A QUESTION AND ANSWER WITH DIRECTORS CHRIS WILLIAMS AND BYRON HOWARD
Q: It seems that this film is a bridge between the best of both studios - Disney and Pixar. Is that something that was conscious or is it just when you bring John Lasseter together with the Disney heritage, you get this wonderful hybrid?
CHRIS WILLIAMS: I don't think there was a conscious effort to make a bridge between the two studios. At the beginning, the core, fundamental decisions were more about what character is going to work for Bolt. And what relationship will work between Bolt and Mittens, that sort of thing. But certainly, John Lasseter brings all of his experience, all of his Pixar experience with him, and the kind of bar that he sets. And so, you have to get there. I think that there's probably an appreciation here for Disney history, and certainly an admiration for what Pixar has been doing. So, I think, naturally, all those things will conspire to make a movie that does feel that way.
BYRON HOWARD: Yeah, I think what Ed [Catmull] and John [Lasseter] do very well is perceive potential in people or a situation. And they're able to bring that potential out. And I think that, for many years, there have been genius artists working at Disney. John has brought his enthusiasm and his commitment to telling such strong stories, and really hammering things out until they feel right, until they're gettable, and people wind up loving the characters.
So the stories really make sense. I think that's really the big difference. He loves movies, he loves cinema, he loves storytelling, he loves animation. And he's comes from a genuine place, and that's felt down through the crew. And it really made making a film like this, at this high level that he establishes, in the amount of time that we had possible.
Q: And it's your film directing debut?
CHRIS WILLIAMS: Yes it is. Yeah.
Q: How did this opportunity come up and is it everything you expected it to be?
CHRIS WILLIAMS: When John first came here to Disney, I had been working on a story idea and I presented it to him. And he didn't green light it, but I think he saw enough things in it that he liked. And I guess he liked the way I approached the story and based on that he asked me to pitch some short film ideas. So I pitched about six ideas and he greenlit Glago's Guest, and I guess, pretty early on in that process, he asked me to work on BOLT. So he must have seen something in there that made him think that I was the guy and, and so John asked me to come on and work on the story of the movie. And it was obvious to me that this was going to be a massive undertaking, so I asked Byron to co-direct and, really specifically, to oversee the animation. And so now, we split the duties, so that I'm primarily responsible for the story and Byron has input there. And Byron oversees the animation and I have input there.
BYRON HOWARD: Yeah, and I was very honored. Chris is just great, and he's so brilliant. I was just working on the animation aspect of it, and I was on the story team with Chris and about six other folks. And so we all went through this crucible, trying to figure the story out for about six months. And sometimes, the pressure is a little blessing, because it really forces you to make decisions quickly, instead of letting things kind of languish--when you have a problem you have to deal with it right there, or else it's just going to get worse. So I think it really did help us.
Q: Tell me the story of Bolt.
CHRIS WILLIAMS: BOLT is a story of a dog, named Bolt, and he is picked by a young girl to co-star with her in a television show, also called Bolt. And it's an action show. And according to the narrative of the show, Penny and Bolt have to do battle with the forces of evil. And there's this nonstop onslaught of bad guys who are coming after Penny, and it's Bolt's job to protect her from them. And Bolt has come to believe after years of being on the show that he has these incredible super powers. He thinks he is very strong, he can knock over 300-pound men, burst through walls. He thinks he has laser vision, ridiculous as that sounds. And he thinks he has an incredible super bark that can blow away fleets of armored cars. And, of course, these ideas have been facilitated by the show. But he's come to believe them, and he also believes he has to use them to protect Penny all the time. So he's always a very wary, watchful, stressed-out dog. And Penny is concerned that this is having a negative impact on him and she wants to move him from the TV show world, because he's never left the sound stage before. And around that time, according to the narrative of the TV show, Penny is caught by the fiendish Dr. Calico and is in mortal danger. And, accidentally, Bolt is shipped to New York City, at the worst possible time. He thinks Penny is in trouble, and he's got to get from New York to LA and save her. And so he does what any dog would do, which is to kidnap a cat, who he thinks is in league with the fiendish Dr. Calico, and tethers himself to her and asks her to lead him back to Los Angeles and to Penny. And along the way, they meet Rhino the hamster. You want to go from here?
