Inside The Cel: Behind The Scenes With Animators

Guests

Brenda Chapman, animated film director
Daniel Hansen, co-director of the program in character animation, California Institute of Arts

The highly anticipated animated films Monsters University, Despicable Me 2 and Turbo hit theaters this summer. From cel technology to full-length, computer-animated, celebrity-studded movies, animation has come a long way.

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NEAL CONAN, HOST:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. Every summer these days, animated movies arrive at the local octoplex, designed not just for kids, but for the parents that pay their way in and buy the popcorn. Coming soon, "Despicable Me 2" and "Monsters University." Last year, "Brave" was the film to see.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "BRAVE")

KELLY MACDONALD: (As Merida) I am Merida, firstborn descendent of Clan DunBroch. And I'm be shooting for my own hand.

CONAN: "Brave's" story creator, Brenda Chapman, started to develop her headstrong heroine nearly 10 years ago, with a new fairytale to match. From sketch to story to screen, it took many, many hands to create the movie. If you've worked on an animated film, tell us: What's the most interesting part of this complicated business? 800-989-8255 is the phone number. Email: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, NPR's favorite film buff Murray Horwitz with the best robot movies of all time. You can email us your nominations now: talk@npr.org. But first, Brenda Chapman was Pixar's first female director for the movie "Brave." She was also the first female head of story for Disney's "The Lion King," and helped launch DreamWorks. She joins us now via Skype from DreamWorks Studios, and welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

BRENDA CHAPMAN: Thank you.

CONAN: So walk us through the character development of Merida.

CHAPMAN: Well, she initially came through when I was just discovering my daughter was a very strong-willed little girl at about four or five years old. And I was just sort of astonished that I thought I was supposed to get that kind of behavior when she became a teenager, not so young. So, Merida sort of grew out of that astonishment, and my daughter became the inspiration for her character, as to what would she be like as a teenager. And thus, Merida came by.

CONAN: Did she have vivid red hair and a Scots accent?

(LAUGHTER)

CHAPMAN: No, no. My daughter is a blonde, and she lives in Northern California. So the Scottish part came from the - the story of "Brave" came out of three of my loves, namely my daughter, my love of fairytales and my love of Scotland. It's part of my heritage. I'm the great American mutt. I have many different ancestry, but the Scottish gene sort of cried out in me.

So that's - I wanted to set a fairytale in a world that was fresh, that hadn't really been utilized in animation, as well as give a story that a modern audience could relate to, especially working mothers and their daughters.

CONAN: How many different characterizations, drawings, were there before you arrived at the character we saw in the movie?

CHAPMAN: Not many. She came to be very early on in the process. You know, I knew she was going to have red hair because of Scotland, but I also knew that I wanted her to have a more stout, athletic figure, as opposed to the really skinny supermodel approach that had seemed to be the norm before.

So in speaking to my character designers and my production designer, and even my head of story at the time, Steve Purcell, they were all drawing her very similarly.

CONAN: It's interesting, you mentioned that supermodel look. Disney recently rebranded Merida, looking a little more like a supermodel.

CHAPMAN: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

CHAPMAN: That was a pretty big disappointment for me, and I just - I was kind of not surprised, but astounded at the same time.

CONAN: They own her. You don't.

CHAPMAN: Exactly. Exactly.

CONAN: And that must be some - she's your creation.

CHAPMAN: Yeah, it's - you know, but it's - that's the way the studios work in Hollywood. You work for them. They own whatever you come up with. And you have basically no rights to what they do with it.

CONAN: Now by the time you were doing "Brave," it's a long way from what you did on "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?"

(LAUGHTER)

CHAPMAN: Yes. I was just a cleanup artist on Roger Rabbit. I had nothing to do with Jessica.

CONAN: Explain what a cleanup artist does.

CHAPMAN: A cleanup artist is someone who comes in after the animator has done the rough animation. When an animator draws, in traditional, it's a really rough sketch. And then a cleanup artist has to take that and do a really clean line to make the character look exactly the same from frame to frame and throughout the film.

