November-December 2009 : Volume 30, Number 6

Disney's Great Green Hope

Can The Princess and The Frog Save Hand-Drawn Animation?

The Princess and the Frog.  (c) Disney

After the death of its founder, the Walt Disney Company struggled. They hadn't had a big animated hit in years, until Ron Clements and John Musker directed the Little Mermaid in 1989, kicking off a series of hit films including Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King. Today, it's said that traditional animation is dead. Audiences seem to only want to watch CGI animated films. Pixar's John Lasseter now runs the Disney company, and he's betting that audiences want to see a traditionally animated Disney musical.

If you want to try to bring the forgotten art of traditional animation back to theaters, it's only logical to call the directors who managed it last time- Ron Clements and John Musker, directors of Aladdin and Hercules. Among most people in the business, their sense of story and character is considered to be second to none, equal to few.

The film is The Princess and the Frog. If this film is a success, it will pave the way for countless hand-drawn Disney animated features in the future. If it fails, the coffin of traditional animation could be sealed that much tighter. In a very real way, the jobs of thousands of traditional animators rest on the success of this one film. Will their story have a happy ending?

Jeff Draheim is the editor, and he's calm and cheerful, full of an infectious enthusiasm for the project. There is no fear or trepidation, only pride in what the film's directors and animators have accomplished. He has the familiar, family-friendly good humor about him of someone who lives and breathes animation.

EGM: How did you end up on this film?

JD: I was hired at the Florida studio back in '94. It was a division called Animation Services, and our job was to handle some of the ancillary projects, like the video games and a lot of theme park stuff- they have a whole animation tour at the Disney-MGM Studios- and all these little documentaries and making-ofs. I was also kind of the unofficial Development editor. The main crew were doing Mulan at the time, and I sort of handled everything else. One of the projects that came to me was Brother Bear. I was one of the first editors to help develop that project. I ended up cutting the whole first act all by myself. That's what we showed to Tom Schumacher, and it got the film green-lit into production. Tim Mertens edited the film- a great editor. He had worked on Tarzan.

Editor Jeff Draheim.
Photo by Eric Charbonneau
As Associate Editor, I learned so much from Tim. A great experience. But then they closed the Florida studio down. By then I had made a few contacts out here in California. Some Florida animators had come here to work for Disneytoon Studios as directors. They called me up saying, Jeff, we want you to come out here. So I edited Kronk's New Groove, and was supervising editor on Brother Bear 2. I was able to work my way to feature animation once again, where I helped out on a bunch of little shorts, like Goofy in How to Hook Up Your Home Theater, which was a really fun experience. Ron and John were in talks about doing The Princess and the Frog. I was in awe of these guys. I would see them in the halls and step aside. "Oh my gosh, it's them!" These were the guys who did Little Mermaid, Aladdin and Hercules. I knew they were looking for an editor, and I talked to the head of Post Production saying, "You know what? Throw my name in. What the heck." My very first meeting was lunch with the two of them and Don Hahn, the producer who did Lion King and Beauty and the Beast. Believe me, it was intimidating. Part of me thought, these guys aren't gonna hire me. They don't even know who I am. Maybe that helped me relax a little bit, and as a result we all hit it off really well. Two days later, I found out they wanted me on board as their lead editor. I jokingly tell people, this is Ron and John, they could have asked me to edit their family's home movies, and I would have said yes- any opportunity to work with these guys. It's been an amazing experience. I know I've made some great contributions to this movie, but I also feel like I've spent the last three and a half years at the Ron and John school of filmmaking. I've learned so much, just working under these gentlemen.

EGM: What are they like, personality wise?

JD: Because Ron's been here 35 years, and John's been here 30 years, and they've done such great movies, you'd think that they might come in and say "Well, we've done this before, this is how we're gonna do it." But they're not like that at all. They are so nice, and so laid back, and so collaborative. They surround themselves with people that they know are going to give them feedback and throw in their two cents, and they want that! They want to get a lot of different opinions. I've seen situations where they're walking down the hall and someone will stop them and say, I have an idea. And Ron and John will stop and talk to them, and understand where that idea's coming from. There is a mutual respect that we have for them and they have for us. All of us, the entire crew, have had such a wonderful experience. I don't know of anyone who hasn't contributed to the story. I'm Head of Editorial; we have Head of Story, Head of Layout. We're constantly meeting, and everybody will start throwing out ideas when a sequence gets approved into production. We have the whole thing pinned up in boards up on the wall and ready for animation. The animators are in there, and everyone will say, "Hey, this is great, but what if you did this?" Or, "Maybe it would be funny if this happened." It's amazing how open Ron and John are to everything and everybody. It's such an open forum of discussion.

