Joe Grant was one of Disney's original character designers, having worked with Walt all the way back to "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs." In his early '90s, he still worked at the studio, according to Randy Fullmer, producer of Disney's first computer-animated feature, "Chicken Little."
Disney animators had debated for at least years whether to jump from traditional two-dimensional cel animation to the brave new world of computer animation. "We had Pixar up there, doing really top-notch CG movie, so part of the debate was, maybe they do 3D movies and we do 2D movies," Fullmer said.
But Fullmer and "Chicken Little" director Mark Dindal (with whom Fullmer worked on Disney's 2D "The Emperor's New Groove") wanted to try computer animation. "The palette of tools, and the camera moves you can do and the textures you can put on the characters - it just opens up a fantastic world," Fullmer said.
Grant thought otherwise. "He said, 'If Walt were around today, Walt would never have locked himself into a technology, and said "That's what I stand for - I stand for the pencil," ' " Fullmer said.
"He said Walt was always a cutting-edge guy. [Walt] came up with multi-planed cameras. He did a lot of sound work, a lot of work with color. . . We're about telling great stories, and we're about great characters, and we should be whatever is the medium out there that will tell the story in the best way." (Grant died in May, just shy of his 93rd birthday. "Chicken Little" is dedicated to him.)
Jumping into 3D computer animation was an anxious moment for Disney's animators - only half of the 35 or so animators had ever worked in computer animation, and the ones who had used computer animation worked on the lumbering, photo-realistic characters of Disney's "Dinosaur."
"The animators that we got from 'Dinosaur,' they were so tired of doing slow, plodding dinosaurs, they were ready to jump in," Fullmer said.
For the pencil animators, Fullmer said Disney devised artist-driven computer tools that worked intuitively "that you didn't need to be a computer programmer to use," Fullmer said.
There was a learning curve. "In the first two or three months, there was plenty of grumbling," Fullmer said. "I went around at six months, because I could feel we were really starting to turn a corner. I went around to the 18 animators and said to every one of them, 'How do you feel now? Would you go back?' And there wasn't one animator who said he would go back."
The animators saw the possibilities of computer animation, Fullmer said. "It's such a user-friendly tool," he said. "If you get a slightly better joke, and you want to insert a new line, in an hour or two an animator can work with the lip-synch . . . With pencil, you're practically erasing and going all the way back to scratch."
Computer animation also allows cartoon directors to work like live-action directors, changing lighting and camera angles at will. "When you're locked in on 2D animation, once you've drawn it you really only have the camera angle that you drew it," he said.
Fullmer said he and Dindal were determined to do computer-animation that followed the Disney tradition.
"It looks like a Disney movie, it doesn't look like Pixar," Fullmer said. "It looks like a classic Disney movie . . . with real energy and the squash-and-stretch in the animation." (Dindal watched early Goofy shorts for inspiration. "They're just so full of energy," Fullmer said.)
As "Chicken Little" was being completed, Fullmer said the technology came together to present the movie in 3D. Not the crappy red-blue stuff that hasn't changed since the '50s (and was last producing headaches for anyone sitting through "The Adventures of SharkBoy and LavaGirl"), but "circular polarized" glasses and digital projection to produce sharp, full-color images that pop out at you.
Only 80-some theaters nationwide are screening the 3D version; one of them is the Megaplex 17 at Jordan Commons in Sandy. I got a sneak peak of the technology on Thursday, and it is impressive - sharp and clear images, much like seeing an IMAX 3D movie. And the glasses, with the same green frames Chicken Little himself wears, make a nice souvenir.
But 3D effects and computer shortcuts weren't the only reason Disney's animators took to the new technology. "Fear is a great motivator, too," Fullmer said, half joking. "If you see the industry sort of changing over, and you want to have a job, you'd better figure out what's going on in the new world."
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