CONAN: So it's the animated version of continuity.

CHAPMAN: Yes.

(LAUGHTER)

CONAN: And it's tedious work?

CHAPMAN: I found it so. That's why I love story so much.

(LAUGHTER)

CHAPMAN: But you have to have an incredible talent in draftsmanship to be able to do that, and I have a huge respect for the artists who do that job. They get the short end of the stick a lot, you know, but they are incredibly talented people.

CONAN: And I understand that when you were doing cleanup, that was what female animators mostly did in the business.

CHAPMAN: Yes. Before - you know, in the old days of Walt, there were advertisements for animators, and in the fine print, it said women need not apply. So - and when I applied to CalArts, I was told the only way I would get in was through cleanup, where the guys were told they could put in animation portfolios, which is, you know, sort of the actor part of the thing.

But I was fortunate enough to hit the time in the late '80s where Disney was getting a little scrutiny for not having any women in their creative pool. They had a couple of female animators, Cathy Zielinski and a couple of others, but I was hired as a story trainee because they saw my student film and my story reel. So they decided to give me a shot, because I was the right price. I was a trainee and fresh out of school.

CONAN: You were the right price. Brenda Chapman mentioned CalArts. That's the California Institute of Arts, and Daniel Hansen teaches there. He's co-director of the program in character animation. He started working at Disney in 1975, where he was a layout artist, artistic coordinator and art director. His work is included in movies like "Aladdin," "Pocahontas," "The Emperor's New Groove," and he joins us now from a studio in Sherman Oaks, California. And it's good of you to be with us today.

DANIEL HANSEN: Well thanks, Neal. Glad to be here.

CONAN: And Brenda was also talking about, you know, some of the old days at Disney. You go back that far, to the nine old men.

HANSEN: I do. As a matter of fact, you know, when I started, Woolie Reitherman was still there, Milt Kahl, Frank Thomas, Ollie Johnston, John Lounsbery, Ken Anderson, they were all still there. And the only three people who I believe had retired at that time - well, Ward Kimball had retired, Les Clark had retired. Marc Davis, I believe, was working at, well, what is now calling Imagineering. He was designing, like, the characters from "Pirates of the Caribbean."

CONAN: And they go back, of course, to the days where animated films were made from hand-painted cels, each motion a different cel. And this is something that, well, eventually led to the craft almost disappearing.

HANSEN: Yeah, absolutely. And the person that I worked really closely with was Don Griffith, and Don had started there as an artist. He was self-taught, and he started there, I believe it was in 1938. And - but yeah, you're absolutely right. It was all - I mean, everything was hand-done at that time.

CONAN: Technology came in. Computers allowed you to do many new and different things, and of course a lot of people grumbled it was going to be a travesty.

HANSEN: No, it did. I mean, that was the talk. But you know something? I mean, it was like an amazing opportunity. You know, we were - the really exciting thing is for us is that we were kind of on that cusp, you know, in learning what the new equipment would do and what we could - you know, how amazing we could make it. I mean, it was really kind of a phenomenal opportunity.

CONAN: And Brenda Chapman, I wanted to bring you back in here. While it is amazing what the technology will enable you to do now, it is of course paramount - not to mention another studio - but paramount that the story and the characters be there to bring the film to life.

CHAPMAN: Absolutely. There's a saying that the worst animation in the world won't kill a good story, but the best animation in the world can't save a bad story. So story is absolutely the first thing that we have to make sure is top quality.

CONAN: And in a world where there is so much - these are big corporations. It's everybody's decision. There's committees. Who decides?

(LAUGHTER)

CHAPMAN: It's different everywhere. I mean, of course it's a business, so the people running the company does have the final say. It just really depends on your - the studio and who the director is and how, you know, they're respected. And it's a collaboration. So you get a lot of input from a lot of different people, and I think the director's job is to try to make sure that it all fits together in one vision.

CONAN: But who gets to say of all the projects that have been proposed, this is the one that goes?

CHAPMAN: That would be the heads of the studios, the heads of development and studio.

