June, 2007

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Back to
Neverland, Fla.

by Steve Moore

Once was, that if you visited the Disney/MGM Studio in Orlando, Florida, among your "Hollywood" experiences was a tour of a real Disney animation studio.   I first heard about the Florida animation studio in the spring of 1988.   Disney Imagineering was to build a facility where ticket paying people could walk through a genuine, functioning animation studio to watch real artists work.

Before the tour, people would watch a short primer on animation. For some reason, the short about how Disney animation was done was outsourced (an omen?) to Bob Rogers & Co.   Bob specialized in creating attractions for theme parks, museums, and Worlds' Fairs.

After months and months of dead-end development, producer Mark Kirkland brought Jerry Rees on to take the project in a totally new direction.  Thom Enriquez was hired to storyboard, and I was hired, I guess, because I was funny.   

The three of us holed up for a week in a paneled conference room at Bob Rogers'   Victory Blvd offices, a five minute ride from Disney Imagineering.   The excitement of extemporaneous, closed-door brain storming was tempered by hours of staring.   At the ceiling.   At our shoes.   At the closed door.   Coffee's cold.   How long until lunch?  

Out of those sessions, came the pitch for Back to Neverland.   It would open with a live action roving newsman (wouldn't it be cool to get Walter Cronkite?) at the Disney/MGM Studio in Florida.   He would pick a tourist (Robin Williams would be perfect!) from the crowd to get a personal tour through the Disney animation process.
Storyboard sketch by Thom Enriquez

The tourist ends up being turned into and animated cartoon (one of Peter Pan's Lost Boys).   He meets Peter Pan and faces Captain Hook in a short story designed to demonstrate the various techniques used to tell a story in a Disney animated film. It not only showed the nuts and bolts of the animation process, but also demonstrated animation's essence, its ability to emotionally move an audience.

The idea was pitched to two junior mucky-mucks at Disney Feature Animation.   Jerry and Bob did all of the talking.   The junior-mucks did all the screaming. They really were screaming. Loud, angry, nasty, sometimes girlish, screaming.    It didn't make sense.    It was a great idea and a good pitch.   We were adults with good hearing.   Why scream?   Jerry believes they were just freaked out by the totally new story after seven months' work.   But still, screaming?

They objected to Robin Williams as being "not Disney" which I guess in those days was true.  They objected to animating the tourist as a Lost Boy.  One muck insisted the tourist be changed into an animal, preferably a skunk. He really said skunk. When Jerry pointed out that there were no talking animals, especially talking skunks, in Peter Pan, the muck's head exploded. Really. It exploded, making quite a mess on Bob's nice paneling.

We pressed ahead the next three weeks with the Robin and Walter Show.   We had to flesh out the story before the final pitch to an even bigger mucky-muck with an even larger skull.    Tom Enriquez produced row after row of handsomely drafted, strongly composed boards.   My sketches were so crudely drawn, I wrote the characters' names on their shirts to tell them apart.  

In the show, when the tourist first becomes an animated cartoon, he tries out his new animated abilities by repeatedly transforming, in rapid-fire succession, into a spectrum of characters to comic effect.   I came up with dozens of gag alternatives, most of which, like "I am the egg man!" and "I'm a blue plate special!"   never made it to the final reel.    One, where he turns into Mickey Mouse proclaiming "I'm a corporate symbol!" did.  It was one of those gags board artists do to amuse each other, and Jerry, to his credit and against Bob's wishes, kept it in for the pitch to Robin Williams.     Robin laughed, hard, right in from of the posse of Disney mucks. Thanks to star power the gag stayed in.   (Thanks, Robin!)  

Frans Vischer's animation of Robin inspired the Genie from Aladdin. The animator in the live action scene is Bruce Smith.

Frans Vischer animated the scenes, taking the gags to a new level with hilarious acting, perfect timing, and beautiful, rhythmic animation.    Frans made the scenes his own, stand-outs of the film.   He's never been given due credit, but it's fair to say that Frans' animation provided the impetus for Robin's Genie in Aladdin.
(At the end of Aladdin, the Genie wears Robin's costume from Back to Neverland, a nod from the directors John Musker and Ron Clements)  

Frans recalls Back to Neverland as "the only project I've worked on that stayed true to its original intent. it never veered from the boards, other than plussing them, which is the way it's supposed to work. the film simply got better with each phase of production, because the director didn't get cold feet and made pointless changes." 

