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Atlantis: Ushering in a New Era

Gerard Raiti goes behind the scenes of Disney's latest masterpiece, Atlantis: The Lost Empire. Think you've seen all the House of Mouse has to offer? Think again as Disney raises the bar.

The spectacle of Atlantis. © Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.

Atlantis: The Lost Empire, the first summertime animated feature by Disney in the new millennium, looks to be a hit that will establish the bedrock for a new era in animated storytelling. It continues the recent trend at Disney to avoid musicals, as demonstrated with Tarzan and The Emperor's New Groove, and to concentrate instead on more action-laden stories. Atlantis is an ambitious behemoth in every sense of the word. From its widescreen CinemaScope (C-Scope) format to its multitude of digital effects, Atlantis propels Disney's animated features into a new realm of action/adventure. Hang on to your seats this summer because the House of Mouse has a manifold of inspiring tricks up its sleeve!

The last decade provided such a renaissance for Disney animated features that names like Gary Trousdale, Don Hahn, Kirk Wise and Alan Menken, among others, now carry tremendous respect within the animation community. Hahn, Trousdale and Wise, the men at the helm of such films as The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, reunited on Atlantis as producer and directors respectively to conquer a new kingdom. "We as film makers felt we had done musicals as good as we could. We couldn't do something better than Lion King or Beauty or Hunchback," explains Trousdale and Wise. "We felt we had to try something new. We had to do something different."

The directors' desire to delve into the genre stemmed from their respect of great action/adventure films like George Lucas' Indiana Jones trilogy. Moreover, Walt Disney himself established the criteria for the genre decades ago with classics like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Swiss Family Robinson. "We visited Fantasyland so often," says Hahn, "It was time we took a turn towards Adventureland to add to its legacy."

Milo Thatch (Michael J. Fox) and Princess Kida (Cree Summer) bring a new face to Disney features. © Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.

In keeping with Hercules and The Emperor's New Groove, Disney used a nontraditional looking style of animation in Atlantis. To best capture the aquatic and exploratory motif, Disney approached comic book artist Mike Mignola of Hellboy fame to influence the Disney animators with his Southeast Asian-like style of drawing. Hahn, Trousdale and Wise were all fans of Mignola's work and they combined his style with the look found in propaganda posters from the early 20th century, creating a wild, unusual foundation from which Atlantis' graphic world evolves.

Milo leads the way to high action and adventure through sets inspired by real life locales. © Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.

As they typically do for their feature films, Disney animators took several field trips across the U.S.A. to derive inspiration and observe similar items and locations to those they would be bringing to life on paper. They started at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C. to get a sense of the characters' clothing. Another stop on their voyage was the Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico where the Disney crew discovered that caves can be very, very big. Some of the caves in New Mexico, for example, are large enough to contain small cities. So, it is by no stretch of the imagination that a lost island nation like Atlantis could exist in such locales under the ocean...

Atlantis also represents Disney's first animated film since 1985's The Black Cauldron to bear a PG rating. The Black Cauldron was also not a musical, and despite being the brainchild of Roy E. Disney, was as close to a veritable disaster as Disney Animation has ever produced. Although Atlantis shares its motion picture rating with The Black Cauldron that does not predetermine its fate. As Hahn states, "A funny thing has happened over the last few years. Families are so thankful there are movies they can see together that they don't mind the PG rating. Movies like The Wizard of Oz and Snow White are scary at times. That makes for drama. Animation is drama and storytelling. You need to have conflict. That's what makes these movies great." The PG rating only further solidifies Atlantis in its roleas a legitimate action/adventure movie and a new step in Disney's regime.

If You're Going to Go Big...Go Real Big

The widescreen format is indicative of spectacle and action, so it is not surprising that from the inception of Atlantis the directors knew they wanted to work in widescreen. "If we're going to be true to the genre," explain Trousdale and Wise, "then let's press for making a widescreen movie. It's not something you can get on a TV at home. It's worth getting popcorn for. It fills your field of vision." The executives at Disney were highly supportive of the directors' prerogative. "We needed a wider canvas. There was some fear and trepidation at Disney. There are lots of old wives tales that a 30% bigger screen means 30% more money. That's not the case at all. It's just a change in the shape of the canvas."

The resulting change in canvas required other modifications for the perennial team of Disney animators. Of course one discussed area was the root of all animation -- the animation paper. "The fear was bigger paper," says Wise. However Disney used traditional animation paper for the hand-drawn scenes and altered the storyboard paper instead. "It's really easy to use bigger paper, but we restricted ourselves so we weren't animating on bed sheets. We recut the pads so we were always storyboarding on CinemaScope pads. Once you got used to it people didn't want to come back."

