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transforming a legend: origins of the project
"Brother Bear" is a project that Disney's Florida Animation Studio likes to refer to as "home grown." The idea for this film was developed there and was to become the first project to go from conception to completion almost entirely through that facility.
Disney's Feature Animation team first began exploring a film about bears nearly a decade ago around the time that "The Lion King" was still in production. Early versions of the feature had a very dramatic storyline with elements of Shakespeare's "King Lear."
Under the working title of "Bears," the project was revisited and actively developed by veteran animator Aaron Blaise and Chuck Williams in his role as development executive for the Florida Studio. Blaise began working on the project in 1997, and was soon joined by co-director Bob Walker.
Williams recalls, "It's basically an original story. Aaron and I started from scratch by reading a lot of Native American myths and transformation stories. We discovered that practically every culture around the world had some kind of story about people transforming into animals. Many of them were about boys changing into bears as a coming of age ritual. Some of the stories even had humans pretending to be bears for a period of time and then they'd come out and be considered men of the tribe. Our original idea was a father-son story about a rebellious son who was changed into a bear and had to make amends with his father in order to change back."
Blaise adds, "The transformation myths were designed to teach life lessons and that's why they were passed down all these years by different cultures. They're structured in ways that are unlike Western storytelling, with the idea that you could go from one culture to another, meaning one animal world to the human world. They felt that the animals were just people in different clothing. We thought it was a cool idea that you could cross over from one culture to another."
Screenwriter Tab Murphy ("Tarzan," "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," "Atlantis: The Lost Empire") came on board to write an early draft of the script. Lorne Cameron & David Hoselton, and Steve Bencich & Ron Friedman added further to the story structure and dialogue through their subsequent screenplays. In Florida, Steve Anderson served as story supervisor and worked closely with the producer, directors and a team of story artists to storyboard the film.
a 'bear' of an assignment: bringing the characters to life
For the animation team at Disney's Florida Studio, "Brother Bear" presented a wide range of new challenges and rewards. Having previously created the features "Mulan" and "Lilo & Stitch," this latest project gave them their first real chance to animate a cast made up primarily of animals. With colorful characters ranging from big horn rams and chipmunks to bears, moose and mammoths, the animators had fun boning up on unusual anatomy and locomotion. An assortment of experts and guest lecturers visited the Studio to assist the team in their task, while bear cubs and other animals also dropped by. Bear researcher/preservationist/author Timothy Treadwell (Among Grizzlies: Living with Wild Bears in Alaska) also came to the Studio to offer his firsthand accounts and insights about these magnificent animals.
Supervising the animation for Kenai as a bear was Byron Howard, a ten-year veteran of Florida's animation team whose most recent assignment was the character of Nani and Cobra Bubbles in "Lilo & Stitch." "I've never animated an animal before," confesses Howard. "And even though bears can have a remarkably human-like figure when they stand up on their hind legs, they have a very different build from humans. When Kenai is first transformed into a bear he tries to maintain a two-legged posture, but he just can't pull it off. He's too awkward; his body has changed too much. Eventually he figures that four-legged locomotion is the easier way. Bears are actually easier to animate than most quadrupeds because they walk on the flats of their feet instead of on their toes. Also, their anatomy is wrapped in huge round snowman-like shapes, which allows for broader actions and is more forgiving. In the case of Kenai where you have a human who's actually a bear, you want to be able to use some of those human gestures.
"Kenai is a mid-size younger bear that is probably about six or seven feet tall and weighs about 900 pounds," adds Howard. "We learned a lot about bear anatomy and locomotion from Stuart Sumida (a biology professor specialising in animal movement) and his wife, Beth Rega. An artist named Terryl Whitlatch (who had worked on the last two "Star Wars" films) did about forty or fifty pages of beautiful drawings of bear anatomy, which really helped us. We also made a field trip to the Silver Springs nature theme park in Florida where we got to spend time about two feet away from several full-size Kodiak bears. They have tremendous energy and we had to learn how to make them move with all the weight and power as well as the momentum and inertia of the real animals."
