February '09     




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by Steve Moore   

"So this is love."

That's what Cinderella sang, dancing around with that strapping, young, royal buck she just met in Walt Disney's Cinderella.  

"Hmm-hmm-hmm-hmm.   So this is love."  

Sure it's love!   I mean, yes, they're complete strangers, but a gal won't dance like that fooling with the Sparkletts man.   This is L_O_V_E , love, man!  

To see this sequence by itself is to watch roto-scopy animation with pretty backgrounds and song to go with it. The sequence presents a very formal, glamorous representation of love.    But seeing it with the set up - getting to know Cinderella and her desperate situation - the audience wants her to have her night and doesn't care if the prince is a stranger or that he sings like Mike Douglas, or that it all ends at midnight -- the audience wants this for her.

The set up is possibly the most under worked part of the romantic scenes of most films, live or animated.   The most beautiful, well acted romantic scene will not play as true if the audience has not been set up to want it.    They are under worked because they are a lot of work, and often there's just not enough time to get it right AND feed the production pipeline. Think it's easy? Try it!
  "So This is Love" from Walt Disney's Cinderella.   

Many features fail the emotional moments by copping out on the set up. In Disney's Hercules, the title character must choose between being an immortal god or being with the woman he loves - a mortal.   In the end he gets both.   The audience is given a couple of twits who get whatever they want, sacrificing nothing - a senior executive's dream win-win ending.    Without the sacrifice, why even make the film?  

In Disney's Chicken Little, there's a moment when Chicken Little's father finally believes his son.   What should have been a great moment plays false because the audience has no emotional investment in either character. The moment is forced, like a contractual obligation to honor before getting back to the wacky mayhem.

Brenda Chapman, director or the Pixar's upcoming feature The Bear and the Bow:
"In the time of Chicken Little, producers had more creative control than the Directors.   Now I'm not certain that that is what happened, but it's obvious that having empathy for the main character was sacrificed for wacky-edgy-not-always-so-funny humor and timing. Pixar lets the filmmakers make those choices - even though there is a Braintrust that offers up notes and suggestions, the final decision is left to the director for the majority of the time."

"In Dumbo, the filmmakers committed to the moment - they didn't feel the need to cut away for a humorous aside - when you see the mouse, he's feeling what the audience is feeling, not rolling his eyes or making a wise crack.   It's all character driven - the emotion, the drama, the humor - all comes from the characters.   They didn't do cheap gags on the side (in case the audience is getting bored or too uncomfortable with the emotion - "too sappy" - which would be an executive comment I've heard over and over) - they commit to it.   They feel it and put it in the scene, the sequence, the film.   That is how a true filmmaker should approach it - not try to second guess the audience - but let it work on their own gut level... it will feel more true to the audience that way."

Obviously, the characters must click for a great set-up to pay off.   What works in story reel can fall flat without the right character design, the right voice, the right animation and most importantly, the right direction. The more these elements mesh as a singular vision, the more fully realized the character.

In The Brave Little Toaster, a group of appliances in a woodland cabin decide to venture out to find the little boy who spent the summers of his childhood there. The film is entirely driven by the love the characters have for the boy. Studio executives all over Hollywood told producer Tom Wilhite that it was impossible to feel for a toaster, yet director Jerry Rees pulled it off.

Director Jerry Rees:
" I met Roland Joffe (The Killing Fields, The Mission), who said that he'd been so moved watching Toaster that he got misty-eyed.  He said he never would have guessed that a story about appliances could do that to him."

What is completely different about Toaster is that even after the appliances are reunited with the boy (now an adult), they must still maintain a barrier by not revealing their live nature.   To the boy, they are still just appliances. His love is sentimental.   The appliances, however, love him like completely.   There's an unrequieted quality to the ending, like a secret love kept secret.   This is different from any animated film that I can think of.    

Art Director Fred Cline:
"I think the little dwarfs of Snow White all sobbing over the death of Snow White came across with more sincerity than most expressions of love in animated films."

 
Consider the designs of the dwarves -   broad, cartoonish, silly looking men.   Yet the animation performances are such that they play completely human.   The comic relief characters carry the heaviest emotional scenes in the movie - This works because the earlier comedy was entirely character motivated. We understood through their antics that they loved Snow White, so when she dies your heart aches more for them than Snow White. Especially so for Grumpy, who's hard wall completely crumbles. Director David Hand (and Walt, of course) committed to the moment, trusting the medium.
 

