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A Talk with Disney Legend Joe Grant

Disney legend Joe Grant talks about making Lorenzo and the current 2D/3D debate.

Disney's legendary creator Joe Grant. All images © Disney Enterprises Inc. All rights reserved.

Disney's legendary creator Joe Grant. All images © Disney Enterprises Inc. All rights reserved.

Disney legend Joe Grant first came up with the idea for Lorenzo more than 20 years ago after witnessing his fearless cat dive right into the middle of a fight between his two poodles. What if that silly cat lost its tail? he wondered. Thus came the inspiration for the story of a narcissistic cat whose tail comes to life, which has been transformed into a funny and innovative new animated Disney short by director/designer Mike Gabriel that premiered last month at the Florida Film Festival.

Not surprisingly, Grants influence is unmistakable the concept, the gag, the dark humor. What an inspiration from the design/story great who had a hand one way or another in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, both Fantasias, Saludos Amigos, Make Mine Music, Dumbo and Alice in Wonderland.

Grant, who turns 96 in May 2004, recently sat down with AWM to discuss Lorenzo, the beleaguered Walt Disney Co. and the current 2D/3D debate with his usual candor, wit and passion

Bill Desowitz: Lorenzo is really a wonderful premise that turned into a terrific short.

Joe Grant: Yeah, I played around with that for a long time. A simple idea. And the man that worked on it, Mike Gabriel, doubled the value. Beautiful job. I should say triple. We have others like that, but, unfortunately, shorts, which are my favorite approach, are economically of no value. Theyre trying

BD: At least Disney is planning on screening Lorenzo and Destino in theaters.

JG: Whenever we did anything experimental [it was difficult]. For instance, on The Reluctant Dragon, we had Baby Weems, and Walts idea was why animate it? Just put it up there in pictures with a little narration, and when the reviews came out they picked that out as the outstanding section of the group. That is another unfortunate thing, too. Make Mine Music and that whole group of [anthology] pictures they were fairly successful but not enough to encourage continuing the idea.

BD: I guess thats why Destino broke down because after World War II, it wasnt economically feasible to produce the anthologies anymore.

Disney (right) and Dali had wanted to work with each other throughout the heyday of the studio.

Disney (right) and Dali had wanted to work with each other throughout the heyday of the studio.

JG: Yes, and also Dali what I really wanted was to call it Hello Dali [laughs], and I wanted narration by some Frenchman just a crazy idea to explain his melting watches. But I couldnt get anybody to go for that. Dali had a good sense of humor obviously you could tell just looking at him; he was funny. So in this business you have your successes and your failures, which you never seem to [get over]. For instance, on this Dali thing: when I looked at it [I thought], we would have had a better chance of winning the Oscar if it wasnt so serious

BD: Well, I think Lorenzo will take a lot of people by surprise, and get a lot of laughs.

JG: I hope so. I do hear an awful lot around the place from those whove seen it that its pretty good.

BD: So you were happy the way it turned out?

JG: I was, yes. Its fun to make something that has classic value and that you feel will continue the tradition.

BD: And talk about experimentation. They did something very fresh and exciting by digitally capturing the look of the brush stroke.

JG: Yes, with the change in background. Originally, when everybody was excited about it, we were going to do it in 3D, but somebody said it was too expensive. Its always somebody that puts their foot in front of you and you fall over

BD: Have you had a chance to work in 3D yet?

JG: Actually, no, but I am close to the people who are working on Chicken Little, and Im very close to the people over at Pixar. I mean, as far as stories are concerned, almost everything we have could be told that way.

Grant wouldve preferred that Lorenzo be made in 3D, but is proud of the new short nonetheless.

Grant wouldve preferred that Lorenzo be made in 3D, but is proud of the new short nonetheless.

BD: And will be for the foreseeable future.

JG: Yeah, but youve got a fairly large element that dont believe that. I just had a big argument at lunch with someone. Theres going to be one bomb and then it will all be over, and well be back to 2D.

BD: No, it wont be over.

JG: Yeah, thats crazy. Yet it comes from people who are good animators. But the ones that finally went over to 3D are doing a great job. Theyre doing more with it. Like Pixar they have one leg in [Disney] and another leg out of it. But I have a feeling that in time Pixar will return, although they seem determined right now to be separate.

BD: Are they more like the way things were run under Walt?

JG: Yes. Pixar is going in the direction of the early Disney. And its also corporate, where they have four or five projects in the works. I dont want to get into that subject.

