That happy noise coming from Burbank this month may be the sound of a collective sigh of relief from the team at Disney Animation. After four-plus years of waiting for the arrival of The Princess and The Frog, fans of 2D traditional animation are closely watching the fate of this unique labor of love, written and directed by the Oscar-winning team of Ron Clements and John Musker.
Of course, the animation landscape has changed drastically since the spring of 2004, when the studio's last 20-animated movie Home on the Range landed with a big thud. Under the leadership of Disney/Pixar's chief creative officer John Lasseter and Disney Animation president Ed Catmull, the studio made a sweet U-turn back to the classic form that became its trademark during the Golden Age of Animation and its first renaissance in the 1980s. So the big question is, will audiences embrace the Mouse's return to 2D and musical fairy tales?
"Stakes are particularly high for this movie for many reasons," notes Musker, whose impressive directing and writing career at Disney has included critical and box-office hits such as The Little Mermaid, Aladdin and Hercules. "As you know, for a while, we thought that hand-drawn animation at Disney was going to go away and not return." Clements, Musker's co-directing and writing partner on all those movies, adds, "Without John Lasseter's clout and passion, another 2D film wouldn't have happened. He was really committed to it, so we really worked hard to make it as strong a movie as we could possibly make—and this includes all the various aspects of it—from story and character design to art direction, lighting, music, editing, everything."
Both directors are quick to point out that going back to the Mouse House's original way of doing movies created a high morale within the animation team. "One of the movie's great songs is called 'Dig a Little Deeper,' which is sung by Mama Odie [Jenifer Lewis] to Tiano [Anika Noni Rose], and in way, everyone working on the movie was also asked to dig a little deeper if they could, and the results are incredible to see," notes Musker.
One of the many interesting and turns surrounding the movie is how a classic fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm evolved into a musical about an African American princess set in Jazz-era New Orleans. According to Clements, Disney had been wanting to do something with The Frog Prince story going back to the days of Beauty and The Beast. In 2003, the studio bought the rights to a children's book called The Frog Princess, which offered the story with a twist—the princess turns into a frog instead. "Parallel to that, Pixar had been exploring The Frog Princess as a possible CG film, and John [Lasseter] suggested the setting to be New Orleans, because it 's his favorite city," says Musker. "When we got involved, we had been gone from Disney for about six months—then when John and Ed Catmull became in charge of Disney Animation, they invited us back," recalls Clements.
By the time the movie was greenlit, however, it had been two years since 2D animation had left the studio. "To some degree, we had to build the traditional studio team scratch," says Clements. "They actually got rid of all the animation desks, but there was a secret batch of them stashed away—just like that secret room in Sleeping Beauty."
The directors point out that they explored going paperless, but many of the animators actually wanted to have the sensation of drawing and doing clean-up on paper. In addition, the various studios helping with the animation around the world (Yowza Animation in Canada, Premise Entertainment in Florida and HGN Productions in Brazil) also employed Wacom's Cintiq tablets and Toon Boom's Harmany package for ink and paint. Musker says Harmony allowed the animators to paint characters in somewhat neutral colors and then play with the colors to adjust with the background in realtime.
"You can see what characters look like in that environment and play the scene as you'd see it on the screen and are able to do a lot of things interactively with gradients. If they decide they don't like the colors, with this new system, you don't have to repaint the whole scene—you just push a button. In the old system, you'd have to take out every cell or in the computer every drawing and physically repaint each one and go to the next one."
Another big selling point of the feature is the fact that the film's lush visual style also harkens back to the dimensionally drawn, round and appealing sort of animation that is in direct contrast with the stylized, graphic look of toons we find on TV these days. Clements says they decided to look at the visual style of films such as Bambi and Lady and the Tramp for inspiration. " Disney's feature animation hit a crossroad in 1959. after Lady and the Tramp, the studio experimented with more stylized, design-driven material," he odds. "It's the most sophisticated dimensional version of classic Disney animation."
Musker also credits art director Ian Gooding for designing the rich, saturated palette of the movie. "Our story ranges from areas in the bayou to areas in New Orleans—and we have both comedic and quite dramatic, scary moments in the film, so that gave the color palette a fairly broad area to work in," adds Musker. "In general, you have more romantic lighting-and the objects in the distance are treated with a more impressionistic touch."
Considering the fact that Disney has been making animated movies about princesses since 1937, many critics believed that the studio should have been able to come up with a toon showcasing on African American heroine earlier. That's why the Princess and the Frog directors note that they were very aware of the social responsibility they faced when it came to depicting Tiano, a smart young woman whose dream is to own a restaurant and bring her father in to work with her. Clements says part of that storyline was based on a real character named Lee Chase, who was a waitress in New Orleans and ended up opening a successful restaurant with her husband, Dooky Chase.
"We've always tried to be very sensitive in the message and the depiction of our characters in our movies," says Musker. "We knew there was a huge response in the African American community about this film, and we felt very confident about the story and knew that our heroine was a strong character. Our goal was to be sensitive without compromising—and we were very fortunate because the actress who portrays Tiona—Anika Noni Rose—brought so much richness to that role. The beauty of it is that girls of all races can see a huge role model in her."
In addition, Musker and Clements asked several leaders in the African American community to take a look at the scenes and make sure that they were capturing the right tone and cultural timber. Clements also notes that having screenwriter Rob Edwards on board, who also worked with them on Treasure Planet, was a huge help in reflecting the true African American experience on the animated screen.
Among the other challenges faced by the creative team was finding talented artists who were comfortable working in 2D. "Disney's hand-drawn animation has always been done in such a unique way, going all the way back to the days of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," says Musker. "These skills are quite difficult to learn, and it's always difficult to find really good artists who are also great actors and draftsmen who have a great sense of how to create entertaining animation."
Clements also points out that Lasseter's involvement with the project has raised the quality of the film to a much higher level. "He really demonstrated his love for 2D animation and his notes were enormously valuable," he says. "John suggested that we should have dailies in which all the animators would review the production. We used to just have one-on-one reviews with the supervisors in the past—in this way, everyone could see everything that was animated every day—people could provide suggestions and this really raised the level of animation because you are letting a group of highly talented people give you their feedback."
This month, the helmers and their talented team of animators will finally be able to reap the rewards of more than four years of hard work. As Musker says, "When the story is settled and you see the movie come to life before your eyes—that's the best part of the job. The most fun for me is to see these characters take on lives of their own, and I can't even remember them before they were animated."
Clements says it's been wonderful to see young people in their twenties gravitating to hand-drawn animation instead of CG work. "We were a little surprised to see so many talented people wanting to do 2D animation—we've had this amazing crew of veteran artists such as Eric Goldberg, Andreas Deja, Mark Henn, Bruce Smith and Anthony de Rosa who work alongside younger people like Hyun Min, who was a student right out of CalArts. It's been very gratifying to see animators go back to doing what they loved to do, which is to return to the hand-drawn world."
For now, everyone is crossing their fingers, hoping that Musker and Clements can usher in a second renaissance of 2D at Mickey's House. As Lasseter has been saying to the press repeatedly in recent months, "I've never understood why the studios were saying people don't want to see hand-drown animation. What people don't want to watch is a bad movie!"