Sunday, September 13, 2009

Somewhat Grim: LITTLE MERMAID pt.2

"Lord Grimsby"
Final model artwork by me. Drawn as models only,
not taken from actual scenes.
Cleanup by Gail Frank
I previously wrote about my partial involvement with preliminary designs on "Sebastian" the crab in Disney's LITTLE MERMAID, which hit screens 20 long years ago. Of course Duncan Marjoribanks deserves all the credit with the design, animation and physical characterization and I considered myself lucky to get some scenes to animate, with Ducan's supervision. Sam Wright's outstanding voice was of course a big part too.

The inimitable Duncan Marjoribanks
Animating on RESCUERS DOWN UNDER circa 1990
The rest of my animation time was spent animating 99% of a minor but delightful character called "Lord Grimsby" -- the grim, powdered-wig-wearing sidekick of "Prince Eric". Eric by the way was named after Eric Larson, who was so instrumental in mentoring so many in my generation.
Initial rough sketch by Dan Haskett

I first saw sketches of Grimsby on the desk of Dan Haskett, the brilliant, one-of-a-kind character designer and animator, who had been hired to generate models for the film. I had been a big fan of Dan's ever since seeing his work in John Canemaker's excellent book on the making of the Raggedy Ann feature, and also from seeing Dan's caricatures pinned up around Disney back in 1979 (although Dan had already departed). A blog should be devoted to Dan's artwork alone, but for now you can check this blogpost by Shane Glines for a tiny taste of his talent.

Costume and character design: Dan Haskett
Cleanup artist unknown

Anyway I saw the drawing of this dour hatchet-faced dude on Dan's desk and assumed it was a character with maybe one or two scenes. He told me that no, the character was a kind of sidekick for the Prince, a cross between the Duke in CINDERELLA and John Gielgud's deadpan servant role in the comedy ARTHUR. I mentioned that I would have loved to animate something like that and Dan encouraged me to petition John Musker and Ron Clements for the opportunity.

Preliminary art by Dan Haskett
Cleanup artist unknown

I was considered a middlingly ok animator but after reading the script, I wasn't sure I could do it. The character wasn't really essential to the story, but it was a recurring role and written with a great deal of subtlety. All the same, Dan continued to encourage me and so I did some sketches of the character, which were enough to provoke the directors to give me the tentative go ahead for the assignment once the movie got rolling. When production did get going, I spent several months animating Sebastian but continued to thumbnail and sketch Lord Grimbsy as well. The first scene actually went to Mark Henn, who animated Grimsby floundering in the waves during the shipwreck, trying to find Eric. After that I got my first scene of the character, catching Eric's telescope and fumbling with it as he spoke. Little did I suspect, the fumbling had only just begun.

One of the many dozens of loose individual sketches I did of the character.
Not bad if I say so myself. Too bad I can't say the same for my actual animation.

I'd like to say it all went swimmingly from there, but it didn't. At this point I learned that it was one thing to make a decent sketch and quite another to make useful animation drawings. Simply put, the character was just too sophisticated for my skill level at that point. The voice by Ben Wright, who had voiced both Roger in DALMATIONS and Rama (Mowgli's wolf father in JUNGLE BOOK) was pitch-perfect, a performance worthy of Gielgud himself. The design was great and I was given time to study reference of numerous actors, and provided with rotoscopes as well. If it helped it only helped a little.

I did continue to animate the rest of the scenes with the character, but it was a year-long struggle from start to finish, and not an ultimately successful one. As much as I loved the character and wanted to do it well, I would say that I only got a few of the scenes right and both I and the directors knew it. At one point I noticed with a kind of despair that just about every time the character appeared in storyboard form, director John Musker himself had done the sketches, which was not typical. It dawned on me that this was exactly the kind of character that embodied his own dry sense of humor and he undoubtedly would have knocked it out of the park if he had animated it himself. Both John and Ron were world-class animators before they became directors so pleasing them is both a challenge and a reward. I knew that what they had in their heads was better than what I was capable of doing most of the time, but I kept on keeping on anyway.

More model poses by me. Cleanup by Gail Frank
Like I said it was a struggle. I am glad I worked on the movie, but I have always suspected if the character had been any less peripheral to the story, I would have been replaced by someone better. I think I did a handful of scenes correctly but too many, including crucial acting ones and all the single character close ups are sub-par. Some of the ones that don't make me cringe are the ones during the prologue aboard Eric's ship, and then the one where Carlotta the maid, beautifully animated by Tony Derosa, weeps into his scarf at the very end. Those were all done at the end of production. The bad ones are all over the movie and detailing their flaws would only state the obvious to some observers and ruin the scenes for others. I will say that one of my worst is a key moment where Grimsby encourages Eric to stop obsessing about the siren in his dreams and to consider wedding the voiceless Ariel: "Far better than any dream girl..." Again a perfect vocal and heartfelt storyboards (by Roger Allers) that I didn't come close to doing justice to. Luckily the audience is too busy watching Eric, who was animated by the great Matt O'Callaghan.

BTW: I recently learned that Grimsby is also the name of a fishing town in England, which is either an inside joke or a co-incidence. I always assumed it was to summon a grim faced character which he was. Ben Wright, the voice over actor referred to him as simply "an old poop."


A.M.Bush said...

cool, thanks for sharing.

Pete Emslie said...

