Little Dog, Lot to Prove. The Directors of 'Bolt' Talk

With a lot of movies, the story behind the scene can be every bit as interesting as the one on the screen. That certainly is the case with Disney’s latest production, Bolt.

Yes, it does have John Travolta voicing the title role of a dog that doesn’t know his life is a TV series. It also features Mylie Cyrus as Bolt’s teenaged owner coping with her confused pet being accidentally shipped from Hollywood to New York City and then trying to get home. The film also includes some incredible performances from the likes of Susie Essman as a poor, homeless cat who is literally collared by Bolt into making this cross country trek.

Still, the real story here isn’t this round, cuddly and ultimately believable animals. It’s how this is the first straight Disney film that was produced by Pixar’s John Lassetter.

Let’s put this another way. This is not a Pixar movie. The film clearly states it’s a Disney production.

So what does this imply? Bolt's co-directors, Chris Williams & Byron Howard, have a distinct take on it. After all, these two are longtime Disney veterans. They both did their internships at Disney’s Orlando, Florida facilities, where they sharpened their first professional pencils on Mulan. From there, both made the pilgrimage to the main studio in Burbank, California. This is also the first time they have worked together, much less directed a feature film.

This leads to some very interesting perspective from inside the Mouse Works. Here’s what they had to say:

Newsarama: Your bio states you both worked at Disney’s studio in Orlando. Did you know each other then?

Byron Howard: No. You know we went through our internship at Disney but we never crossed paths. I knew of Chris because his wonderful drawings were already making impressions on friends of mine. We didn’t get to know each other until we started this project.

NRAMA: But you both worked in Orlando around the same time, right?

Chris Williams: Byron actually lived in Orlando for a number of years while I lived there for an internship. I was there for Mulan for a while. I was also there for Lilo & Stitch for a while, but I was constantly coming and going.

NRAMA: This is the first feature film you’ve both directed, right?

BOTH: Yeah.

NRAMA: Now both of you have worked for Disney for 14 years, so you’ve been through different leaders there. What’s it like now working under Mr. Lassetter?

CW: One of the things we both always wanted to do was work for someone like John. I remember the day when they called us all to this big soundstage and told us we all were now working under him. We were all so excited. He’s proven that he’s a high quality guy and a real talented guy.

We all recognized that our lives weren’t going to get easier. He really sets a high bar. He really pushes you to get better. What it meant is we were all going to commit to only doing things that were going to be great, high quality stuff. Above and beyond anything, it’s all about his passion and his love for movies and animation is so contagious.

BH: He’s really a big kid. When he screens our movies we make he’s always the one that’s laughing the hardest and the first. It also comes from a very genuine place. He’s also the biggest Disney fan I know. He really gets into this stuff. Like Chris has said, his enthusiasm is contagious and we caught it.

The fact is no matter how hard the last film was, after it’s done you’re always ready to jump in and make the next one. That’s the sign of a great leader.

NRAMA: When I met him a year ago, he came across as a very low key guy. He also said his axiom is if a kid loves a film, he or she will make you watch it 1,000 times. How does that philosophy apply to Bolt?

CW: The thing that makes a movie work or not is telling a great story and creating great characters. So for a kid to get attached to a movie, there’s something that a kid gets attached to. There’s a burden on us to create those great characters. It’s also important, being these kids will make you watch it 1,000 times, that you like it too. So we definitely wanted something adults can enjoy.

NRAMA: Was it always your intention to have John Travolta voice Bolt?

CW: When it was time to cast, we put together a wish list and then matched the actors’ voices to the characters. You soon start to sense which ones are going to fit. We thought that John Travolta would be great.

Then when you find out you actually got John Travolta, not forgetting Susie Essman (Mittens the Cat), we started to realize we were getting all of or first picks. That gets really exciting, but you also realize you better have a good idea what the characters are all about. If you do, these actors can really start to form the characters.

BH: The great thing about John’s voice is he really disappeared into the character. I don’t think that anytime I’m hearing Bolt I’m hearing John Travolta. I’m just thinking this is how this dog should sound. John did a marvelous job of sculpting his voice into this role. He really gave us this great range. He could be this tough guy when he was working on the show. He could also be quite tender or confused when he was off camera. He was a character you could really empathize with.

NRAMA: I didn’t hear any of the usual Travolta-isms in there.

BH: Susie Essman was the same way. She has such a dry wit but also this warmth. When her backstory does come out, it’s such an emotional moment. I think she really stole the show.

CW: It will make you understand how Bolt first thinks all cats are evil but by the time the film’s over you understand they’re vulnerable too. I’m a cat person myself. I own a cat myself.

BH: I am too. They all have that streak of being very evil and loving at the same time, don’t they?

NRAMA: The real revelation to me was Mark Walton as Rhino the Hamster. Is he really that crazy?

CW: He’s one of our artists, so that should tell you something to start. Really, it’s his unbridled enthusiasm for Rhino. That’s very real. Mark also doesn’t have any filters. He’s just this very genuine person. We’re both very happy for his success. He’s just great as Rhino.

BH: He’s just a naturally funny guy. He’s another real fanboy, too. His house is just packed with all kinds of toys from animated films. Let’s say it this way. It wasn’t that much of a stress for him to be Rhino. When we first heard the scratch tracks with him, we just knew he was a perfect match for the hamster. He really made that character work.

CW: I mean he’s such a fanboy do you know the Robin Hood movie with Kevin Costner? There’s a scene that’s become a famous shot. It has an arm in the foreground that is shot with an arrow. It’s supposed to be Costner’s arm. Anyway, you know it’s an artificial arm. Mark actually owns that arm. He is such a movie nut that he had to have it. That comes across in Rhino.

