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At Disney Feature Animation, words are now important than pictures

Animation vets complain about the latest production policy change at WDFA. Which means that only projects that have screenplays that Disney executives approve of will now be allowed to begin artistic development at the studio.

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“This is what comes from putting people — who have no idea how to actually create animation — in charge of the animation department.”

So said one unnamed Disney vet told me yesterday when I asked about the latest edict handed down by WDFA management. Which involves a pretty significant change to the studio’s decades-old feature animation production process.

It used to be that — when Disney was toying with the idea of turning a particular fairy tale or fable into a feature length cartoon — the studio would turn its development department loose on that story. Asking the artists who actually worked in that department to let their imaginations run free. Let them explore all the possiblities involved in a particular project.

This process would often take months, sometimes years. But — in the end — Disney’s development department would eventually map out the general beats of the story as well as come up with a distinctive look for that proposed picture. Then — and only then — would writers at the studio start creating dialogue for that film.

Disney’s decades-old procedure for developing an animated film got so engrained that — for a time in the late 1960s / early 1970s — WDFA only had one official screenwriter: Larry Clemmons, who is credited with writing the dialogue for “The Jungle Book,” “The Aristocats,” “Robin Hood” and “The Rescuers.”

Of course, when Michael Eisner came on board at Walt Disney Productions back in 1984, this procedure was modified. Following a rather infamous incident (When Eisner spent a Saturday at Feature Animation, as Ron Clements & John Musker pitched “Basil of Baker Street” to Disney’s new CEO. Much to his embarassment, Michael found that he couldn’t really follow the film’s story. Not because “Basil” had story problems. But — rather — because Eisner was used to working with scripts, not storyboards), Michael handed down a new rule: Before he would greenlit production of any new animated feature for the company, Eisner had to see a screenplay first.

At the time, this was just viewed as a small change in WDFA’s production process. The artistic development of each proposed project was still viewed as the most important part of the procedure. The stage where Disney’s development team determined whether a story actually had all the necessary elements (I.E. A colorful setting, memorable characters, a story arc that would emotionally involve an audience, etc. ) to be a success on the screen.

This decades-old process really came under fire in the late 1990s, right after “The Lion King” ‘s phemonenal success. When Disney management decided that releasing just one animated feature every year wasn’t enough. That WDFA would have to begin gearing up production, start churning out two brand-new animated features each year. One to be released during the summer months, the other to bow during the holiday season.

In order to meet this extremely ambitious production schedule, a number of WDFA projects that weren’t really ready to roll got greenlit anyway. With the hope that — as these films moved through the production pipeline — Disney’s animators would be able to identify each film’s individual story problems and then make the appropriate changes.

The only problem was … Disney Feature Animation poured tens of millions of dollars into producing films like “Kingdom of the Sun” and “Sweating Bullets,” only to have these films melt down right in the middle of production. Then WDFA would have to mount these extremely expensive rescue operations — spending even more millions to turn these troubled films into “The Emperor’s New Groove” and “Home on the Range.”

Even successful animated films like Disney’s 1999 release, “Tarzan,” racked up millions in unnecessary production expenses because that project was greenlit before all of that movie’s story problems were resolved. I know of one studio vet who spent an entire year — on full salary, mind you — playing solitaire on his WDFA office computer, waiting for Disney’s development team to sort out all of “Tarzan” ‘s story problems.

So what did WDFA management say when they were confronted with situations like “Tarzan,” “The Emperor’s New Groove” and “Home on the Range”? Films that racked up millions in unnecessary production costs all because they were greenlit before they were actually ready to enter the productioon pipeline? To a man, they’d say: “We got tricked by those guys in development. They’d create all these great looking pieces of pre-production artwork. Paintings & sketches that would suggest that — no matter how bad a proposed film’s story problems might be — that this project would still eventually be able to overcome all of its creative shortcomings.”

Which is why — earlier this year — a new edict came down at Disney Feature Animation. That — from here on in — WDFA staffers were not allowed to begin development on new animated films UNTIL studio execs had officially signed off on a script for that proposed feature.