BYRON HOWARD: In Ohio, Bolt figures out that he's hungry for the first time--see he's been brought up on a sound stage so he's never felt pain before, he's never been hungry before. I guess he thinks the cat has poisoned him, because he's hungry. And he demands to know what the antidote is. So she says, "We'll go find the antidote, it's food." And so, in doing this, the cat has to teach the dog how to beg, because he's never done that, he's just a defense machine for his owner. And so he doesn't know how to do anything like a normal dog would do. So she teaches him to beg. And they go on this little journey through the RV park getting food. The last RV they stop at belongs to Rhino's owner and Rhino is a super fan of the Bolt show--Bolt is the ultimate hero to this little hamster, and it's his favorite show. And so the little hamster jumps at the chance to join Bolt on this daredevil mission across the country to rescue Penny, who he loves as well. And so now, you have two crazy characters and one kind of sensible venal character, the cat, who's stuck between them, and she's got no other choice but to go with them and to finish this journey.
CHRIS WILLIAMS: Because she's tied to them.
BYRON HOWARD: Because she's tied to them, of course. And then hilarity ensues.
Q: A great deal of that hilarity comes from the character of Rhino. How was he born? What was the genesis of that?
CHRIS WILLIAMS: Well, we always knew that we needed a character who was going to support Bolt's delusion. And we also knew that it would probably be a good idea to keep it in the realm of domesticated pets. And so, the idea of a hamster that lives in a little hamster ball and in front of a television seemed to make perfect sense. So you have this little, tiny creature, with a little, tiny hamster brain. And it's subjected to this never-ending cycle of TV programs. He comes to believe that it's all real. The best show on TV is the Bolt show. He thinks Bolt is real--it was a great element for the movie to have this character who was always pumping up Bolt. And in spite of all the things that might make Bolt start to have doubts about who he really is, Rhino is always there to pick him up and make him believe in who he is. And so it seemed like a necessary ingredient for the movie, but it also turned out to be a very fun ingredient. Because, I think his exuberance is a big energy boost for the film, and he's a lot of fun.
BYRON HOWARD: He's great for the story, too, because on two separate occasions, he actually lifts Bolt up, and he also lifts Mittens up. Because he does believe so deeply in this whole truth and the justice superhero code that when he sees Bolt living, he so buys it himself. That's reality for Rhino. And so, to hear that message come out of his little mouth is actually very inspiring in a couple of different places. And it's funny, because it does come from a very genuine kind of character trait of his, so that really helped us.
CHRIS WILLIAMS: Yeah, he's a comic character, but he's not extraneous, which I thought was really important. If you just have a character there to do jokes, that becomes very tiring. He really is, I think, nicely integrated into the story. And I think there's enough variety in his personality, enough facets to his personality, that he ultimately becomes a really constantly surprising and entertaining character.
Q: But he wasn't always a hamster?
BYRON HOWARD: No, actually when we first -
CHRIS WILLIAMS: For about a week, he was a rat.
BYRON HOWARD: A rat, he was a rat, then John Lasseter said, "Hey, how about a chinchilla in a ball?," because John Lasseter owns a chinchilla in a ball. And he actually called his house and had the chinchilla in the ball brought over to the story room. And the chinchilla was actually running around the story room, bonking into our legs as we were trying to figure the story out. And I think one of the guys in the room said that, well, wouldn't a hamster be more identifiable with what people think of as a pet? And then, that seemed to really fit, and so Rhino was born. And Rhino was actually named after [head of story] Nathan Greno's very fat cat.