CONAN: And Daniel Hansen, that is where a lot of good projects go to die.

HANSEN: Oh, absolutely. Yes. In fact, I worked on "Black Cauldron," which was like a really painful picture, and I wish it had died before it ever saw the light of day.

(LAUGHTER)

HANSEN: But what - and it was really unfortunate, too, because the books were great. The pre-production artwork was great. I mean, it really looked like it was going to be an amazing picture, and it unfortunately turned out to be a really awful picture.

CONAN: And as you look back at the process, was there a moment where somebody could have said: Wait a minute. We've got to go back to square one or start something else.

HANSEN: Yeah, absolutely. No, there would absolutely would have been the time. And they - I don't know. I don't know if they weren't focusing on it, if they were looking at something else. I don't know. But that was really unfortunate.

CONAN: If you've worked on an animated film, good or bad, call, tell us about the most interesting part of this complicated business: 800-989-8255. Zap us an email: talk@npr.org. We'll be back in just a minute. I'm Neal Conan. Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. Disney has always been known for its animated features, especially films based on familiar stories: "The Jungle Book," "Snow White." But in 1989, after decades in production, "The Little Mermaid" hit movie theaters, and Ariel, Ursula, the villainous octopus, Flounder and Sebastian, the Caribbean crab became household names. Here after rescuing Price Eric from the wreckage of his ship, Ariel vows to become part of - well, you know the story.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE LITTLE MERMAID")

JODI BENSON: (as Ariel) (Singing) I don't know when, I don't know how, but I know something's starting right now. What can you be? Someday I'll be part of your world.

CONAN: Can't talk over the shimmering violins. Brenda Chapman, known for being the initial director of "Brave," was responsible for that iconic splash. Dan Hansen was also on "The Little Mermaid" team, one of many working to bring animated films to the big screen. If that includes you, if you've worked on an animated picture, we'd like to hear from you. What was the most interesting part? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can chime in on our website as well. Go to npr.org, just click on TALK OF THE NATION.

This email from Susan in Nevada City: I used to work in post-production sound. It was always fun to create the entire soundscape of an animated film from nothing. Lots of opportunities for great sound design. Brenda Chapman, I wonder if you had a thought about that.

CHAPMAN: Oh, absolutely. I mean that is sort of the magic of an animated film, is you start with nothing, where in live action you have - you know, a camera is pointed at something that already exists and the sound is already there, the voice is already there. But with animation everything is a clean slate. So it's an incredibly creative experience.

CONAN: And the voices of course are real. They are not synthesized. Daniel Hansen, casting those voices has become, well, an industry in itself.

HANSEN: Yeah, I mean casting is really an important thing. As a matter of fact, you were just playing something from "Little Mermaid," and I remember when Howard Ashman was the - I mean he wasn't the composer, but he was the lyricist. And he wanted to do that song where - gosh, what's it called? "Under the Sea."

CONAN: "Under the Sea."

HANSEN: He wanted to do that song, and he knew he wanted to do this calypso song, and so he's the one that suggested to the directors that the voice of Sebastian the crab be, well, you know, calypso, Jamaican, and that's how that came to be. Because otherwise, you know...

CONAN: The song doesn't make a whole lot of sense.

HANSEN: No, exactly.

CONAN: Didn't explain how - anyway, there's other things that happen in these films. Let's go to Zach. Zach's with us from Owensboro in Kentucky.

ZACH: Hey, guys, fascinating subject. I'm really excited to hear about this. I'm currently working on - it's me and a group of friends working on a YouTube show. I'm planning to run it, you know, for at least two seasons. And, you know, being animators and stuff, we're wondering, you know, what y'all would think would be better in the long term, because I'm a huge fan of, you know, the hand-drawn method.

I think it looks better, you know, looks better, but the CGI, you know, it can look - I don't know, I'm really conflicted on which one I should choose, you know, being that I'm doing most of the voiceovers, and I've got to, you know, kind of (unintelligible) my voices with these characters, whether they be hand drawn or CGI. What would y'all think would have more appeal, you know, today as far as, you know, the difference between the hand-drawn and CGI?

