Web Exclusive: November 2010

"Tangled" Up With Tim Mertens

An Interview by Garrett Gilchrist

(click images to enlarge)

This Thanksgiving eve, November 24, Walt Disney Studios brings us Tangled, the irreverent and visually-dazzling story of Rapunzel (Mandy Moore) and the charming thief Flynn Rider (Zachary Levi). Rapunzel's 70 feet of golden hair has magical properties, which have led Mother Goethel to imprison her in a lonely tower for her own selfish reasons. Before her eighteenth birthday, Rapunzel decides to escape, letting her hair down for a new life of adventure. Tangled is something new yet familiar- Disney's first attempt to tell a classic Disney fairytale adventure in 3D CGI animation. Tangled features new music from eight-time Oscar-winning composer/songwriter Alan Menken (The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin). Supervising animator Glen Keane wanted to evoke the "best of both worlds," and "bring the warmth and intuitive feel of hand-drawn animation to CGI." He was inspired by Snow White, and by the Romantic painting "The Swing", by French rococo artist Jean-Honoré Fragonard: "A fairy tale world has to feel romantic and lush, very painterly." Directing the film are Byron Howard and Nathan Greno, who were co-director and head of story on Bolt [2008], and also worked on Chicken Little and Brother Bear. The editor is Tim Mertens, who edited Bolt and Brother Bear. "They pushed the limits of technology," says Mertens. The animators developed new technology, using subsurface scattering, global illumination and up-to-the-moment techniques to render convincing human characters and rich environments. Is it a new Disney classic or a bad hair day? The Editors Guild Magazine's Garrett Gilchrist caught up with Mertens to find out.

TM: Rapunzel is very strong willed and capable, and doesn't take much guff from people. We didn't want a standard issue Princess. The trickiest part was developing her arc, her relationships with the non-speaking characters, Pascal and Maximus, and creating a believable, loving mother-daughter relationship, which turns out to be this toxic lie.

GG: How did you get started in animation?

TM: Animation just fell my way. I wanted to be a photographer, and became an assistant editor with Warner Leighton, who introduced me to Horta Editorial. I adhered myself to Stan Horta's side and learned everything he would teach me. I was a sound assistant on Disney saturday morning projects like Darkwing Duck and Tale Spin, and A Goofy Movie. Sara Duran, post production supervisor, hired me as first assistant on Pocahontas in 1994. I've been there ever since. H. Lee Peterson, who also edited Aladdin, was a great mentor to me. I was a sponge, wanting to take in everything I could. As a young punk, you want to speak your mind, but you have to earn that right. I always wanted to be an editor. I started when I was 18, and I took the time and the necessary steps to get there.

GG: Glen Keane is serving as a producer and animation supervisor on the film.

TM: They wanted Glen's sensibilities. He brought The Little Mermaid to life, the Beast, Aladdin, Pocahontas and Tarzan. They were striving for that. We think this is a film that's gonna bring back Disney to top form. I mean, he's Glen Keane. Students from Cal Arts and all across the country, all over the world- they'd show their rough dailies and Glen would draw over their stuff and help them. I can only imagine what that was like a student.

GG: Originally, Keane and Dean Wellins were directing the film.

TM: They'd been working on Rapunzel for a while. I don't think a radical change needed to take place, but the story wasn't going the way you'd want it to. They'd brought in another director to look at the story. John Lasseter and Ed Catmull, our CEO and CCO, come from Pixar of course, and their films are very director driven. There were aspects of it they really liked, and when Nathan and Byron saw it they had very strong opinions about which direction it should go. Glen was having some health issues. He took a hiatus, but he came back. He's been heavily involved in the animation, and developing the story.

GG: There's so much pressure on these films to perform well.