Generally speaking, I find that characters with pronounced cheekbones and a highly defined jawline are not as conducive to animation as those with fleshy jowls or younger characters with their healthy share of "baby fat". If you compare Grimsby to the similar character of Edgar the butler in "The Aristocats", for example, you can see that all of that loose flesh on Edgar's face can make it easier to get away with taking liberties with the complex anatomical understructure. I certainly commend you, Will, for your very self critical assessment of your work on Grimsby, but I doubt that any other animator would have been any more successful with the character. I suspect that even Milt Kahl would have been cursing a blue streak over the intricacy of the design.

I certainly could see the influence of John Gielgud on the character's physical appearance at the time of the film's release, and I quite enjoyed that. It is a revelation to me to find out that Dan Haskett had initiated the design, however. I had the pleasure of getting to work with Dan for just several weeks back in 1982 when Dan was working as a character illustrator for Disney's New York office. Dan is the most brilliant cartoonist I've ever known, and just being able to work alongside him for that brief period I freelanced for Disney in New York was so inspiring. Dan was extremely generous with his talent and showed me so many drawing tips that I continue to apply to my own work to this day. If you're ever in contact with him, please tell the rascal hi for me!

Will Finn said...

Pete you are very astute about one of the areas that gave me no end of trouble to articulate. No wonder you are such a great teacher!

I do believe there are others who could have nailed it tho, one being (as I mentioned) John Musker, and another being Dan Haskett!

Daryl T said...

Wow. At least it is nice to know that even professional animators struggle with their work. Personally I never really noticed.

rad sechrist said...

Great story. It's really cool to see this artwork.

Bob and Rob Professional American Writers said...

You really suck, Will! Your animation just about ruined the movie for us. KIDDING! We love ALL of your work! We miss you and the gang. Cheers, B&R

Rich T. said...

Will, as an average movie goer, I have to say that from Day 1 I found Grimsby to be a terrifically entertaining character. All his scenes worked. I can think of a lot of animated bits in Little Mermaid I'm not fond of, but none of them involve Grimsby. It's always fun reading an animator's critique of their own work, though! Rest assured, 99.99999 percent of LM viewers never noticed any of the problems you see.

Will Finn said...

i almost didn't do this post because i didn't want it to sound like : "WAHHHH! WAAAA!!!!" and I don't like to dwell on regret so much. MERMAID is a great picture and it succeeds in spite of any flaws, mine included.

All the same, mistakes, which can be very painful, are also great learning experiences and I remain grateful I got the assignment (and that the directors let me keep it) because I learned a great deal which I was able to apply to subsequent assignments afterward.

The disadvantage our group had was that we had to make our mistakes on features and not the relatively more disposable venue of shorts. That's life tho. As for the overall character, I think the voice and design carry enough of it, and as a less than critical character, that's mostly enough. But compared to a similar but better execution by Sergio Pablos in TREASURE PLANET ("Dr. Doppler"), you see how that sort of thing should be done from a purely animation standpoint, and done I must say a great deal better.

Blair said...

Great post Will.

I'm always amazed to hear how many characters Dan Haskett has designed. (Everything from features to commercials, to TV). I've animated a lot of his designs for Chuck Gammage, and have seen some amazing designs of his get butchered at other places, and also had the pleasure of meeting him a couple of times. I was a year out of college, and Chuck Gammage sent me to pick him and his wife up from the airport in my old 2 door Chevy Blazer. It dawned on me on the way to pick him up, that I had only ever been in the back seat of the car once or twice, I had no idea what was growing back there, and that the back seatbelts didn't even work. (This was a real college kid's truck). I felt so stupid, I don't know how many times I appologized. They were both dressed all nice too.... it just didn't seem right. He and his wife were so nice too, that if they were thinking they were in a bad movie, they didn't show it.

(I don't know why I typed that, but it's just one of those stupid situations that I won't forget)

Tim Garbutt said...

Hey Will!

Great post! reminds me of our chat a while back, of which I am still transcribing and editing for the sake of document but a great story here and looking forward to more! This also helped me fill in the blanks of our interview at the Thai place which on recording got muffled at times, BUT! love the stories, and seeing your work interpreted through your eyes and impressions. Great Stuff! Keep them coming. I think your work is great and love your humble impressions of your work, (its still awesome tho :) ). Hope all is well with you and love the site!

Tim G:) (USC)

chrisallison said...

i'm really glad you posted this. i think it's important for artists to critique performances, but it doesn't happen much i don't think in our industry (for whatever political or other reason). what a complex design! and i think i'd have a bunch of trouble with it because like pete was saying, it's so bony and solid. seems very unforgiving.

without scrutinizing, the role never really jumped out at me. it's interesting to hear your take and i'm really glad you shared these drawings and story with us. thanks will! your courage to talk about subjects like this really means a lot

Eric Scales said...

Great post Will! Like others have said, it is helpful to hear how everyone goes through these struggles- sometimes we do get assignments that are a bit above our current skill level. Sometimes our efforts are preserved on film, or, for those of us stupid enough to post things right away before we've stepped back and looked at them with a critical eye, the internet! But what you may look at as your mediocrity is still heads and shoulders above many other people's best efforts and a great inspiration. Thanks for sharing!

Mike Caracappa said...

I always liked Grimsby. He was definetly one of those more subtle characters, but as a sort of "conscious" character for Eric, I thought he was great. I know you don't think the animation isn't that great, but I still think the "far better than any dream girl" scene is one of the nicest moments in the film. Glad to know that scene is yours.

Thanks for sharing.