Just a few of the exciting vehicles in store. © Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.

From a technical standpoint, as digital productions supervisor Kiran Joshi explains, "Using C-Scope really helped [the digital animators] out and saved us a lot of time." For example, to animate an abundance of vehicles using a traditional format, it would have been impossible to fit them all on the screen at a respectable size, so the camera would have had to pan across them which takes more time to design and render. With CinemaScope, all the vehicles fit simultaneously, so they can literally roll across the screen.

And myriads of vehicles there are! In addition to those used by the exploration party and the Atlanteans, there are a lot of other neat gadgets and mechanical creatures. The most notable of which is the Leviathan, which is Atlantis' gigantic mechanical guardian. Also, the flying Stone Fish vehicles used by Atlanteans are crucial to the film's plot and are powered by crystals, which make for amazing, subtle digital effects. Even the Ulysses submarine used by Milo's (voiced by Michael J. Fox) squadron of explorers is the impressive equivalent of an aquatic Star Wars battleship.

Milo's cast of explorers. © Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.

A New Wavefront

So besides the widescreen format, which has not been used since Lady and the Tramp, what makes Atlantis so special? Technically, it boasts the largest and most advanced type of computer graphics to date of any traditionally animated film. According to Joshi, 27% of Atlantis is digital and every scene contains computer effects. Hahn explains that the need for such large-scale computer sequences is attributable to Atlantis not being a musical: "In a musical we'd call the songs the set pieces and they'd carry the story forward. They'd be the tent poles that hold the movie up. We went to the computer graphics to create something the audience has never seen before. It's the thrill ride aspect of the film."

Computer effects in Disney animated features began with the Big Ben climax in The Great Mouse Detective, which was steered by Toy Story mastermind John Lasseter. Effects were used sparingly in ensuing films mainly due to budget restrictions and software limitations. The decisive moment in Disney's timeline came with the ballroom dance scene in Beauty and the Beast, where the entire background was rendered. Disney took this a step further in Aladdin with Carpet, the first Disney feature character to be completely computer generated. The Lion King flaunted the now infamous wildebeest stampede; the detail and fluidity of the nearly entire CGI scene was unparalled in 1994. Of course Disney and Pixar united in the ensuing years for Toy Story, its sequel, and A Bug's Life. Deep Canvas, a technique created for Tarzan, uses digital paint effects to augment traditional 2D backgrounds in order to create a sense of depth and realism unattainable through traditional means. Dinosaur, despite having a terribly predictable and silly story, represented the epitome of computer effects by seamlessly blending live-action scenery with stupendously crafted CGI dinosaurs.

Integrating The Ulysses into the film called for the careful meshing of 2D and 3D. © Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.

"One goal [with Atlantis] was to hybridize the two types of animation," says Wise. "Often the digital animation sticks out, so we had an ambition to bridge that flaw." Fortunately, Atlantis culminates the various digital effects incorporated in the last two decades of Disney animation. In fact, the technology used to create Dinosaur was a modified version of the hybrid techniques that were being developed in the early stages of Atlantis. Animators modeled and animated elements like backgrounds, vehicles and landscapes using Alias|Wavefront's Maya. As Joshi explains, "In a particular scene there are a whole series of 3D elements. We wanted to set it up so the animator had all the elements in the Maya window in order to be able to animate. That enabled our more traditional canvas animators not to need to know how to use all the features of the program."

Disney Feature Animation also had a special computer program, Inka, made uniquely for Atlantis. Inka creates hidden lines that mesh 2D and 3D animation. Similarly subtle digital effects appear in the particle animation of bubbles in water and swarms of fireflies.

Atlantis features spectacular effects animation. © Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.

As always, the basis for all good movies is an intriguing story which the computer graphics and CinemaScope supplement. Atlantis rekindles a subject entrenched in history; everyone is familiar with the myth of the lost city, and Disney has approached the subject in a manner certain to elevate it to blockbuster status in addition to re-stimulating interest in the historical myth. The graphics are impeccable and the musical score is intense. Hahn, Trousdale and Wise set out four years ago to return Disney action/adventure films to the forefront of the genre and they have succeeded in a film destined to become a classic worthy of George Lucas himself.

Gerard Raiti, a native of Baltimore currently residing in Nashville, has reported on animation, Broadway musicals and comic books for various publications. He also holds the Diploma of the Royal Schools of Music, U.K. in classical piano and music.