A new wrinkle in the face of evil
Once upon a time, golden age Disney films told magical stories via the art of cel animation -- but “Enchanted” director Kevin Lima wanted to create a 21st century tale with the film, which landed in theaters over the Thanksgiving holiday.
His saga about a virtuous maiden, a prince and a wicked queen mixes traditional animation with sequences in which live-action actors romp with photo-real digital characters (a chipmunk and a dragon, the queen’s alter ego). Tippett Studio, the Oscar-winning visual effects house of “Jurassic Park,” brought the characters to life and helped them channel the charm of Disney classics such as “Fantasia.”
As an hommage to the Mouse House of old, “Enchanted’s” first scenes are set in a cel-animated kingdom with cel-animated protagonists, supervised by master artist James Baxter. The maiden Giselle (Amy Adams) lives in this magical, musical world, where she is engaged to Prince Edward (Patrick Dempsey) -- until his evil stepmother, Narissa (Susan Sarandon), blasts her through a cosmic portal to the less-than-enchanted universe of Manhattan. In the Big Apple, the humans become live actors, the chipmunk morphs into a digital rodent and Sarandon’s character transforms into a beast that conjures the spirit of the Maleficent dragon from “Sleeping Beauty.”
“Kevin pulled his metaphors from ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,’ ‘Sleeping Beauty,’ ‘Cinderella’ and more,” says visual effects supervisor Tom Schelesny (“The Shaggy Dog”), whose unenviable task was overseeing animators using state of the art digital animation tools such as Maya software to render performers that looked real but acted like, well, characters in the great Disney cartoons.
To capture that aesthetic, Tippett Studio had to reinvent itself by following the classic Disney animation protocol, which gave the artists more responsibilities but entailed huge changes and greater risks. Tippett’s animation supervisor, Tom Gibbons, and lead animator, James Brown, created back stories to deepen the artists’ understanding of each protagonist beyond what was in the script, which gave every department -- the digital modelers, painters and especially the animators -- a sense of ownership of the characters. “I needed everyone in our entire animation department to interchangeably ‘become’ those characters,” Schelesny says.
For decades, Tippett founder and puppet animation wizard Phil Tippett was the dragon master, having brought the mythical beasts to life in “Dragonslayer,” “Willow” and 1996’s “Dragonheart,” whose dragon was one of the first talking CG characters (all done with Industrial Light & Magic). But Lima wanted something completely different for “Enchanted’s” scaly behemoth: a talking dragon that didn’t resemble a dinosaur. “He wanted the Narissa dragon to look like a living character and a classic Disney villain,” Schelesny says.
The un-dino-like result -- designed by Crash McCreery and sculpted by Peter Konig -- was loosely based on a traditional Chinese dragon with elements of Sarandon’s face and costume. As Narissa transforms into the beast, her crown mutates into horns and her gown’s flowing fabric sleeves become wings. “We gave her surface an iridescent opal pearlescence, like a piece of jewelry, so it didn’t just look like scales,” Schelesny says.
Unlike other animated talking lizards, whose rigid lips merely open and close, Narissa was to communicate like a classic Disney cartoon character -- i.e., a lot like a human being. Sarandon’s performance was conveyed via the dragon’s eyes, while her vocals were lip-synced to the dragon’s mouth movements. Tippett’s lead rigger, David Nelson, created digital controls that enabled the ultra-natural-looking lip movement and nuanced facial expressions.
Rodent springs to life
While the Narissa dragon is “Enchanted’s” most flamboyant character, the chipmunk, Pip, was the hardest to animate. He has to communicate without actually talking (he turns mute once he is banished to New York and has to rely on miming). Tippett’s animators studied video of real chipmunks and filmed one another gesturing to discover how Pip might move, then applied those lessons to their CG character.
Eventually, Schelesny showed director Lima a QuickTime movie of a chipmunk running, washing his face with his paws and spinning in a circle. “Kevin goes, ‘That’s exactly what we should do with the CG chipmunk.’ What he didn’t know was that was our CG chipmunk. We needed that response from him, because without it, we couldn’t do Pip as a character.”
To balance Pip’s animal and anthropomorphic qualities, Tippett’s animators had to weigh how much cartoon versus chipmunk to add. “In some sequences, he’s straight chipmunk and in others, he’s quite animated and even changes shape,” Schelesny says. In one bravura pantomime, Pip has to convey to Prince Edward that someone is trying to murder Giselle: “When the Prince finally ‘gets’ what Pip is miming, the chipmunk makes a ‘ta-da’ gesture that has made whole theaters erupt into applause,” Schelesny says.
The “Enchanted” process has clearly left its mark on Tippett’s creative team. “I will not do another show without copying the Disney model because it’s so empowering for the animators,” Schelesny says. “We’ve captured magic in a bottle, and we don’t want to lose it.”