Walt Disney Feature Animation adds a whole new dimension to its legacy for memorable characters, great storytelling, and technical innovation with "Chicken Little," the Studio's first fully computer-animated feature film. A pioneer in using computers in animation since the early 1980s, Disney brings its distinct filmmaking style and approach to this exciting medium, along with a host of technical innovations. The result is a film that captures the very best qualities of Disney animation with a look and feel that audiences have never seen before. Adding to the excitement, "Chicken Little" is being presented in select theatres across the country in Disney Digital 3D ™, a revolutionary new true three-dimensional digital experience. Disney teamed with effects powerhouse Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) to render the movie in 3D, and the film will be shown using specially installed Dolby® Digital Cinema systems.
The sky's the limit in Walt Disney Pictures' "Chicken Little," a delightful comedy-adventure that gives a sophisticated and satirical twist to the classic fable. It is now one year after the "unfortunate acorn incident" when Chicken Little caused big-time havoc in his hometown of Oakey Oaks by proclaiming that the sky was falling after being conked on the head by what appeared to be an acorn. Down but not out, the plucky chicken joins the local baseball team in the hopes of reviving his reputation and winning the respect of his father, Buck Cluck. When he leads the town to an upset victory, he becomes the toast of the town. But no sooner has the champion chicken redeemed himself when he is hit on the head one more time. And this time the sky really is falling! Fearful of once again being labeled crazy, he is reluctant to tell anyone what has happened. Instead, he enlists the help of his closest pals - Runt of the Litter, Ugly Duckling, and Fish Out of Water - in an attempt to save the day without sending the town into a whole new panic.
"Chicken Little" is directed by Mark Dindal and produced by Randy Fullmer, the same talented filmmakers responsible for Disney's zany 2000 animated comedy, "The Emperor's New Groove." The story is by Dindal and Mark Kennedy, and the screenplay was written by Steve Bencich & Ron J. Friedman, and Ron Anderson. Peter Del Vecho served as the film's associate producer. John Debney, a 2004 Oscar® nominee for his score for "The Passion of the Christ" and a collaborator on "Groove," composed and conducted the original score. The film's soundtrack boasts new performances by such popular recording artists as Barenaked Ladies, John Ondrasik, Patti LaBelle and Joss Stone, and the Cheetah Girls.
"'Chicken Little' is a breakthrough film for Disney," observes David Stainton, president of Walt Disney Feature Animation. "By combining Disney's unique style of animation and story sensibilities with state-of-the-art CG tools, our animation team has created a film unlike any that has been done before. We have created proprietary tools that allow our artists to put a full range of motion into their performances without limitations, and capture the true spirit of Disney's 'squash and stretch' animation. This is a very exciting time for Feature Animation and we have a great slate of CG movie projects in the pipeline. Each one has a look and style all its own and will allow us to put our own individual stamp on this limitless and exciting new medium. We are all so proud of what Mark and Randy and their team have accomplished with 'Chicken Little.'"
"Chicken Little" is dedicated to the memory of Joe Grant, the late great Disney storyman/artist who passed away on May 6th, 2005, just one week shy of his 97th birthday. Grant, who began his association with the Disney Studios in 1933 and went on to write "Dumbo" and supervise the stories for "Fantasia," continued to inspire new talent since returning to the Studio in 1989. He continued to draw and create new story ideas up until the day before he died.
Fullmer notes, "Joe was influential in a number of our story meetings and seemed to have the youngest mind in the place. He would tell us that Walt's legacy was not technology, but rather telling great stories with great characters. He encouraged us to be cutting edge and find whatever medium would do the bet job in telling our story. He was excited about computer-animation and believed that Walt would have embraced this new technology to tell his stories in new and exciting ways."
HATCHING THE PLOT: ORIGINS OF THE PROJECT
Director Mark Dindal had been toying around with a spoof of the fairy tale/fable genre for many years. As he started to analyze his favorite childhood stories, he discovered that there was a lot humor to be had from trying to apply real world logic to the magical realms.