BD: Or the current situation at Disney?

JG: Actually, everything has been said in print its a battle of giants and its something that Walt would say is none of your business go right on and create the best you can. Dont pay attention to it. But here today, everybody is referring to corporate this and corporate that and a change is taking place. They want more production and they want it cheaper. But no matter what happens, the creative idea will be perpetuated by somebody who comes up with a vision. I dont care if there are three ceos it takes one guy with an idea. And Walt was the perfect example of that. The wonderful thing about Walt, too, was that he had intuition. And intuition is a philosophy. He could tell long before what was going to happen. It was a little scary sometimes, and occasionally hed come down to earth, but he had that portentous something in him.

It was a great time then. Everything was more collaborative. In other words, the script was growing, it was never written. But all I can say is, its still exciting and no matter what the situation is on the outside, as something new comes along or a good idea falls right into line, Im loving it.

It's the truth behind the gag that really sells it.

It's the truth behind the gag that really sells it.

BD: Obviously 3D has you very excited.

JG: Theres a certain subtlety and theres something you can do with the puppetry, which you cant do in line. You can attempt it, and you can take as an example the Tex Avery type of technique that moved into Ice Age beautifully. And if you had done the same thing in line it wouldnt be as funny. Im positive of that because of the truth that comes from the realism.

BD: And its all about truth and how its presented.

JG: The best gags, the best ideas, have truth. Like Pinocchio. Great stuff.

BD: My favorite.

JG: When he was inside the whale and he sneezed Geppetto out, Walt came up with the line, Gesundheit. One of the biggest laughs from the picture; its that spontaneous stuff that makes all the difference. We did have a lot of fun with that, and the clocks at the beginning

BD: Its amazing the amount of detail in it and the dimensionality.

JG: Of course, that pictures about a puppet in the first place. But then again, theres a lot of charm in some 2D things that you cant deny. You know its there, but its how you translate it into 3D.

BD: Is Glen Kean having fun with Rapunzel Unbraided?

JG: Yeah, Glen is still trying to incorporate 3D and 2D. 2D to instruct and 3D for results. I wish him well. But the operator himself has got to be that animator. What is he? Hes a puppeteer and hes got a lot of inspiration all around him, and the fact that they can manipulate the expressions now with ease compared to what it used to be.

BD: Theyre trying to incorporate more of the squash-and-stretch and experiment with the lighting.

Grant was one of the writers on Disney's classic, Dumbo.

Grant was one of the writers on Disney's classic, Dumbo.

JG: Lighting is vital. Without that theyve got nothing. And, of course, color and texture. When they showed me a little piece of Finding Nemo, I said this has got to be the biggest hit. I mean, just looking at it you could tell its something. I said the same thing about Lion King when I first saw it. And it was very exciting to be right about a picture where people around us would say, well, it will do about $50 million it will just be ordinary.

BD: What is it that were lacking at the moment?

JG: Mostly good stories. Ideas. You know we no longer call them gags; we call them situations. And if somebody gets their penis caught in the zipper, thats a situation [laughs]. But it could be a gag. I mean, thats our big complaint is the shortage of good ideas and good stories.

BD: What stories do you have in the works?

JG: Ive got one that I want to use that is 2D/3D and this is the way Im handling it. Candle Power is whats its called, and candles are replaced by electric lights. The whole thing is done in cartoon and the electric bulb is a character, the candle is a character and little by little the candlelight goes out, but the electric light isnt going out. But thats not the end of the story. Finally, it turns out that theres a blackout and the candle comes back. Theres a romantic table setting that still has two candles, and thats it. If we can come up with a technique, but it doesnt always work.

BD: The candle would be in 2D and the electric bulb would be in 3D?

JG: Yeah, and the candles have faces; I have a lot of stories upstairs but thats the one I would like Mike Gabriel to work on if he gets back here.

BD: Well, maybe if Lorenzo is well received, theyll give him another one to do.

JG: I am personally very upset about the loss of these people. Youve got Mike, Eric Goldberg and so many others. This is the core talent. How do you get a picture made without these people? Theyve become gypsies. And what they do put up there are amateurs. Its an obvious loss and I dont know how to make it clear to everybody that its the wrong move. Even if the traditional animators are slower and, shall we say, not responding to the new methods, they are still valuable as idea men and as directors. And a good director is your story man. Were going to have a lot of changes, but I hope it accommodates talent. Talent is definitely what we need.

Bill Desowitz is the editor of VFXWorld.

Bill Desowitz's picture

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