Two decades after their work on The Little Mermaid ushered in a renaissance for hand-drawn animation, directors Ron Clements and John Musker are at the forefront of a new movement to resuscitate the art form yet again. The Princess and the Frog is Disney's first non-computer animated feature film since 2003's Home on the Range, and in addition to competing artistically with Pixar's stellar roster of releases through their shared parent company, the film may ultimately serve as a test among studio executives all over Hollywood who want to see if audiences really want to watch movies where pencils and ink reclaim the place now occupied by ones and zeroes.
Given this enormous pressure, Musker and Clements seem remarkably calm, and most importantly, pragmatic about the film's potential success. Cinematical recently sat down with a small group of journalists to discuss the future of Disney's hand-drawn animation department, vis-à-vis the directors' latest film. Following a day at Disneyland and a tour of the studio's Animation Research Library, Cinematical posed questions to the filmmakers as they enter the final days before the film's release. (While the interview was conducted as a group, questions asked specifically by Cinematical questions are indicated in the transcript below.)
This is the second opportunity for you two to bring traditional animation in at Disney. Can you talk about what's different for you on this one, particularly in terms of technology allowing you to raise the bar?
Ron Clements: Mermaid was the last film done with cells, the sort of traditional way. Every movie up to that point, the drawings were Xeroxed onto celluloid and painted on the back and then filmed over painted backgrounds. And then Rescuers Down Under, which was the next film, was the first film to use the CAPS system which was digital and can paint. Everything was composite. And that continued until things kind of went away.
John Musker: With this new system, the character is painted in these sort of neutral colors and then in our color model area they can take those characters and adjust them for that background there and we can play it back in real time and see [that] this is the way that character looks in that environment – actually play the scene as you'd see it on the screen. They can do all sorts of things interactively with that with what they use, they call it gradiance where they can make the character brighter or darker.
Clements: It really is an artistic thing where they can kind of take the bare bones and enhance it in just a lot of ways, some subtle, some less subtle. That's really, really nice. We can see it there.
Did it save you a lot of time during production?
Musker: Ultimately [it did] but it took time at the front end. It slowed things down but then it made it more effective later when you had this reference point for everyone to look at. Everyone involved in the shot, you'd say "look at the animatic," and they'd have a common thing to look at. We'd tell them, "Don't worry about painting this part of the background because we pan so quickly that you're hardly going to see that over there," or whatever it might be; the character blocking this or whatever. You could really tailor it to the shot because you had a blueprint.
Can you talk about how you guys came onboard to this movie and the genesis of the project and why New Orleans versus other parts of the country?
Clements: Sure. The history of this project is a little more complicated than some movies, but obviously this is very loosely based on the Grimm fairy tale The Frog Prince, which is a very short little story. Disney actually has been trying to do something with that story for years and years, going all the way back to the time of Beauty and the Beast that I remember. They had versions in the works. More recently, in I think 2003, Disney bought the rights to a children's book called The Frog Princess by an author named E.D. Baker and in that story, it was basically a kind of fairy tale with a twist. In that story the princess kissed the frog and instead of him turning into a prince she turned into a frog and then the two sort of went on an adventure together. It doesn't really bear a lot of resemblance to our movie except for that basic thing within that. Then Disney explored in the earlier part of this decade, I think, versions of that with some writers and some treatments.
Musker: Parallel to that, Pixar had been exploring The Frog Princess as a possible CG film, and at first it was set in Chicago in the 1930's and then I think John Lasseter suggested New Orleans to Pixar and their development [team] because he loves New Orleans. It's his favorite city and I think being frogs and all of that which made him go, "Why don't you set this in New Orleans? It's a great locale and a cool place." So they start developing the idea in New Orleans but the story didn't really get off the ground.
Clements: It wasn't really a fairy tale. It was a fairy tale but it had voodoo in it and a few things. When we got involved, we were gone from Disney for a little, just for about six months, and then [after] John Lasseter and Ed Catmull came to Disney and became in charge of Disney animation, they sort of invited us back.
Cinematical: Can you talk about how you decided what this animation would look like? Was there a responsibility to do something more classic because this was a return to this type of animation?
Clements: I think that we went for a classic Disney look. We felt that was correct for this story.
Musker: I think John had the note, and we agreed with the note, that in our stylistic choice of making the film that the odd man out these days is dimensionally drawn, round, appealing sort of animation and if you want to look at more stylized, graphic animation there are actually a lot of outlets on that in television. Television has become kind of the province for that, but to do a fully realized sort of things that move in three dimensional space, have squash and stretch and that kind of plasticity and that appeal, that sort of cartoon appeal there aren't any films being made like that. So what's old is new again, in a way.
Clements: I mean, very, very early on we kind of zeroed in on Bambi and Lady and the Tramp, elements of both those films that we liked, particularly Lady and The Tramp for New Orleans because a lot of the movie takes place in the city of New Orleans and Bambi for the bayou. Those are not the same. Bambi and Lady and The Tramp are definitely not in the same style but they both have, in terms of character design, very kind of dimensional, very appealing style of character design. It's not stylized but it's about as sophisticated – I think that John said this, too, that if you follow the classic Disney a certain kind of animation sort of reached its peak with Lady and The Tramp. In a way that's the most sophisticated version of sort of classic Disney animation.
