BOLT Marks A New Age For Walt Disney Animation Studios
When the merger of the Walt Disney Studios and Pixar Animation Studios was announced, it seemed like the best of two worlds coming together--both would benefit, as would fans of animated films the world over. Here was a studio whose name conjures a pantheon of some of the art form's most recognizable characters--including innumerable princesses, a menagerie of animals and one unforgettable mouse--joining with a studio that has blazed technological and filmmaking trails and raised the bar for all, forever changing the face of animation. And then, a little more than two-and-a-half years ago, John Lasseter (co-founder of Pixar) was installed as chief creative officer of Walt Disney and Pixar Animation Studios and principal creative advisor, Walt Disney Imagineering; and Ed Catmull was named president of Walt Disney and Pixar Animation Studios.BACK
For Lasseter--who is famous for his buoyant, 'full speed ahead' style of working--it meant a change in course…in essence, now steering two sister ships into uncharted waters. Yet even for the likes of a double Oscar®-winner such as Lasseter, it also signaled a case of butterflies in the stomach. John remembers, "I was nervous, because I'd never been a part of anything quite like this. Because at Pixar, I was the first animator to ever work with computer animation, the first traditionally trained animator in the world, and then, it just slowly grew into the company, structured in the way that we like to work. So, this was something totally new for us, to come into a place that has such a long, long history."
And a rich history it is. But even though Lasseter was intent upon honoring the Disney legacy and continuing its tradition of excellence, his arrival also brought winds of change. He continues, "Nobody knew this in the outside world, but internally, we called this Disney Feature Animation. But now, this is the Walt Disney Animation Studios [WDAS]. We went back to that name. The Mickey Mouse on the new logo is the one we scanned directly from original letterhead from the archives, which dates from the Hyperion Studio [site of the original Disney studio]. So it goes all the way back and this, to me, is the essence of what we're doing. We're celebrating the history and moving forward. We're part of this heritage, and I want everybody to know that."
Lasseter's goal for Walt Disney Animation Studios is anything but lip service. It's a case of not only talking the talk, but also walking the walk: "Because we're making films that need to be compared with all the great Disney films. That's our goal, to get to that level. Even within the body of work that Walt Disney created, he did create contemporary films for his day. Some now seem dated, but they were contemporary for the day. As we go forward, that's what we're going to be creating."
Lasseter and Catmull moved into offices in the animation building, designed and built by Robert A.M. Stern Architects in 1994 on the land chosen by Walt as the original site for Disneyland. (The giant sorcerer's hat that fronts the building once housed the ceremonial office of Roy E. Disney.) The building itself had been treated to a small internal re-design initiated by Lasseter and Catmull prior to their move-in, when several of the offices in the center of the second floor production area were taken out and replaced with an open meeting area known as the Caffeine Patch. From the Patch--a hybrid espresso bar and town square--the interiors of the heavily-windowed offices of Lasseter and Catmull are visible, all of which typifies the free-flowing exchange of ideas at the heart of the Company.
Lasseter eschews the idea that changes to WDAS are simply cosmetic: "I don't deal in symbolism, I just go straight to the core. I wanted to really heal the studio, as far as the morale goes, to put the artists creatively in charge of their projects and the direction of the studio…with guidance, but without telling them exactly what to do. And to really make this movie [BOLT] great, number one, for the sake of the people working here and their families and, ultimately, for the sake of our audience. But also for the sake of Disney. I really love Walt Disney, the heritage of the studio, that's where I came from. I was trained by the great Nine Old Men, right at the ends of their careers. And with the passing of Ollie Johnston, they're all gone now. And I now feel that we are it. I mean, we're the legacy, so that's one of the reasons we're trying to teach more and more young people--to pass the torch that was passed to us."
This placing a project's creative course in the hands of the filmmakers is a tried-and-true formula, one of the founding principles of Pixar. Lasseter is adamant that Walt Disney Animation Studios be a filmmaker-driven studio…but he is also insistent that it won't become 'Son of Pixar.' He explains, "When we came down here we did not want to turn Walt Disney Animation Studios into Pixar. That was not our intention. We brought down with us the notion of a filmmaker-led studio and instilled that here, because we know that is the right way to work with creative people. But, this is a different group of filmmakers, and clearly, with this phenomenal heritage, we have these new films that will be a part of that heritage."