This — according to studio insiders — is further evidence that the inmates have taken over the asylum. Said one 10-year-WDFA vet:

“First Disney decides to go totally CG because computer animation supposedly cost less than traditional animation. Then this script thing gets crammed down our throats. Again because this supposed is seen by the suits as a cost savings measure.

But what these execs don’t seem to understand is that feature animation is a visual medium. That just because these guys find a screenplay that they like and then have us produce it as a computer animated film doesn’t automatically mean that Disney’s going to have a hit film.

What really makes me crazy is that half of these idiots have no experience at producing live action films, let alone animation. But these are the guys who are now deciding what projects enter WDFA’s production pipeline. It’s enough to make you crazy.”

Mind you, this isn’t to say that everything that Feature Animation currently has in production is terrible. Far from it, folks. I keep hearing that “Chicken Little” is a very funny little film. And — based on the buzz that I’ve been hearing about “A Day with Wilbur Robinson” — WDFA may have its first really-for-real CG hit on its hands.

Dean Deblois (co-director of Disney Feature Animation’s 2002 smash, “Lilo & Stitch”) told me last month at Comic-Con that he’d never seen a story reel as strong as “Wilbur Robinson” ‘s is. That — if WDFA can just successfully translate that reel to the big screen — this film is going to be a blockbuster.

I’ve also been hearing pretty good things about Chris Sanders’ next movie, “American Dog.” Which is said to have some really witty design as well as a very solid story.

Oddily enough, the one WDFA project that I have been hearing some fairly alarming rumblings about is “Rapunzel Unbraided.” Disney’s all-important return to animated fairy tales.

People in the know at the studio are now saying that it may have been a mistake to pair a first time director (Glen Keane) and an untried producer (Phil Lofaro). Particularly given that Keane & Lofaro seem much more concerned with getting Rapunzel’s hair just right, with making sure that the princess’ skin tone is absolute perfect … rather than ironing out all of “Rapunzel Unbraided” ‘s story problems.

Which is kind of ironic, given WDFA’s new script-first, development-later policy. Under the studio’s new policy, a project like “Rapunzel Unbraided” would have never been greenlit in the first place. But now … This is the film that Disney Feature Animation hopes will eventually out-Shrek “Shrek.”

Maybe these WDFA vets are right. Maybe the inmates really have taken over the asylum.

Your thoughts?

Jim Hill is an entertainment writer who has specialized in covering The Walt Disney Company for nearly 40 years now. Over that time, he has interviewed hundreds of animators, actors, and Imagineers -- many of whom have shared behind-the-scenes stories with Mr. Hill about how the Mouse House really works. In addition to the 4000+ articles Jim has written for the Web, he also co-hosts a trio of popular podcasts: “Disney Dish with Len Testa,” “Fine Tooning with Drew Taylor” and “Marvel US Disney with Aaron Adams.” Mr. Hill makes his home in Southern New Hampshire with his lovely wife Nancy and two obnoxious cats, Ginger & Betty.

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General

Seward Johnson bronzes add a surreal, artistic touch to NYC’s Garment District

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Greetings from NYC. Nancy and I drove down from New
Hampshire yesterday because we'll be checking out
Disney Consumer Products' annual Holiday Showcase later today.

Anyway … After checking into our hotel (i.e., The Paul.
Which is located down in NYC's NoMad district), we decided to grab some dinner.
Which is how we wound up at the Melt Shop.


Photo by Jim Hill

Which is this restaurant that only sells grilled cheese sandwiches.
This comfort food was delicious, but kind of on the heavy side.


Photo by Jim Hill

Which is why — given that it was a beautiful summer night
— we'd then try and walk off our meals. We started our stroll down by the Empire
State Building


Photo by Jim Hill

… and eventually wound up just below Times
Square
(right behind where the Waterford Crystal Times Square New
Year's Eve Ball
is kept).


Photo by Jim Hill

But you know what we discovered en route? Right in the heart
of Manhattan's Garment District
along Broadway between 36th and 41st? This incredibly cool series of life-like
and life-sized sculptures that Seward
Johnson has created
.