Alex Kupershmidt, a 21-year Disney veteran who most recently oversaw the animation of the mischievous alien Stitch in "Lilo & Stitch," was the supervising animator for the irrepressible bear cub Koda. He explains, "Stitch and Koda are alike in that they're both little boys. Stitch, however, was a dysfunctional boy who grew up not knowing his family. Koda is a really well-adjusted kid. He's a straight arrow, true blue character who is very confident and secure in himself and his views. And of course he's a realistic bear cub.
"I think every animal presents its own difficulties," adds Kupershmidt. "Every animal is distinct. Our job is to find what it is about the way they move that makes them distinct. That's what you exaggerate when you animate. Bears tend to rock from leg to leg when they walk and because they're so massive, their legs are spread wide. It appears clumsy, but it's just the way they transfer their weight. Our starting point on this film was to watch a lot of documentaries about bears. They're the largest carnivores in North America and fascinating to study.
"Bear cubs like Koda are lighter and a lot more playful," observes the animator. "Their movements are kind of raw and unpolished much like human kids. We tried to have Koda move the way a child would - a little off-sync. Spending time with bear cubs that came to visit the Studio was really helpful. And Jeremy Suarez was a terrific voice for the character. He has a machine-gun fire way of speaking and the words just tumbled out one after another. We had to work hard to get the lip synch just right and when you have rapid speech you have more drawings.
Kupershmidt concludes, "This was a very hard film to animate because of its realistic animal movements. For the Florida Studio, it was a great step forward. If 'Lilo & Stitch' was our 'Dumbo,' this film was our 'Bambi.' I'm particularly proud of the way the heavy emotional moments in the film are handled with restraint, as they are in such great Disney films as 'Dumbo' and 'Beauty and the Beast.' The audience has come a long way with these characters and will let their emotions flow if we provide the blank canvas."
Adding great comedy and entertainment to "Brother Bear" are two comical moose characters, whose voices have more than a passing resemblance to comedians Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas. According to director Aaron Blaise, "Most of the recording sessions with Rick and Dave were done together. Everything they do is so dependent on riffing off of each other.
They would really go to town with the script and have lots of fun with it. Their role continued to grow into something more than comic relief. They became part of the thematic about brothers and forgiving and change. They actually help Koda make the leap to go to the top of the mountain to free Kenai."
Supervising animators Broose Johnson (Tuke) and Tony Stanley (Rutt) were the lucky duo in charge of these battling brothers. Johnson recalls, "Early on we had bantered around the idea of having these two Canadian moose in the film with the voices of Rick and Dave. In the dreamland possibility that that could actually happen, these moose were made with them in mind. I am an enormous fan of their comedy and with these characters we were able to pay homage to them. I spell my name 'B-r-o-o-s-e' and ever since high school people have been saying 'Broose the moose.' So a moose just has become my favourite character, and has been forever. There was a scene in 'Pocahontas' where the dog, Percy, runs past a moose, and I persuaded the director to let me animate him. So Rutt and Tuke are not my first moose characters."
Stanley adds, "In designing the characters, we tried to take our visual cues from Rick and Dave. Rutt, the Rick character, is smaller and a bit more slouched. He tends to look a little sad and he squints a bit too. Tuke, Dave's character, tends to do a lot with his eyebrows. He thinks he's the leader. There really isn't a straight man. They go back in forth in that role."
Johnson got to see some moose in person during a field trip to Alaska. Stanley had to settle for studying documentary footage for reference and studying some of the taller animals (like Okapis) at Disney's Animal Kingdom. Moose can stand as tall as 7-1/2 feet to the shoulder, weigh over 1000 pounds and have an antler spread of six feet from tip to tip. Antlers proved to be one of the most difficult challenges for the Rutt and Tuke animators and CG animation provided just the right solution for dealing with them.
