Bringing the Disney Magic Back in PRINCESS & THE FROG

Let’s get the most important question over and done first.

Disney’s “The Princess and the Frog” is going to be a blockbuster. The Magic Kingdom’s return to traditional, hand drawn animation has the potential of being the biggest box office hit of 2009, potentially surpassing “Tranformers 2” and Cameron’s “Avatar.”

And two of the men responsible for bringing the magic back to the Mouse Works are Mark Henn and Mike Surrey. Disney is currently having these two veteran supervising animators touring the U.S., conducting roundtables on just what they did to put the Disney musical on top.

Then again, if there were two animators who should have been on the job, it was Surrey and Henn.

Mark Henn started at Disney nearly 30 years ago. The first film he worked on was “The Fox and the Hound,” as an inbetweener on Todd the Fox under the supervision of one of the legendary Nine Old Men, Erik Larsen. He was promoted to a full animator within a year, and won an Annie as the supervising animator of Mulan in the film of the same name.

If anything, Henn has a reputation for being a master of animating lead female characters. Other leads he supervised include four other Disney princesses; Ariel, Belle, Jasmine and Pocahontas. So it takes little to realize he was the man tapped to do Tiana, the newest princess in this growing roster.

Originally from Toronto, Mike Surrey started working at Disney in 1990, where his first job was on “The Prince and the Pauper.” His expertise in drawing funny animals soon earned him a supervising animator title with Timon on “The Lion King,” which earned him an Annie nomination. Other characters he’s supervised include Terk in “Tarzan,” Clopin in “Hunchback of Notre Dame,” and Buck on “Home On the Range.” When Disney shut down its traditional animation department, Surrey moved on to Dreamworks, where he worked on “Shark’s Tale.”

For “Princess,” he was the supervising animator on the critical character of Ray, the Cajun Firefly.

One thing both men remember vividly though was 2007, when new boss John Lasseter announced the project. One thing they distinctly recall was just about everyone else in the industry banging on the company’s gates to work on the project.

“ABSOLUTELY!” both simultaneously shouted when the question was brought up.

“There was also a big clamoring of people knocking on the door,” continues Surrey. “It was big, big news in the animation world.”

“The big thing is we were used a smaller crew,” adds Henn. “So we had to go through a lot of (audition) reels. We spent a lot of time sitting in rooms during lunch hour looking at them.”

“Very often one of us would go ‘Hey! I remember him’ or ‘I know that guy!’” Surrey chimes in. “The animation world is so small very often you were looking at the work of someone you knew. He used to work there. Also, the animation world is so small, many times the person I worked with was someone I had worked with in the past in France or London.”

“One of our great animators came from Brazil, Sandro Cleuzo,” said Henn.

The talent wasn’t just in the production department, either. Heading the entire project were Ron Clements and John Musker. These two supervising directors are given a lot of credit for the animation renaissance of the late 1980s and into the 90s. It includes an apocryphal tale of them literally getting on their hands and knees to beg then Disney head honchos Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg for one more chance to do an animated feature film, eventually delivering “The Little Mermaid.” Other films associated with Clements and Musker include such megahits as “Beauty and the Beast,” “Aladdin” and “Hercules.”

According to Henn and Surrey, they couldn’t have asked for better bosses.

“They are good generals to have! They know what they are doing,” praises Henn.

“Ron and John meetings can seem quite chaotic, but there is an order to them,” says Surrey. “You listen in on one of these meetings, and everyone is talking. Yet Ron and John know what everyone is saying.

“John is really good about going ‘What did you say over there?’” as he points into a far corner. “Then he’d go ‘Yeah. Let’s do that’. It doesn’t have to be a story board artist or any kind of artist at all. If someone comes up with a good idea, John will hear it.”

“They often defer to people that way,” says Henn. “I remember John once going to a person and saying ‘You live in New Orleans…would that happen in New Orleans?’ When the person would nod their head, you’d see him go off going ‘good…good.’”

Lasseter was also a presence on the project, although both Henn and Surrey said he let Clements and Musker take control.

“It would filter down to us,” said Henn. “For the most part, John deals with his directors and the overall story. Occasionally he would come in and sit in our sweat boxes, look at what we were doing.”

“He would then go something like ‘I want this sequence to be more like this’ or ‘I want this to just jump off the screen,’” said Surrey; “more motivational. We all know he knows we know how to animate. We’ve all done it before. He just doesn’t want us to walk through this. He makes sure we give it all that we can, to take it to the next level.”

Both animators also add that they received considerable help from their respective voice actors, former Dreamgirl Anika Noni Rose and veteran Jim Cummings, already a Disney legend as the voice of Darkwing Duck.

“I’m surprised at how many things Jim Cummings does,” Surrey admitted. “He made my job a lot easier. Jim is a pretty seasoned guy. He knows how to make things happen.