Photo by Jim Hill

And — yes — that is Abraham Lincoln (who seems to have
slipped out of WDW's Hall of Presidents when no one was looking and is now
leading tourists around Times Square). These 18 painted
bronze pieces (which were just installed late this past Sunday night / early
Monday morning) range from the surreal to the all-too-real.


Photo by Jim Hill

Some of these pieces look like typical New Yorkers. Like the
business woman planning out her day …


Photo by Jim Hill

… the postman delivering the mail …


Photo by Jim Hill

… the hot dog vendor working at his cart …


Photo by Jim Hill


Photo by Jim Hill

… the street musician playing for tourists …


Photo by Jim Hill

Not to mention the tourists themselves.


Photo by Jim Hill

But right alongside the bronze businessmen …


Photo by Jim Hill

… and the tired grandmother hauling her groceries home …


Photo by Jim Hill

… there were also statues representing people who were
from out-of-town …


Photo by Jim Hill

… or — for that matter — out-of-time.


Photo by Jim Hill

These were the Seward Johnson pieces that genuinely beguiled. Famous impressionist paintings brought to life in three dimensions.


Note the out-of-period water bottle that some tourist left
behind. Photo by Jim Hill 

Some of them so lifelike that you actually had to pause for
a moment (especially as day gave way to night in the city) and say to yourself
"Is that one of the bronzes? Or just someone pretending to be one of these
bronzes?"

Mind you, for those of you who aren't big fans of the
impressionists …


Photo by Jim Hill

… there's also an array of American icons. Among them
Marilyn Monroe …


Photo by Jim Hill

… and that farmer couple from Grant Wood's "American
Gothic."


Photo by Jim Hill

But for those of you who know your NYC history, it's hard to
beat that piece which recreates Alfred Eisenstaedt's famous photograph of V-J Day in Times Square.


Photo by Jim Hill

By the way, a 25-foot-tall version of this particular Seward
Johnson piece ( which — FYI — is entitled "Embracing Peace") will actually
be placed in Times Square for a few days on or around  August 14th to commemorate the 70th
anniversary of Victory Over Japan Day (V-J Day).


Photo by Jim Hill

By the way, if you'd like to check these Seward Johnson bronzes in
person (which — it should be noted — are part of the part of the Garment
District Alliance
's new public art offering) — you'd best schedule a trip to
the City sometime over the next three months. For these pieces will only be on
display now through September 15th. 

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Wondering what you should “Boldly Go” see at the movies next year? The 2015 Licensing Expo offers you some clues

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Greeting from the 2015 Licensing Expo, which is being held
at the Mandalay Bay
Convention Center in Las
Vegas.


Photo by Jim Hill

I have to admit that I enjoy covering the Licensing Expo.
Mostly becomes it allows bloggers & entertainment writers like myself to
get a peek over the horizon. Scope out some of the major motion pictures &
TV shows that today's vertically integrated entertainment conglomerates
(Remember when these companies used to be called movie studios?) will be
sending our way over the next two years or so.


Photo by Jim Hill

Take — for example — all of "The Secret Life of
Pets
" banners that greeted Expo attendees as they made their way to the
show floor today. I actually got to see some footage from this new Illumination
Entertainment
production (which will hit theaters on July 8, 2016) the last time I was in Vegas. Which
was for CinemaCon back in April. And the five or so minutes of film that I viewed
suggested that "The Secret Life of Pets" will be a really funny
animated feature.


Photo by Jim Hill

Mind you, Universal Pictures wanted to make sure that Expo
attendees remembered that there was another Illumination Entertainment production
coming-to-a-theater-near-them before "The Secret Life of Pets" (And
that's "Minions," the "Despicable Me" prequel. Which
premieres at the Annecy International Animated Film Festival next week but
won't be screened stateside 'til July 10th of this year). Which is why they had
three minions who were made entirely out of LEGOS loitering out in the lobby.


Photo by Jim Hill

And Warner Bros. — because they wanted "Batman v
Superman: Dawn of Justice
" to start trending on Twitter today — brought
the Batmobile to Las Vegas.


