Reported by Joe Strike
Back in the pre-digital, pre-xerographic days of Disney animation, the Ink and Paint department was responsible for tracing the animators’ pencil drawings onto acetate cels and filling those transparent images with color. Technological advances rendered hand inking and painting a thing of the past, but the name lived on in 1988’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit as the Ink and Paint Club, an after-hours honky-tonk where the ‘toons’ entertained Hollywood bigwigs.
There’s a new Ink and Paint Club in town, the town being Baton Rouge Louisiana, and the ‘Club’ the outreach arm of the city’s Red Stick International Animation Festival to the local business community. On January 16 the Ink and Paint Club held its premiere luncheon with Walt Disney Animation Studio’s Emily Hoppe on hand as the guest of honor. Hoppe, the studio’s senior manager of creative marketing outlined the role Disney and The Princess and the Frog, the studio’s first 2D animated film in five years, will play at Red Stick’s April festival.
It’s a natural team-up for the festival and the studio: Red Stick is well on its way to becoming the pre-eminent animation event in the U.S., while Disney is looking to pump up the buzz for the New Orleans-set movie’s Christmas Day 2009 premiere. (The studio’s plans also include a six month program of Disney “Fairy Tale Classics,” running from November through March of 2010 at the New Orleans Museum of Art.)
The Princess and the Frog “celebrates the legacy of classic Disney animation,” Hoppe said, mentioning the studio’s more recent and ultra-successful 2D efforts like The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast. “It’s a return to the 2D fairy tale,” she added, “back to our roots.” Hoppe ran down the film’s “iconic” elements, including a prince, a princess, a wicked witch and a fairy godmother, all transposed to early 20th century N’awlins and set to a Randy Newman score. (The film is also Disney’s first since Mulan where the characters perform the film’s songs on camera.) The studio’s return to 2D is courtesy of directors John Musker and Ron Clements, the team responsible for mega-hits The Little Mermaid and Aladdin, the successful Hercules and the commercially disappointing Treasure Planet.
Hoppe screened several in-progress scenes from The Princess and the Frog to the audience. “This is the first time this level has been shown outside the Disney premises," Hoppe told the audience, warning them the preliminary footage was “really rough,” switching between pencil test and finished animation or storyboard frames from shot to shot. The animators’ relish at bringing 2D back to the studio was clearly evident, their work evoking moments from the Disney classics including Peter Pan’s on-the-loose shadow and Baloo’s “Bare Necessities” Jungle Book strut. The clips also featured a pair of sly nods to the 2D process itself, with the pictures on a shuffling tarot deck turning into a flip book and later, a pair of illustrations on succeeding pages of a fairy tale book compared like animation extremes. The film’s Louisiana setting drew an appreciative laugh from the local audience when one character explains he’s “from far away,” which prompted a second one to ask “Shreveport?” (the state’s northernmost big city, some 340 miles north of New Orleans.)
Directors Clement and Musker have put Disney’s best 2D animators to work on the film. Bad guy Dr. Facilier, animated by Bruce W. Smith easily holds his own against the Jafars and Captain Hooks of Disney past; Eric Goldberg (Aladdin’s Genie) is responsible for the trumpet-playing alligator Louis, and superstar animator Andreas Deja (recipient of Red Stick’s first Lifetime Career Achievement Award at last year’s festival) animated Mama Odie, the film’s swamp-dwelling ‘fairy godmother’ stand-in and her pet snake Juju.
Even with all this talent working at full tilt, one wonders if The Princess and the Frog is the rebirth or the last gasp of Disney 2D animation. “It’s definitely the rebirth,” Hoppe says without a moment’s hesitation. “The studio has two separate pipelines in place, one for 2D and one for 3D. There’s a warmth in 2D you won’t see in CGI.” She credits Pixar’s maven and Disney animation head John Lasseter – the man whose CGI talent helped put 2D on the skids – for the studio’s return to hand-drawn animation. “John said 2D became the scapegoat for bad scripting.”
Hoppe described Red Stick as “our number-one priority” because of the festival’s artistic rather than competitive focus. “We’ve been keeping an eye on Red Stick,” she noted, adding that some of Disney’s “foremost animators” as well as several of the studio’s top technical people will be attending the festival in April; “it’s a battle to the death to see who gets to go.”