Monday, March 15, 2010
The Princess and the Frog's Supervising Animators Discuss the Film
ROUNDTABLE INTERVIEWS – "The Princess and the Frog" Supervising Animators (Group 1)
Walt Disney Animation Studio’s upcoming animated musical, THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG, celebrates the art form that launched the Walt Disney Studios with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). Along with this came the participation of some of classic animation’s ‘super stars.’ We were lucky enough to nab a few of these artists and sit down to discuss exactly what it means to be a supervising animator on the latest Disney musical fairy tale, THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG. With us were: Andreas Deja (supervising animator, Mama Odie), Randy Haycock (supervising animator, Prince Naveen, human and frog) and Mike Surrey (supervising animator, Ray, the Cajun firefly).
Q: So, Randy, what did you prefer, animating the frog version or the human version of Prince Naveen?
RANDY HAYCOCK: The human was probably more challenging. I enjoyed the challenge of making this handsome, gregarious prince, and giving him a real personality. But, I did enjoy the frog quite a bit. I thought he was a lot of fun. I had a good time with that.
Q: here is a new, gorgeous, animated fairy tale film in the tradition of classic Disney storytelling. Do you feel the burden of responsibility?
RANDY HAYCOCK: There was some sense on this film, but, we all believe in animation as an entertainment art form. And we felt like we had something to prove to those people who don’t believe in it. We’re not talking about the public. We’re talking about those people in the industry that maybe didn’t give it a fair shake in the past. We knew that we were going to make a great movie. And we knew that we could make a beautiful movie. And we all felt like we really had something to prove with that. So, I think it gave us a sense of purpose that was maybe even stronger than we normally have on a movie. And we were very, very determined and excited to do a great film.
Q: Are there still naysayers?
RANDY HAYCOCK: Not as many. When people see the movie, they love it. Once they started testing the film with audiences, suddenly, they were saying exactly what we’ve been saying. It’s all about the story and characters, and giving audiences real entertainment.
Q: On what grounds were the naysayers saying “No”?
RANDY HAYCOCK: Well, because our films weren’t making as much money for the theaters. It was mostly commercial.
ANDREAS DEJA: You look at the Pixar box office or DreamWorks or the others, and they were gigantic. So, from a business point of view, it seems logical to think, “Ah, the audience doesn’t like those films anymore.” But we all knew that that wasn’t the case. That it was about stories.
RANDY HAYCOCK: We understood that we weren’t really making films like the great ones in the past. We didn’t necessarily have control over the material all the time as much as we would have liked.
ANDREAS DEJA: In other words, it wasn’t our film.
RANDY HAYCOCK: The difference in this film, is that I think everybody was in agreement—that this is exactly the kind of film that Disney should be doing. It’s something that Disney always did best. Nobody else was able to do these kinds of stories the way Disney did. And, so, we needed to show everyone—the public and the industry—that we could still make the kind of movies that people grew up loving. Those characters became endearing and immortal for them. I think that’s definitely the purpose behind these films.
MIKE SURREY: For the audience members, when they see these films, they just feel really attached, and with a good, warm, loving feeling towards the kind of films we’re trying to make.
Q: What is it like for you guys when you watch one of your movies with an audience?
ANDREAS DEJA: It’s the best part. That’s the best, to see it with an audience. When we had our cast and crew screening, it went really well, we all enjoyed it—but we look at the stuff once it’s all finalized and think, “We can’t change a thing anymore. Maybe that should be a little slower. And maybe, we should have done that another way.” We’re very critical towards what we do and what we see. But once you see it with an audience, you tune in to what they’re thinking—whether they are laughing, or crying, or reacting with the characters. It’s just great. That’s the big payoff. All the hard work, really.
RANDY HAYCOCK: At the [Disney convention] D23, they showed the first 30 minutes of the film to the audience there. They are huge Disney fans that come to this. But I was sitting in the audience when they showed it. It’s a singular experience to sit there, while I had the whole audience laughing at the scenes that I animated. And I’m crying, because I’m so touched that they love it so much. That’s why we do it. We don’t do it because we love our own drawings so much. We do it because we want to move an audience. And when we see the audience affected by our artwork, then that’s the real reward. That’s the final payoff for what we do. That’s really the reason.
ANDREAS DEJA: And also, when your peers or people you have admired in the past, like the film. “I like your work.” In this D23 screening, they had some Disney VIPs. The voice of Sleeping Beauty is still alive, Mary Costa. She’s 80-years-old, and a beautiful lady still. So she saw the first 30 minutes. So, you kind of wonder, “Oh, my God, she was Sleeping Beauty. What does she think?” And she adored our film. She is from the South, and she identified with Charlotte right away. She said, “That was me when I was young.” And I said, “You were man crazy?” [LAUGH] But, it’s fun to get that kind of feedback from people whom you really admire.