The Princess and the Frog.  (c) Disney
EGM: How much has it changed since you were first on the project?

JD: Ron and John worked on this script for quite a while before we even started. It's gone through various evolutions. But when you look back at it, our movie hasn't changed that much from the original core story of the script. There have been a few little story beats, and some characters have been redefined, but it's really still that core story. The same vision. There's a fleshing out process, but it's all the same characters, and even back then they knew where they wanted the songs to go, and those are there, so it's very consistent. We're basically a very small, 3 man editing team. I'm the Supervising Editor. My First Assistant is Margaret Johnson-Holzendorf, and the Second Assistant is Darrian James. Between the three of us, we've been working on this movie for three and a half years now.

EGM: It's a long time to devote to a project, but very typical for animation.

JD: Very typical. Since I was the first guy on Brother Bear, I was on that movie for five years. That starts to get a little long. Three and a half years was really the perfect window for us. We're all so passionate about it. I can edit twelve, thirteen, fourteen, sixteen hours a day and the time flies by because I just get so wrapped up in what I'm doing. Believe me, on a three man crew we've all had to really step up and done an outstanding job. Everyone here is constantly giving 110 percent at everything. Now that John Lasseter has stepped in as our Creative Executive Officer, it's wonderful to have him on board, but it makes us work harder, knowing we've got to show our sequences to John Lasseter! We really fine tune our early story reels. I personally don't even like to show the directors my first cut until it's as fine tuned and polished as possible. We work on the Avid Meridian, and I'll incorporate Adobe After Effects and Photoshop to give it a little more life. We'll separate the characters, and do camera movies and multiplaning. Our Production Department Manager is Kristen Kolada, and then there's Kelly Feeg, our Production Assistant. They handle more of the managerial stuff, making sure recording sessions are set up, helping to get story sketches in. Ron and John like working the same way that I do, and that is that the artists will start storyboarding a sequence, and once they've got that finished they'll send that to me, and we'll go on and record temporary scratch dialogue.We've worked really hard to make sure that the performances were there, because that scratch is gonna live for quite a while. Ron and John will say, okay Jeff, go take your first pass at that. That's the most creative part of my job. An animator starts with a blank piece of paper, and I'm starting with a blank timeline. It's up to me to get a handle on what the storyboard artist is intending, to take all these elements and piece it together. It starts to take on a life of its own, choosing the performances and setting the pacing. It's the part I love the best, watching these sequences grow and evolve into something really nice, and knowing that I'm really making a contribution.

The Princess and the Frog. 

(c) Disney

EGM: It evolves from a very small amount of material.

JD: It really does, yeah. I'll do a temp sound FX pass. We might have one story sketch of characters walking through a bayou, but I'm putting on the footsteps, the ambience, any little hand grabs or body slams. The early temp music is borrowed from existing scores, and I'll spend hours going through dozens, sometimes hundreds of different scores to find the right kind of music to help set the mood. I have to think that if you guys walked in with John Lasseter at the last minute, I would feel very comfortable playing this for you, that it's pretty well finessed. Once I've got a sequence that really plays well, the directors come in and we start going through it. I might even work up alternate cuts. "This section felt a little long so I took out a couple lines- what do you guys think about that?" It's a lot of back and forth. "Gee Jeff, we love your short version, but what if we put this one line back in, but maybe we could take out these other two lines." "I like this take, but why don't we listen to some other takes on this line?" It slowly evolves til we get to a point where we're happy with it. Then we go on to the next sequence, and once we have thirty of them done, hopefully we've got a movie.

EGM: Has the workflow changed for the animators? On How to Install Your Home Theater, the artists were drawing the artwork digitally.

JD: It's all on paper, and is then scanned. A lot of the background and layout artists work digitally on the Cintiq, and it looks fantastic. They talked to the animators about working on the Cintiq, and they were given that option. But almost all of the animators rejected that idea, and went back to paper. Some of these guys have been doing this for 30 years, and wouldn't have it any other way. You don't fix what isn't broken.

EGM: The film has a New Orleans flavor. Does that extend to the music?

