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Looking back on "Beauty & the Beast" -- Part IV

Looking back on "Beauty & the Beast" -- Part IV

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Picking up where we left off yesterday ... A trip to the sleepy little burg of Fishkill, NY leads to the "Beauty & the Beast" production team figuring out a way to break the back of most of that movie's major story problems. Fueled by hot fudge sundaes & sugar donuts, these folks invented the enchanted objects that live in the castle alongside the Beast as well as finding a way for the film to sing ...

Looking back now -- some 15 years after the fact -- it is hard not to marvel at all of the concepts that Howard Ashman came up with that were key to that story's success. Turning Gaston from a fop into a huntsman? That was Howard. Making Belle a reader? That was an Ashman suggestion as well.

Yeah, Howard had a huge impact at Disney Feature Animation. Since his death in March of 1991, the studio has struggled to find a replacement for Ashman. Someone who was that passionate about characters and story. Who cared that much about getting things just right.

Which is perhaps why so many of the recent Disney animated films seem to have come up short, story-wise. There was no Howard Ashman there. Constantly pushing every one involved to make the picture better.

Speaking of everyone ... That (to a number of WDFA veterans) seems to have been the key to "Beauty & the Beast" 's success. That everyone who worked for Disney Feature Animation between the years 1989 - 1991 worked on this film. It really was a group effort.

Of course, that's not to say that there weren't some slip-ups along the way. Former staffers from Disney Feature Animation - Florida still cringe when anyone brings up the "Kill the Beast" sequence. Why for? Because this moment in the movie was supposed to the MGM crew's main contribution to the project. But -- because the animators working out of the Florida studio somehow wound up working off of an old set of model sheets -- their set of villagers looked almost nothing like the villagers seen earlier singing & dancing in the film's "Belle " & "Gaston" number. Which ( as you might imagine) resulted in some frantic reanimating toward the end of "B & B" 's production cycle. As the WDFAF staffers tried to make these torch-carrying characters look more on model.

But -- even with these few minor missteps -- "Beauty & the Beast" was still looked back on quite fondly by those who actually worked on the film. Said Brenda Chapman:

"This was the best movie I ever worked on. I didn't want it to be done."

That's a sentiment echoed by a lot of people who worked on "B & B." But that's kind of easy to understand. Given that this was WDFA's last project that was really a group effort. Following the stunning financial & critical success of "The Little Mermaid," a decision was made at the corporate level that Disney Feature Animation would begin seriously ramping up its production levels. With the eventual goal being that Walt Disney Studios would be able to release a brand new animated film every year.

So Disney's one-big-happy-family of animators got broken up into two separate units. With the "A" team getting right to work on "Aladdin," while the "B" team began development on a project that was initially known as "King of the Jungle" but which eventually changed its name to "The Lion King."

(For more information on how that film actually came together, you should probably join me out in Southern California next week. When ASIFA-Hollywood presents a panel discussion that celebrates "The Lion King" 's 10th anniversary. This once-in-a-lifetime event will be held Monday, June 14th at the Glendale Public Library. For further information, I suggest that you follow this link.

Okay. That's it with the gratuitous plugs. Let's get back to our story, already in progress ...)

Mind you ... That's not to say that EVERYONE always got along while working on "Beauty & the Beast." Will Finn (The lead animator on Cogsworth) and Nik Ranieri (The lead animator on Lumiere) shared an office while working on this film. And -- over the course of the production -- these two artists began to mirror the temperament of their characters. Meaning that Will & Nik really seemed to get on one another's nerves.

How bad did it get? Ranieri still jokes about the day he looked at the calendar that Finn had pinned up next to his animation desk. On this calendar, Will had circled -- in bright red ink -- "Beauty & the Beast" 's drop dead date. The day that every single piece of animation for the film had to be completed if "B & B" was going to actually make its November 1991 release.

But then Nik noticed that Will had written something on the calendar for the day that came right after "Beauty & the Beast" 's drop dead date. In little tiny letters, Finn had already filled in his plans for that day. Which were: "Kill Nik."

Thankfully, Will didn't give in to his baser instincts. Finn didn't -- in fact -- run Ranieri through with his favorite animation pencil. But -- rather -- went on to a success career as a animation director. With his latest film being Disney's "Home on the Range."

Whereas Nik ... Well, Ranieri's sort of become the poster boy for traditional animators who are looking to successfully make the transition over to CG. Following Nik's just-killer work on Disney's traditionally animated features "Hercules" (Where Ranieri was the leader animator for Hades) as well as "The Emperor's New Groove" (On which film, Nik did just masterful work on both the human & llama version of Emperor Kuzco), Ranieri still said to be working at the very top of his game as the lead animator on Chicken Little's father in Disney's Summer 2005 release, "Chicken Little."

I mean, just because Nik's now working in CG doesn't mean that he's still one of the best animators working today ... That said, though, I'm betting that Ranieri is thanking his lucky stars that he's working in computer animation today. Rather than struggling with the way that CG was done back in the early 1990s.

Jim Hillin -- the head of computer FX on "Beauty & the Beast" still shudders when anyone asks him about the ballroom sequence for that movie. Hillin had just come off working on "Robocop II" when Disney Feature Animation hired him to work on "B & B" 's rooftop battle sequence between the Beast & Gaston. Which was originally concieved as this CG tour-de-force, with the camera constantly whipping around -- from gable to gargoyle -- as Belle's two would-be suitors duked it out in the rain.

But -- due to the projected costs of doing the film's climatic scene in CG -- that idea quickly got dropped. Instead, Jim found himself working on "Beauty & the Beast" 's ballroom sequence. Desperately trying to get the various pieces of software involved here (Renderman & Alias Wavefront) to talk to one another.

What was the real problem here? Well, you see, Kirk Wise & Gary Trousdale had promised Jeffrey Katzenberg & Michael Eisner that "B & B" 's big ballroom moment would be the height of romance. With the camera waltzing right alongside this unlikely couple as they finally fell in love as the "Beauty & the Beast" ballad blared. Moe importantly, as difficult technically as this moment in the movie sounded to do, Kirk & Gary assured Jeffrey & Michael that Hillin & his crew were up to the challenge. That the CGI team could pull this sequence off.

The only problem was ... Wise & Trousdale were bluffing. They really had no idea whether Jim would come up with a workable way to deliver "B & B" 's computer animated ballroom. Which is why (secretly) Kirk & Gary cooked up a back-up plan. Which was -- if Hillin isn't able to produce a workable CGI ballroom for Belle & the Beast to dance in -- then they'd just go "Ice Capades" as "Beauty & the Beast" 's ballad began to play.

As is ...Just like they do in the "Ice Capades," when a skater's out on the ice -- performing a number -- they're always in a follow spot. And the rest of the lights in the arena are lowered for dramatic effect.

Well, if Hillin hadn't been able to pull off "B & B" 's computer created ballroom setting, that's what Wise & Trousdale intended on doing with the "Beauty & the Beast" production number. Just as the Beast & Belle began to dance, the lights would suddenly dim in the ballroom. And all that movie-goers would then be able to see is the beautiful young girl & her shaggy friend, waltzing in a stark white spotlight.

Thanks goodness it didn't have to come down to that.

ON MONDAY ... Jim's final installment of this looking-back-at-"Beauty-&-the-Beast" series ... Plus a few hint of what may get covered at Monday's "Lion King" event.

Speaking of which ...

To learn more about ASIFA-Hollywood's "The Lion King" 10th anniversary event -- that's being held Monday, June 14th at the Glendale Public Library -- JHM suggests that you follow this link .

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