Animator Frans Vischer, left, with Robin on the "Back to Neverland" set.

Frans continues, "I remember the freedom Jerry gave me, all of us......He gave us a sense of ownership over our work. Compared to Disney, I felt less constrained, free to explore different ways of doing things, which Jerry openly encouraged."

c.2007 Moore Studios, Inc

sketch by Jerry Rees \

Disney's Big Muck gave Back to Neverland the go-ahead without any screaming. He completely got Jerry's take and embraced the story and casting. Not one concession was made to the junior mucks.   After all their screaming, badass posturing, and skull popping, they were completely irrelevant to the final film.

Don Ernst was hired as editor (he appears in the film as a sound engineer). Disney Imagineering required the film be no longer than 8 minutes and 30 seconds.   Don's cut was fifteen seconds over, with nowhere to trim.   Fifteen seconds isn't much time in a movie theater, but Imagineering calculated that some staggering number (45,000?) of people would not get to take the tour each week if the extra footage remained.   Don's solution was to speed the entire film up by one frame, to run it at 25 frames per second. Thanks to Don, the film came in under time with no harmful cuts.   Don would go on to co-produce Aladdin.  

The film opens with live action shots of Walter Cronkite on location at the Disney/MGM Studio.   The only problem was, the Disney/MGM Studio had not been built yet.   Production designer Craig Stearns created a fake studio on the lot of Raleigh Studios in Hollywood, using force-perspective painted flats.   Even the water tower was a flat.   According to Jerry, it even fooled Disney's Uber-Muck.

Director Jerry Rees, left, runs through a scene with Robin Williams and Walter Cronkite.

Animation was well under way when the live action was shot.   One night, Jerry invited the animators to visit the film stage to flip animation scenes for Robin Williams, his wife Marsha, and his young son.    Robin had been clowning around on the set, being "on" for everyone, but when he was shown the animated version of himself, he became amazingly reverent toward us, genuinely awestruck. He gazed at the flipping scenes like a kid watching a magic trick. Instead of making big jokes, he was very humble and quiet, holding his son in his arms to watch the scene being flipped.

Animator Bruce Smith, right, flips a scene for Robin and his wife Marsha, center.

Back to Neverland was shown at   Disney Animation Florida dozens of times daily from 1989 until 2003.   In the late '90's, Jerry was called on to update the film as the industry's  use of cels and the Oxberry camera had become obsolete, replaced be computers.   Jerry shot new live action footage to edit into the original.  

Brian McEntee
, who art directed the original animation, also appeared in the original film as a layout artist.   His scene needed to be reshot.   As Brian tells it, "The scene needed to be identical, but simply longer.   The producer spoke to Jerry Rees about getting a 'body double' to play me, but Jerry said, "Why not just get Brian again."   So... I was called in for a day.   I had gotten ten years older, but fortunately still the same basic weight and build.   They sent me some stills of myself from the film and I was able to easily match the clothes I was wearing, and also trimmed my hair to match more closely.   Jerry shot the new scene in the same sound stage, and I believe with the same cameraman, same lighting guy, and same set pieces.   The Disney archive still had my original drawing from the first shoot to lay on my desk.   When the cameraman looked through the viewfinder and compared this re-staging with a monitor image of the original scene, he was floored by how utterly identical it all looked.   I think it's funny that in, the newer version, I aged ten years from scene to scene, but no one could tell.   They say the camera puts on ten pounds but for me it took off ten years.".

The film that served as an animation primer for fourteen years is now filed away in Disney's archives.   The Florida animation studio was shut down in 2003, during the not-so-great 2d animation purge that decimated the industry after the millennium.   To my knowledge, there is no plan to reopen, incredibly bizarre given that the facility was conceived to be an attraction at the Disney/MGM theme park. Today, Character Animation, the legendary cornerstone of Walt Disney Studios, is represented by a vacant building.    

