Ryan Potter & Daniel Henney – Big Hero 6

November 7, 2014 by  
Filed under Interviews

Actors Ryan Potter (TV’s “Supah Ninjas”) and Daniel Henney (“X-Men Origins: Wolverine”) explore the love between two brothers in the new Walt Disney animated film “Big Hero 6.” In the film, Potter lends his voice to Hiro Hamada, a 14-year-old robotics prodigy who hopes to follow in his older brother Tadashi’s (Henney) footsteps and study at the San Fransokyo Institute of Technology. Hiro decides to use one of his brother’s inventions, a healthcare robot named Baymax, to seek out the truth behind a tragedy that changes his entire life. During an interview with me at the Walt Disney Animation Studios in Hollywood a few weeks ago, I spoke with Potter and Henney about the importance of including a strong emotional story in an animated superhero movie and how excited they were to lend their voices to a film adapted from a Marvel comic book series.

Floyd Norman – The Jungle Book (Diam. Ed.)

February 14, 2014 by  
Filed under Interviews

He might not have considered himself a trailblazer in the film industry when he first took a job as an animator at Walt Disney in the 1950s, thus becoming one of the first African Americans hired to work at the studio, but no matter how you look at it, Floyd Norman has paved the way for many of his successors over the last five decades.

In celebration of the recent release of the Diamond Edition of the 1967 Disney film “The Jungle Book,” a film Norman helped animate, the now 79-year-old artist took some time with me to talk about working at Disney studios and why he never gave a second thought about being one of the very few African American animators employed there. He also talked about collaborating with Bill Cosby on the cartoon special “Fat Albert” and commented on accusations that have sprung up again about his former boss Walt Disney being a racist.

“The Jungle Book” Diamond Edition is currently available everywhere.

Did you have a sense you were doing something groundbreaking in the animation industry when you were hired by Disney or was it just a job you loved doing?

When I first came to Disney [Studios], I never thought of myself as a member of any particular group. I came here as an artist applying for a job. I never saw myself as a trailblazer or breaking ground. I was just another kid looking for a job.

You were born two years before Disney released its first feature, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” What Disney films from your childhood do you remember making the biggest impression on you?

I think the first film my mother ever took me to was Walt Disney’s “Dumbo.” I saw it at the Fox Theater in Santa Barbara. That film was probably the one that stayed with me for the longest time. I remember seeing the opening sequence with the storks carrying the baby circus animals. I remember one of the storks was voiced by Sterling Holloway. It was weird because years later, I got to work with Sterling Holloway on “The Jungle Book.” (Holloway voiced Kaa, the snake, in “The Jungle Book”).

When you revisit something like “The Jungle Book” again, does it feel the same as the first time you saw it back in 1967?

Not really. I watched the film in 1967 and didn’t watch it again until 20 years later. Then I saw the film fairly recently. As more and more time passes, it’s almost as though somebody else made this film and I’m just another viewer. I have to sometimes remind myself that I worked on the movie. It’s been so long ago. It’s funny how you look at things. It’s strange that so many years have gone by.

Your first job as an animator was working on the “Archie” comic book series. I saw that the first African American character in that specific series wasn’t created until 1971. His name was Chuck Clayton. This was around the same time the show “Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids” debut on TV. Were you conscious during this time that the animation landscape was changing with more characters of color being created?

When I was creating cartoon characters, I never gave any thought to their color. They were just another cartoon character. In the 1960, I did work with Bill Cosby in developing characters for “Fat Albert.” That was the one time when we were focused on characters of color. But ordinarily I really didn’t think about that. When I was working on “Archie,” I was just working on a comic book. They were just funny and interesting characters.

But I’m assuming it had to be a little different working with Bill Cosby on “Fat Albert” and having a sense that creating a cartoon like that was something completely different than anything done before. I mean, specifically creating African American characters was the focus, right?