Disney's much anticipated CG-animated release BOLT is the first project born out of this system, and one of the first that Lasseter has overseen from storyboard to silver screen. "You know, there's a fundamental difference between an executive-driven studio and a filmmaker-driven studio. Pixar has always been a filmmaker-driven studio. And to us, that was what we strived to do from the very beginning and we have never strayed from that. And BOLT is the first movie that has really been made with that in mind, and I'm very proud of this film. It's the type of movie that I like to make, which, I think, is a classic Disney film."
Lasseter's formula for what makes a successful animated film--with Disney's classics as the archetypes--can be summed up in three phrases: tell a compelling story that keeps people on the edge of their seat; populate the story with appealing, memorable characters; and place that story and those characters in a believable world for the tale that is being told.
That story, for John, must include growth within the main character, what he calls, "the heart of the film." And although humor is important to him as well, it is like icing on a well-baked cake--it can be added. And the humor is more effective coming from the personality of the character, rather than funny zingers. "Walt Disney always said for each laugh, there should be a tear. Because I believe that that is something the audience will remember forever, how a movie made them feel, emotionally. A purely funny movie without any heart, it's entertaining, but you quickly forget it. So going back to BOLT, the heart of this film is this character: a dog who is raised on a movie set, and made to believe that this world is real, and that's his self-worth, and that's all he knows. And then he gets out in the real world and realizes his entire life has been fake. And then, he makes the journey of what it means to be a real dog."
With signature directness, Lasseter closes: "Looking forward, it's pretty simple. It's about truly entertaining audiences. That's what it's about. Exactly what that will be off in the future, I can't really say, because it has a lot to do with the directors, the story guys, the artists that will be working on each of the films. But what we will do is aim high, to create great motion pictures. And continue the legacy of the films that Walt made himself. I do believe in entertaining audiences of all ages. Everybody loves Disney, like me. The reason why I do what I do is because of the films of Walt Disney, and that's all I've ever wanted to do."
For Disney's BOLT, Seeing IS Believing
For canine Bolt--the star of his own self-titled show about a super dog charged with protecting his owner--believing in himself is key. Without such self-confidence, an ordinary pup would most likely balk at the prospect of executing such feats of derring-do (fantastic leaps, battling scores of antagonists, destroying everything in his sights with a single bark). However, the big secret is that Bolt IS an ordinary pup, made to believe that he himself possesses the super powers he portrays on his show.
For the filmmakers behind BOLT--the title of Walt Disney Animation Studios' new film about a dog named Bolt starring in his own show--it was a different kind of belief that was to play a key role. Rather, it was believability in a world where such four-legged creatures (dog, cat, hamster) command the power of speech, but also look and act like real animals…as real as a computer-animated version of that animal could look and act.
Such believability--not only of the characters, but the world they inhabit--is one of the cornerstones of the filmmaking philosophy of John Lasseter, chief creative officer of Walt Disney and Pixar Animation Studios and principal creative advisor, Walt Disney Imagineering, as well as BOLT's executive producer.
Lasseter's formula is a three-legged stool: tell a compelling story that keeps people on the edge of their seat; populate the story with appealing, memorable characters; and place that story and those characters in a believable world for the tale that is being told.
In typical candor, Lasseter explains, "I have found that many people think that Cars is a movie about talking cars. Or Finding Nemo, it's a movie about fish--BOLT, about a dog. Okay, so those are the characters and some of the setting. But it's the personalities and stories that need to transcend exactly what they are, whether it's a human, a dog, a car, a fish, whatever. You need to touch people. And I always say that you need to make a connection with the audience--I call it the foundation--with your audience, which is show them something that they're familiar with on one level, but then show it to them in a way that they've never seen before."
So, for John, how does one achieve this? By presenting something recognizable but re-imagined, a vision of the world as filtered through the filmmakers' perspective. He continues: "I got it into the BOLT filmmakers that you've got to do tons of research to make sure the details are right. Even down to the RV park where they find Rhino. I said, 'Go to an RV lot and look at them, talk to salesmen, take some pictures, and come back.' Because those who know RVs will know that they didn't do their research. You've got to make sure everything is accurate. It doesn't take much time, especially with the internet--we use the internet a lot for research. But that's my philosophy."
For the BOLT team, such research began a mere stone's throw away, at the Disney's Animation Research Library (ARL)--a repository of all of the studio's existing animation that houses everything from story boards to original animation to the final painted cels for every animated film produced.
