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Goldberg, Deja and Smith Talk 'Princess and the Frog'

Three of Disney's top animators discuss the crucial return to 2D.

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Eric Goldberg infused Louis with physical believability as well as spare bits of business. All images © Disney.

"…We re-watched the films that Walt Disney made, and the one that really grabbed us was Lady and the Tramp. It's the pinnacle of Walt's artistic style… With this inspiration, the lush look of Ron and John's new film evokes our fondest memories of Disney's classic fairy tales. More importantly, The Princess and the Frog gives new generations the opportunity to discover what we know: that this art form is absolutely spectacular."

-- John Lasseter (Preface to The Art of The Princess and the Frog by Jeff Kurtti, Chronicle Books)

ExperiencingThe Princess and the Frog(opening in LA and New York tomorrow and expanding Dec. 11) is like visiting an old friend: it's fun, nostalgic and heartwarming at first, and then you realize how much you've missed it. But then there are some new surprises that have made it worth the wait. Chatting with Eric Goldberg (Louis, the jazz-playing alligator), Andreas Deja (Mama Odie, the high priestess of the Bayou, and JuJu, her seeing-eye snake) and Bruce Smith (the devious Dr. Facilier), you not only glean the joy about returning to 2D but also its importance in re-establishing the Disney legacy and a vital art form.

"For several years, when Disney wasn't doing hand-drawn animation," Goldberg reflects, "many of us thought: 'Well, why aren't they?' I mean, this is this company's trademark, their legacy and what people most closely associate with Disney. So when John Lasseter came in and said we're doing hand-drawn again, there was great jubilation because nobody does it on this kind of a scale and with this kind of care as Disney. And to be part of the first one back is a great feeling. To a certain extent, as animators, we all feel that we have something to prove. And we do feel like we want to reinvigorate people's mindset about hand-drawn animation as well as entertain them."

A trip to the Louisiana Bayou and studying gators up close gave way to a less cartoony Louis.

And confronting the legacy head on was daunting at first, but Goldberg says they were all geeks about it. Besides, he says, the best CG films use some of the best drawn techniques anyway to make it look good.

"Making a 300-pound alligator dance is easier to do in hand-drawn than it is in CG," Goldberg chuckles. "Not that you can't do it in CG, but you can take those flights of fancy more easily in hand-drawn because you're really talking about the turn of a pencil as opposed to creating a new model and a new rig and specialized guts inside that in order to accommodate a certain movement or a certain action."

That's not to minimize the amount of anatomy and convincing physicality that goes into it as well. "One of the things that was a challenge on the character to make him feel lively was [the lack of extra bits] to make him look fluid. Many animated characters have a vest or floppy ears or hair or a hat with a flower on it. Louis had none of these things. All he had was his muscles, his bones, his fat and his flesh. And so we had to make him look lively using all of those things in a gator's construction and in his construction to make him feel as alive as possible. So, to a certain extent, I couldn't rely on a lot of tricks you could use like shape-shifting. We could invent things but he's real, flesh and blood alligator, even though he walks on two legs. You have to register that weight, that power, that physicality with him."

Andreas Deja took inspiration from Margaret Rutherford in designing the eccentric Mama Odie and managed to pay homage to her too.

Of course, it's hard to do a character in love with jazz without the specter of Baloo hanging over your head, either. "That said, I didn't go back and look at Baloo specifically, but, like I say, we're all geeks, so we all have this stuff ingrained in us. But a lot of the humor is derived from Louis' enthusiasm and playing that against his weight and his construction."

Not surprisingly, given Goldberg's outstanding work on "Rhapsody in Blue" fromFantasia 2000, he was asked to work on the highly stylized "Almost There" sequence in which Tiana imagines her restaurant coming to life. "What they wanted -- and [Sue Nichols] provided many of the designs for it -- was a combination of Aaron Douglas, Harlem Renaissance, Vanity Fair covers from the 1920s: that kind of look that's stylish and of that period. And, yes, we're saying this is a magazine page come to life. One thing we wanted to do was not make it look like your standard Disney animation. We wanted to stylize the action more; we certainly wanted personality out of the characters, but in some cases, we'd do some stylistic choices like the crowd walking into the restaurant for the first time -- a block of people with their legs moving, which connects it back to the inspiration, if you will. Tiana is animated fully in a very stylized way as well.