"I was always really interested in the folk tales and fairy tales as a jumping off point because they're simple stories that are very familiar," explains Dindal. "I always thought it would be fun to start asking questions like 'Why would that character do that?' It's a crazy thing when you think about stories like 'Little Red Riding Hood.' The wolf could eat the girl when he first meets her, but instead he takes this long detour and disguises himself as her grandmother. You can have a lot of fun when you start to think about the reasons why those characters make the choices they make. Suddenly those characters become more interesting and complex.
"At the same time that I was playing around with that concept, I had an idea about these misfit farm animals that get left behind when all the pretty animals go off to the county fair to be judged," adds Dindal. "And while they're away, these aliens touch down to start a conquest of the planet. Suddenly these misfits are the only ones to stand in the way of them launching this attack and they're called upon to save the world. As I was driving home from work one night, the two ideas merged together, and it solidified as 'Chicken Little.'
"Chicken Little" went on to have a long incubation period over the next five years. Scenarios changed radically and even the gender of the title character went from female to male early in the creative process. In the end, Dindal and head of story, Mark Kennedy, along with screenwriters Steve Bencich & Ron J. Friedman, and Ron Anderson fashioned a fun and engaging story about a misunderstood chicken and his desire to have his father believe in him.
Kennedy notes, "Mark is a great story guy. He's just got a great feel for what's simple and emotional and doesn't get distracted by other things. He is really able to focus on the essence of each sequence and what it is contributing to the film as a whole.
"The heart of the film is really the relationship between Chicken Little and his dad," adds Kennedy. "There is a pivotal moment in the third act where Chicken Little confronts his dad and says to him that he never believed him about the acorn incident and that has always bothered him. He tells his dad that he was wrong not to support him. For the first time, Buck hears the truth and its something he probably knew all along but hadn't realized. Chicken Little learns to believe in himself, and Buck realizes that he should support his son no matter what."
The actual fable of "Chicken Little" is thought to have originated in rural England back in the 1700s. It was conceived as a cautionary tale to tell young schoolboys the dangers of exaggeration and drawing the wrong kind of ill-informed conclusions. Names like Foxy Loxy and Turkey Lurkey are typically British. The story was most likely written down by traveling journeymen and collectors of folk myths and fables. As the story was adapted in other parts of the world, the ending came to vary widely. In some versions, Chicken Little hears a voice and runs away before Foxy moves in for the kill. In other versions, Foxy gets the upper hand.
Coincidentally, the Disney Studios made a World War II animated propaganda short called "Chicken Little" in 1943, in which the Fox lures the unwitting chicken population to their doom.
DISNEY'S LATEST TECHNOLOGICAL MILESTONE: SQUASHING AND STRETCHING CG ANIMATION
Ever since Walt Disney introduced Mickey Mouse in the world's first "fully synchronized" sound cartoon, "Steamboat Willie," back on November 18, 1928, the Studio has earned a reputation for being the leading pioneer in combining great art with state-of-the-art technology. The impressive list of milestones includes:
1932: First use of three-strip Technicolor in cartoons with "Flowers and Trees."
1937: Disney invents the multiplane camera and uses it for the first time on the animated short, "The Old Mill." A special technical Oscar® was presented to the Studio for this invention.
1937: First full-length animated feature, "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs."
1940: First use of stereophonic sound in motion pictures, developed as "Fantasound" for "Fantasia."
1953: First cartoon filmed in CinemaScope with "Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom."
1961: "101 Dalmatians" becomes first animated feature to use Xerox lines.
1982: First film recorded in digital sound with the re-recording of "Fantasia."
1982: Disney animators Glen Keane and John Lasseter (who went on to revolutionize the medium at Pixar and direct several landmark computer-animated films) experiment with combining 2D and 3D animation with a 90-second test on Maurice Sendak's "Where the Wild Things Are."
1985: Disney's "The Black Cauldron" uses computer-animation for several inanimate objects including the cauldron itself.
1986: Computer animation takes a big step forward with Disney's "The Great Mouse Detective" where 54 moving gears, winches, ratchets, beams, and pulleys inside the clock tower of Big Ben were animated using the computer.
1992: Disney wins a special technical Academy Award® for the design and development of the CAPS system, a revolutionary computer-assisted animation post-production software system created in conjunction with Pixar.
1995: Disney collaborates with and presents Pixar Animation Studio's landmark first computer-animated feature, "Toy Story."