Johnson explains, "The big mystery element that threw Tony and I into a tizzy were the antlers. It's very hard to draw something solid like that from frame to frame and have it maintain its shape and look believable. We finally discovered that if we worked a bit backwards and figured out all the details on the computer, we could spend more time in the end doing some beautiful drawings. We would carefully plan our scenes with the moose talking and interacting, then scan our rough drawings into the computer and use CG to animate the antlers in the right place. Once the antlers were created as digital images, we took stats of them and traced them back onto paper so we could finish our animation. We discovered early on that the whole skull had to move in perspective with the antlers and the eyes had to be locked down in order for the antlers to look right. Once we got the head and antlers where we wanted them, we could concentrate on the performance and expressions."
"There's a scene where Rutt and Tuke get their antlers locked together and we were dreading animating it," observes Stanley. "We figured it out sort of like one of those Chinese finger traps, where if you just relax, it would separate. We worked side by side on this one and actually animated both characters on the same piece of paper."
Johnson concludes, "What we really liked about drawing these guys was that they actually played an important role in the film besides comic relief and helped Koda to realize an important lesson in brotherhood. I've always found that my favorite comedy movies have moments that are pretty heart-wrenching and Rutt and Tuke have one of those really sweet poignant moments towards the end of this film."
nature calls: creating a naturalistic look
Directors Blaise and Walker were well suited to their assignment on "Brother Bear." Both are nature lovers who spend a lot of their spare time hiking, boating and enjoying the great outdoors. They quickly realised that the art direction for this film would have to be as truthful to nature as possible.
Art director Robh Ruppel explains, "The directors wanted a very naturalistic look for the film. By that I mean, they wanted it to be based on nature but interpreted through art. It was extremely helpful for our artists to visit Alaska and take a painting trip to Wyoming. We were struck by how raw and primitive the landscapes were with huge ranges of mountains upon mountains upon mountains. The sky had so many layers and so many different types of clouds. We drew and painted and took lots of photos. When you sit there and draw something you have a much more intimate connection with it. You're actually looking at it really intensely and studying it. Part of what makes art great is when you interpret something with your own eyes, you're translating three-dimensional space and colour and form into the language of drawing and painting. You become much more acquainted with what's really going on around you.
"Our goal in the art direction for 'Brother Bear' was to make it look believable and we tried to accomplish this with the way the film was lit and composed," adds Ruppel. "It doesn't look like a stage play. It feels like it's outdoors or like it was shot on location. We tried to get real air and light into it and keep the light sources believable."
The filmmakers made their first trip to Alaska in August 1999 and returned for a second field trip one year later. They spent time at Denali National Park and the Kenai Fjords National Park, where they visited Exit and Holgate Glacier. The artists painted mountain ranges and observed semi-extinct volcanoes in the setting sun. They practiced a style called "plein-air" (or open air), in which the artist works in natural light and careful attention is paid to how light appears on subjects.
Ruppel says, "One of the legendary artists who inspired us was Albert Bierstadt, a famous 19th Century painter who specialized in Western scenery and immortalized the Rocky Mountains and Yosemite with his grand romantic paintings. He was part of the Hudson River School, known for their awesome images of the wilderness, and the use of dramatic light effects to portray such elements as mist and sunsets. That was the look we tried to capture with 'Brother Bear.'"
Another major influence on the look of the film was a talented background stylist on the Florida team by the name of Xiangyuan (or "Jay") Jie. "This guy is one of the most amazing painters i've ever met," says Blaise. "Bob and I saw a show of his paintings and immediately decided that we wanted the movie to look like that. You can see the strokes in his paintings. They've very rugged, painterly, three-dimensional backgrounds. We basically adopted his personal style of painting for 'Brother Bear.' Robh melded everything together in a great way."
Background supervisor Barry Kooser and his team of artists took a painting trip in 2001 to Jackson Hole, Wyoming to study with renowned contemporary Western landscape painter Scott Christensen. He taught them how to simplify objects by getting the spatial dimensions to work first and working in the detail later. For this film, eighteen artists created about 800 backgrounds ranging in size from a twelve-inch field to dynamic vistas measuring two-feet high by four-feet long.
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