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"The Alchemy of Animation" takes a look inside the modern Mouse Factory

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"The Alchemy of Animation" takes a look inside the modern Mouse Factory

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As I watched last night's debate, I was reminded of that old joke: "People who like sausage and appreciate politics shouldn't watch either one being made."

Mind you, those of us who have been following "Bolt" 's production have sometimes wondered if -- just like with politics & sausage -- it might be a mistake to know too much about this particular Walt Disney Animation Studios release. That being aware of all of the behind-the-scenes drama involved with this project might make it that much harder to just let go & enjoy the finished film.

Copyright 2008 Disney. All Rights Reserved

Of course, to hear Don Hahn talk, there's no such thing as a trouble-free animated feature. That -- from "Snow White" going forward -- every single feature length cartoon that Disney has been involved with has hit some sort of production snag. Which explains the outline below that Don created. Which humorously walks you through the various phases of animated film production. Where you ...

  • Screen (a rough cut of your movie).
  • Discuss it.
  • Get that sinking feeling that you don't know what you're doing.
  • Weep openly.
  • Tear it apart.
  • Correct it.
  • Reboard it.
  • Rebuild it.
  • Screen it again
  • Repeat as necessary.

Copyright 2008 Disney. All Rights Reserved

Which (I know) sounds like a rather flip way to explain the whole animation process. But trust me, folks. Don knows of what he speaks. After all, he's the veteran producer behind such hit Disney movies as "The Lion King" and "Who Framed Roger Rabbit." Which is why it's so exciting that Hahn has finally decided to share his insights on the animation process as part of a brand-new book, "The Alchemy of Animation: Making an Animated Film in the Modern Age" (Disney Editions, October 2008).

Because (Let's be honest here, folks) the process has changed since 1937 since Walt first served up "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs." (Though -- as Don points out -- even 71 years ago, Walt Disney Studios was using performers in character costumes to help sell its motion pictures).

Copyright 2008 Disney. All Rights Reserved

Now please note that the sub-title of this book is "Making an Animated Film in the Modern Age." So you shouldn't open up this 144-page paperback and then expect to find a detailed look at how the Nine Old Men did things. (Though -- that said -- Hahn did make a point of including some fascinating stuff from that era at Disney Studios. Including this nifty chart that shows the various stages in Maleficent's transformation from evil fairy to fire-breathing dragon.)

Copyright 2008 Disney. All Rights Reserved

No, Don is more interested in giving his readers a sense of how the modern era of Disney animation actually came about. He does this by directing your attention to key sequences in movies that help launch the careers of individual animators. Like Glen Keane's masterful work in "The Fox and the Hound" 's bear attack scene.

Copyright 2008 Disney. All Rights Reserved

Hahn also reveals how some of your favorite animated films came into being. Like -- for example -- that children's storybook that Chris Sanders created to sell Disney executives on the idea of making "Lilo & Stitch."

Copyright 2008 Disney. All Rights Reserved

But mostly, "The Alchemy of Animation" gives you a nuts-and-bolts look at how a modern animated film comes together. Don talks about the roles of the various members of the production team ("The associate producer has three things -- three big things -- to worry about: people, time and money"), how a film's designers & animators create plausible worlds for their characters to wander around in (Take a look at this bird's eye view of Radiator Springs. Which the people of Pixar used while they were mapping out the action for "Cars") ...

Copyright 2008 Disney. All Rights Reserved

... as well as trying to get us to expand what our definition of what a modern animated film might be. Take -- for example -- Disney's "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies. Though (as the photo below shows) live actors in performance capture suits did appear on set during the production of "Dead Man's Chest" to portray Davy Jones' crew, once the visual effects team got through with "plussing" all of that footage, those characters were animated. These flesh-and-blood performers had been replaced by fantastical CG stand-ins.

Copyright 2006 Disney / Jerry Bruckheimer Productions. All Rights Reserved

The end result is a profusely illustrated book that takes a detailed look at the animation process in three separate mediums -- hand-drawn, stop-motion and computer-generated. Hahn even gives us a glimpse at some future projects for Walt Disney Animation Studios. "The Alchemy of Animation" includes a gorgeous piece of pre-production art for "The Princess and the Frog" as well as an image from Don's next project. Which is a feature length stop motion version of Tim Burton's 1984 featurette, "Frankenweenie."

Copyright 1984 Disney. All Rights Reserved

In short, picking up a copy of "The Alchemy of Animation: Making an Animated Film in the Modern Age" is the next best thing to being taken on a tour of the Sorcerer Mickey building. So if you've ever wondered what's going on inside of the Mouse Factory these days, you should definitely pick up a copy of Don Hahn's latest book.

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  • It's probably even better than a tour through the hat building... unless that tour was being led by Don himself.

  • Well, I finally saw the book tonight and found it bare bones and minimal informatiom to boot.  If I were to be in a college animation program, this book would be akin to the opening lecture of what is going on...then the required text would be Thomas & Johnston's 'ILLUSION OF LIFE.'  Nothing, and I mean nothing, tops ILLUSION when it comes down to really understanding what animation is, how it is handled, and, what it is capable of.  

    I am not knocking Hahn's book, but, it is so basic in an overview that a lot of the material needed for an aspiring animator is lost before the cover is even bent back and the pages opened.  

    So, if you want a quick view of what current animation is, what the roles on a animated film production team are, some great pictures of what animated art and conceptual art before it reaches the final product, a good nod of the head towards the digitalization of even hand drawn animation for the final film product - this is a good book.  If you want to understand what animation is, what makes it tick, how it is accomplished, then, get ILLUSION OF LiFE.  

    Better yet, get both books.  You'll be glad you did.  

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