Photo by Jim Hill

Not to mention full-sized macquettes of Batman, Superman and
Wonder Woman. Just so conventioneers could then see what these DC superheroes
would actually look like in this eagerly anticipated, March 25, 2016 release.


Photo by Jim Hill

That's the thing that can sometimes be a wee bit frustrating
about the Licensing Expo. It's all about delayed gratification. You'll come
around a corner and see this 100 foot-long ad for "The Peanuts Movie"
and think "Hey, that looks great. I want to see that Blue Sky Studios production
right now." It's only then that you notice the fine print and realize that
"The Peanuts Movie" doesn't actually open in theaters 'til November
6th of this year.


Photo by Jim Hill

And fan of Blue Sky's "Ice Age" film franchise are in for an even
longer wait. Given that the latest installment in that top grossing series
doesn't arrive in theaters 'til July
15, 2016.


Photo by Jim Hill

Of course, if you're one of those people who needs immediate
gratification when it comes to your entertainment, there was stuff like that to
be found at this year's Licensing Expo. Take — for example — how the WWE
booth was actually shaped like a wrestling ring. Which — I'm guessing — meant
that if the executives of World Wrestling Entertainment, Inc. didn't like
the offer that you were making, they were then allowed to toss you out over the
top rope, Royal Rumble-style.


Photo by Jim Hill

I also have to admit that — as a longtime Star Trek fan —
it was cool to see the enormous Starship Enterprise that hung in place over the
CBS booth. Not to mention getting a glimpse of the official Star Trek 50th
Anniversary logo.


Photo by Jim Hill

I was also pleased to see lots of activity in The Jim Henson
Company booth. Which suggests that JHC has actually finally carved out a
post-Muppets identity for itself.


Photo by Jim Hill

Likewise for all of us who were getting a little concerned
about DreamWorks Animation (what with all the layoffs & write-downs &
projects that were put into turnaround or outright cancelled last year), it was
nice to see that booth bustling.


Photo by Jim Hill

Every so often, you'd come across some people who were
promoting a movie that you weren't entirely sure that you actually wanted to
see (EX: "Angry Birds," which Sony Pictures Entertainment / Columbia
Pictures
will be releasing to theaters on May 20, 2016). But then you remembered that Clay Kaytis
who's this hugely talented former Walt Disney Animation Studios animator — is
riding herd on "Angry Birds" with Fergal Reilly. And you'd think
"Well, if Clay's working on 'Angry Birds,' I'm sure this animated feature
will turn out fine."


Photo by Jim Hill

Mind you, there were reminders at this year's Licensing Expo
of great animated features that we're never going to get to see now. I still
can't believe — especially after that brilliant proof-of-concept footage
popped up online last year — that Sony execs decided not to go forward
with  production
of Genndy Tartakovsky's
"Popeye" movie.  But that's the
cruel thing about the entertainment business, folks. It will sometime break
your heart.


Photo by Jim Hill

And make no mistake about this. The Licensing Expo is all
about business. That point was clearly driven home at this year's show when —
as you walked through the doors of the Mandalay
Bay Convention Center
— the first thing that you saw was the Hasbros Booth. Which was this gleaming,
sleek two story-tall affair full of people who were negotiating deals &
signing contracts for all of the would-be summer blockbusters that have already
announced release dates for 2019 & beyond.


Photo by Jim Hill

"But what about The Walt Disney Company?," you
ask. "Weren't they represented on the show floor at this year's Licensing
Expo?" Not really, not. I mean, sure. There were a few companies there hyping
Disney-related products. Take — for example — the Disney Wikkeez people.


Photo by Jim Hill

I'm assuming that some Disney Consumer Products exec is
hoping that Wikkeez will eventually become the new Tsum Tsum. But to be blunt,
these little hard plastic figures don't seem to have the same huggable charm
that those stackable plush do. But I've been wrong before. So let's see what
happens with Disney Wikkeez once they start showing up on the shelves of the
Company's North American retail partners.