"I think the thing that I enjoyed the most about this -- and the whole movie -- is animating to music and really determining the best cuts for the sequences, the best kind of movements for particular musical accents and so on and so forth. And there's a sense of liveliness to it, even though it's in a completely different style, still feels very musical to me. And we tried quite a few different techniques in order to get that on screen, too. It was a combination of hand-drawn animation and various other computer techniques to give it that kind of look. For example, all of them look like they're hand-painted. You can see the paint texture moving around within the characters. That's something that [TD] Eric Daniels devised with a computer program in terms of being able to have a painted texture that moved in synchronization with how the characters moved. Also, they made Tiana's feather feel more brush-strokey and then they tracked the drawn animation with the brush stroke feather in After Effects. And there were all sorts of techniques like that to composite it, to color it and to make it feel more hand done."

Deja insisted on animating JuJu as well, since the companions interact so much and pointed to Ollie Johnston doing the same in The Jungle Book as justification.

For Deja, it's great to not only be back with another 2D film but also with a vengeance. "We had to think about that at first -- to go the extra mile and basically give it all you've got because we have nothing to lose. But then once we got into it, and started focusing on the work, because if you carry around the idea that this thing is going to make or break a medium, it can crush you."

And there was no question about Deja being drawn to the eccentric Mama Odie, the fairy godmother of Cajun country. "I was hoping to do her right away, even though she wasn't going to be a big footage character. I didn't care: I just wanted to have fun. And the notion of Mama Odie being a 197-year-old lady who lives in a boat that's stuck in a tree, she's blind and has a seeing-eye snake, is crazy and I loved it. How can you go wrong with something like that?

"I had one animator helping me out with a few scenes -- I could've done them all -- but I was running out of time because the story department held onto the Mama Odie boards for a long time. So I helped out with Facilier -- the transformation of his face during the song ["Friends on the Other Side"].

And what was his greatest inspiration for Mama Odie? The beloved British character actress, Margaret Rutherford (Miss Marple). "Those films were on German TV when I was a kid and I've always been fascinated by how she talks because there's no other person like her. And I've been freeze-framing her for years and studying how her lips move, way before this movie."

Bruce Smith conceived of Dr. Facilier as the love child of Cruella de Vil and Captain Hook.

Deja actually had to lobby to do JuJu as well. "I said, 'Ollie Johnston did both [in The Jungle Book -- Shere Khan and Kaa -- because they interact so much.' You can take care of the connection and how they react to all of that. So I ended getting them both. And I wanted the contact very fleshy and to also show there's an affection between those two."

Meanwhile, Bruce Smith found the characters so embracing because "technology has come to us." For Smith, Dr. Facilier is a combination of Captain Hook and Cruella de Vil. "Even when I started the character, the first character I thought of was Captain Hook," Smith recalls. "I like the foppish brand of villainy that he brings. But there was also an elegance that came from Cruella that I thought would've been fun to explore from the male standpoint. Here's a guy, Dr. Facilier, who wants to be elegant, but isn't, and is more of a showman. And so I did think it was a perfect blend of the two characters. He's the love child of Cruella de Vil and Captain Hook."

Although Smith has worked on several Disney films (Tarzan, The Emperor's New Groove and Home on the Range), he's never been given a villain before. "I had a hand in designing him while the directors were guiding the story. At one point, I knew one of the issues was not making Facilier an omnipotent villain -- we had to have some real dark forces that he answered to make him that much more of a con man. But at the same time, we wanted to make sure that he has some threatening element to the film and is not just some sort of middle man: a guy who will do whatever it takes to have his dream realized.

John Lasseter asked that they aim high, using Lady and the Tramp as the ultimate stylistic pinnacle.

"So one of the things we went back and forth on was the demise of [a supporting character], which Facilier has a hand in. So I said, 'If he's going to do it, he really has to do it.' There are two versions of the scene: one that's in the film and the other that's somewhere on the cutting room floor. And the other version was much more vicious. And it led to a heated debate in dailies. And I remember when I had shown the scene [which has a crushing blow and he really enjoyed it and then dismissed it] in a way that was never before done in a Disney film, it got two laughs, which is what the reaction was supposed to be because it made him seem really evil. And I remember Eric Goldberg stood up and said, 'That's too mean.' And my response was, 'Yes, that's the way it's supposed to be. You're not supposed to like Facilier.' Then, ultimately, it led to the directors deciding that we needed to do a tempered down version, which is what ended up in the film. So, hopefully, this alternate version will show up on the DVD extras.

"But these are things that happen and are part of the evolution of making a film. I just thought that was a key area where I thought my character needed to be as mean as possible, but it still works just the way it is."

Bill Desowitz is senior editor of AWN & VFXWorld.

Bill Desowitz's picture

Bill Desowitz, former editor of VFXWorld, is currently the Crafts Editor of IndieWire.