Don had said was that he felt sometimes animated movies get too talky and that they don’t rely on the emotion and the acting that animation brings. What are your thoughts on that?
Roger: I agree, but at the same time I love verbal humor. And I can certainly point to myself as being guilty as charged as to putting in lots of verbal humor (laughs). It’s fun; I love language and I love humor in that way. But it is, when you go back into your memory what are the scenes that affected you the most in movies? Especially like in the Disney movies when you were a child when you were seeing them? Almost always they’re scenes that don’t depend on dialogue at all. It’s always… either the rush of something like Peter Pan taking off over London or an emotional scene, which is purely through the expression of the character and the situation. Bambi looking for his mother in the woods. It tends to be more visceral when it’s just reduced to action and acting.
Rick: You worked on story for Beauty and the Beast, how was that experience just being involved in that film and its Oscar nomination?
Roger: Actually, Beauty and the Beast was really challenging and great fun. It was one of my favorite movies I ever worked on. It was such a fantastic assemblage of people working at the time in story. I was working with Chris Sanders and Brenda Chapman and Burny Mattinson. It was such a top-notched crew and we were all basically friends, so working together was really fun. And it was such an opportunity to work closely with Howard [Ashman] and Alan [Menken], the composers. Howard was just brilliant — not just as a lyricist because he was a fantastic lyricist — but someone who really understood structure and how music can support story structure. I really treasure that time of having worked with him. It was painfully to lose him before the movie was finished. And it was painful to watch him fade away. I really treasure that; I really treasure that experience.
Rick: Was it a nice experience to work with Don again?
Roger: With Don, no he’s the most difficult person you’d ever want to encounter. No, I’m kidding — he’s great. When he’s at the helm, you know, the ship is happy. I’ll tell you, he has such a way with people and has such a great sense of humor and a great sense of play that even when you’re pressed to come up with a solution to something and you’re putting in a late night, sitting around a table trying to come up with other ideas, it’s fun. I was happy to be working with him again.
Rick: He talked about Little Matchgirl taking such a long time to do and that at times it was done with borrowed help, he said. How was that part of the experience?
Roger: It was definitely challenging. It’s just when you have a lot of people kind of passing through and doing work and having to leave again, it is a challenge to keep the unified look and vision of the thing. But I have to say, on the other hand, I got to work with a lot of people on it and that was fun. One of the fun things about it also was that we got to work with a lot of the animators at the Paris studio. And even though I never got to go over, all of it was done over the phone lines and over the enclosed video connection lines, I really, really was happy to have the chance to work with them. There were some fantastically talented people there. I actually wonder know that the studio is closed there; I wonder where they are now. I hope they are having wonderful creative jobs. And I hope they actually get a chance to see this film again.
The inspirational work of Hans Bacher. © Walt Disney Co.
Rick: When designing the look for the film, what were some of the influences and thoughts that you tapped into?
Roger: Well a major influence was Hans Bacher. He was on very early. And as I said, in the early days, it was a very, very small crew. So Hans was doing these brush and ink sketches just to work ideas of what the girl might look like and putting her in different situations. And I’m sure he worked with his inks and ink washes because it was very quick for him. But the look of it just caught my eye and just enchanted me. There was such a beauty to it and such a simplicity and such a moodiness to it. The look of the ink on paper. The way the pigments spread around and the way they soak into the texture of the paper was beautiful. I was really determined to see if we could get that same look on the film. Certainly, we were able to do it to some degree. We shifted to watercolor for the backgrounds, but when it came to the characters we were doing them where the hand drawn animation would be scanned and then it was in the CAPs system, the post-production painting system, that we painted it. We had to do all sorts of trickery to try to mimic the look of the way pigments of color soak into paper. We used noise and did blurring and blending and seeping and all sort of processes and some were actually invented on the spot and I couldn’t tell you how it was done. It was exciting to create that look so that it looked to be of the same medium.
Rick: When Little Matchgirl first started production that was a time when studios weren’t doing shorts and now everybody is doing shorts. Where to you see short filmmaking going in the future?
Roger: One thing that we use to bemoan, all of us in animation, we all loved shorts. Of course we all grew up watching shorts, whether it was some of us in the movies before they discontinued that and certainly all of us watching them on TV. We always wished the theaters would carry them again. To that end, it was a really happy thing to see that Pixar was managing to put their shorts sometimes in front of their movies. And to get them back out in the public eye again was wonderful. But being a member of the Academy, I would see so many wonderful shorts. There’s such a variety, there’s such a bunch of different creative approaches that people take, it would be frustrating to think — well we’re the only ones seeing these things, I wish the public would see them. The Academy is looking into putting together DVDs of the nominees. They should get out into the public.
