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What Johnny Depp just did for "Rango," Kathryn Beaumont did for Disney's "Alice in Wonderland" back in 1950

What Johnny Depp just did for "Rango," Kathryn Beaumont did for Disney's "Alice in Wonderland" back in 1950

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Are you looking forward to "Rango" ?

Copyright 2010 Paramount Pictures.
All rights reserved

I know that I am. And not just because this project reunites Johnny Depp with his "Pirates of the Caribbean" director, Gore Verbinski. Or because this Paramount Pictures will be ILM's first-ever animated feature (though - not to be a nit-picker here - but wasn't 1983's "Twice Upon a Time " really Lucasfilm Ltd.'s first full-length animated  film? Anyway ...).

No, the reason that I'm looking forward to "Rango" is that the way that Gore decided to record all of the character voices for this animated feature. Rather than have his actors perform their lines alone in a sound booth (which - to Verbinski's way of thinking, anyway - gives these sorts of films a less spontaneous sound & feel), Gore gathered Depp & Co. together on a soundstage. And - over a 20-day-period, using a limited amount of props, sets and costumes - he had "Rango" 's vocal cast act out this entire movie in front of video cameras.

Copyright 2010 Paramount Pictures. All rights reserved

Taking this approach to recording "Rango" 's dialogue actually served two purposes for Verbinski. It not only gave his first animated feature a unique sound & energy, but it also gave ILM's animators access to some amazing live-action reference footage.

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Now where do you suppose Gore got an idea like that? Putting voice actors in front of cameras during the preproduction phase of an animated feature?

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Well, given the months that Verbinski spent on the Disney lot shooting scenes from "The Curse Of The Black Pearl," "Dead Man's Chest" and "At World's End," one has to imagine that Gore heard about those live-action reference films that Walt himself had shot on these same soundstages for animated features like "Alice In Wonderland" and "Peter Pan."

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I recently got the chance to chat with Kathryn Beaumont Levine (i.e. the Disney Legend who voiced "Alice" 's title character as well as Wendy in "Peter Pan"). Kathryn's been out doing publicity for the 60th anniversary edition of Disney's "Alice in Wonderland" (which Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment is releasing on Blu-ray & DVD February 1st). So I asked her what it was like to work on those live-action versions of "Alice" & "Peter" that Disney animators then used for reference while working on these animated features.

"Well, it was quite different from my days of working at MGM. When I was a contract player in Culver City, I got used to how huge MGM was. With its dozens of soundstages and thousands of workers, it was almost a factory town. By contrast, when I signed with Disney back in June of 1949 ...

11-year-old Kathryn Beaumont signs her two-picture-
deal with Walt Disney Studios as Walt looks on.
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All rights reserved

... the lot only had two soundstages on it at that time," she recalled.

Beamont was also struck by the differences between the way these two studios operated. At MGM, when she was shooting "On an Island with You," "Challenge to Lassie" and "The Secret Garden," Kathryn was never given a full script to work with. She was just given the pages that her character appeared on and was then expected to learn her lines for those scenes.

"But when I was at Disney, suddenly I was sitting in on story sessions. Where Walt would be asking his story men 'Well, what if Alice did this? Or if that character had this bit of business?,' " Kathryn remembered. "I was given access to all sorts of material. Sketches & storyboards. They obviously thought that it was important that I knew as much about this movie, as much about the character that I'd be playing as possible before I went before the cameras."

Wilfred Jackson walks Miss Beaumont through "Alice in Wonderland" 's "All in a Golden
Afternoon" sequence. Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

Mind you, the reasoning behind all this advance preparation became clear once Kathryn actually began shooting "Alice" 's live-action reference footage. When she suddenly found herself dressed in her Alice dress on a virtually empty soundstage ...

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... where - working with the bare-bones sets & props that the Studio Mill had put together - Beaumont was then expected to act out all of Alice's adventures in Wonderland for the cameras.

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As you might expect, this was fairly lonely work for an 11-year-old girl. Which is why Kathryn genuinely looked forward to those days when there were other performers on the "Wonderland" set. Veteran character actors like Sterling Holloway ...

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... or famous radio comedians like Jerry Colonna ..

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... or "The Perfect Fool" himself, Ed Wynn.

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Mind you, it wasn't all fun and games while these famous character actors & comedians were working on the live-action reference version of "Alice." Beaumont says that while Holloway, Colonna and Wynn were wonderfully silly whenever the camera was on, they were also quite quiet & thoughtful whenever that camera was turned off.

