Tuesday, June 12, 2007

John Musker, Animator Whisperer

This is a scene from ALADDIN (images all copyright Disney) where I learned as much philosphically as I did technically. I was the supervising animator on the parrot character (voiced by the inimitable Gilbert Gottfried). This is the first time in the movie when we see clearly that he has merely been pretending to be a typical squawking beast and is actually a sentient co-conspirator with the villain (animated by Andreas Deja). The sleazy little thief (animated by T. Dan Hoffstead) is going off into the mouth of the cave as the parrot squawks in typical fashion behind him. Just when he gets out of earshot, the bird drops the "act" and mutters to Jafar: "Jeez, where'd ya dig this bozo up?" The audience is at that point let in on the character's two-faced nature.

The storyboard showed this as a static medium closeup, with the characters facing the audience which suited me fine. The theif was supposed to exit the frame and we'd push in a bit to watch Iago 'change' from dumb to smart. Directors John Musker and Ron Clements instead chose an "over the shoulder" shot that would rotate about 45 degrees behind the villains during the dialog and then push past them into the "cave of wonders." I immediately started protesting when I got the layout (frame by frame printouts of the rotaing BG with stand-ins for the characters). Doesn't it say somewhere in one of Frank & Ollie's bibles that you should never be in motion while a character is changing expression? Or even worse, be on their backs instead of their faces? Here we had an integral moment when the guy's whole personality is going to change and I kept saying it wouldn't work, it was technically impossible. I wanted to stick with the simpler composition. I must have bellyached for the better part of a week about it and was going to the mat. Finally Musker looked me in the eye and said: "Just try it this way and if it doesn't work we can do it over." He said it quietly, he said it diplomatically, but something in his tone made me hear what I think he really meant:

"Quit being a diva and do it the way we told you or we'll give it to someone else."

I realized in that moment that this was a pretty revolutionary CGI shot for the time and a lot of expense had been spent on it. I also realized that an animator who wasn't clinging to some dogmatic rule might do the scene instead and knock it out of the park. Then I'd not only look stupid, but I'd be mad at myself for letting a great scene go. I jumped into it with enthusiasm and relish and turned it around relatively fast. It turned out to be directorally a very good choice, the shift in point of view not only didn't wreck the parrot's moment, it actually emphasized it, making it all the more conspiratorial. Among other things, being that close toward the end gave me the chance to "squeeze" Iago's pupils as he crossed his eyes on the word "Jeez!" to heighten his contempt for the thief, something that would have been impossible in a medium shot. All I had to do was favor his face to the camera a bit as he turned back to look at Jafar. I had a lot of fun animating it and was embarassed I had crabbed so much about doing it this way.

I've noticed that one of the things that separates the pro's from the dillitantes in everything, acting, music whatever is their ability to say "yes" much more quickly than "no." There are a lot of things that have more than one solution. There is also a lot of dogma that shouldn't be clung to. When I really can't understand a direction (or find it hopelessly counter-productive) then I still balk, but I have tried to be a whole lot more open-minded since then. You don't want to be the one who figured out how not to do something (pretty much anybody can do that); try whenever possible to be the one who got it right.

And don't believe everything you read in books.


Bill said...

What an interesting story, and very wise words. Thanks for sharing. Also, I really like your blog, keep it comin. :D (I also really like your animation! Now I want to go watch Aladdin...)

Bobby Pontillas said...

A great post Will. Thanks for sharing your insights and recalling your thoughts at the time.
Its amazing that there are platforms like this nowadays that allow you guys to share this information with us relative newbies.

Max Ward said...

greatttttttt post

gemini82 said...

Wonderful post. I managed to find a clip of the scene on Youtube. Unfortunately, its not in English.


John S. said...

Great post, Will. There is a ton of dogma out there concerning not only animation, but story and color, and design as well. That quote on the end should be on every artist's desk right under the Disney eyechart and above the Milt Kahl hands.

Clio said...

Plus you get to see the bozo head towards the cave! I thought it was a brilliant shot too. I've got to watch it again - the opening to that movie I remember forever. And great advice, too.

Michael J. Ruocco said...

Great post, Will! Very interesting read.

It's true, a great animator is not determined by his/her skill, punctuality or execution of an action, but their willingness & optisism to accept an assignment.

Was Iago a difficult assignment, or was it a cake walk, or somewhere in the middle? He looked like a fun character to animate, especially with Gilbert Gottfried behind the mic. Any favorite scenes, etc?

handel said...

great post.
Moral of the story? The boards are awful about 75.9% of the time. Stick to the boards and you will get a 75.9% bland crappy scene.
couldnt agree more with you.

andrea spada said...

indeed, indeed

Will Finn said...

hey now! handel & andrea: i don't know what boards you guys are forced to work with, but on ALADDIN i probably stuck by what Ed Gombert boarded at least 75 % of the time and was glad to! Some of the bits like the gag in the flamingo pond he posed out and staged so flawlessly--I was priviledged just to bring 'em to life...

i said this was a site for soreheads and i meant it, but don't get the idea that from this that the storyboard guys on ALADDIN were dropping the ball, it was a fantastic team. They weren't just illustrating a script, they were co-authoring the movie along with the directors and writers and deserve heaps more credit than they ever get. i lost track of how many times i touted Ed and his crew in interviews but it always seemed to get cut because the old myth of the animator being a one-man band was still popular back then. actually this is a good topic for a future post, so thanks!

John S. said...