CHRIS WILLIAMS: Yeah, it was a pretty funny meeting. We were talking about what this character could be, because Mark Kennedy originally said, "What about a hamster in a ball?" And everyone stopped and thought, "Has that been done before?"…and it hadn't. And we realized that there was something there. And then John said, "I actually own a chinchilla who lives in a ball," and we thought that was very fun. But we were surprised when an hour later--because we were having this meeting not far from where John lives--this guy showed up with a chinchilla in a ball. And he spent the rest of the day rolling around our feet and bumping into people, and it was very entertaining, and we knew we had something there.
BYRON HOWARD: Yeah, it was funny that nobody had done it before, because it's such an iconic thing. And then, the fact that this is a CG film, it seemed perfect for that, because I don't know how you would accomplish that in 2-D.
CHRIS WILLIAMS: Yeah.
BYRON HOWARD: But just the challenge the animators faced with having this thing running around inside of this ball, and how that affected the acting, was great. It was a daunting task, but I think that they really used it to their advantage…to have this little guy running around in this little enclosure.
CHRIS WILLIAMS: Yeah, restrictions like that--like you have to keep this character in the ball--done well become really entertaining. And the animators constantly found funny ways to use the idea that this is a character who is almost always is inside of this ball.
Q: And how did you end up with the voice for Rhino?
CHRIS WILLIAMS: Well, it just seemed to make sense. When we are putting together our story reels, internally we all have people performing as the story is shaping up, laying scratch dialogue, which means temporary. And later we'll go outside and get real actors. But in this one case of Rhino, there's something about him, [Walt Disney Animation Studios story artist] Mark Walton fit so perfectly inside that character--he had laid the scratch dialogue--that we knew that Mark was the guy to play Rhino in the movie.
Q: With regard to casting, how were Miley and John suited for their characters?
BYRON HOWARD: They're both great. For Bolt, we knew we needed someone who could play two sides of a character. Bolt has to have this tough guy superhero side, but at the same time, he has to have this softness and this vulnerability when he's around Penny. And the nice thing about John Travolta is even when he plays tough guys in movies, there's still something kind of lovable and attractive about him, because he does have that good heart that you feel is always under there, no matter how brutal the character seems to be. Because it'd be very easy to have a superhero cartoon dog come off as a jerk. But Bolt never comes off like that, because John Travolta has this warmth and naiveté about him. And that charm was great for us, because that gave us exactly what we needed for his character. And in a similar way, Miley, when she came in as Penny's voice, it added a nice sense of emotional maturity to the character, which I don't think we had before. And it made you think, "Oh this young girl has it together enough to be thinking about the dog's welfare," and it made you like her more. And Miley's actually a dog owner herself. So when she's talking to Bolt, you can hear that warmth and that slight Nashville accent that's coming in there.
CHRIS WILLIAMS: Yeah, she worked well in the context of the TV show and the movie as well, because she has this feisty confidence that comes through really well in Penny from the TV show, and also she has a real affinity for dogs. She loves her dogs and that really comes through in the scenes she plays with Bolt. And like Byron was saying, some of John Travolta's greatest roles have been real movie tough guys. And I think it's because the sweet quality he has is always present, no matter how much his character is trying to be threatening. And that certainly leant itself to a cute little dog who thinks he is very powerful.
Q: Bolt is joining an esteemed group of Disney dogs. So what did you take from the Disney dogs and what is new about Bolt as a Disney dog?
BYRON HOWARD: Well, maybe the reason that Disney does dogs so much is because people really have such a strong emotional connection with them, almost beyond anything, both dogs and cats. And there is something so genuine about the relationship that dogs have with their owners, that selflessness and that willing to sacrifice almost anything to protect their owner. And I think that emotionally it's just a very strong core on which to build a story. And we did look at other Disney dogs just to see where Bolt would fit in.
CHRIS WILLIAMS: Yeah, we wanted to make sure we weren't just repeating something that had been done. But really, we didn't spend a lot of time worrying about other dog characters, because the most important thing is coming up with the right personality for this movie and the right dynamic between characters. And if you really starting asking those questions--like what works, what do Bolt and Mittens and Rhino need to play well off of each other--and you're always pushing yourself and always trying to make it better, I think you'll end up in a place where it's a specific character. And that's where we ended up, I think.