Yes, but I was only thinking in terms of a cartoonist and an entertainer. I really didn’t think about it in social terms like we were breaking new ground or doing anything special. We were just creating entertainment. That’s how I’ve felt about all of my jobs. At Disney, it was the same way. I know people over the years have wondered why we haven’t had more characters of color, but that’s been changing in recent years. Things do change over time.

Looking back over your career as an animator, what do you miss the most about the way things were done? Do you think we’ve lost some of the magic in animation with technology taking over as much as it has in the last 20 years?

Well, there’s no doubt technology has impacted animation in a very real way, but not necessarily in a bad way. I think what we’re doing today is quite remarkable. I recently saw the Disney film “Frozen,” which is stunning visually. Now, of course, things have changed since the early days when we made everything by hand. Back then it was artists drawing with pencils on paper. So, in a sense, the work felt more intimate. Maybe we’ve lost a little bit of that today with the use of technology, but I still think our films resonate with audiences. I think the Disney magic is still there. I think the heart and the warmth is still present in the films. Although we’re using new tools and new techniques, I think the magic still comes across.

Are you a doodler?

(Laughs) I do that all the time. I think all cartoonists are natural doodlers. Sometimes our doodles end up as a motion picture. We’re continually testing and trying new ideas with new characters and new situations. That’s something that any animation creator is always doing. It’s part of our DNA.

This is a bit of a touchy subject, but over the last few weeks a lot has come out about Walt Disney himself and whether or not he was racist. Actress Meryl Streep made mention of it at an awards show recently as did Disney’s grandniece. What was the environment like at Disney Studios back in the 50s when it came to race and the animators that worked there?

I never gave it much thought because it was never a problem. I think a problem has been created where none existed. We were a bunch of artists. We were writers, artists, dancers, actors. Our main thing was the art. Everybody got along just fine. The issue of color or race never came up. We were just trying to create entertainment. We’ve addressed these accusations time and time again, but they continue to resurface, unfortunately. Walt Disney was certainly one of the best bosses I’ve ever worked for. He was a man who treated everyone equally and fairly. I can’t think of a better boss that any artist could have had. So, I refute any of those accusations. I worked for Walt and was with him in many story meetings over a 10 year period. He was a man that I can speak highly of. He was a great boss, leader and inspiration.

I’m not sure if you’ve ever heard of Neal Gabler’s 2009 biography on Walt Disney. It’s called “The Triumph of the American Imagination.”

Yes, I have.

Well, in the book, Gabler says Disney was not racist but he was “racially insensitive like most white Americans of his generation.” Does that, maybe, fit a bit better when looking back? Could that be the reason people think he was racist?

Well, I think that’s Neal opinion. (Laughs) Every author is entitled to their opinion. But that was not the Walt Disney I experienced. I did not work for a man who I thought was racially insensitive at all. I worked for a man who was extremely demanding. He was a tough boss, but he was tough on everybody. It didn’t matter who you were. Walt was a tough guy. But that’s why he got the best work out of his staff. Racially insensitive? I would say no such thing existed. Certainly I didn’t see it.

Did you get a chance to see “Saving Mr. Banks” with Tom Hanks playing Disney? What did you think?

This was the first film where I can recall Walt being such a central character. I felt Mr. Hanks did a terrific job of portraying the Walt Disney I knew. I was lucky enough to be on the set with Tom Hanks as the film was being shot last year and to be able to pass on a few pointers to a really great actor, who really didn’t need my coaching. But at least I was able to provide some insight on what it was like working with the old maestro – his manner and how he behaved and his optimism and enthusiasm. I was happy to be there with Tom and to pass that along to him. I loved the film. I think it’s a great film. I think Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson gave fantastic performances. I was delighted when I saw the finished film.

I’ve probably been living under a rock, but I recently learned about the similarities in scenes from “The Jungle Book” and “Robin Hood.” There are videos on YouTube that show how some scenes from “Robin Hood” are lifted straight out of “The Jungle Book” and other Disney films. Can you speak about that a bit? How did that happen?

(Laughs) I know what you’re talking about. I think there are a lot of Disney fans out there who know that as well. Our director [on “Robin Hood’], Wolfgang Reitherman, for some reason, loved to go back into the archives and find animation that had been done before and recycle it. This was just a quirk of our director.