JD: Completely. The songs and the score are all being done by Randy Newman. He spent a lot of time in New Orleans when he was growing up, so everything has such an authentic feel to it, and just sounds fantastic. The film takes place in the 1920s, and it captures that sense of Americana. We can tell he's loving it too. He's really excited to be on this project.

EGM: As Disney's first large 2D release in five years, there is a huge weight of expectation for this film to do well. It seems as if Disney has brought out its best people - "The big guns."

The Princess and the Frog.  (c) Disney
JD: We have the best animators working on this film. The supervising animator on Tiana, our Princess, is Mark Henn, who animated Ariel, Belle, Jasmine, Pocahontas and Mulan. Eric Goldberg who animated The Genie in Aladdin and codirected Pocahontas is animating Louis. Andreas Deja who did Gaston, Jafar, Scar, Adult Hercules and Lilo is animating Mama Odie and Juju. We've got the A-team working on this thing. Disney actually kept all these animators; they've never left the company. When it was announced that they were making this movie in 2D, these guys just went through the roof. They were so thrilled. Andreas Deja was dancing down the halls, he was so excited. They have such love and passion for this art form. You can tell they gave 110 percent, and it really comes through. When you look at the animation you can feel the heart and soul in their drawings. Randy Haycock who animated Pocahontas, Young Hercules, Adult Simba, Clayton in Tarzan and Jim Hawkins in Treasure Planet is supervising Prince Naveen. Bruce Smith who animated Kerchak in Tarzan and Pacha in The Emperor's New Groove is animating Dr. Facilier. Mike Surrey who supervised Timon in The Lion King is animating Ray the Firefly. I'm not kidding, we've got the best of the best. The early tests always blow me away. I saw Eric Goldberg in the hall once, and had to tell him, the scene where Louis is talking about Mama Odie, I bust a gut laughing every time I see it. The animation is just so well done; he's amazing.

EGM: The high technical quality of Disney animated films has always been there, even in films that weren't as popular with audiences. Do you feel this film has a spark in the story that will rise it above the heap?

JD: Yes. It's always hard to second guess what the audience's reaction is gonna be, but we're incredibly optimistic. This is such a fun movie, with so much going for it. It's a return to the golden age of Disney hand drawn animation, with Ron and John directing, in the classic musical format. We have our first African-American princess. People are going to be interested for one reason or another. They'll be drawn into this and want to see it, and once they do see it, people are going to realize they've forgotten how beautiful animation can be.

EGM: Very true, since for a long time now, hand-drawn animation has largely thrived in lower-budget efforts on television, and direct to DVD.

JD: Yes. People will immediately notice this isn't saturday morning animation. This is Disney at its absolute best. When you see it in its finished form in color with the lighting and tone, its just breathtaking. A couple of weeks ago, we were at a scoring stage with a hundred piece orchestra. We were there for three days, projecting the sequences over and over as the orchestra played the music. On the second day, one of the techs turned to the producer, and he actually asked, "So, is some of this drawn by hand?"

The Princess and the Frog's supervising editor Jeff Draheim, center, and his team: first assistant Margaret Johnson-Holzendorf and second assistant Darrian James.
Photo by Eric Charbonneau
EGM: [laughs] Apparently people have forgotten what animation is. You need to remind people.

JD: We all chuckled at that. Some people won't even notice the art form, but they'll see how beautiful it is. Because of the fluidity and the precision of the work, this is so gorgeous that some people might even think, "Oh, there's no way a human being could do this." About three months ago we had two screenings testing the film with an audience. Back then, it wasn't quite fully animated, so there was a lot of roughs, a lot of cleanups. It was all black and white- only 20 percent in color. Both screenings were fantastic. The audiences loved it. And all the feedback we got, there wasn't a single comment about it being in 2D. Neither good nor bad. The art form wasn't important; they were just puled into the story. We love the fact that this is 2D, but our first goal was just to tell a great story, with compelling characters. That's what people are going to the theaters to see.

EGM: Do you feel that with 2D having been away, that this is the right amount of time for people to now miss it?

JD: I think so. I feel we're positioned very well. Ten years ago I would have been the first in line to see a CG movie. Most of them were coming out of Pixar, and all their movies are great. But in the past few years, everybody's jumped on that bandwagon. There's a flood of movies out there from all sorts of different studios, and honestly some of them aren't that good. I think audiences are becoming aware of that. It's almost becoming a little old hat, like "Aww, another CG movie." Audiences aren't impressed by just the CG technology alone anymore. You need to be telling very good stories. I think we're coming out at a great time, and maybe it's that old expression that we're so old that we're new again. Resurrecting 2D animation feels groundbreaking, in a strange way. Particularly coming from Disney, since we're the company that invented this technology, to a certain degree.

