As the tour swings from San Francisco to Los Angeles, the Oscar Travelogue switches chroniclers from Barbara Robertson to me, Rick DeMott.
Walt Disney kicks off the L.A. leg. For a touch of morning inspiration, we gathered at the Animation Resource Library. Having traveled with the Oscar Tour for the past two years in both San Fran and Los Angeles, it feels strange coming in midstream. I missed out on the bonding that took place in the Bay Area as the filmmakers from around the globe were getting to know each other. For the "Oktapodi" crew, the tour was the first chance for them to be together since graduating from Gobelins. Julien Bocabeille and Thierry Marchand, who both work for DreamWorks in Bangalore, India, joined FX, Olivier, Quentin and Emud, who already had a taste of the tour last week. Joining the six "Oktapodi" directors were Konstantin and Kunio, who having met for the first time in San Fran, have clearly bonded quickly, despite not speaking the same language.
Earlier in the week the archives requested the filmmakers send in their preferences for artwork. Julien was the only one to reply and we were treated to his exact scene choices from "Alice in Wonderland." The animation archives are referred to as the Morgue, which is an interesting name considering the temperate controlled vaults are kept at 60 degree Fahrenheit and 50% humidity. The consistency is what protects the artwork, which is mainly paper based. We learned that before moving to the Flower street location, which used to be a production facility starting with "The Little Mermaid," the archives were housed in the Ink & Paint building on the studio lot.
After we gazed over gorgeous Mary Blair concept artwork and posed for some pictures, we were taken into the vaults where the legacy of Disney animation is housed. In addition to being temperature controlled, the vaults have inergen fire suppression system, which pumps nitrogen, argon, and carbon dioxide into the room, removing the oxygen, to put out the fire while not killing any human remaining in the room. There is a backup water system, but the archivists don't want to think about that option.
The archives are confidential and not just open to anyone at Disney, we were told. However back in the day, Walt Disney himself let friend Ray Bradbury have the run of the place. Previously, cels, which were referred to as production residue, were tossed, or sold for a few dollars at the amusement parks. Inside these hallowed vaults we saw a corridor and a half of box after box of artwork from "Sleeping Beauty." In one vault there were maquettes from various productions including cracked maquettes of the orchestra and ballet hippo from "Fantasia" that were found in a storage cabinet on the lot along with the actual "Pinocchio" marionette used as reference for the film. In a special light protected cabinet, the filmmakers were impressed by the collection of production puppets from "A Nightmare Before Christmas." Like many of the archival techniques over the years, standards have changed for protecting the "Nightmare" puppets. At first they were in acid-free boxes, but the clothing was melting into the paper. Now they're housed in plastic airtight cases, which protect them from any further deterioration.
Kunio and Robot producer Taki were happy to see artwork once owned by Chiaba University in Japan. The collection was donated to the school from Disney for an exhibition and when the school wanted to sell the artwork, Disney asked for the first offer, setting up an endowment for Chiaba. Now they hang on the walls of the vaults behind protective UV screens.
Then the surprises came. First we were treated to production artwork from "Snow White," featuring the princess herself. The archivists no longer thumb through the decades old paper but use small putty knives to flip the pages. Satisfied and amazed with that unique experience, we couldn't have guessed what was coming next. We traveled down the hall to another vault where we had another amazing sight for us. The archivist opened up the folder and then we saw it — the wheel of a steamboat. An audible hush came over everyone there. We were witnessing page after page of artwork from "Steamboat Willie." Julien, particularly, stared in awe at what he was seeing. He gazed closely, with his hand over his mouth, upon irreplaceable animation history, which only a lucky few get to see. But that wasn't it. Next we got a look at the character that started it all — Oswald the rabbit from the 1928 short "Sagebrush Sadie." That experience will be hard to top. As we left, the archivists had printed out copies of the picture taken at the beginning of the tour for us to take home as a memento.
This year Ron Diamond, tour champion, invited an Academy executive board member to join the tour. At Disney we had the pleasure to be accompanied by producer Bob Degus, who at one time has held every position in film possible, including Oxberry-animation cameraman. He might be best known as the producer of "Contact" and "Pleasantville." After the Animation Resource Library, he was impressed. The look on his face, as well as, the filmmakers said it all. Even though I've done it before, the Oscar Tour never gets old, and always has wonderful surprises. Bob will be sharing he own thoughts of the tour later in the week.
