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'The Little Matchgirl': A Matchless Watercolor Experiment

For its newest short, The Little Matchgirl, Disney turns again to the fabled Hans Christian Andersen. Bill Desowitz reports on the innovative and uncompromising results.

If you have the QuickTime plug-in, you can view a clip from each film by simply clicking the image.

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The Little Matchgirl is the last of the shorts set to international music that was intended for a third Fantasia feature. All images © Disney Enterprises.

Walt Disney Pictures latest animated short, The Little Matchgirl, based on Hans Christian Andersens The Little Girl with Matchsticks, marks the end of an era. Its the last of the shorts highlighting international music spawned by Fantasia/2000, preceded by two Oscar nominees, Destino and Lorenzo, as well as One-By-One. Its also the last of the works to utilize the Computer Animation Production System (CAPS), the first digital ink-and-paint, compositing and rendering program for traditionally animated projects, developed by The Walt Disney Co. and Pixar. Fittingly, the first use of CAPS was on an earlier Andersen adaptation, The Little Mermaid, the feature that sparked the previous renaissance at Disney.

This time CAPS was instrumental in the making of The Little Matchgirl, which required an innovative way of painting the 2D characters with a watercolor texture that would unify seamlessly with the stylized backgrounds. Set to the stirring music of Alexander Borodins String Quartet No. 2 in D Major: Third Movement: Noturno (Andante), in an impassioned new recording by the Emerson String Quartet, the story concerns a lonely, starving, homeless child unable to sell matchsticks to the indifferent crowd of passersby in a mythical Russia inspired by St. Petersburg, which fit the music. Left with only a handful of matchsticks and her dreams of a better life to keep her going on a cold, wintry night, she briefly fantasies about joyful times with her grandmother before succumbing.

Happily, The Little Matchgirl is an uncompromising work of beauty and pathos that retains Andersens tragic ending, thanks to the insistence of director Roger Allers (The Lion King and the upcoming Open Season), and the support of producers Don Hahn and Baker Bloodworth and exec producer Roy Disney. But not before a long, hard fight with Disneys upper management that delayed completion for several years while they tried out three softer alternatives. However, they harmed the integrity of the work, according to Allers, who still finds it painful to discuss. Fortunately, there was less at stake with a short (unlike The Little Mermaid feature, which offered a happy ending), so Allers and the producers eventually won the battle.

It went through some very strange permutations, but ended up happily for me, if not for the Little Matchgirl, admits Allers, who has always adored the Andersen tale and has fond memories of reading it to his kids. The thing that I really missed [from the other endings] was the pathos of realizing that she was dead when the grandmother had cleared the snowed over form of the girl. Ultimately, I was pleased that we were able to capture the bittersweet ending of the Andersen story.

Adds Hahn: Controversial, I suppose, would be the word because we animated the ending four times. I think some people thought it was too un-Disney or felt like it should be happier. Roger really had a strong point of view that this was a sad, if hopeful ending. And I think the other thing we wanted to get across is that this story is relevant today because there are still people in America and elsewhere that go through this. And to pull back that punch, felt wrong to us. Roger was very articulate and vocal about this and in the end we were able to persist and put Rogers ending on the movie, which makes it controversial but really special.

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The rest of the artistic process was much more harmonious. All of the storyboarding, design and post work for The Little Matchgirl was done at Walt Disney Feature Animation in Burbank, while a large portion of the short was animated at Disneys former Paris Studio. Mike Humphries oversaw the films art direction. Hans Bacher (Mulan and The Lion King) was involved in early visual development and supervising animator Randy Haycock (Tarzan and The Lion King) did the final designs for Allers. Dave Bossert (One-By-One, Lorenzo and Fantasia/2000) served as artistic coordinator and visual effects supervisor.

The films contrasting monochromatic and saturated worlds come alive with a watercolor technique.

The films contrasting monochromatic and saturated worlds come alive with a watercolor technique.

Very early on, Allers was open to a watercolor look. Hans Bacher did some exploratory design ideas and worked with ink washes, doing his quick sketches, and the pulp of the paper, which gave the texture to the settling ink pools, was so beautiful and so moody, I thought it would look great for the whole film. And, of course, we realized you could do the backgrounds like that but what about the characters? We actually did use watercolors and not ink. It was an interesting challenge getting the watercolor look using the CAPS system. A lot of the projects were already changing over to digitally painted backgrounds, so it was a last hurrah.