ARL researcher Doug Engalla worked with BOLT filmmakers--including directors Chris Williams and Byron Howard; art director Paul Felix; look and lighting director Adolph Lusinsky; animation supervisor Doug Bennett; supervising animators for Bolt, Wayne Unten and Renato Dos Anjos; lead character designer Joe Moshier; and others--to call up, study and create explorations from traditionally animated dogs, while also taking in animal movements, backgrounds and animal locomotion in general (the BOLT cast also boasts cats, pigeons and hamsters). Their goal was to create a character design and surrounding world in 21st century technology that recalls some of the Disney classics.
One big touchstone for the team was 1955's Lady and the Tramp. Nearly every animation filmmaker that you query will tell you that that film pretty much set the standard for the tricky combination of animation for character and animation for reality. Supervising animator Wayne Unten offers, "You won't see Bolt doing non-dog things--pointing, stroking his chin while thinking. When you look at Lady and the Tramp, it's very believable--the dog is a dog."
Animation supervisor Doug Bennett quickly adds, "And animal characters never speak when there is a human face onscreen. That's the Disney Golden Rule."
This quality of appearing to be true, real, believable, called verisimilitude, was paramount for Walt Disney and the fabled Nine Old Men (the group of artists responsible for creating the first classics of Disney animation), so much so that two of the Nine--Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston--titled their book The Illusion of Life. In the world created, if a dog is a dog, it needs to look, act like and be a dog. Doug Engalla explains, "So when you see Lady and the Tramp or One Hundred and One Dalmatians or BOLT, you'll know it's a Disney picture, because there's a through line in the way animation is produced here."
Animals exist in the real world, too…so Williams, Howard and the gang looked at dogs, cats, hamsters, pigeons and other creatures to find the 'truth'--or 'truth in materials,' which translates into 'it has to move the way it looks.' A leading professor of biology at Cal State University - San Bernardino lectured the group multiple times on animal mechanics, muscle and bone structure, body language and behavior. Live dogs were brought in, film clips of dogs were viewed. The professor returned later to review the application of his lectures to the nascent animation. In essence, filmmakers began with Bolt's dog behavior, and then topped that off with performance.
For the character of the super-fan hamster, Rhino, filmmakers had to look almost exclusively at the non-animated world (as no animated hamsters have ever appeared in a Disney film). Rhino supervising animator Clay Kaytis and his team conducted their own kind of "Wild Kingdom" research.
Kaytis explains, "We had animal trainers come in, and they brought hamsters, and we did a lot of slow-motion filming to see how hamsters' feet work, and we put them in the ball and looked at their weight shifts, and how those shifts affect the ball. We even put the camera under Plexiglas and filmed to see how the feet were working inside the ball, what was physically going on. If you don't root it in the true, real world, it's going to come through in the performance. We were very fastidious about all of that."
So fastidious that a new 'employee' was welcomed--a hamster named Doink--who became the object of great attention…Kaytis and his team spent hours observing the little guy in action in his acrylic cage…and in his exercise ball, naturally.
In live-action filming, lighting designers sometimes go to great lengths to re-create filmic light intended to appear natural. The same could be said, in this case, for BOLT as well. Producer Clark Spencer offers, "In computer animation, you have the perfect place for filming--everything is within our power. But as a result, there's almost an artificiality to it. But we wanted to create a believable world for Bolt, naturalistic, based on how we see in the real world. So ultimately, that naturalistic look was about going into the computer and breaking it from that standpoint. And trying to create lighting that's actually what we see around us. In fact, art director Paul [Felix] and look and lighting director Adolph [Lusinsky] actually took trips to New York, Ohio and Las Vegas and to locations in LA. And one of the big things they studied was light--how is that light different in each location. It's more diffused in New York than it is in Ohio. And what does that light look like in LA, or early morning in Vegas, to create an atmosphere--again, going back to what John Lasseter talks about, which is a believable world. And they took that to heart and, as a result, I think there's a reality to BOLT's world that's achieved, even though you're looking at something that was created wholly within the computer."
For Spencer, the two great achievements of BOLT are its story and its look. He closes, "We've created these great characters in this heartfelt story, and put them in a world that feels like the world that you actually know. And hopefully, one of the stories that people will talk about--in addition to really being touched by the story--is the actual physical look of the movie…that it was something they may recognize, but it is really something that they haven't seen before."