Next up, we jetted over the Disney studio to introduce the filmmakers to the packed crowd at the nominated shorts screening. The event was so popular the studio had to add a second screening following the first. Because this year's films are shorter than last year's films, we only had 38 minutes to take a quick spin around the Walt Disney lot, stopping at all the great photo ops, including the corner of Mickey and Dopey, as well as the old Animation building and the multiplane camera.
The Q&A tackled many of the same questions that were asked in San Fran. When no one had any questions to start, Konstantin volunteered the answer to why Kunio's film is titled in French and not Japanese. This of course got a chuckle from the crowd, which was not the first Konstantin conjured. When asked how he got into animation, he said he was born with a pencil in his hand, an experience that made childbirth very difficult for his mother. Many of the "Oktapodi" crew started in computer science, progressing to computer graphic and then to animation. Kunio was a painter first, and then took an animation course and fell in love with the idea of making his paintings move. When asked what it was like to be nominated, they all had about the same answer — surreal. For many of the filmmakers, it's their first time in the U.S. It must be surreal to come to the States for the first time and tour all the studios and have the artists there tell you they love your work.
After the Q&A, we had lunch with the Disney execs and artists. I sat at a table with Olivier, FX, "Princess and the Frog" producer Peter Del Vecho and Walt Disney Animation Studios EVP Andrew Millstein. Olivier said that their three-minute student film took their six-men crew seven months to complete. In order to finish in time for their graduation jury, the final two or three months were a round-the-clock adventure. At Gobelins, students are put into crews where they all share directing duties, working out every aspect of the film with each other. This gave hope to the Disney execs for their latest short "Tic Tock," which they hope to have ready in time to play before "Princess and the Frog." Peter told us that about half the film is animated, and the rest needs to be finished in the next few months. Peter was so pleased to have the filmmakers their he invited the tour to swing by their Sweat Box session, a dailies screening for the department heads, later in the day.
One of the highlights of the lunch for the "Oktapodi" directors was getting a chance to sit down with Disney's legendary animator Eric Goldberg, who said he really loved their film for its simplicity, timing and staging. He was very happy to receive a copy of the film from Gobelins tireless and enthusiastic spokesperson Eric Riewer. The six directors sat around listening intently to everything Goldberg had to say. They confided in him that story was a challenge, because they wanted to make the gags fresh and avoid the typical happy ending.
After lunch, we were treated to a tour around the studio. For many it was an amazing sight to see animators at animation desks drawing on paper. Currently, 60 animators are working on "Princess and the Frog," which is pretty much the entire 2D talent. This is one of the reasons the CG short "Tic Tock" moved ahead of the 2D short "The Ballad of Nessie" on the production schedule. As we walked down the hall, we ran into artist after artist who gave us a quick word about their work on "Princess." Art director Ian Gooding showed us some concept art for the painterly looking backgrounds. He said that for "Princess" the studio is purposely going back to a more hand painted look and avoiding the lavish 3D backgrounds. The entire production is being hand drawn and ink and paint is being done in Harmony. As for layout, 75% of the film is finished, and at any given time there are 10 sequences being worked on in the department. "Princess" directors Ron Clements and John Musker even popped out of offices to get a chance to greet the filmmakers and pose for a pic or two.
Next we moved over to the "Rapunzel" pod, where we got to see boards breaking down the key beats in the film. Directors Nathan Greno and Byron Howard just had their first story screening for John Lasseter and now they're working out the details. Visual effects supervisor Steve Goldberg hopped out of a meeting to say hello. They were figuring out how they were going to make the film from how many characters to how they're going to handle CG hair. Next we saw concept sketches for the men in the film. During a meeting Lasseter observed that it was a room full of men judging what made their prince handsome, so he asked that women from the studio be brought in to give their thoughts on what made a man good looking.
We ended the tour with the Sweat Box. John Musker introduced the various heads of the departments to the filmmakers and then we sat back and enjoyed an unprecedented event for the Oscar Tour, actually sitting in as decisions on a production were being made. There were four color shots and close to a dozen black & white shots for review. They varied in length and were played in a loop without sound. The artists were looking for any flaws in the animation. The only shot to be rejected was one where the voodoo priest Dr. Facilier spreads a deck of cards on a table. One of the artists caught a one-frame shadow pop in the left hand corner. The experience was a rare glimpse into the scrutiny that each shot goes through. Once the shots are approved they move to the next step of production. For the color shots, the directors go from the Sweat Box screening to editorial to see the shot with sound to make sure they work completely.
The Disney experience this year was extra special. And all the filmmakers seemed in awe. It's wonderful how the studios have opened up and allowed the nominees to see more each year. It certainly is good to be nominated, especially when you’re a short animation nominee.