CONAN: I can tell you that golden-throated radio announcers are available at very reasonable prices.

(LAUGHTER)

CONAN: Well, Daniel, you teach people who I assume have the same quandary. What might you advise?

HANSEN: Yeah, truly. I mean I think the important thing right now, just because of the way the animation industry is, be thinking CG because literally that is where the industry is. I mean Disney even just had a big layoff a few weeks ago where they were laying off basically 2-D animators. So you know, but they kept on, you know, people who are working on CG films. So anyway, I think that's something to take into consideration.

CONAN: CG, of course, computer generated.

HANSEN: Yeah, yeah, I'm sorry, yes.

CONAN: That's OK. Zach - go ahead, Brenda Chapman.

CHAPMAN: But I'll throw another angle at that. Since you're doing it on YouTube, and it's your piece, you know, you should go, I think, with what supports the story and what works best for the storytelling.

(LAUGHTER)

HANSEN: Yes, that's absolutely true.

CHAPMAN: CG is definitely the most popular thing right now, but I also think shows like "The Simpsons" and "Rugrats" and those kind of things that have been very popular are traditionally done as well. So it's not - you're not making a big-budget film. So I think your playing field is a little broader.

ZACH: Right.

HANSEN: Yeah, even the students right now at Cal Arts, I mean we end up with, I don't know, maybe 120, 130 films every year, animated films every year, and probably, I don't even know, 110 of them are in 2-D, you know, hand drawn. You know, maybe, you know, 10 or 15 are done in CG, computer graphics.

ZACH: Right.

CONAN: Well, Zach, good luck.

ZACH: Thank you, sir.

CONAN: Appreciate the call. Let's go next to - this is Laura and Laura with us from Austin, Texas.

LAURA: Hi there.

CONAN: Hi there.

LAURA: I don't work in the industry, but my mother was involved in one of these productions, and I have a wonderful from that. The Fleischer Studios did an animated "Gulliver's Travels" in 1936.

CHAPMAN: Oh, wow.

LAURA: And my mother, Livonia Warren(ph), was the human model for all the drawings for the cels. And I don't own any of the cels, but she saved many things from that production. And one of the things that is my biggest treasure, framed, is a watercolor that was done by the seven animators, and it's my mother dressed as Princess Glory, and she's standing on a box of cartons that I suppose they used to resemble the mountain, and they've all autographed it.

And then as sort of a little joking reference to the Disney Studios, they said, you know, to Livonia with love from the seven jerks.

(LAUGHTER)

LAURA: And one last quick comment, one last quick comment and that is she's gone now, but her younger brother, who's now 90, my uncle, had said to me several years ago, he said, you know, he said, there's a moment where she - where Princess Glory comes down a long staircase, and he said, you know, I look at that and I can see Livonia coming down that staircase.

HANSEN: Yeah, that's amazing.

CONAN: Laura, that's a great piece of family memorabilia, and I assume it's probably worth a bit of money, but I assume it's going nowhere.

LAURA: That's right.

HANSEN: I would hope that eventually there'll be like an animation museum. I mean right now the only one that I know of is up in San Francisco, and I believe that's a Disney animation museum. But I would - personally I would love to see something like that, you know, like what you're talking about go into an animation museum. I think that's amazing.

CHAPMAN: Yeah, that's wonderful.

CONAN: Let's go next to Jai, and Jai's with us from Louisville.

JAI: Hey, how are you guys doing?

CONAN: Good, thanks.

JAI: Good. My dad is actually an animator that Brenda might even know, Ron Husband.

CHAPMAN: Oh yeah.

HANSEN: Of course.

JAI: Yeah, I'm actually working on - I'm in my own studio now, and we're doing some animation work. And last year we, Jairation Joint Productions, we received an NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Children's Program for my animated feature film, "Kasha and the Zulu King," that came on, premiered on BET last year. And I identified with Brenda when she talked about drawing Merida because we - I specifically wanted to have a full-figured heroine, and we got a lot of pushback from the network from that.