2000: Disney's "Dinosaur" combines CG characters with live-action background plates.
With the release of "Chicken Little," Walt Disney Feature Animation adds its first fully computer-animated feature to this long list of technical achievements. Supplementing the existing software packages available to the animation industry, the technical wizards at Disney came up with new approaches, new proprietary software, and inventive solutions to problems.
Steve Goldberg, the film's visual effects supervisor, observes, "The whole reason I came to Disney back in 1990 was because I always believed that if there was a chance of being able to take the artistic talent that existed here at the Studio and blend it with this new medium of CG, we'd be able to blow the doors off. No one had really done that level of combination before. I just remember thinking, 'these are the greatest painters in the world, the greatest animators in the world, the best effects artist in the industry…
"To me, the exciting thing about 'Chicken Little' is that for the first time we were able to put these amazing tools into the hands of the top artistic talents in the industry," adds Goldberg. "The technology has reached a point where we really could allow those artists to work in a way that seemed relatively intuitive to them. There are some wonderful shots in the film that came about because the traditional animators basically broke the rules and pushed the software beyond where it was meant to go. They were doing what they needed to do to get the poses they wanted, and it was our job to support their performance and figure out how to render it. We didn't want to throw limits at them. We worked really hard to make sure that whatever the character animators needed to do, they were able to achieve it."
The end result is a CG film that incorporates many of the classic principles of Disney animation such as "squash and stretch," an animation technique that lets animators create extremely wild and fluid actions that can only exist in the cartoon world.
Dindal explains, "What squash and stretch really does is put life and energy into the characters. You just feel it. And I think that's what Disney animation has always been known for - bringing this art work to life. You completely believe what you see is real. We've also tried to bring some of the other qualities of Disney drawn animation into this CG film. There's a roundness to the character design in the Disney films of the 40s and 50s that I really love and respond to. The timing is unique, and the characters have a vibrant energy."
A great example of adapting "squash and stretch" for CG animation is the big baseball game in "Chicken Little."
"For the baseball game in our film, we studied the 1942 Goofy cartoon, 'How to Play Baseball,' which had really appealing rounded animation with movements that are basically caricatures of movement," says Dindal. "I love that sort of thing. We really encouraged our team to go to the extreme. Our stork pitcher has some classic Disney animated moves. There's a texture to the motion, to the jaw, to the beak, the teeth, and the cheeks. And when the groundhog gets thrown by the second baseman, our animator Doug Bennett added in those G-force wind effects where his cheeks are flapping around. These are things that we haven't really seen in computer animation before."
Giving the animators more intuitive controls of the characters' motions was a high priority for Goldberg and his collaborator, technical supervisor Eric Powers. Powers and his team wrote new software or added proprietary platforms to existing programs to allow the range of movement and expression that the filmmakers wanted.
Among Disney's breakthrough proprietary improvements is a new suite of tools called "Chicken Wire."
CG Supervisors Kevin Geiger and Kyle Odermatt and their team came up with these tools to bring more elasticity to the facial performance, and help animators approximate the range they would normally have with traditional animation. "Chicken Wire" is a collection of wire deformers that add extra functionality. These tools specifically address the common complaint that computer animation is too puppet-like or mannequin-ish.
According to Geiger, "'Chicken Wire' allows the animator to take predefined facial shapes and then, using these deformers, pull out variations on those shapes. It essentially adds extra shapes to the base set, and gives the animator the ability to enhance what is provided by the modeling and rigging departments. Even those of us who actually created the models were surprised by what the animators could do. They were able to make the characters their own and personalize them the way a traditional animator could do. It gave the characters a very Disney feel."
Animators also had the added benefit of a new intuitive tool called "shelf control," which is essentially a diagram of the character that can be viewed on the screen and provides a direct link to the controls for specific anatomy. In previous films, animators would have to scroll through long lists of complex code to access a particular area of the body.
And finally, for those animators who come from a drawing background, new electronic tablet screens allow them to rough out their characters' movements using digital sketches. Similar to drawn thumbnails, the computer keeps track of each successive electronic drawing and allows the animator to block out their performance in 2D in minutes.