EGM: Do you feel this is a traditional Disney story, or something different?

JD: There's a very traditional sense to it. It has a very nice Disney feel. This is coming from Ron and John, and it fits in with their collection of films- Little Mermaid, Aladdin. It really has that warmth, that energy, the music, the comedy. This may be a little bit of a button statement, but I've been with Disney for 15 years, and working on this movie is by the far the best experience of my professional life. I feel like I've won the lottery. This is my first theatrical feature as the lead editor, and I'm working on a film that's Disney's return to 2D hand-drawn animation. It's Disney's return to the animated musical format, with an African-American princess. I'm working with Disney legends- Ron Clements and John Musker, under the guidance of John Lasseter, all for the Walt Disney Animation Studios. I've gotta tell you, it doesn't get any better than that.

Garrett Gilchrist is a freelance writer, filmmaker and film editor. He can be reached at orangecow.org.

Does Disney Still Have It?

An Animated Analysis

By Garrett Gilchrist

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.  (c) Disney
Walt Disney once said, "It's fun to do the impossible." He was a man of unusual vision and ambition, who delighted in doing what no one else had before. With animator Ub Iwerks he created the first sound cartoon, Steamboat Willie. He created the first fully animated feature film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. He created a theme park like no other. These were huge risks, that paid off spectacularly. The animators of Disney studios, the best in the world, created one classic film after another, beloved by every generation of children since. The legendary "nine old men" of Disney are still spoken about in hushed tones by animation students, a roster that included Milt Kahl, Marc Davis, Ward Kimball, Frank Thomas, and Ollie Johnson.

But after Walt's death the studio couldn't seem to produce a hit film anymore, producing forgotten films like The Black Cauldron. It seemed that in a more overtly cynical age, animation was a thing of the past. Finally, animator Richard Williams and live-action director Robert Zemeckis had a huge hit with Who Framed Roger Rabbit? in 1988. But that film used animation as a special effect, and there was no proof that audiences would flock to a traditional Disney animated musical.

When Ron Clements and John Musker directed The Little Mermaid in 1989, the Disney renaissance began. The film grossed $84 million at the box office, and eventually $211 million worldwide. During this period, Disney produced some of the best-loved and most financially successful films of all time. Beauty and the Beast was nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, and made $377 million at the box office worldwide. Aladdin, directed again by Clements and Musker made $504 million. The Lion King made just under $784 million worldwide. Clements and Musker, possibly Disney's most popular directors, returned for Hercules ($252 million), and Treasure Planet ($109 million).

But Disney's winning streak was waning. Audiences grew less interested in Disney features. Children were still watching, but critics had tuned out. Animated films are expensive to produce, requiring skilled artists to produce hundreds of thousands of drawings by hand, 24 frames per second of film, a process which usually takes four years or longer. A Disney theatrical feature cannot skimp on animation quality. After a series of films which failed to perform to management's expectations, Disney stopped producing traditional animated features. Home on the Range, in 2004, was their last. The film grossed $103 million worldwide.

The Little Mermaid.  (c) Disney
Computer animation had become the norm. When John Lasseter of Pixar directed Toy Story in 1997, audiences were astounded by the first computer-animated feature film. Pixar has gone on on to produce some of the best films of this past decade, but their innovation has not been whizz-bang computer graphic effects, but rather good stories told well, with compelling characters. Some other companies have duplicated Pixar's computer graphics, but not their fearless storytelling. John Lasseter now runs the Disney company. But traditional animation is all but dead. The best traditional animators in the world have been largely unemployed, with a vast crop of sometimes inferior computer animated films taking up space at the box office.

A new, successful hand-drawn animated film is long overdue. In some decades, animation has been hugely popular and topped the box office. In some decades, it hasn't. But Disney's animated films have lingered and lasted in a way that very few live action films have. We have only gone five years without a true Disney feature. To declare the death of traditional animation is to ignore seventy years of cinema history. No, traditional animation isn't dead. It's just looking for a hit.

Garrett Gilchrist is a freelance writer, filmmaker and film editor. He can be reached at orangecow.org.

Articles written by Garrett Gilchrist and (c) The Motion Picture Editors Guild Magazine, 2008-2011.
Website design by Garrett Gilchrist.