MIKE SURREY: We do get to do test screenings while we are working on the movie. They’ll show the movie, maybe once every three months, to people who work in the building. Now, the first few times you see the movie, people laugh at jokes and cry at the right moments. And then, the next screenings, people aren’t laughing as much, because they have seen the jokes numerous times. I just remember, we were about three-quarters of the way through animating the film. We were tired, and we had to go to another screening of it. So I’m sitting there, and the same jokes were coming up but, but everybody was laughing or getting really quiet. And I heard people sniffling. And I’m thinking, “Haven’t these people all seen this movie multiple times?” But it turned out that it was an audience of Disney employees from outside of Animation, who had not seen the film at all. And they were seeing it for the first time. When you get to see that reaction, you kind of forget that you are used to seeing the joke. Okay, here’s the funny part. There’s a joke. Okay go. All right. But then, when people are reacting and laughing and clapping—it gets you going again.
ANDREAS DEJA: You’re seeing a fresh perspective.
MIKE SURREY: Yes, it helps you to get to the finish line a little bit. It is a little jolt of energy.
RANDY HAYCOCK: It helped us appreciate the film on a deeper level. We understood that we had made something, to see the audience reacting so positively to the film.
ANDREAS DEJA: I haven’t been in one test screening where people around me didn’t cry.
Q: Oh, really?
ANDREAS DEJA: All the time. Even in a really early screening of story sketches, Lisa Keen, a background painter, was just bawling and bawling. But people reacted that way early on.
Q: Do you see any of yourselves in the characters you animate?
RANDY HAYCOCK: That’s a good question.
ANDREAS DEJA: I see other people. But when we’re creating our characters, other people tell us, “Oh, I see your way of gesturing in your character.” I don’t think we see it ourselves.
Q: How do you determine which character you will animate? I mean, is it by personality? Or more like a skill or technique that you’re particularly good at?
MIKE SURREY: Actually, it’s a lot like casting a live-action film. We’ve all worked with [directors] Ron Clements and John Musker on numerous films. So, they know our work. They know what our strengths are. And they have an idea right from the beginning whom they would like to animate which character. But they do leave it up to us a little bit. We all got to read the script early on, and then, when we spoke with them, they would ask us, “Which character stood out for you? What did you find interesting? What would you like to do?” But they really look at our particular talents. Take, for example, Nik Ranieri, who did Charlotte. We wanted Charlotte to be very funny. And they knew Nik is really good with funny characters. So, they definitely wanted Nik to do Charlotte, because they thought that he could do something special with her. Nik, on the other hand, was saying, “Oh, I don’t know. I don’t do humans.” He did Meeko in Pocahontas, and I don’t think he’s ever created a female. Unless you count Ursula [from The Little Mermaid].
RANDY HAYCOCK: He was scared.
ANDREAS DEJA: No, he was panicking. He would talk to everybody in the hallway, “I don’t know. I haven’t done this.” And, “She has to be so beautiful!” I said, “Nik, you’ll do fine. You can always ask Mark [Henn, supervisor for Princess Tiana] for help.” [LAUGHS] And he did well.
RANDY HAYCOCK: I think we perform better when we’re a little worried. We can’t rest on our laurels. And I think that was what we felt making this movie—we all knew we had to make something really great. And maybe Nik being a little worried about it made his work that much better. Because she’s a delightful character. She’s hilarious. That is the genius of Ron and John—their ability to recognize what animators will bring. They have a clear vision of what they want from the character, and they’re able to match the character with the animator, and say, “He’s the right one to do this character justice.” Casting Charlotte to Nik was really the right thing. When you watch the film, you can’t imagine anybody else doing the character.
MIKE SURREY: Ron and John know that this is only going to help the character, because they know that Nik is not going to let Charlotte go by without her being right.
Q: You aren’t known as special “go to” guys for particular types of characters—like Mark Henn is “the Princess guy”?
MIKE SURREY: Well, I’ve done my share of—
ANDREAS DEJA: June bugs, ladybugs…[LAUGHS]
MIKE SURREY: I was going to say sidekicks—Timon in The Lion King. Terk, Tarzan. So, I’ve done the funny characters before. The last time I worked with Ron and John was Aladdin. So, I went to them to said, “I’d love to work on this movie.” And then, a week later, they said, “Well, we’d like you to do this character, Ray. Go to the [early story reel] screenings. Tell us if you think it’s something that you would want to do.” And as soon as Ray came onscreen, I thought, “Oh my God. Of course, I’d like to do the character.” Then, it just becomes a challenge of doing something you’ve never done before. But that’s what keeps it exciting and fun.
ANDREAS DEJA: We’ve been giving Mike a hard time throughout the movie, because we spend all this time, creating these old ladies and beautiful girls. And then Mike comes in—works a little—and done. Footage done for the week.
RANDY HAYCOCK: We all, I think, have certain challenges. Andreas had never done an old Bayou lady before.
AS: Not that I remember…
MIKE SURREY: Neither have I.
RANDY HAYCOCK: Neither have I. And, Mike, you’ve never done a bug before. And I’ve never done a frog before. And even Mark Henn, who did Princess Tiana, had to animate her as a frog as well. So there is always something we’re trying to learn and figure out. I think anyone who’s in a creative field—actually, I think most everybody—I think they’re interested in doing better than they have before. This is the best character I’ve ever gotten to do. So while I’m doing it, I’m thinking, “I really want to shine on this. I really want to be a better artist, a better entertainer. What can I do to make this character the best it can be?”