Ahhh don't pay any mind to Handel, Will. For some reeason, he hates story artists. He's constantly taking little potshots at story artists. It's almost as if a story artist wronged him in some way, like maybe a story artist once stole his lunch money, or kicked sand in his face or something.
Anyway, you've had your first Handel visit! You are now an official "blogger"!! And he was a bit creepy too! Bonus points!!
Hey Handel!! We miss you over at Chippy and Loopus!! Hugs and kisses!!

Clinton said...

Great post, Will. I try not to stick on one particular style in my work and cling onto it as if that is the only way to animate. I also try to do my own thing. Hopefully, I'll be remembered as someone who started something new.

handel said...

Hiya Will. despite what my really really REAAAALLY good friend robo says, I am not anti-story guy. I have no doubt that the story guys on Alladin were top of the line. I see (like many) the films from Roger Rabbit, Mermaid, Beast,Alladin, and to some extent Lion King, as the modern 'Snow White', Pinnochio, etc.
The problem is that FROM there, the Disney features became incestuous and therefore extremelly DULL. Formulaic.Its as if everybody knew it EXCEPT disney. The audiences didnt know WHY they were disliking the disney product less and less--but THAT was the reason. Unfortunatly, they (the audience)just chalked it up to animation being boring. And came back less and less.
I have nothing but the highest of respect for story people. GOOD story people like Ed Gombert. It doesnt hurt that he also can animate damn good too, huh?

Michael J. Ruocco said...

It's like how Milt Kahl did things. He was always assigned crappy, uninspiring characters like the various princes, Johnny Appleseed, etc., but he took control of each scene, did his job & made it gold.

Although he was constantly stuck with characters not in his favor, he took & animated each one with te same amount of care & optimism that he would with his better characters (Brer Rabbit, Shere Kahn, Medusa, etc.)

RFarmiloe said...

Hey Will!

Nice, informative post! Just a great example of "plussing" a scene as the stages progress....which Frank and Ollie DID teach us! As animators(and directors) we all tried to come up with interesting and entertaining ideas in which to really sell the scene to an audience. A great script is followed by great storyboards, then we get our turn. Sometimes, as in this case it was the staging. In other cases we were free to come up with alternative acting and actions to make a scene as successful as it could possibly be. We were SO lucky to work with such talented and supportive artists at that time. We probably didn't know how good we had it. Wonderful times, eh pal? Keep the great posts coming...we'll keep reading and chiming in!

Will Finn said...

glad people seemed to enjoy this.

michael--as incidents go this was very minor--i remember ALADDIN as being 100% fun overall. the internal effect this event had on me was pretty monumental though and hardly a day goes by that i don't think of it.

clio--i also didn't get it until i was animating that with the other two turned away the bird would be the only one with an excuse to face the audience and pretty much have the scene to himself from an acting point of view. i almost talked my way out of a legitimate excuse to hog the camera!

rick--see you at lindy's.

I think this is also the one and only time i 'animated' "Jafar" --i just had to put the cg standin on model as it rotated and i sweated the model like crazy when he turns to "shh" the parrot. I was pleased and relieved when Andreas did only light touch up on the keys. Andreas was a lot of fun to work with and we pretty much communicated by telepathy within weeks of teaming up on this.

more tales of my woebegon youth to come...

Thad K said...

Will- glad to see another animator enter the blogosphere. I actually really don't like Aladdin much (then again I don't like any of the newer Disney features), but I thought the Genie and Iago were better looking and animated than the other characters.

Jenny said...

Great post. You know, the union blog made a point of featuring (and linking to) this, focusing on your mea culpa regarding the direction you initially balked at, and how you ultimately handled it.
Most story artists and I'm sure animators as well would be fibbing if they didn't admit to having big doubts about the direction they get from time to time, but it always boils down to who is the director of the thing--and if it were you, how would you want the artist to respond to the assignment you handed out?
In the case of John and Ron and later you yourself, I think having been there & done that made you all more understanding--and diplomatic--with your crews.
It's funny how much one can learn from doing something in a way you're sure wouldn't or shouldn't work.
Thanks for your frankness--it's very refreshing and probably a great lesson to a lot of people you'll never meet.

Tim said...

Hi Will,
Glad to find your blog -- I've been reading your stuff since your column in Bluth's "Exposure Sheet" and your "Back to the Drawing Board" column in Cawley's "Get Animated" (still have them, too.)
Anyway, in F&O's defense, I think we need to get to the deeper principle of what they were really saying, which was "Don't hide important acting information in a camera move." Which you didn't. You didn't hide anything. You used the camera move to accentuate the personality change. That shift became the focal point of the shot rather than lost in it. It is too true that lesser filmmakers gloss over important acting because they have a "cool" shot to show off.
Great post!!

Will Finn said...

respect to Frank (and especially) Ollie, indeed. i maybe got a little too glib here. the trouble with books tho, is in how the information gets codified and translated as its passed on from one person to the next. this error had as much to do with my blind interperetation of their rule as the rule itself. They themselves never let a "rule" stand between them and a good scene and that's the example i should've followed to begin with!

Matthew said...

Hello Will Finn! I am a big fan of Aladdin! I think you and Eric Goldberg are the best animators on the movie. Do you still work at Disney? Are you going to be involved with The Frog Princess movie that they're making?

Will Finn said...

glad you liked aladdin, eric goldberg RULES!

i haven't worked for disney for a few years and am currently storyboarding on an independent feature.