Princess Tiana from Disney's "The Princess and the Frog" might have gotten her regal voice from Anika Noni Rose, but she got her royal moves from Danielle Moné Truitt, who worked as the "video reference" for the animated character.
"I did all the body movements and facial references for the cartoon," Truitt said. "I got dressed in costume, and they videotaped me doing the scenes that were going to be in the film. The animators are amazing, but the video reference helps them bring the characters to life and give the cartoons more of a realistic appearance."
As a young girl growing up in Sacramento, Truitt, 28, never imagined that she would lend her gestures and expressions to Disney's first African American movie princess. She sang in her church choir from age 8, started dancing in junior high and got involved in cheerleading, basketball and theater in high school. It was after she took a theater class at Cal State Sacramento, where she was majoring in psychology, that she fully realized her knack for being expressive.
"My theater professor said, 'You should think about doing a major.' So I did my first play, and I was like, 'Yeah, I'm changing my major.' After that, I became a theater girl," she said.
Truitt has appeared in several regional theatrical productions, including "A Raisin in the Sun," "Aida" and "The Music Man." She's also acted in such independent films as 2005's "Fugitive Hunter." "The Princess and the Frog" marks her first experience with video reference; she also voiced the character of Georgia for the film.
"I had a friend in high school, and he was an amazing animator," Truitt said. "And he always used to say, 'When I do my first cartoon, I'm going to cast you as a voice.' But I never thought I'd actually be doing work with cartoons. I just feel so honored to be a part of the film, because it is a really big deal for me, my family and my community."
Cel theory: Truitt spent a full year doing video reference for the film. "They put together a stage, and they had a video camera," she said. "Before I shot a scene, they would send me slides that would just be a rough sketch of what they wanted to get across for the scene. Then they took the voice of Anika Noni Rose, and I would basically lip talk her lines and act all the movements and facial expressions. I also did a lot of dance for the film. We went scene by scene. We would shoot a scene, and then the next time I would come back, the animators would show me what they took from that shoot and how they put it into the character. It was amazing to see me in a car- toon. I would just be screaming."
Motion picture: Truitt drew heavily on her theater background to create the animated princess. "They wanted Princess Tiana to have a very natural type of movement like a regular human being, and they wanted her to have the essence of a black woman," she said. "She definitely has that. But for a cartoon, all your movements also have to be very exaggerated so that the cartoon will come to life. So it has an element of theater where you can be bigger than life."
Trait secrets: Truitt lent Princess Tiana some of her own personal quirks. "People are always teasing that when I don't like something, you definitely know, because I cannot hold my face," she said. "And if I like something, you know, because I'm just bigger than life. So I definitely gave her that gift! She's very expressive with her face. And she was a hands-on-the-hips-type girl. And [there are] certain things she does with her hands, little things. When I'm nervous, I twiddle my fingers together, and there's a part where she's doing that right before she kisses the frog. My mom and I went to the premiere, and whenever something would happen, she would nudge me like, 'That is so you!' I feel like I added my own touch and a part of me."
Croak monsieur: Truitt kissed her fair share of frogs. "When we did the scenes where Princess Tiana was talking to the frog, I had a stuffed frog," she says, laughing. "There was a recording playing so you could hear the voice actor saying the frog's lines. It was sitting on this little table, and I was talking to it and acting like it was real. It was super small. That made it funnier, because it was so tiny."
Falling with style: Truitt also got to tap her inner Charlie Chaplin for some real-life pratfalls. "There's a scene where she first sees the frog, and he talks to her," she said. "She runs backward into her room, and she falls into a bookcase. And so to simulate that, there was this wall that had a cushion on it. I was running backward, and then I had to run into the cushion that was behind me like it was the bookcase. After our shot, all the directors and producer and crew people were taking turns running backward into the cushion. We had a lot of fun."