“The great thing about a character for a guy like Jim Cummings is that when the lines for his role are handed to him, they are pretty set. Yet he knows that if you ask him to riff on an idea, like Ray’s big butt, then he’ll come up with something that’s amazing. A good example is when he was singing one of his songs, and he just let out ‘Follow the bouncing butt!’

“It just makes my job that much easier. I don’t have to sit there for a while and figure out what Ray is doing. It narrows it down. The way he says it and what he brings to it adds so much.”

“[Anika was] Wonderful. She was a real treat and enthusiastic,” Henn said, “but I didn’t use her exclusively. She certainly was an influence. I also did my share of research and observation. With our human characters, we use a live action reference. So we had a young gal named Daniella come in. She was essentially Tiana with her physique. She was also an inspiration.”

Henn also gained inspiration from another important source, Harlem Renaissance master painter Aaron Douglas.

“It was really neat to do that because I directed a short film based on the John Henry legend back in 2000,” says Henn. “So we incorporated Aaron Douglas and Jacob Lawrence. So it was really neat to revisit that again.”

Henn also pulled references from the styles of the time.

“Basically, everybody we saw had their hair pulled back,” he noted. “The problem was it looked a little too slick. In animation design, it’s important to give the viewers some landmarks, so we gave Tiana’s hair a little more thickness. We also had a gal named Shonda, one of our assistants who always looked over our shoulder going,” Henn frowns and shakes his head, “or, if we did it right, would nod, smile and go ‘Um hmmm…’ That’s how we knew we were doing it right.

“You know, that period is a great one to look at for styles, including African American people. Tiana not only has a huge variety of costumes to change into, but we also gave her a number of different hair styles. In the fantasy sequence we were able to give her all those spit curls that were so prevalent at the time.”

Still, the animators want to make sure everything was touch and go until the film was near completion.

“I don’t think you can have it predetermined,” Henn leads. “It’s kind of like an interesting recipe. You throw things in, then add a little more of this or that. Then suddenly it’s going to taste good.”

“I remember seeing the movie for the very first time,” Surrey chimes in. “It was the first time I really sat back and said ‘Wow! This is really going to be a good film.’ Then we started editing and tweaking.

“Finally, I got to see the real opening of the film, when everything was done right down to Anika singing the opening. I mean when I was working on the film, I was just used to Randy Newman singing the opening. When I heard her and saw those images, there was nothing like it.

“I don’t know what it was for me, but it was kind of like the ultimate comfort food. I just wanted to sit there and just bask in the story.”

“Mike’s absolutely right,” continues Henn. “A lot of movies today aren’t very timeless. They are so intent on getting to the quick, temporary gag they end up being too contemporary. A lot of comes out of the story. I think what we grew up with at Disney, and I think what Lasseter brings, which is something he puts into Pixar as well, is story is character-based. It isn’t about what’s the funny joke. That isn’t going to play 15 years from now.”

“They contradict what they are trying to be, which is a classic film,” says Surrey. “I think what happens is someone other than the director would say ‘I don’t think that’s what Ray would say.’ When you ask why, they would say it sounds too contemporary; it’s trying to be too hip. Then we would think about it and adjust.”

Which only left one other key question to these animation old timers, which animation process did they prefer, CG or hand drawn?

“For me it’s traditional,” Henn snaps back without a moment’s hesitation.

“For me, either one,” said Surrey. “They are like apples and oranges to me. In the end of the day, its all you’re doing is animation.

“I think doing CG animation is just purely animation. You are not worrying about the drawing. Going to art school and learning how to compose something right, getting your proportions right and life drawing, when you are trying to create clear, easy-to-read poses, and then compare CG to hand drawing.

“The one great thing about hand drawing is the control and the spontaneity you can have. When you get your scene from the directors, and they say something like ‘we want Ray to hit a rock and slide down,’ I can decide how squashed his face gets. I can really play with that.”

“With CG, you have to set those rules before the animating starts,” adds Henn. “If it’s not built into the character rig, you might not be able to do it right. Like Mike said, they are apples and oranges.”

“I really prefer hand drawing, even if it is something harder to do,” Surrey finally confesses. “It’s hard to compare, even though I do both.  I like aspects of both. There are also bad aspects to both. With CG I can’t squash a face the way I like to. But you know what? I can also rotate that character any way I want, without having to draw it all by hand. If I want a lower camera angle on Ray when he flies, I just lower the camera instead of entirely redrawing it.”

Apparently, the labor involved isn’t stopping Henn. His next project is the latest chapter in Disney’s continuing saga of Winnie The Pooh, which he proudly admits is hand drawn. Surrey is going back to CG. When he gets back to his office, it will be to work on another princess, Rapunzel, which is due in about another year.

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