TM: You want to tell a great story, make it fun, make it emotional and appealing for everybody, not just girls or boys, children or adults. In animation we can start over. We can pick out the best and throw out what's not working, and keep changing and changing it. You have to never be satisfied until it's right. Bolt started as a Chris Sanders project called American Dog. Nathan and Byron and [co-director] Chris Williams and I worked countless evenings, nights and weekends under a tough schedule. I was going on to another project, but Nathan and Byron called me immediately for Rapunzel, saying we've been through this together, we know what you're capable of. John Lasseter asked me himself, saying, what we just went through proves to me you guys can do this, quickly and creatively. I was honored to be asked. Nathan is incredibly strong on story, and Byron can be so quirky and bring the characters to life. Since we worked together on Brother Bear they've been coworkers, confidantes and friends. They never tire, they never quit. It's a tireless effort from every department. We're all very close, a great bunch to work with. Everyone's extremely talented and we trust each other. We learn through years of working together- we just keep pushing until it's as good as it can possibly be. You have to get used to that constant change, because it's every screening. It's ever-evolving. It's tough when you have something you feel is working well, and you want to hold onto it, but to make the story work it has to go. You take a step backwards to take two more steps forward. Finally you learn from your mistakes and it becomes so much better. But it's always a struggle. Editors work countless hours, late nights and weekends, but in live action it's a 6 to 8 month gig. These projects take years.

GG: How is your suite set up?

TM: Any editor will tell you that scenes play differently on the big screen. We wanted to replicate that within the suite itself. There's a big, clear 114" screen, with my Avid at the back of the room. I call it my sweet instead of my suite because it's a pretty nice room.

GG: As an animation editor, you start with very rough, raw materials.

TM: There's a script, then you're given the first storyboard drawings, and you record scratch dialogue and put together a rough scene. It's basically a blank slate. The editor becomes a creative lead, because you're finding the shape of the story. Where do we cut, how, and why? At every screening we get notes, but you can usually tell which scenes are solid. Our layout supervisor Stuart Beattie places rudimentary models of the characters in the sets, and the great thing about CG animation is that we can then put the camera wherever we want, come up with any shot we want to. It's limitless. We spend countless hours working closely together figuring shots out. There's a lot of action in the film- chase scenes, big epic escapes. The effects department can do just about anything we ask them to do also. To cinematography, animation, color, every step we're all trying to make it better. There's very good music, very good 3D. It's my job to make it all as exciting or emotional as possible. I enjoy that, building a film from the ground up, and making it whatever you want, not being dealt a hand that's premade. The film starts out rough and very unsatisfying. It's a very difficult task, honing it and honing it, but when you start getting it right, it's so rewarding to see people react, and tell you how much they enjoyed it. That's the biggest reason I do this. I have two children, and seeing their reactions, and hearing that they're telling all their friends, and their friends can't wait to see it...

GG: Although animated films (and mostly-animated films like Avatar) consistently set box office records, they're not always respected as films, or as adult entertainment.

TM: Often they don't get the accolades they should. But audiences have started to come around. It was great to see Up [2009] get a Best Picture nomination.

GG: And Beauty and the Beast [1991]. But generally they wind up in the Best Animated Feature category...

TM: Which is its own little world. The box office will tell you people love these films, and so more and more studios are putting out animation, and they're not all going to be as well put together. It can diminish the market a little bit. But ultimately if the movie is telling a good story, people will see it. We try to make the most entertaining film we can, with great characters and great animation- something artistic and colorful and heartfelt. I feel so very lucky to be a part of what John Lasseter does. He truly has a knack for what audiences like. And he's a very caring man, something you don't often see in someone in his position. The producer, the big lug, Roy Conli, is such a lighthearted and good person to work with. My associate editor Shannon Stein, my assistant John Wheeler, and my P.A. Yvette Marino, we've all become a very tight family for a couple of years. It's a really fun thing to do, and extremely rewarding to finally see your work up on the screen. Tangled is a very, very satisfying film. There's so much wit and emotion and heart. When you've engulfed two years of your life into a film, anyone will say that- like your child is the best at baseball. But it's a really special film that will entertain everyone immensely. Fathers and sons and daughters and moms, grandpas and grandmas. When Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin came out, it was a very special event, bringing the whole family together to be entertained. You laugh and cry and walk out of the theater talking about the characters, the music, the animation. Regardless of this being a Disney film, we want to make a lasting impression that goes on for generations. These are classics that are hopefully gonna sit on people's shelves and live with them forever. It's neat to be a part of that.

Garrett Gilchrist is a freelance writer, filmmaker and film editor specializing in animation. 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.