On Fantasia/2000, we did something similar, except more labor intensive with Carnival of the Animals, Bossert explains. And, actually, that was our starting point for figuring out how to do this again in a more controlled environment and more efficiently. On Little Matchgirl, it was a complete digital operation utilizing the cleanup drawings of the characters. We took the 2D animation and once that cleanup animation was scanned into the CAPS system, it was really using the line plane, which obviously became our ink plane, and processing that a number of times, as well as the paint plane, or the interior blocks of color, which if you were to look at a still frame, you would see we introduced some noise to give a sense of the paper texture. The line work was used in combination with the paint plane to recreate the pooling of pigment that you would get if you painted in watercolor. So if you look at the characters, youll see that the interior of colored areas is slightly lighter and gets darker toward the outer perimeter of those areas. And again that gives the impression of a pooled pigment that you get with watercolor.

In addition to the watercolor look, Allers and his team decided to use a painterly gray and white monochromatic palette for the harsh reality of the girls everyday world, and warm, bright colors for her idealized visions.

The [watercolor] technique was a little tricky to have people relearn, but the flow of color, the pulling back of color and almost letting it be monochromatic its virtually a black-and-white movie at the beginning was probably a bigger challenge than the technique, Hahn continues.

For Allers, meanwhile, the notion of changing palettes came about almost immediately, as he sat with the music and planned it out. My brain definitely went to a gray approach to all of her life in the real world and the warm colors for the dream world Dr. Zhivagos frozen house in the country was a good thing to quote in the dream sequence [in which she approaches her grandmothers house].

In terms of visual effects, snowflakes and crowd scenes were imporant to the mood of The Little Matchgirl. Bossert and his team used both CG and live- action snow. What we did with the snow was come up with something magical but still have a realistic look. If you look carefully, youll obviously see doilies in the beginning and end credits. Those are actual images of a snow crystal, so we were able to take those designs and make a 3D version of it. What some people dont realize is that theres real snow in there too. I dropped in some live-action Bambi snow in the distance. We were trying to create a cold world where the Little Matchgirl feels lonely by herself.

The filmmakers remained faithful to Hans Christian Andersen's bittersweet fable.

The filmmakers remained faithful to Hans Christian Andersen's bittersweet fable.

[The crowd scenes] were kind of interesting too. We were working on a budget so we decided to have a handful of individual people animated in place, sort of walk cycles. And from that animation we generated three different variations where we slightly changed the clothing. So we had that animation cleaned up three separate times with three different outfits and then went in and color modeled each one differently. I think we did 12 walk cycles and did 36 different individuals.

Then theres the music, which was crucial. Originally, they thought of using Debussys Claire de Lune, but Roy Disney never cared for that and requested they find something else. Hahn suggested the Borodin piece but an orchestral version until they discovered an old recording by the Grammy-winning Emerson String Quartet. Early on, they had the opportunity to record a new version with the Quartet. That felt right from the beginning and had a greater emotional range than Claire de Lune, Allers insists. And the pared down approach to instrumentation with the Quartet rather than the orchestra complemented the pared down approach to color and was a lot more intimate.

Looking back on his first short, while still putting the finishing touches on Open Season, the debut animated feature from Sony Pictures Animation, Allers concludes: You can throw a lot into it and yet its not years and years of grueling production that features turn into. I really liked doing a very concentrated piece that told a story very simply [without dialog] and you got to move through the story beats and emotions in very limited amount of time. I squeezed in a lot of imagery. And Ive always enjoyed working to music and the discipline of shaping the drama to the rhythmic structures and moods of musical pieces. I always enjoyed doing the animated musicals we did with Howard Ashman and Alan Menken.

The Little Matchgirl will screen at several international film festivals, including Annecy in June. The short will also be a bonus feature on The Little Mermaid special edition DVD, which streets Oct. 3 (Buena Vista Home Ent., $29.99).

Bill Desowitz is editor of VFXWorld.

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