Photo by Jim Hill

And speaking of Disney's retail partners … They were
meeting with Mouse House executives behind closed doors one floor down from the
official show floor for this year's Licensing Expo.


Photo by Jim Hill

And the theme for this year's invitation-only Disney shindig? "Timeless
Stories" involving the Disney, Pixar, Marvel & Lucasfilm brands that
would then appeal to "tomorrow's consumer."


Photo by Jim Hill

And just to sort of hammer home the idea that Disney is no
longer the Company which cornered the market when it comes to little girls
(i.e., its Disney Princess and Disney Fairies franchises), check out this
wall-sized Star Wars-related image that DCP put up just outside of one of its
many private meeting rooms. "See?," this carefully crafted photo
screams. "It isn't just little boys who want to wield the Force. Little
girls also want to grow up and be Lords of the Sith."


Photo by Jim Hill

One final, kind-of-ironic note: According to this banner,
Paramount Pictures will be releasing a movie called "Amusement Park"
to theaters sometime in 2017.  


Photo by Jim Hill

Well, given all the "Blackfish" -related issues
that have been dogged SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment over the past two years, I'm
just hoping that they'll still be in the amusement park business come 2017.

Your thoughts?

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It takes more than three circles to craft a Classic version of Mickey Mouse

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You know what Mickey Mouse looks like, right? Little guy,
big ears?

Truth be told, Disney's corporate symbol has a lot of
different looks. If Mickey's interacting with Guests at Disneyland
Park
(especially this summer, when
the Happiest Place on Earth
is celebrating its 60th anniversary), he looks & dresses like this.


Copyright Disney Enterprises,
Inc.
All rights reserved

Or when he's appearing in one of those Emmy Award-winning shorts that Disney
Television Animation has produced (EX: "Bronco Busted," which debuts
on the Disney Channel tonight at 8 p.m. ET / PT), Mickey is drawn in a such a
way that he looks hip, cool, edgy & retro all at the same time.


Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights
reserved

Looking ahead to 2017 now, when Disney Junior rolls out "Mickey and the
Roadster Racers
," this brand-new animated series will feature a sportier version
of Disney's corporate symbol. One that Mouse House managers hope will persuade
preschool boys to more fully embrace this now 86 year-old character.


Copyright Disney Enterprises,
Inc. All rights reserved

That's what most people don't realize about the Mouse. The
Walt Disney Company deliberately tailors Mickey's look, even his style of
movement, depending on what sort of project / production he's appearing in.

Take — for example — Disney
California Adventure
Park
's "World of Color:
Celebrate!
" Because Disney's main mouse would be co-hosting this new
nighttime lagoon show with ace emcee Neil Patrick Harris, Eric Goldberg really had
to step up Mickey's game. Which is why this master Disney animator created
several minutes of all-new Mouse animation which then showed that Mickey was
just as skilled a showman as Neil was.


Copyright Disney Enterprises,
Inc.
All rights reserved

Better yet, let's take a look at what the folks at Avalanche Studios just went
through as they attempted to create a Classic version of Mickey & Minnie.
One that would then allow this popular pair to become part of Disney Infinity
3.0.

"I won't lie to you. We were under a lot of pressure to
get the look of this particular version of Mickey — he's called Red Pants
Mickey around here — just right," said Jeff Bunker, the VP of Art
Development at Avalanche Studios, during a recent phone interview. "When
we brought Sorcerer Mickey into Disney Infinity 1.0 back in January of 2014,
that one was relatively easy because … Well, everyone knows what Mickey Mouse
looked like when he appeared in 'Fantasia.' "


Copyright Disney Enterprises,
Inc. All rights reserved

"But this time around, we were being asked to design
THE Mickey & Minnie," Bunker continued. "And given that these Classic
Disney characters have been around in various different forms for the better
part of the last century … Well, which look was the right look?"

Which is why Jeff and his team at Avalanche Studios began watching hours &
hours of Mickey Mouse shorts. As they tried to get a handle on which look would
work best for these characters in Disney Infinity 3.0.