Musker: The nature of our film, our art director is Ian Gooding and he did a great job in terms of him really designing the color of the movie and I think our palette is very rich and some saturated palette. I think our story ranges from areas in the bayou to areas in the city, but also obviously we've got some comedic things, some kind of scary moments in the film. We've got a range of romance and comedy and things like that so that gave the color pallet a fairly broad area to work in.
Did you have difficulties in fleshing out the villain in Dr. Facilier and making him different from previous movie villains?
Clements: Certainly, yes. It's always a challenge.
Musker: It was fun. Most villains are fun. In the villains that we've done, I think we've had fun with all the villains that we've done.
Clements: Certainly our villain has greed which is a strong motivation and he isn't trying to take over the world which some of our villains have tried to do. We wanted it to be a little more localized and a whole aspect of him having sort of magic at his disposal, that was fun for us. But there are limits to his magic and that gave him some challenges.
Musker: His smoothness and his sort of conman aspects and his showman, his theatricality that he can sing and dance really, really well.
Clements: One thing that I think helped a lot is that we called him The Shadow Man in earlier versions of the script and then Sue Nichols just cuing off of that, reading a treatment with that in there, she did drawings of him with other shadows, his army of shadows in there. That came from her drawings. Before we wrote the script we were like, wow - that's a cool idea. She had a thing where he did a duet with his own shadow because he was called The Shadow Man. We were like, yeah, lets work that into the script. So then when we were writing the script we sort of incorporated that idea into it.
That's like his sidekick. He can confer with his shadow, that sort of thing.
You mentioned the main character Tiana's goal of owning a restaurant and bringing her father in –
Musker: To make it emotional, yeah. Earlier her father wasn't as much in the picture and it really seemed to ground the story emotionally that it was his longstanding dream. It was a challenge to see if we could make it hers as well in a way that feels as if it grew out of that and then amplify it. That was the challenge as we wrote. That was our goal, to really make it so that you had an emotional investment in her getting this restaurant. It wasn't just a career goal but there was an emotional part of it, too.
Clements: There's an aspect of her, too, that we've talked about. There's a woman in New Orleans named Lee Chase who was a waitress and ultimately opened a restaurant with her husband, Dooky Chase. And the name of the restaurant is Dooky Chase but she basically ran it and it became an institution in New Orleans and we met with her and we talked with her and she went to kind of into her story, her philosophy about food, which is a big element of the movie.
Can you talk about assembling this animation crew, a mix of veterans and newcomers?
Clements: One of the really great things in terms of this movie was the sort of opportunity to put a dream cast together which couldn't have been done ten years ago because when hand drawn animation – well it's maybe more than ten years ago – was at it's peak everyone was getting spread pretty far around because Dreamworks was doing hand drawn animation and other studios were doing it as well. Disney split up it's own staff so that multiple productions were going on at the same time. So no one worked on the same movie. You'd get a certain amount of really good animators and the other animators would be off doing another movie and the same with pretty much every role. On this one we were with a few exceptions able to get just about everybody that we wanted to get partly because there were no other big hand drawn features being done anywhere else and even though many of the people were very successful doing this, most people make a transition and were working in digital animation or doing something else, I think that everyone who worked in this kind of art form really wanted to return to it. They missed it. So we got kind of a dream staff in terms of animators. We had just a great crew.
Musker: [Mark Henn] was in charge of her and did the principal animation of her, but then as you say we got newcomers, too. We got people like Hyun Min Lee who worked with Eric Goldberg who was a student right out of Cal Arts and had been in Jules Engles program, the film graphics program and a wonderful character animator. It's great that they were working alongside some of these veterans in their fifties. They really took to it and it was great to see people embrace this who might otherwise have gone a different direction.
Clements: Even being a little bit cynical you almost have a question of someone who's in their early twenties just starting out and really, really wants to do hand drawn animation. It's like, are you sure? Have you thought this through? But I think we were really impressed. So many young people really love hand drawn animation, really talented people and they really want to do it. They want to commit to it and want to learn how to do it as well as they can.
Do you guys feel a weight on your shoulders while making a traditional film like this that it needed to be successful?
Clements: Yeah. Certainly this was a stressful film for a lot of reasons and certainly it's the hope of everyone working on the movie that the movie be successful. Making a movie you don't tend to worry about whether it's going to be a hit or not going to be a hit. You're just trying to make a movie, make it as well as you can and hope that it works but in this case I think we all knew that it was important the movie actually be profitable. It's a business and if the movie is profitable, it doesn't have to be hugely, wildly profitable, but even if it's just reasonably profitable I think there will definitely be more films like this done.
So is the plan to do hand drawn animation every couple of years?
Clements: Every two or three years which I think everyone would be happy with. I think it makes it more special. For a while I think there was a period there where there two a year coming out. For this kind of film it's really hard to sort of maintain that and it doesn't really seem necessary and it makes the films more special.
Do you guys have ideas for more?
Musker: We do actually have an idea for another hand drawn film that we want to do after this.
Clements: And there's stuff going on that we're not involved with. Even from the start, John and Ed, when we talked about bringing 2-D back it was never talked about like, 'Well, lets try it and see what happens and then go from there.' They were like, 'We feel like Disney should be doing this. We want to bring it back and we want to continue to do it.'
Musker: And obviously if this comes out and doesn't do well, there will be whatever pressures of some order to reconsider that possibly, but I think that John and Ed are very dedicated to it.
Clements: But not instead of digital. I think the plan is that Disney would do both, and maybe be the only studio that does both.