Two dogs eating a plate of spaghetti and meatballs in a dingy back alley.   The "Bella Notte" sequence from Walt Disney's Lady and the Tramp is arguably the most romantic expression of love in the history of animated films.

Animator Frank Thomas, regarding " Bella Notte":
"That's me and my wife. Not the way we looked, but the way we felt about each other."*

It's a beautiful sentiment that Thomas executed perfectly.   He connected his animation to a feeling. Other animators could have done these scenes, but none would have delivered the same performance. Each animator has their own life's experiences, own personality, to draw from in their acting. It is this personal investment that makes the performance ring true.
 
Brenda Chapman, on her days as Head of Story on Disney's The Lion King:
"The love between father and son, and the grief and healing that happens after losing a parent touched a lot of the guys working on the scenes, and so much of it came from their relationships with their fathers."

The Lion King is all about the love between father and son, and the grief and healing that happens after losing a parent.   I think the greatest challenge I had with that relationship was in trying to keep the mother alive.   Surprised?     A success and a failure at the same time, I know.   She's in their so little - but she's there.   Even in the great Dumbo there was only one parent.   It seems to be a trend in our industry to only allow our protagonist one parent to love and be loved by.   Trying to keep in the scene of the parents, Mufasa and Sarabi, waking up in the morning together as their son tries to get them up was way harder than it should have been.   It was called "shoe leather", "time wasted" and "unnecessary".   Showing a family loving moment, to me, is what held the father and son relationship together.   It was what drove the fear and pain of returning to the pride - having to face his mother - whom Simba loved - and admit he was responsible for his father's death.   His mother also gave a stronger reason for Simba to return - the love interest was too weak for that - Nala - they could have gone off and started a pride of their own - but his mother was still at home.   He went back for her - to face her - to save her... and to be worthy of his father's love - as well as his mother's."

*as told to Nancy Beiman, who shares it with us.   Thanks Nancy!

c.2009 Moore Studios, Inc
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Brenda's favorite?

"DUMBO DUMBO DUMBO!!!!   That is by far THE BEST one and only almighty animated love story - a child's love for his mother and that mother's love for her child.   The scene when Dumbo visits his mother in her prison.   The time spent building up to the tentative touching of the trunks - together, but yet so very very far apart.   Wanting that mother's embrace, coming so close, with her holding that sweet little guy and rocking him with her trunk - not even seeing her face, but feeling every single emotion through the movement of her trunk - I'm tearing up just thinking about it.   Never seeing her face!   And seeing the sadness and longing and love on little Dumbo's face and in his body language - the animation is probably the most brilliant ever done.   Even before I had my daughter, I felt the immense pull of the heartstrings and the realness of it.   And I feel it even more after I've had my own child.   I defy anyone to come up with a stronger example... although I'd sure be curious if anyone tried."

The  "Baby Mine" sequence in Dumbo is the best, I agree.   Staged just outside a jail wagon holding Dumbo's mother to   DENY the audience what it wants - Dumbo's reunion with her.   They could have placed her in a cage, or just had her chained up, but to conceal the mother inside the wagon has the strongest impact..   Except for for one interior shot to show that it is indeed Mrs. Jumbo in the wagon, the audience, like Dumbo, is denied a complete reunion. We only see her trunk, so expressively animated, and Dumbo's reaction to her touch. The filmmakers trust the audience to feel the mother's pain.   

While working in Taiwan on The Brave Little Toaster, I saw a group of Chinese animators watch this sequence on their lunch break.  As the mother's trunk waves goodbye, the animators wept openly. Two animated elephants cross all boundaries of culture and language.  

Kirk Wise, co-director of Disney's Beauty and the Beast:
"From Snow White to Wall-E, all memorable animated expressions of love are connected with the sense of touch. While working on Beauty and the Beast, touch was a key component in conveying to the audience the emotional progression of Belle and the Beast's relationship. In their first encounter, he grabs her roughly, violently by the shoulder, In the ballroom, the Beast's awkwardness gives way to pure joy when Belle guides his hand into hers and they begin to dance. In the Beast's "death" scene, just before his final transformation, he touches Belle's cheek. A massive paw that once ripped savagely through a pack of wolves now gently brushes away her tears. Finally, it's Belle's sense of touch that lets her know that the Prince and the Beast are one and the same when she strokes his hair."