It was really difficult, and we went through several iterations of, like, submitting her and just making her just a little bit thinner each time but really trying to keep that. And they were just - you know, they were - there were issues that they were talking about as far as not wanting to glorify, you know, an unhealthy lifestyle, whatever, but because we were set - our film was set in South Africa, we wanted to sort of represent a different aesthetic of beauty and whatnot.

And so we wanted our princess, our heroine, to be full-figured, and it was such a huge ordeal that I definitely identify with Brenda when she talked about sort of the struggle and the fight to keep Merida, you know, sort of that stockier build.

CONAN: Yeah. That character design, we heard a little bit about that from Brenda Chapman. Daniel Hansen, you've been involved in this too.

HANSEN: Yeah, absolutely. In fact, Jai, I met you several years ago, you know, when you were at, you know, working at Disney for whatever it was, six months or...

JAI: Oh, right, right, right.

HANSEN: I met you, and yeah, I mean I think that - I completely agree with you. You know, it's like Pocahontas. You know, Pocahontas was - if you look at the real story, you know, she was, what, 13, you know. And when we made the film, you know, she became this, you know, 20-something, you know, big, buxom, you know, beautiful figure.

And in reality, well, you know, that wasn't the case. And I'm sure that the situation with, well, with "Brave," with - gosh, who's the character?

JAI: Merida.

HANSEN: And I'm sure that absolutely drove you crazy, Brenda, because, you know, yeah, that was a story about your daughter, basically.

CHAPMAN: Yeah. But, you know, the thing is, for the film I was able to, you know, design her the way I wanted to, you know? I had to thin the mother down a little bit more than I wanted to, but Merida I managed to maintain. But it was what they did to her afterwards that drove me crazy.

CONAN: Jai, thanks very much for the call.

JAI: Thank you, guys. Take care.

HANSEN: Thanks, Jai.

CONAN: Been talking a little bit about that fairy tale princess formula and variations from it. Well, "The Lion King" was a complete departure. Let's listen to a scene where Nathan Lane's Timon executes a diversion with his co-conspirator Pumbaa.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE LION KING")

NATHAN LANE: (as Timon) Hyenas. I hate hyenas. So what's the plan for getting past those guys?

MATTHEW BRODERICK: (as adult Simba) Live bait.

LANE: (as Timon) Good idea. Hey.

BRODERICK: (as adult Simba) Come on, Timon. You guys have to create a diversion.

LANE: (as Timon) What do you want me to do? Dress in drag and do the hula? (Singing) Luau! If you're hungry for a hunk of fat and juicy meat, eat my buddy Pumbaa here because he is a treat. Come on down and dine on this tasty swine. All you have to do is get in line. Are you aching?

ERNIE SABELLA: (as Pumbaa) Yup, yup, yup.

LANE: (as Timon) (Singing) For some bacon?

SABELLA: (as Pumbaa) Yup, yup, yup.

LANE: (as Timon) (Singing) He's a big pig.

SABELLA: (as Pumbaa) Yup, yup.

LANE: (as Timon) (Singing) You could be a big pig too.

CONAN: Brenda, we're talking about story development. On that picture you had an uncredited ghostwriter, fellow by the name of Shakespeare.

CHAPMAN: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

CHAPMAN: A little bit of Hamlet in there, but not in that scene.

CONAN: Not in that scene.

HANSEN: No.

CONAN: I don't think he would take any credit for that.

(LAUGHTER)

CONAN: You get these sometimes, these characters like Nathan Lane, and don't they drive their parts in ways that the original story artists had not thought?

CHAPMAN: Yes, they do. They add to the characters tremendously, and many times, once they come on, we'll go back in and re-board what, you know, what we think would fit what they're doing better.

But in this case we were pretty close to what Nathan was doing with it. We had two writers, Jonathan Roberts and Irene Mecchi, and then a story artist, Barry Johnson. And it was Barry and Irene that really found Timon and Pumbaa and who those characters were. And then when Nathan came on, he just, you know, literally made them sing.

