“The acting is what I like about Disney animation,” says supervising animator Mark Henn. “I have high hopes and aspirations for pushing the art of character animation a lot further. Ideally, I’d like to be good at whatever they hand me, but I prefer to do the acting, the close-up work with the characters.”
Henn is one of the talented young artists who have reasserted Disney’s preeminent position in animation with the recently released “The Great Mouse Detective.” After the poor showing of “The Fox and the Hound” (1981) and “The Black Cauldron” (1985), there was speculation that the Disney legacy of excellence might be passing to some other studio.
The polished, effective acting of the characters in “Mouse Detective” dispelled those fears and provided a showcase for the skills of the new animators, who came to the studio from CalArts during the last decade. Like the men who drew the classic Disney films, they’re enthusiastic about their work, and young. (“Snow White,” “Pinocchio” and “Fantasia” were all completed before Walt Disney’s 40th birthday.)
The 28-year-old Henn became a full-fledged animator in 1981, one year after being hired--and was promptly assigned the key animation of Mickey Mouse in “Mickey’s Christmas Carol” (1983). Henn didn’t concentrate on a particular character or sequence in “Mouse Detective"; rather, he says, his work is “splattered all over the picture.” In addition to the initial confrontation between Basil of Baker Street, the title character, and the villainous Prof. Ratigan, he did some deft, understated work with Flaversham, the paternal toy maker kidnaped by Ratigan.
In animation, straightforward personalities like Flaversham are difficult to handle, as they can easily become dull and lifeless. A recent father, Henn found he could express his own feelings through the character.
“I’m a great believer in trying to make the characters as sincere as possible,” he says. “Flaversham was a very gentle person who loved his daughter, Olivia, a lot. I felt I could pretty much get inside him--the way I could with Mickey. The fun with him came from the outsized spectacles--it was kind of like drawing myself, with the mustache and the glasses.”
Henn’s relaxed, open demeanor contrasts markedly with his soft-spoken, reserved co-worker, Hendel Butoy. At 27, Butoy is one of the youngest supervising animators. He came to Disney in 1979 and was promoted to animator on “The Fox and the Hound,” where his first assignment was drawing the baby fox’s wagging tail.
For “Mouse Detective,” he was given scenes involving the subtle interplay of complex emotions, including the pivotal sequence when Basil realizes how to escape from Ratigan’s murderous trap. The audience sees Basil go from despair to elation as inspiration strikes.
A quiet, thoughtful man, Butoy speaks slowly, carefully weighing his words. “To prepare those scenes, I’d listen to the sound track and mouth the words as the actors spoke them. I’d try to feel their emotions as I experimented with actions and expressions, then try to get all the feelings of the character down in quick, thumbnail sketches. I’d show the thumbnails to Ron Clements, the director, and we’d discuss them, finally coming up with something that balanced my opinion and his.”
Tall, red-haired Phil Nibbelink is the most outgoing of the animators, and his enthusiasm for his work has made him a popular speaker at fan gatherings. He studied cinematography in Rome, but working as an assistant cameraman convinced him that “live action isn’t as creative as animation.” He went back to school, studied art and animation and came to Disney in 1978.
Although he became an animator on “The Fox and the Hound,” Nibbelink is known for his work on “The Black Cauldron.” His dynamic animation of the pterodactyl-like Gwythaints provided the high point of that ambitious but flawed film.
“Any good movie is a combination of many elements,” he says. “There are guys down the hall who are good at cute and, well, mush; I love death and destruction, so I tend to get cast on the villains or the climactic sequences at the end.”
Working with computer graphics specialist Tad Gielow, he created the confrontation between Basil and Ratigan inside the clockwork mechanism of Big Ben--the first extensive use of computer animation in a Disney cartoon.
“I guess the original impetus for that work is that I’ve always enjoyed doing chase scenes, and I like point-of-view shots,” he explains. “You could never achieve them in standard animation because it’s limited to flat artwork--all you can do is truck in or out, or pan left or right. When you create the entire environment in the computer, as we did for that sequence, you can spin around and turn corners and move in directions that are very dramatic. So the computer has become a tool that’s letting me do the kind of cinematography I’ve always loved.”
Glen Keane designed most of the characters in “Mouse Detective” and did the key animation of Ratigan. He based some of the character’s gestures on Vincent Price in “Champagne for Caesar.” Ratigan’s bulky form was a partial caricature of 6-foot-6 ex-Disney president Ron Miller.
Unlike most of the other animators, Keane had no interest in film making when he came to CalArts in 1972. He applied to the painting department but was accepted in film graphics. Two years later, he was hired to work on “The Rescuers” (1977), assisting Ollie Johnston, one of the celebrated “Nine Old Men” of Disney.
Keane created the bear fight in “The Fox and the Hound,” a feral sequence that electrified an otherwise tame film. A similar strength characterizes the climactic battle between Basil and Ratigan on the hands of Big Ben: Ratigan sheds his comic polish and becomes a towering embodiment of menace.
“That quality was behind the character throughout the whole film, waiting to come out,” says Keane. “When he smiled, it wasn’t just an evil grin; there was an intense, tooth-gritting evil struggling to come out as he masked it with the smile. The final shot of him rising up to strike Basil is the climax of the animal side of Ratigan.”
Many artists consider Keane the best American animator of his generation. Bob Kurtz of Kurtz and Friends, a commercial studio, says, “Glen is the heir to the tradition of Bill Tytla (the artist who drew Stromboli in “Pinocchio” and Tchernobog in “Night on Bald Mountain”). The figures in his animation have tremendous weight and volume: Everything he draws seems to be larger than the paper it’s drawn on.”
“Characters like Ratigan or Willie the Giant, or an animal that has a larger-than-life presence screaming to come out on screen, excite me,” Keane says with a characteristic grin. “I like being the one who brings it out.”
Walt Disney Productions Chairman Jeffrey Katzenburg confirmed that the new management team plans to keep these artists very busy.
“From the outset, both Michael (Walt Disney Co. Chief Executive Officer Michael Eisner) and I felt that the one area of the company that needed the most encouragement and had the greatest potential was Disney animation. They’d been releasing a new feature every three or four years. We discovered that if it’s properly managed and staffed and equipped, the operation is capable of supporting twice that level of production--a new feature every 18 months to two years--without compromising the quality of Disney animation.”
The success of Katzenburg’s program rests on these young artists. (Walt Disney planned a similar production schedule during the late ‘30s, but the outbreak of World War II and the initial box-office failures of “Pinocchio” and “Fantasia” derailed the plan.)
Keane is not a regular employee of Disney but an independent contractor; currently, he’s working on some children’s books and the “Alvin and the Chipmunks” feature for the Bagdassarian studio. (He’s expressed interest in a future Disney project, “The Little Mermaid.”) The other artists are already doing pre-production work on Disney’s next feature, “Oliver,” a reworking of Dickens’ “Oliver Twist” for a canine cast.
Nibbelink is gleefully planning a chase sequence involving a limousine and a motorized shopping cart racing through the tunnels of the New York subway system. Henn, Butoy and the other supervising animators are working out the timing and structure of their sequences.
“The supervising animators are doing a lot of the work the director would usually do,” says Butoy. “I haven’t done any drawing for the past few weeks. I enjoy this, too, but I want to get back to animating--I listen to the sound track, feel the emotions and the excitement in the actors’ voices, and I really want to get in there and make them act.”