Sunday, February 1, 2009


Brian Fields asked a while back for me to share any memories of working on Disney's THE LITTLE MERMAID and now seems as good a time as any. It seems hard to believe that the film was released 20 years ago (come fall) and though much has happened since then, the experience remains pretty fresh. Although I haven't watched it in many many years, I am always glad when someone remembers the movie fondly and am proud to have been associated with it. To state the obvious however, I was just one small fish in a mighty big pond.

One of the things I recall very clearly was that the picture seemed like a natural from the get-go, a classic Disney fairy tale. We were returning to the roots of SNOW WHITE, CINDERELLA and SLEEPING BEAUTY after a 30 year hiatus. Needless to say, during that time, the 'old guard' had all retired or passed on and it was the first really heavy weight production to land in the laps of what was then "the younger generation." After years of grousing, we were finally going to get to work on a story of the calibre we had come to think of as "classic Disney". It was an honor, it was exciting, and it was also a daunting challenge for even the most talented in the group. Everybody had to push harder and dig deeper than ever before. We were glad to do it, too.

Prior to MERMAID, I was a junior animator on OLIVER & CO, animating under the supervision of Reuben Aquino on "Francis" the bulldog and also some scenes of the Bette Midler poodle character. During most of that production, I shared an office with fellow animator Kevin Lima, who went on to direct TARZAN (along with Chris Buck) and the recent smash hit ENCHANTED. In addition to being a talented artist and obvious director in the making, Kevin was well known for his passion for live theatre and and when the gifted New York stage titan Howard Ashman became involved, Kevin was asked to sit in on early meetings, pitching ideas and drawing character designs. As I recall, it was Kevin who came up with the genius idea of modeling "Ursula" the sea witch on 'Divine', the obese female impersonator who had been John Waters' favorite underground 'leading lady.'

I was always eager to hear anything Kevin had to say coming out of these sessions. Everyone was champing at the bit and angling to know what was going on. At one point directors John Musker and Ron Clements passed out copies of the script in progress for the crew to read. I think it was a second draft, but I remember well flying through the pages as I sat in a lounge area in one of the old Kem Weber chairs imported from the hallowed old studio to our makeshift digs in a warehouse on 1400 Flower Street. The script was one of the best I ever read, and all the characters and events were very clearly defined. It was one of the only times I have been lucky enough to work on a movie where the script was that good (and that complete) even before the boarding started.

None of the voices had been cast and none of the songs had been written yet, but there was mention of a Caribbean motif to the story. As typically happens at the early stages, a number of iconic actors were being referenced as possible "types" , even though they may not ultimately be the final voices (usually they aren't, for any number of reasons). I had heard they wanted a "Geoffrey Holder type voice" for the crab character who was to be Ariel's 'Jimminy Cricket' sidekick. Geoffrey Holder was well known at the time as a Bond villain from LIVE & LET DIE, and had been synonymous with a 7-UP soft drink ad where he pitched the virtues of the 'un-cola'. The only trouble to me was, that I could not imagine a voice like Holder's, (deep, rolling and mellow) coming out of the rough sketches I had seen of the beady-eyed, Frisbee-shaped crustacean. I kept thinking of the Holder's long face and soulful, expressive eyes... I thought to myself: "Why not just forget about a crab's real anatomy and have a face like that just extend out of the shell, kind of a cross between a turtle and the "doodle bug" Muppet characters on SEASME STREET." In addition, I was also very much inspired by the flamboyant caricatures of Brazilian musicians in a book called "Echole!", which had been lent to me by fellow artist Haroldo Guimaraes.

I did a few quick scribbles of the crab I envisioned and Kevin was nice enough to submit them to the directors at one of his sessions working on 'Ursula' and various other characters. A bit later I got a call from one of the production secretaries: Howard Ashman had seen my drawings on John Musker's desk and reacted favorably, so the directors wanted me to work up a more finished model sheet... WOW!

There was only one problem: I couldn't really pull it off.