Q: In the making of BOLT, was there anything out of the ordinary or funny or particularly challenging in your very compressed production schedule? I mean, to really do a CGI film in less than two years…
CHRIS WILLIAMS: Well, I wouldn't recommend it.
BYRON HOWARD: Yeah, people really killed themselves. But the great thing is that the crew has been so great and it really is their film. And people committed to it 150-percent. And I think that they can sense that it's something they can really be proud of, and that they'll be able to show the kids. People just can't wait to see it finished.
CHRIS WILLIAMS: I'm trying to think of a specific moment that stood out. But the whole thing certainly was trying for everybody--we really had to hammer on the story and get it to be great. And then, you know, the animation was setting a high bar for themselves. And people were here every Saturday, people were here late nights. We were feeding people dinner every night, hundreds of people, and it was day after day after day, without really much of a rhythm to it. As soon as you finished a scene, here's another one. That's just the kind of schedule we had. I don't know that I can cite specific examples or moments, but the main thing I took away from it is this bonding that happened between everybody on the crew, because we were all going through it together, we were all challenging and inspiring each other. And you could see departments feeding off of each other. The lighters were seeing what the animators were doing and getting really inspired, and vice versa. And the layout artists and the effects artists and certainly the story people were all feeling like we're channeling energy into something that was going to be really worthwhile. So that's probably the main thing I took away is just how we came together as a studio, behind this idea of the first John Lasseter Disney movie. And it was an emotional few weeks as some of the departments wound down, because they were so connected to the movie and to each other.
BYRON HOWARD: Yeah, it's bittersweet, because you want everyone to feel like they're done, but at the same time, you'll miss working with people day-to-day. Animation is a very small business, and ultimately, we always wind up working with the same people over and over again, along with other people on other projects as well.
Q: With four hundred clever people it must have been practical jokes, is there anything you could repeat?
BYRON HOWARD: Specific incidents, well we brought in that big Zorb Ball, that was kind of fun.
CHRIS WILLIAMS: Oh yeah, the big giant hamster ball, I was rolling around in that.
BYRON HOWARD: Our management team are great at keeping the crew's spirits up throughout the whole film.
CHRIS WILLIAMS: Didn't they toilet paper the whole side …?
BYRON HOWARD: Oh yeah, that was so funny. We hit a record week--the most animation that's ever been done in the studio ever in one week. And I think the ladies who run our department, the A Team, the Animation Team, said that if we hit this number, they were going to do something special. So they T-P'd the entire second floor. We came in and there was toilet paper everywhere, in every animators' office, all over my office, all over your office.
CHRIS WILLIAMS: It was unbelievable.
BYRON HOWARD: It was crazy.
CHRIS WILLIAMS: Very thorough.
BYRON HOWARD: Very, very thorough. It was documented somewhere, but that was a historic moment in Disney animation.
CHRIS WILLIAMS: And another thing that stands out as a specific moment that everybody really appreciated was when Mark Walton got hired as Rhino. For a long time, Mark was doing the scratch dialogue. And there was discussion whether he should play the character in the movie for real. And so we realized, yes of course, he's the guy to play Rhino. And so we staged a whole fake recording session with Mark. And we were telling him, "Well, we're going to redo a couple lines here," which is a very common thing. And I had rewritten the end of one of the lines to say, "And I am the voice of Rhino." And we had to get the engineer and everyone to pretend that we were recording, even though we weren't actually, but we did have a camera that was going. And so Mark read his line, and then he got to the end and said, "And I'm the voice of Rhino," and he stopped. And he was trying to make sense of it. And I said, "You got the part." And he went bananas, he went totally crazy, and the whole thing we have on film. And he started jumping up and down and throwing the music stand around and running around the room, and I mean, you know Mark, he has this real genuine energy. We used to have these Monday morning crew meetings. We showed that footage twice and then tucked it away in the Disney vault. We'll probably show it at the wrap party, I would think. And so, that was a really neat thing, 'cause everyone was really excited that Mark got the part and we were rooting for him. That was a great thing for the studio.
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