Q: What other projects did you do before this and how did that help you with THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG?
RANDY HAYCOCK: I worked on Chicken Little and Meet the Robinsons in between. I really had to rethink why I was doing what I do. But what I realized is that animation is more than just drawing. Animation is about creating a performance. Creating a character. Bringing a character to life. Your ultimate goal is to bring a character to life, and to entertain an audience.
Q: Are you afraid to work in a film that deals with things like black magic?
RANDY HAYCOCK: Nah, not for me.
ANDREAS DEJA: There’s always been magic…I mean, Snow White and the witch, way back in 1937. It goes all the way back to that. That was really scary magic. Scarier than ours.
MIKE SURREY: It is. It’s just that, for us and our film, it’s a fantasy element. It’s the magic element. We don’t treat it like a religion, or anything like that. It’s the rules of magic of our fairytale world. So, there’s good and there’s bad magic—in any fairy tale, there are evil characters that are magical. And there are good characters that are magical. But setting it in New Orleans, it is a part of that city’s culture. So it helped us to make it specific to our world of New Orleans.
ANDREAS DEJA: And we balance it with good magic, which is where my character, Mama Odie, comes in. And before this, I didn’t know about good magic. I always thought it was things like sticking a doll with needles, and then terrible things happen. But there is good magic as well, and that’s what I did.
Q: And a nice snake for once. Is it a reference to Shere Kahn from “The Jungle Book”?
ANDREAS DEJA: It’s so funny when people tell me this. “This snake reminds me of Shere Kahn!” I wish I had a sheet of paper to show you. Kahn looks completely different from my snake, Juju. I mean, not even close. But, because it’s a snake, you think of Kahn because he is so famous, you know? But I gave Juju these big eyes, bigger than Kahn, along with very small snouts. So, when you put them next to each other, they’re very, very different. But I accept the comparison. It’s a Disney snake. [LAUGHS]
Q: It was meant as a compliment.
ANDREAS DEJA: Thank you. Thank you very much. It’s one of those sensitive areas for me, but it was fun. I hadn’t ever done a snake. And, I remember, the first scene I did was the first scene with Juju. Mama Odie is in her boat, and she screams, “Juju!” And then, the snake kind of pops out of the sky and rubs up to her cheek. Their connection was really important to me. We have a few scenes where they connect and touch, and we see that they like each other. Maybe they’re like The Odd Couple, or mismatched roommates, but they also like each other.
Q: A bit like [directors] Ron Clements and John Musker when they’re working together?
ANDREAS DEJA: Yeah, it is. [LAUGHS] Mama Odie and Juju are based on Ron and John.
RANDY HAYCOCK: Now, which is Ron and which is John?
ANDREAS DEJA: Well, Juju is Ron. If given a choice.
Q: Andreas and Mike, what did you do prior to PRINCESS?
ANDREAS DEJA: I did a job for Disney Tunes Studio, they were called at the time. It was a sequel to Bambi. So, I went down to Sydney, Australia, and helped them out for six months. I was able to find odd jobs. But then that ran out, and I was going to leave the company. And then, we had the management change. I mean, the timing was really close. Perfect, yet. I was packing.
MIKE SURREY: I left and worked at DreamWorks—I animated, just as an animator. I didn’t want to supervise. I worked there for about a year-and-a-half. Then, I had the opportunity to come back and work here in story on Rapunzel, for about two years. It was great. I thought it was nice to come back into the studio again—and times had changed. John Lasseter and Pixar, and everything was coming together then. And Ron and John were back. The energy here started to feel more positive. The challenge of animating after not animating for five years…then, having John Musker tell you that the scene you’re going to do as a test scene will be going into the movie!—that was a bit jarring. The scene where Ray says, “Let me shine a little light on the situation”—that was the first scene I had done in five years.
RANDY HAYCOCK: It all comes back, doesn’t it? It all really comes back.
MKE SURREY: Yeah. It was more enjoyable, I think.
ANDREAS DEJA: Now you treasure it more.
MIKE SURREY: Yeah. I did with every scene.
RANDY HAYCOCK: Well, we certainly appreciate it more.
Q: It’s a beautiful film.
RANDY HAYCOCK: Thank you very much. I’m glad you enjoyed it.
MIKE SURREY: Yeah, thank you.
RANDY HAYCOCK: We had a great time working on it.
MIKE SURREY: It’s great for us…I mean, we see the funniest things. What [art director] Ian Gooding did with color, just unbelievable. We’re working in pencil lines and then, to see your character realized in color, oh, my God. He did an amazing job.
RANDY HAYCOCK: Every step of the way, it just got better and better—from script, to story, to animation, to color, to music and voice and sound effects… Every step of the way, the film just got better and better. That’s such a rewarding thing. When we got to see the film finally finished for the first time, people said, “Oh, you’ve probably seen this film a million times, right?” “No, I’ve only seen it once, finished!” But it’s like seeing it for the first time, really, when everything comes together. Watching everything working for the first time—that was really a great experience.