The director of the latest Disney short discusses animating like clockwork.
In the latest Disney short, Tick Tock Tale, a funny little clock (something out of Geppetto's workshop, really) is picked on by the more refined time keepers in a London store, only to find a chance at redemption when a thief breaks in one night. The whimsical CG short, directed by Dean Wellins (Rapunzel, Bolt, The Iron Giant) and produced by Dorothy McKim (Prep & Landing), has been making the festival circuit (Annecy, Hiroshima and Ottawa next). No theatrical date has been set but it still could quality for Oscar consideration. Recovering from a bit of jet lag after his first trip to Japan, Wellins took time out to discuss his on again, off again project.
Bill Desowitz: When did you make Tick Tock?
Dean Wellins: When did we make it? Well, the actual making started around April 2009. And then pretty much had all the base components done about the same time this year. I mean, the idea going into it was we were going to have down time between our movies, so we could use [people] and resources to make it. Turns out, that down time wasn't as down as we thought with Prep & Landing and pretty soon there wasn't many people to use so we used whoever we could and whenever we could. A huge part of it got done by trainees that were unbelievable. Anyway, it trailed out to June for some tiny tweaks and things.
BD: How long ago did you pitch this?
DW: Way back in 2006 before the Rapunzel days. I was head of story on American Dog before it was Bolt. And then that got revamped; and back then they were pretty hot and heavy about getting the shorts up and looked at, so I pitched my three to John [Lasseter] and this was the one he liked the most. At that point I storyboarded a version of it and actually edited it together and then everything changed. I called pulled into [co-directing] Rapunzel and that was my life for a few years, and then coming back around [when it turned into Tangled], John said, "Since you're not doing that, I think you should do the short." So I pulled it back out.
BD: What was the inspiration?
DW: I was thinking economically of what could be simple in the computer. And I was looking at the little clocks up on my mantel at home and just seeing something in them as having a face and little feet and started developing the idea of a little runt of a clock guy and pitched it that way.
BD: Why London?
DW: The London setting was because this is a world of clocks and I want to start with the ultimate clock, Big Ben. So that made the setting and it was actually cool: it made the shop old.
BD: What period is this? It seems very 101 Dalmatians and Mary Poppins.
DW: I think of it in terms of 101 Dalmatians time. There's something very romantic about that time, certainly for Disney. I guess I thought of it in a very traditional sense.
BD: How did the story develop?
DW: I have to say it was pretty much there from what I pitched with some tweaks of gags and how things transpire from one moment to the next.
BD: What were some of John's suggestions?
DW: He loved the little clock itself and there might have been certain points where I got mired in some of the external stuff going on with the thief, and he made sure I kept my focus on the clock, and keep his point of view.
BD: What about coming up with the look of the clock?
DW: In the beginning, it was more of a guy who just played a funny song. And then it became a guy who had his hat go up and down, just to make a sound. And then the clincher was his pants fell down, too, and now, "I've got the worst chime of anybody," sort of thing: we just amped it up to make it funnier and funnier.
And it's funny because when I thought of it originally, the shop was more like Geppetto's. It was a little too daunting to do, but originally I had more intricate clocks with chimes and things that come out. But we had 100 clocks to make in a very short amount of time, so we ended up finding some basic clock pieces and built modules with some filigree to make them look nice and ornamental.
And when I was researching way back, I found this Scottish clock maker in, I think, Yorba Linda. He lived in this track house and it was just full of clocks. His name was Tick Tock Tony. I got to go to his place and see his garage where he repaired all these things and take lots of pictures and it was great. It was a weird find. He gave me a clock that's right up there on the wall of my office and I got to play with it and see how clocks work.
BD: Was he the inspiration for your clock maker?
DW: No, he's also very 101 Dalmatians inspired. I tried to keep him just pushed and caricatured enough to make him fit in a world that was fairly realistic.
It's interesting that, originally it was supposed to go in front of The Princess and the Frog, and they were saying it has to be five minutes or less, so there was a lot of crunching and pulling out and trying to make it fit, but in the end, they pushed it back and we were able to have more time to play with it and give it an extra minute with credits. It was tough because it was like a paper cup where you try to punch it down and then put it back the way it was, and it's not quite as pristine as it was. There are still a few cuts where you feel a little short changed: it's subtle, but in the end having that time back really helped a lot.
BD: The look may be simple but it's very rich, especially the lighting.
DW: That's probably where we put a lot of our money: volumetric lighting, ray tracing of bells. It's what the computer does best… I certainly had a lot of inspiration from early Pixar shorts (Red's Dream) and John is certainly a big believer in keeping materials truthful as much as you can. We didn't try to bend wood and glass too much; but one total allowance was we let metal bend because we wanted his arms to react, so we let metal be our cartoon license. But we created little metal bands where they would bend, and we moved there heads a little bit and then inside we moved the face of the clock to get some eye movement. We tried to be as clever as possible with movement but still have these behave as real clocks.
BD: Any technical innovations on this?
DW: I guess we've been faking depth of field or using it in a post comp way. To me this was really important so you got the sense of how tiny this clock was and part of this small world, especially at night, when he's up close, you really want things to fall out of focus in the background. So we were able to use actual depth of field in the camera, which I guess we haven't done here before, and now they're doing it in layout, too, for the positioning of everything. I think they're going to use it on a feature for the first time with the next film after Tangled. So this is great for realtime, in camera, focus sort of stuff.
BD: Did you stay on at all to contribute to Tangled?
DW: Just some storyboard stuff in their last go-around.
BD: A lot of changes. What was it like?
DW: It's a way different version now. What Glen wanted to do was a straight, sincere fairy tale with music. But the original fairy tale was really dark. But I think for John, in looking at it, the dark to light scale was a little too much; and I think after The Princess and the Frog and seeing what could be done with a musical these days and revitalizing that sort of thing, they decided they wanted to do that.
BD: But you accomplished so much in terms of technical hurdles with the hair and the painterly environments.
DW: I think a lot of that carried over. Everyone who developed the hair stayed with it. I think Tangled got the best of it all. You look at it and it's incredible. And I got to be free to do my little short and slip out of the pressure cooker, so it worked out well for me. My third son was born in 2008, and, luckily, I was actually around.
Bill Desowitz is senior editor of AWN & VFXWorld.