Copyright Disney
Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

"And we went all the way back to the very start of Mickey's career. We began
with 'Steamboat Willie' and then watched all of those black & white Mickey shorts
that Walt made back in the late 1920s & early 1930s. From there, we
transitioned to his Technicolor shorts. Which is when Mickey went from being
this pie-eyed, really feisty character to more of a well-behaved leading
man," Bunker recalled. "We then finished out our Mouse marathon by
watching all of those new Mickey shorts that Paul Rudish & his team have
been creating for Disney Television Animation. Those cartoons really recapture
a lot of the spirit and wild slapstick fun that Mickey's early, black &
white shorts had."

But given that the specific assignment that Avalanche Studios had been handed
was to create the most appealing looking, likeable version of Mickey Mouse
possible … In the end, Jeff and his team wound up borrowing bits & pieces
from a lot of different versions of the world's most famous mouse. So that
Classic Mickey would then look & move in a way that best fit the sort of
gameplay which people would soon be able to experience with Disney Infinity
3.0.


Copyright Disney Enterprises,
Inc. All rights reserved

"That — in a lot of ways — was actually the toughest
part of the Classic Mickey design project. You have to remember that one of the
key creative conceits of  Disney Infinity
is that all the characters which appear in this game are toys," Bunker
stated. "Okay. So they're beautifully detailed, highly stylized toy
versions of beloved Disney, Pixar, Marvel & Lucasfilm characters. But
they're still supposed to be toys. So our Classic versions of Mickey &
Minnie have the same sort of thickness & sturdiness to them that toys have.
So that they'll then be able to fit right in with all of the rest of the
characters that Avalanche Studios had previously designed for Disney Infinity."

And then there was the matter of coming up with just the
right pose for Classic Mickey & Minnie. Which — to hear Jeff tell the
story — involved input from a lot of Disney upper management.


Copyright Disney Enterprises,
Inc. All rights reserved

"Everyone within the Company seemed to have an opinion
about how Mickey & Minnie should be posed. More to the point, if you Google
Mickey, you then discover that there are literally thousands of poses out there
for these two. Though — truth be told — a lot of those kind of play off the
way Mickey poses when he's being Disney's corporate symbol," Bunker said.
"But what I was most concerned about was that Mickey's pose had to work
with Minnie's pose. Because we were bringing the Classic versions of these
characters up into Disney Infinity 3.0 at the exact same time. And we wanted to
make sure — especially for those fans who like to put their Disney Infinity
figures on display — that Mickey's pose would then complement Minnie.

Which is why Jeff & the crew at Avalanche Studios
decided — when it came to Classic Mickey & Minnie's pose — that they
should go all the way back to the beginning. Which is why these two Disney icons
are sculpted in such a way that it almost seems as though you're witnessing the
very first time Mickey set eyes on Minnie.


Copyright Disney Enterprises,
Inc. All rights reserved

"And what was really great about that was — as soon as
we began showing people within the Company this pose — everyone at Disney
quickly got on board with the idea. I mean, the Classic Mickey that we sculpted
for Disney Infinity 3.0 is clearly a very playful, spunky character. But at the
same time, he's obviously got eyes for Minnie," Bunker concluded. "So
in the end, we were able to come up with Classic versions of these characters
that will work well within the creative confines of Disney Infinity 3.0 but at
the same time please those Disney fans who just collect these figures because
they like the way the Disney Infinity characters look."

So now that this particular design project is over, does
Jeff regret that Mouse House upper management was so hands-on when it came to
making sure that the Classic versions of Mickey & Minnie were specifically
tailored to fit the look & style of gameplay found in Disney Infinity 3.0?


Copyright Lucasfilm / Disney
Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

"To be blunt, we go through this every time we add a new character to the
game. The folks at Lucasfilm were just as hands-on when we were designing the
versions of Darth Vader and Yoda that will also soon be appearing in Disney
Infinity 3.0," Bunker laughed. "So in the end, if the character's
creators AND the fans are happy, then I'm happy."

This article was originally posted on the Huffington Post's Entertainment page on Tuesday, June 9, 2015

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