I was still very inexperienced at the time and although I could get lucky with the odd scribble, I had never designed a feature character before and could only bring the drawings to a point. Story artist Ed Gombert and animator Chris Buck worked up the design a good deal more successfully as storyboarding began, and then that work in turn was handed to the amazingly gifted Duncan Marjoribanks, who, as Supervising Animator, ultimately fashioned the character into the version we all know and love.

Duncan is one of the greats of our generation and one of the very first to animate with his own personal vocabulary of acting ideas. He was also nice enough to assign me a number of scenes on the character during production (such as the crab hiding from the chef in the kitchen). Like every character, 'Sebastian' is a conglomerate of story & song work, voice over talent (in this case the wonderful Sam Wright, who gave his own individual spirit to the character) and gifted animators, like Duncan Marjoribanks, who deserves all credit due. And thanks to Kevin Lima, I still get to look at the character and know that a bit of his initial DNA came from me.

More later.


Jeremy said...

Thanks for sharing Will! I appreciate seeing your early drawing and hearing about the development process on Mermaid. I'm sorry, I didn't get a chance to meet you at DW last Friday. It would've been nice to thank you in person for your insightful posts.

Pete Emslie said...

I remember well that day in 1989 I saw "The Little Mermaid" for the first time. I especially recall what I felt while watching that opening scene with the fish escaping out of the sailor's hands, then swimming downward into the watery depths and thus providing a lyrical intro to the world of the merpeople, with Ashman and Menken's music swelling in the background. As I witnessed just that one magical opening scene, I remember thinking that this was going to be the film that would restore Disney to its former glory. The rest of the movie absolutely confirmed that feeling for me, so I wasn't surprised that "The Little Mermaid" did indeed prove to be the catalyst that led to the resurgence of Disney animation.

This is also quite a pleasant revelation to find out that you were the one who first suggested that design for Sebastian's head, Will. I loved the bizarre nature of that design and the fact that audiences accepted it without question, similar to the way they've always accepted Jiminy Cricket as an insect character. It really was a brilliant design approach and I'm glad to hear the history behind it.

Will Finn said...

Hey Pete, that fish was animated by Chris Bailey, who i shared an office with during most of MERMAID's production. We had a lot of laughs on the show.

As for the character design: to be sure, any such work is collaborative and a good number of hands come into play at the early stages, but Duncan was the ultimate author of the onscreen character, through and through. As gratifying as it was to play a part in it, it was a small part--no amount of trying enabled me to get past the "rough concept" stage.

Tim said...

I remember Geoffrey Holder sand "Kiss the Girl" at the Oscars that year. I love his voice, but he didn't do the song justice.

Daryl T said...

That story has made my day. Thanks Mr. Finn!

Eric Scales said...

Mermaid remains one of the strongest the studio has ever done. It's amazing to think that it came after Mouse Detective and Oliver and Company- not to impugn films that required just as much talent and hard work, but it's like watching your kid struggle to ride a tricycle for several weeks and then stepping outside to see them flying by on a two-wheeler. You guys really just soared with Mermaid. You can just sense the vibe of a crew who was having fun and really knew what they were doing. Can't wait for pt II.

Floyd Norman said...

I remember an early pitch from Ron and John. I knew this picture had "hit" written all over it. I've found a film usually reveals itself early even if it has problems. Some films work -- and others never work. "Mermaid," for me, always worked.

Thanks for sharing, Will. I love these stories, and they need to be told.

Thad said...

Yeah, I agree with Pete. When I re-watched it last year, I could see why people got excited about it. Nobody really gave a shit about Disney's movies for about twenty years. And it's actually a better put together movie than the last bunch in even Walt's lifetime (on all levels even).

You guys also seemed to know how to create strong female leads who take charge, something the old guys couldn't really do (save Alice, but I am alone in that opinion). Sad how that is lost in the Princess whoring.

scott said...

Duncan wearing a TIE?
where'd you get that?

Marcos Mateu said...

it's really good to get to know some of what was going on backstage in the making of a film, specially in the case of a feature such as 'Little Mermaid'.
Thanks for the post!

Craig D said...

If you're taking requests, how about a post about working on BEAUTY & THE BEAST.

(I had met Nick Ranieri some years before you two worked on Lumiere & Cogswell.)