So, was it simply to pay homage to past Disney films? Did he love “The Jungle Book” so much that he wanted it to be a part of his film?

That’s interesting. I’ve never thought about it in that way before. Some people say it was to save money, but it wasn’t. In many cases, finding those old scenes and trying to modify them would’ve cost more money. It would’ve been cheaper to animate it from scratch. I don’t know exactly why he wanted to do it. It wasn’t about cost savings. It was just the director’s taste. Yeah, we heard a fair amount of complaints about the reuse of material, but it’s just what our directed wanted to do.

Carlos Cabral – Tangled

November 26, 2010 by  
Filed under Chaléwood, Interviews

Originally from the Dominican Republic, Carlos Cabral, a character supervisor at Walt Disney Animation Studios, says there is a fine line between art and technology when it comes to today’s animated films.

“I’ve been interested in the intersection of art and technology all my life,” Cabral told me during a phone interview last week. “My mom is an artist and my dad is an engineer. I’ve always been equally drawn to both.”

In Disney’s newest animation, “Tangled,” a modern version of the classic fairy tale “Rapunzel,” Cabral helped design and implement a new system called Facial Rigging where his team of technical directors were able to add special interfaces into characters’ faces. This allowed the animated characters (Cabral calls them “virtual puppets”) to move in more specific ways.

During our interview, Cabral, who has also worked on animated films such as “Flushed Away,” “Shark Tale,” and “Bolt,” talked about Disney’s goals as a leader in the animation industry and how he sees his profession advancing in the next few years.

What kinds of cartoons do you remember watching as a kid growing up in the Dominican Republic?

Well, when the electricity was working we’d get to watch TV. They played a lot of cartoons from the U.S – a lot of Warner Bros. stuff. When we first got cable in the early 80s, the Disney Channel used to show all the Disney cartoons back to back, which was amazing.

Did you know animation was something you wanted to do back then or were you just like any other kid watching cartoons?

It was always just entertainment for me. The rest came later. I started getting into computers when I was 13. I started reading more books on computer graphics. I remember in the early 80s reading an article in the New York Times about this new company called Pixar that made the first computer animation. That’s what really made me want to start learning about it.

How much more advanced is the Facial Rigging system you helped develop for “Tangled” in comparison to other animated films?

This is cutting edge. I feel this is a huge step in the right direction. It’s very innovative and helps us give the characters’ faces more movement. Our goal was to develop the best computer-generated human performance. It’s stylized realism. We gave these characters life and emotion. Working together as a team we wanted to bring a classic Disney feel to the film as well. It was a huge challenge from an artistic and technical point of view to maintain those types of performances from all sorts of different angles.

As realistic as animation is getting, will we get to a point in the industry where animated characters won’t look like they were computer-generated anymore? Is that something animators are striving for?

I think a movie like “Avatar” really pushed that look to a pinnacle. I think what we are trying to do is different than that. Our goal isn’t ultra-realism. We’re still trying to keep it stylized and transport the characters to an imaginary world.

What was it about the story that resonated with you specifically?

I really like the way the directors re-imagined the story. They took this classic story and turned it into a comedy/action/adventure movie. It was a fresh take. It’s a movie that has a heart. I was completely blown away with what they did with the story and what they wanted to achieve in terms of character animation. We have so many characters in this movie that have to perform at such a high level. They’re not just background characters. We were trying to push it as much as we could.

Is there still room in the animation industry for 2-D? I know Disney was fairly successful last year with “The Princess and the Frog,” so is that something that we’re still going to see from time to time?

I think the goal at Disney is to let the story and the director dictate the medium. What ever way the story can be told best is the direction it should go.

Where does animation go from here in the next few years?

I think we raised the bar pretty high with hair and cloth, but even that has a lot more room to grow. We’re going to see a lot more muscles and skin advancements. The interaction of all these things is also very important. We’re going to see more and more of that as techniques improve.