True, the animation industry in real Hollywood has gone computer.   Traditional, hand drawn craftsmanship was shown the door.    But as a tourist buying a high priced ticket to see a fantasy Hollywood, I'd really enjoy seeing how cartoons were made in Walt's era.   Imagine a tour where artists are working on the next Mickey Mouse or Donald Duck short, story boarding gags,   flipping animation drawings, painting cels and backgrounds, and filming scenes on a gigantic Oxberry camera, just as it was done in Walt's time.  Visitors would see a work-in-progress reel, and leave feeling satisfied that they experienced Disney Magic, something for which they traveled hundreds if not thousands of miles. The shorts, produced as part of the attraction, could then be distributed in front of Disney movies, and later packaged onto DVDs which I could watch with my kids and say,

"Hey kids, remember how we saw that cartoon being made at the Disney/MGM Studio in Florida?"  

"Yeah Dad, that was the best trip ever, and I want to be an animator too!   Disney rules!"

"Ditto that!   You're the best Dad ever!   Can I buy an Oxberry?"

"Heh, heh, you betcha, son."

Get on it Imagineers!   I'm taking my family to Orlando in August!

Quick survey

Q: What is your favorite animated
scene or sequence?

Butch Hartman             producer/director
I love the sequence at the end of  Lady and the Tramp where Trusy and Jacques are trying to free Tramp from the dog catcher's wagon. The animation on that is incredible for many reasons:
1. It's an upshot form underneath the wagon which, in the days before computers was an amazing thing to pull off convincingly.
2. it's an upshot of some realistic horses in motion which, even with computers, animating realistic horses convincingly is almost impossible.
3. There are 3 realistic dogs in the shot which are almost as hard to animate as horses.
4. There are mud and rain effects, all hand done
5. the entire freaking scene is done on pan paper! Yikes!

I challenge anyone anywhere to duplicate that kind of craftsmanship these days.

Brian McEntee             production designer
I have many favorites, but amongst them is the sequence from Peter Pan, where Wendy and the boys fly off to Neverland with Peter.   The layout, animation, effects, and art direction coupled with the music and swelling choruses don't merely show characters going from point A to point B, but seem to capture the emotional rush of suddenly having the ability to fly.   Every element comes together on that one for me.

Dan Jeup             animator/story artist
As for a single scene, I'd pick the introduction of Tramp in Lady and the Tramp.   It tells the audience immediately who the character is in the first shot.   The layout tells us that in contrast to Lady's pampered lifestyle, Tramp literally lives on the opposite side of the tracks.   He lives like a tramp, sleeps late in a barrel, drinks from the nearest puddle and showers from a leaky pipe.   (I love the way he shakes himself off, then exhales with that cross-eyed/exhilarated expression.)   Tramp is happy-go-lucky, comfortable in his own skin, independent and enjoys his freedom.   Milt Kahl's animation is phenomenal both artistically and technically, not to mention loaded with information about the character.

Kirk Wise             director
All the examples mentioned are great. Just for fun, I'll include something from the CG era.   The sequence from Toy Story 2 where Woody first discovers all the goofy memorabilia from the old Woody's Round-Up TV show is one of my favorites.   It manages to strike a mythic, almost Arthurian chord, while simultaneously being wonderfully funny.

Tom Sito                         animator
I'm a fan of Rod Scribner's animation of Daffy Duck as Duck Twacy in Bob Clampett's Great PiggyBank Robbery. Scribner did some of the loosest most surreal animation ever seen within the narrative of a story. His animation alone made you laugh. But combined with Mel Blanc's voice and Clampetts crazy continuity, it's a little gem.

Ralph Eggleston        art director
The scene in Cinderella where the Stepmother coerces the Stepsisters into ripping up the dress the mice had made for Cinderella to go to the ball in.   The setup is wonderful, the emotions are true, and the silence just after the door is closed is deafening.

Rusty Mills             director
Tony and the chef from the spaghetti eating sequence in Lady and the Tramp.   I always liked the way John Lounsbery animated.   He had a way of making his characters feel realistic yet caricatured at the same time.   They are simple lines of dialog that are somewhat comical but with Lounsbery's animation become even more humorous.

Jeff DeGrandis             producer/director
One of my favorite animated sequences is in The Brave Little Toaster during the music video montage in the back of the repair shop. This includes the scenes right before and after. I thought the transitions and animation to be pretty cool. It definitely had a "horror" B movie feel to it.

Jerry Beck             producer
The "Pink Elephants On Parade" sequence in Dumbo may qualify. It's funny, surreal, the song is great, it advances the story - and it's quite original.

Xeth Feinberg             director
Sheesh, don't you all know cartoons are for MORONS!