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"Mind you, they were all very nice to me off-camera. But as a young performer, it was fascinating for me to watch these veteran funnymen work with the director," Kathryn explained. "Watch them look for new ways to take what had already been storyboarded for this movie and find some different twist or turn of phrase that then made this scene even funnier."

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That - when you get right down to it - is Kathyrn Beaumont Levine's one regret when it comes to Disney's "Alice in Wonderland" and "Peter Pan." That so few people ever actually got to see those live-action reference versions of these films that she, Holloway, Colonna, Wynn et al worked on.

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"I'm told that only 200 people or so - which, I'm guessing, was the size of the crew working in the animation department at Walt Disney Studios while ' Alice in Wonderland' and 'Peter Pan' were being produced - ever got to see that live-action reference footage," Beaumont continued. "Which is really a shame. Because I think people today would be fascinated to see what we the actors went through back then ...

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... the strange poses that we sometimes had to strike in order to give the Disney artists something to work with."

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Mind you, The Walt Disney Company seems to be softening its stance when it comes to this live-action reference footage that was shot for some of the Studio's most famous animated features. Where once Disney's official party line was to keep this stuff locked up in the vault and officially deny that this footage ever existed ... Nowadays, the Mouse is taking a far more enlightened approach to its own history.

Which is why the 60th anniversary Blu-ray edition of Disney's "Alice in Wonderland" ...

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... includes a bonus feature which allows you to watch the live-action reference footage that was shot for this animated feature's "Alice and the Doorknob" sequence.

And if you like seeing this sort of never-supposed-to-be-seen-by-the-public, behind-the-scenes stuff, then you should definitely pick up the Blu-ray of Disney's "A Christmas Carol" ...

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... which includes a bonus feature that asllow you to watch this entire Robert Zemeckis film in motion capture form. Which - in essence - allows you to watch Jim Carrey's performance as Ebenezer Scrooge & the three Christmas Ghosts who haunt this miser in their raw form.

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Which makes you kind of hope that - three to four months after "Rango" is released on theater on March 4th - that someone on the Home Entertainment side of things at Paramount Pictures gets the very bright idea to include the live-action version of this animated feature that Gore Verbinski shot as a bonus feature on the Blu-ray & DVD.

Because based on what I've seen so far ...

... this live-action version of an animated film starring Johnny Depp looks very entertaining. In a funky, low tech, home-made sort of way, that is.

Your thoughts?

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  • Jim, wasn't that reference film shot silent? I believe so. My guess is that Verbinski was inspired by Wes Anderson who shot his voice actors like this for Fantastic Mr. Fox, or Spike Jonze who I believe filmed Where the Wild Things Are in a similar way, or Zemeckis and his motion capture filming. Interesting nonetheless. Thanks.

  • Craig S --

    In both cases, the folks shooting this live-action reference footage recorded a soundtrack of the actors performing. In the case of "Rango," this was actually how Gore Verbinski got the sort of performances out of his voice actors that he was looking for. Which then gave this animated western the kind of spontaneous, rough-and-tumble sound he was looking for for this film.

    And in the case of "Alice in Wonderland" ... Yes, there was initially the idea that this live-action reference footage would essentially be silent. That Disney's animators would just use this footage plus the storyboards and the dialogue that these performers would then record in a sound booth and -- using the best elements of each -- create their performance.

    But in the case of Ed Wynn and his live-action reference work for the Mad Hatter ... In the end, Walt & his animators compared the soundtrack that they collected while Wynn was shooting his live-action reference footage for this character versus the Mad Hatter dialogue recordings that they got from Ed in the sound booth and decided that the Hatter dialogue that Ed recorded on the soundstage was so much more lively, funny and ... well, Mad than the stuff that they got from Wynn in the sound booth. Which is why the dialogue that you hear coming from the Hatter in the finished film is actually that stuff that Ed recording while shooting that live-action reference footage on the soundstage.

    Which -- as I understand it -- proved to be a real challenge to the people working in Disney's sound department at that time. Given that not only did they have to eliminate an echo (which came from the fact that Wynn was basically working on a bare stage in this cavernously empty soundstage) as well as the laughter from the crew (who -- try as they might -- couldn't help but crack up at Ed's antics).

    Anyway ... Does that answer your question, Craig S. ? Hope so.

  • Yes. Thanks. I love this idea of getting the actors together but was told once by an animator that it wasn't done due to the problem of overlapping dialogue and timing issues. Thanks Jim.

  • Funny--I was just listening to a Jodi Benson interview from a couple years ago where she talked about how no one has done this since Mermaid.  Not sure I'll be drawn in by this particular movie (Rango), but I'd like to see more animated films get a collective performance from the voice talents.

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