NRAMA: Now was the film done in Burbank or did you go up to Pixar’s complex in Oakland?

CW: All the animation was done here.

BH: It was all in-house. The thing we did benefit from was as we did the story, we did show the film to the Pixar brain trust. Conversely, they now show their films to us. It’s very open communications.

CW: The thing we knew even before John arrived is we had talent in the building. We had great people. What John Lassetter, and Ed Catmull, are really great at is they really know how to get that talent on screen. So it’s the same people, only in a new environment. You can see we’ve taken a huge step forward. Every department really stepped up. We all knew this was a John Lassetter movie and it has to be great. It’s a lot of positive energy.

NRAMA: I have to say, there’s been some great films out this year. Not just Wall*E, but also films like Kung Fu Panda, Madagascar 2, Azur & Asmar and Igor. Would you say the quality level in general is being pushed up?

BH: I would say that, as many know, the animation community as a whole is really small. So you will end up working with just about everybody on one project or another sooner or later. It’s created a philosophy of it doesn’t really matter what studio you work for, every animator is a colleague one way or another. This means we all also root for each other. When someone makes a great film, it’s good for all of us. So I’m very encouraged to see all these studios coming out with such great projects.

CW: Lately there really has been a passion for great storytelling. It’s permeated throughout the entire animation industry. When I go to an animated movie, I see more passion for one of them than any typical live action feature these days. So I’m real happy to be making animated movies these days.


Intel Corporation today announced the start of Mass Animation, the first collaborative, worldwide effort to produce a computer-generated animated short film for theatrical release.

Artists around the world are invited to animate the shots of a 5-minute, CGI-animated short film titled “Live Music,” which is produced and directed by Yair Landau, former president of Sony Pictures Digital. The collaboration, through a unique application built on the Facebook Platform, will run through Jan. 30. Animators, regardless of experience, may begin work immediately, and community voting will open Nov. 24 at

“Live Music” is inspired by Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and early CGI films. Set in a musical instrument store, the story follows Riff, a rock ‘n’ roll guitar, who, as Landau describes it, “falls in love to the wrong song but ends up with Vanessa, the classical violin of his dreams.” The story is conveyed through the universal language of music, allowing the expressions and actions of the characters to be instantly relatable globally. The instruments are brought to life through original compositions and familiar rock tunes played principally by legendary guitarist Steve Vai as Riff and acclaimed violinist Ann Marie Calhoun as Vanessa.

“Mass Animation’s first project, ‘Live Music’ is a great story that we are excited to tell through a breakthrough Facebook application,” Landau said. “This new method of creating films draws upon a global community and social technology to allow people to come together in a whole new type of creative collaboration. Animators around the world will get a chance to showcase their talent and imagination in the film; animation fans will have a say in which shots best convey the story and characters, and therefore deserve to make the final cut.”

“This project is about the magic that can happen when thousands of artistic people all over the world put powerful computing tools to use in the spirit of collaboration,” said John Cooney, online programs manager with Intel’s Partner Marketing Group. “The power of the Intel® Core i7 processor technology, introduced today and part of the project’s prize package, makes it possible for content creators to design, animate and innovate.”

The tools and 3-D models that animators will need to collaborate on this project including a limited duration version of Autodesk Maya 3D Animation software are provided, and can be accessed through the Mass Animation application on Facebook built by Aniboom.

Dell will be awarding a Dell Studio XPS desktop PC powered by an Intel Core i7 processor to animators whose creation is rated the best by the community on a weekly basis. An international jury of animation experts will select the shots to be considered for the film. As director, Landau will have the final say as to which submissions make the final cut. Animators whose work makes it into the finished product will receive on-screen credit and $500 (US) in compensation.

In addition to Intel and thousands of participants in the project, Mass Animation’s partners in making “Live Music” include Dell, Autodesk, Reel FX Entertainment and Aniboom.

Visit to start collaborating today.


In 1972, America's families had endured the tragedy of the Munich Olympic Games, a controversial presidential election and the ongoing losses of the Vietnam War. On Thanksgiving Day that year, Hanna-Barbera, the world's leading producer of animated television entertainment, debuted a 30-minute original holiday special to remind everyone that there is always a reason to give thanks: The Thanksgiving That Almost Wasn't. This year on Thanksgiving day, Nov. 27, 2008, Boomerang, Cartoon Network's all-classic cartoon network, will offer the 26th Anniversary presentation entirely free from commercial interruption. It will enjoy two Boomerang telecasts, first at 10:00 a.m. and then again at 8:00 p.m. (both times Eastern).

Featuring a cast of Hanna-Barbera's best vocal talent such as June Foray and Don Messick, the film is a story about friendship that is also full of adventure. Set in 1621, it chronicles one dangerously fateful day for Johnny Cooke, a young Pilgrim boy, and Little Bear, an Indian boy, who are discovered to be missing. The first Thanksgiving feast cannot start without them, and when their friend Jeremy Squirrel hears they are in peril he goes on a daring rescue mission

"Animated holiday specials such as The Thanksgiving That Almost Wasn't are family traditions," said Stacy Isenhower, senior vice president of programming and scheduling for Boomerang and Cartoon Network. "We know that our viewers, both young and old, will feel the spirit of the holiday with this cartoon classic-it reminds us again that there is always a reason to be thankful."

NEXT COLUMN: More reasons to be thankful. We start looking over holiday specials for the next month.


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