Joe Strike talks to the creators of Disney's Enchanted, who blended new and old to achieve a style that's both fresh and familiar.
If youre making a film about what happens when animated characters show up in the real world and suddenly find themselves flesh and blood human beings, it helps to have a director whos worked both sides of the street.
Directors making the jump from animation to live action are an increasingly common phenomenon, one that began with Frank Tashlin back in the 1950s and has become more common since Disney escapee Tim Burton directed Pee-wees Big Adventure in 1985. Kevin Limas animation career dates back to the mid-1980s, with credits on Oliver and Company, The Brave Little Toaster, The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin before his breakthrough directing 1995s The Goofy Movie. In what might have been a harbinger of things to come, Lima invested Disneys (theres no avoiding it) goofiest cartoon character with surprising emotional depth as a single father trying to bond with a rebellious teenage son.
But Limas first shot at depicting a cartoon character in live action came in 2000 when he directed Glenn Closes return appearance as Cruella deVil in 102 Dalmations.
102 came about in such a strange way, he recalls. After Tarzan I wanted to do live action. When we were doing Glenn Closes recording session on Tarzan (where she voiced the ape-mans ape-mother Kala) she told me I directed more like a live-action director than an animation director. When the 101 sequel came along, she championed me with the studio to do that film.
After Tarzan I thought it would be great to make an animated Disney film in live action and I went looking for a fairy tale to tell. I never could quite find the right piece. Then I read this script and said its the next best thing.
Lima acknowledges that having actors perform like cartoon characters while maintaining their humanity and avoiding turning into caricatures was a dangerous tightrope. His solution was to go back and forth between the two media to create a consistent performance style. I shot live-action reference footage of Amy [Adams, who plays Princess Giselle] doing some of the scenes her character would be doing in animation and gave them to the animators so they could understand how Amy was going to translate her character in the real world.
On the other hand, James Baxter (Enchanteds 2D animation director) did some animation tests which I shared with Amy. It helped her find Giselles float -- a way of moving that feels like shes not taking firm, deep steps.
Before we had anybody in front of a camera as real people, we had already animated maybe a quarter of our scenes. I shared all of that with the actors before filming, and they found that incredibly, incredibly helpful. Its one thing to look at the past and see how the Disney heroes and heroines were animated -- but its a whole other thing to see yourself interpreted as one; that really drove it home for them.
Lima admits Giselle is an amalgam of Snow White, Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella. (The whole lifted elbows, pinkies up, the vocal performance Amy created for Giselle, thats all based on Snow White.) The task of creating the animated Giselle fell to Disney and DreamWorks veteran James Baxter, who produced the films cartoon segments out of his Pasadena studio, with Andreas Deja serving as supervising animator. The irony of an outside studio creating meta-Disney characters isnt lost on Baxter. It was just the timing. Theyd dismantled their set-up and didnt have the means to do the animation: the scanning, the software, the ink and paint -- theyd taken it all apart [in the studios transition to computer-generated animation].
The first 10 minutes of the film had to feel like concentrated Disney. Kevin told us, I need your animation to be not just as good, but in some respects better [than the classic films they were emulating]. I need it to be as good as people remember it being -- better than it really is.
The films original storyboards were created by Lima and animators at Disney, featuring generic versions of the films characters. It wasnt until live action was cast that we started doing serious character design because they had to look like the same people, Baxter explains. The direction we got was to not make them complete caricatures of the performer, but to draw them as Disney characters and the actor they were based on would then be the perfect person to play that character.
I took a lot of influences. Nathaniel [evil Queen Narissas clumsy henchman] obviously had to look like Timothy Spall, but theres also some of [Peter Pans] Mr. Smee and Snoops from The Rescuers in him, along with bits and pieces of other characters too.
A key Enchanted character symbolizes the journey animation has taken since Toy Storys release in 1995. Giselles chipmunk buddy Pip leaves the cartoon kingdom of Andalasia as a traditionally hand-drawn character (complete with wiseguy New York accent), but arrives in the Big Apple in CGI form (voicing squeaky gibberish courtesy of director Lima). Pips makeover was accomplished by CGI animation lead James Brown, animation supervisor Tom Gibbons and visual effects supervisor Tom Schelesny of Tippett Studio, the special-effects shop founded by Star Wars Phil Tippett.
We didnt make Pip completely photo-realistic, Schelesny points out. Kevins goal was to have a realistic chipmunk with the personality of a 2D character.
Tippetts always been good at realism, says Brown. If our stuff isnt noticed, its a positive. This was an opportunity for us to delve into character animation with Pip and push the envelope.
The film was a unique challenge, Gibbons offers, with the amount of research and internal training we did at the request of Schelesny and Lima. We delved into the history of Disney 2D animation, how they created and performed it -- we did a lot of homework. We tried to keep a foot in the camp of the Nine Old Men and Walt and then bring that forward into a modern tool set for what we do today in CG.
The Tippett crew went back to the basics, from drawing caricatures of themselves to studying pantomime. Pip cant talk in the real world and has to use pure pantomime to express what hes thinking, Gibbons continues. The early Disney guys had to do a lot of that. They spent months studying fawns for Bambi. Wed study chipmunk and squirrel reference, then step outside that and come up with anthropomorphic gestures and pantomime to be able to communicate to the audience the thought processes of a character who couldnt speak to them in words.
Brown particularly enjoyed creating Queen Narissas transformation into a dragon, a moment inspired by Maleficents similar metamorphosis in Sleeping Beauty. That was the one shot I remember as a child -- the shot that scared the crap out of me the most. I believe it was Marc Davis who animated Maleficent. Just to be able to recreate his work and take that aesthetic and make it ours, make it modern, was an honor.
Kevin was clear we were to have fun with the Disney history, but our goal was to honor the genre, summarizes Schelesny, not to copy or make fun of it. It was a little irreverent here or there, but it definitely takes a sensitivity to know where that line is and not to cross it.
Enchanted is a rousingly entertaining film, tipping its hat and winking its eye at the classic Disney features without ever losing its respect and affection for them. Its also another toehold in traditional animations return from the near dead, along with this past summers Simpsons Movie and Disneys upcoming 2D The Princess and the Frog.
I started my own studio not because I was on a mission to restore hand-drawn animation, Baxter explains. I just liked doing it better, and I started doing it on my own because no one was doing 2D at the level I wanted to do it at, that really full level.
I dont think Enchanteds an aberration. 2D didnt go away, it just went away at a couple of big studios. That kind of makes a big dent in things. The people I hired for my crew hadnt left the industry, they were still working because there is stuff around. I dont imagine hand-drawn is going to become the norm again, your first choice to do something. But it will be a viable choice when filmmakers decide how to make their animated films.
Meanwhile, Kevin Lima is thinking about his next project and hopes it will be a new version of Winsor McCays early-twentieth-century comic strip Little Nemo in Slumberland. Id like to do the reverse of what I did in Enchanted, and take a live-action character and bring them into an animated world.
Joe Strike is a regular contributor to AWN. His animation articles also appear in the NY Daily News and the New York Press.