CONAN: Then there was a character who, I think, literally wrote large parts of his own script. This was the Disney renaissance favorite, the 1992 comedy musical "Aladdin" with a fellow named Robin Williams.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "ALADDIN")

ROBIN WILLIAMS: (as Genie) Almost. There are a few provisos, a couple of quid pro quos.

SCOTT WEINGER: (as Aladdin) Like?

WILLIAMS: (as Genie) Rule number one: I can't kill anybody. So don't ask. Rule number two: I can't make anybody fall in love with anybody else. You little punim there. Rule number three: I can't bring people back from the dead. It's not a pretty picture. I don't like doing it. Other than that, you got it.

CONAN: Daniel Hansen...

HANSEN: Yeah. Sorry to step on Robin Williams. But all I was going to say is that the - yeah. I mean, basically the directors would turn him loose. You know, they would say, you know, yeah, you're going to start here, and you're basically talking about this, and then they would just kind of let him go. And they would come back with, you know, three or four hours each time.

I mean, they would come back with three or four hours of him ad-libbing. And then they'd go through and say, you know, something: We like this. We like this. We hate this and this and this, you know? But, you know, but this is brilliant.

CONAN: We're talking about animation with Daniel Hansen. He started working for Disney in 1975, and he's now with us from Sherman Oaks, California. He's at the California Institute of Arts, co-director of the program in character animation there. Brenda Chapman's also with us. She is now at DreamWorks, Pixar's first female director for the film "Brave" and the first female head of story for "The Lion King." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

John's on the line with us from Tucson.

JOHN: Good afternoon. My question is about the stories that died somewhere in the gentleman's experience, you know, that they didn't pass the executive's and so on's decision. What is it about a story that makes it - you know, what are the quality of a story that really makes it work? You know, what were the things about "The Black Cauldron" that made it not work? And like - you know, is it - I mean I heard him say that, you know, that if a story is not good, it doesn't matter really what - whether you've got good production or bad production, the film will just not go. I'd like to know, what is it that makes a good story?

(LAUGHTER)

HANSEN: Yeah. Really, if we knew that, I suppose we would all be millionaires. But, you know, Brenda's 100 percent right about that. The story is everything, you know? And you need a character that is - that the audience can connect with. You need a character, ideally, that, you know, that grows throughout the - and, I mean, you know, his personality, what the character is learning.

There may have been something that, you know, he did very early in the film that - yeah, he got smarter as the film goes on. And so, you know, he's able to, whatever, solve the problem or get rid of the villain or whatever it is. I mean I think that - you know, Brenda's 100 percent right, though, that story is everything.

CONAN: Brenda, what are you working on now?

CHAPMAN: I can't really tell you, but I'm developing a project at DreamWorks. It's based - right now, the one I'm working on is based on a children's book that I think is incredibly funny and has a lot of heart, and that's about all I can tell you.

(LAUGHTER)

CONAN: Let's get one last caller in. Scott in Emeryville, we have about 40 seconds left.

SCOTT: Hey, my name is Scott Clark. I'm an animator at Pixar here, and I appreciate the show today. I just want to make a comment on why I chose to be an animator, and it's interesting. I started out as a drawn animator in college, and I feel like there's a lot of - because of computers, people are trying to make things look real or realistic. And I love that in animation, making caricature things and we can kind of get to the essence of a personality or an emotion in a way that maybe (unintelligible) in a drawing, where you say, hey, that is more like that person than they are in real life. And...

CONAN: Scott, thanks very much for the point. I'm sorry we didn't have longer time to hear it, but we appreciate the phone call. And I'd like thank our guests, Brenda Chapman, who joined us from DreamWorks Animation studios, and Daniel Hansen in Sherman Oaks, California. We appreciate their time. When we come back...

CHAPMAN: Thank you.

CONAN: ...our favorite film buff, Murray Horwitz, and your favorite robot movies. You could send us your nominations, talk@npr.org. Give us a call, 800-989-8255.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE TERMINATOR")

ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER: (as The Terminator) I'll be back.

CONAN: I'm Neal Conan, TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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