Rick: While I was doing research for this project, I noticed that on IMDB many people were posting wonderful comments about Little Matchgirl after discovering it on The Little Mermaid DVD.
Roger: Oh cool.
Rick: It’s interesting how shorts being part of the extra material on bigger DVDs is allowing people to see them, which is great.
Roger: I’m just happy that people are looking at the second disc (laughs). Sometimes you don’t know, maybe it’s only the movie geeks who are looking at the making of discs, but I’m so happy that people are really looking at them and seeing Little Matchgirl. That’s really a pleasing thing to think of.
Rick: I don’t want to get into a 2D/3D debate because that’s tired, but the transition from doing Lion King to now tackling Open Season how was that transition for you artistically?
Roger: Artistically it’s still very much the same kind of challenge in a way. Working with Jill Culton and Tony Stacchi on Open Season, there was very specific vision and a goal. The Carter Goodrich characters and the kind of Eyvind Earle looking backgrounds. The Eyvind Earle inspired backgrounds. Trying to get the strong design sense. So whether you were trying to encourage artists to paint like that or to encourage the renders to build trees that could work like that, they are different challenges, but sort of the same in that you accomplish the same goal. It was an interesting challenge and for me I know judging the character animation in the simpler forms of the CG models that are moved around in the beginning, they are not generally as articulated as, to my eye, the rough doodly sketches of an animator. So that was an adjustment for me. To look at the bare bones of an animator’s blocking of the scene and think — okay… that’s gonna work. And certainly also other considerations of things. Even though it’s a virtual space, you have to deal with it as real space, because your characters can’t penetrate different planes. You can’t have them penetrate surfaces of buildings or the ground plane. You can’t have grass stick up through their feet. Even though it’s virtual, there is a reality that you have to deal with and it’s odd — in drawing you just draw it the way you want it and you overlap things and hide a lot of things. And in this there is a lot of attention to detail too. Interesting challenges, but it was exciting to see the expanse of textural possibilities working in CG. That was a lot of fun.
Rick: The whole Lion King experience from the story to the success, how was that experience?
Rick: I’m sure you could write a whole book on that.
Roger: So you want it in 100 words or less?
Rick: (laughs) Yes, this is the college entry form version.
Roger: Where to begin on that one. It was super exciting. It was my first film to direct. You kind of take the plunge into the deep end. Though I had headed up story before, which had some quasi-directorial aspects to it, this was a big one. So you kind of feel like you’re learning on the job, which puts a lot pressure on you. At the same time, it was thrilling to be involved in all aspects — the music, the backgrounds, directing the voice actors — though it’s challenging it’s so much fun. It’s so much fun to be involved in all those aspects. Also the picture started off and there were a lot of story problems and it wasn’t the favorite of anybody when we started on it (laughs), including Jeffery [Katzenberg]. So we had a little bit of an uphill slog with that one.
Rick: When going through any of the challenges that it takes to make any film and an audience embraces it like they did with The Lion King, how did that feel?
Roger: Well, the scale of the response to that sometimes is kind of hard to appreciate. But it’s kind of the same thing even if you only worked on one scene and you go into a theater and it’s being projected and people are laughing at your scene or they are just responding emotionally to it some way. The satisfaction of people responding to your work that’s where it all is. The idea that it’s multiplied by… I can’t even think of a number… but when you think of worldwide when the response is so large that’s actually kind of mind-boggling. I really can’t wrap my mind around it. I’m just thrilled when people appreciate things and we can all go on that ride together.
Rick: In the next couple weeks there are all kinds of big events, is there any of them that you’re looking forward to?
Roger: I’m looking forward to going around to all the studios with the other shorts nominees and showing our stuff to other studios and meeting with people from other studios. That’s always fun. It’s always fun to be with other animators and hear their questions and see some different points of view. I’m looking forward to that. I’m sure that they will start stacking up on me. As a person my nature is such I kind of take days one at a time and I don’t look too much to the future and that includes even next week. So I’m getting ready to go into this nominee tour and see where it goes from there.
Rick: I’m going to be going on the Oscar tour and I’ll probably have more questions for you then.
Roger: Oh great.