Music is a major tool to get immediate access to an emotion. Getting music that hits the right tone for that particular film is the tricky part, and must be given the right consideration.   Imagine interchanging "So This is Love", with "Bella Notte" or "Baby Mine".  Not interchangeable. There is no all-purpose tempo that will serve all love scenes. The music must be as true to the moment as the acting, with the composer connecting to the emotion, and reacting to it compatably to the director's reaction.

For example, "When She Loved Me" in Toy Story 2 presents the love of a toy doll (Jessie) for the little girl who once played with her in a flashback sequence that will tear your heart out then smack you on the head with it.

Brenda Chapman:
"Jill Culton, the story artist, took that sequence home and boarded the entire thing - it came straight from her heart, which she put into the heart of Jessie's character - and John (Lasseter) and Joe (Ranft) 'saw that it was good' and let it be."

Told in flashback, this bittersweet sequence also reveals the pain the doll has been carrying since losing the little girl. Sarah McLachlan created a song that hauntingly captures Jessie's mixed emotions. We see her happily playing with the girl, then Jessie's forgotten under the bed, then the joyful reunion cut short when the girl, now grown up, deliberately abandons her. Strong on its own, when accompanied by the song, it is relentless.

Music can also serve as an emotional shortcut in the storytelling.   In my short The Indescribable Nth, I wanted to tell a love story with extremely stripped down, simplified designs. Employing a string quartet not only fit the simple style, but cut to emotions that would have otherwise required much more screen time to establish.   Composer Bennie Wallace delivered a score that even made the string quartet's musicians tear up.  

Watch this version of "So This is Love" presented in director Alan Smart's student film from 1984. " I, of course, was a big fan of the Disney movies." Alan said,   "I was doing a film on a pig that loves chocolate, and thought it would be funny to do a parody of one of those romantic song and dance scenes."    In context to Smart's story, the song's meaning has a tongue-in-cheek whimsy, serving the story to a much different effect.  

Fred Cline:
" I think that you just do your best to make sure that the emotion itself is expressed honestly - so it's basically good acting/directing.  Sometimes it includes an element of the unexpected, because if we see a scene that looks too familiar, then it feels like a cliche and we're not convinced of the emotional reality.  There are so many elements that have to come together that it's impossible to make a laundry list of do's and don'ts, but you first have to believe in the moment and be able to draw on something similar from your own experience."

Brenda Chapman:
"Most, if not all, love stories, animated or not, are about separation and reuniting (and sometimes separating again).   It's become a formula that is very satisfying, and the challenge is in trying to make it feel unique, fresh, unexpected - and of course, it's been done so many times since Snow White, it's harder and harder each time we try.

Pooh's love for his honey - it's gone, he needs to find more - the bees attack - but he still ends up with it - and we love the happy yum yum smacking sounds he makes when he finally gets it.   Cinderella is parted from her prince.   Aurora's prince is captured while she is under the sleeping spell - however will it end?   Beast is being hunted down while Belle is back with her sick father - how can she get back to him in time?   The ultimate separation of death keeps Simba from his father - but he is reunited in spirit as he takes on his father's mantle.   Lady and the Tramp does in doubly - she's taken away from him, then he's taken away from her before they can really have their ending - not to mention Joch and Trusty - the old "think he's dead" trick - worked like a charm.   As it did for Mowgli and Baloo. Some have to work to come together before being parted, some are together at the first and then parted... but that is what tugs at us.   The loss.   The pain.   And only then can you have the happy ending.   Otherwise it's boring as hell.

DUMBO!!   I'm tellin' ya.   No one has touched it, so far!"

The examples cited here are just a small fraction of different expressions of love in animation. I could write an entire book on the subject. Or half a book, and Brenda Chapman could write the rest. Point is, if your personal favorite didn't get mentioned, and that personal favorite offers a different presentation of love from what's mentioned here, write to FLIP, I'll do a follow up.

So this.
Is.
Loooooooooooooooooooooooooove.