Goldberg concludes, "'Chicken Little' has laid a foundation for making CG features that all future Disney films will benefit from. We have the ability to create anything the story guys can come up with. We can create it and art direct it in a way that I don't think any other studio can realize. The Studio brings over 80 years of animation experience to the medium, and our goal is to carry that wonderful legacy forward in the new digital frontier. We are not driven by technology, but control the technology to make it do what we want it to do."
ANIMATING DISNEY'S FIRST CG FEATURE: BRINGING THE CHARACTERS TO LIFE
In order to gear up for its first fully computer-animated feature film, Walt Disney Feature Animation undertook an ambitious training program to bring its artists up to the challenging task that lay ahead. Eamonn Butler, a traditionally-trained animator who has worked with computers for the past twleve years, took on the role of animation supervisor.
"At the start of 'Chicken Little,' only about 50% of our animation team had worked in the CG medium," recalls Butler. "And it was very important to Mark and Randy that we pull talent from the traditional ranks, especially artists that they had worked with before on 'Emperor's New Groove.' So we set out to train 50% of our crew. It took 18 months to do that. I ran eight full courses that I lovingly called 'boot camp.' The program was structured with a twelve-week introduction to the computer and to Maya (the state-of-the-art standard application that is widely used for 3D modeling, animation, and effects). Walt Sturrock in our Artist Development handled this portion. We had classes and labs in Burbank and Glendale that ran almost 24 hours a day. People could come in and use the machines whenever they wanted, and we literally offered classes every day for 18 months. It was a massive undertaking; more training than we've ever done at this Studio. The amazing thing was that we had almost a 100% success rate. This has turned out to be the best team I've ever worked with.
"I remember how terrified I was when I made the switch from 2D, and was able to leverage off my own experiences in helping the others to adapt," adds Butler. "We structured a program that really helped these guys maintain their craft, so even though they were working with a mouse and a keyboard instead of a pencil, they were still able to draw upon their existing knowledge of animation, and performance. We also worked hard to develop tools that allowed traditional animators to capitalize on their skills and talents."
Jason Ryan, a veteran CG animator and the supervising animator for the character of Chicken Little, notes, "This has been the most fun film I've ever worked on because we got to do a lot of 2D tricks of the trade; things like squash and stretch, smear frames (a fake blur that would occur between two frames in a scene with fast action), really snappy timing and a lot of great character acting. There's also some nice subtle performances too. I think this is a real breakthrough film for Disney and for the industry because our characters aren't just puppets anymore. They have a real sense of believability. We're starting to get the quality of hand drawing into CG, and the potential is limitless.
"Animating Chicken Little was a blast," he adds. "I love doing the kind of cartoony zippy action. He so small that you can imagine that he could actually move that fast. One minute he's here and the next minute he's over there. Zach Braff's voice was a great inspiration to us. He talks very fast and very clear. It's very unusual to get that kind of comic timing. He does nuances in his voice with little stutters and stumbles. It just lends so much to the animation. You could listen to the actual track and just imagine the scene.
Braff observes, "My character is the ultimate underdog. He's just tiny, and really driven, and nothing ever goes right for him. Everyone can relate to being the underdog, and feeling like everyone's against you. He's just trying to prove himself. I think a lot of kids especially will know that feeling of being an outcast.
"One of the things that's really fun about the movie is that it's about this little guy saving the world," adds the actor. "He's this little outcast who no one really believed could do anything, and who everyone thinks is crazy. There's also a sweet message about being able to talk openly with your parents. Chicken Little and his father are having this awkward communication where they're not really speaking honestly with each other. When he finally tells his dad how he's really feeling, that's a big turning point in the movie.
PRODUCTION DESIGN, ART DIRECTION, AND CHARACTER DESIGN
THE MUSIC OF "CHICKEN LITTLE": JOHN DEBNEY'S SCORE & A 70S ERA SOUNDTRACK
THE 3D MOTION PICTURE EXPERIENCE TAKES A GIANT LEAP WITH A REVOLUTIONARY NEW PROCESS
FUN FACTS & STATISTICS
MEET THE FILMMAKERS
READ MORE ABOUT STOP-ANIMATION: TIM BURTON'S CORPSE BRIDE