What do you do when Disney invites you to spend a day in the Sorcerer’s Hat building of Disney Animation Studios in Burbank, California? You clear off your schedule and jump with both feet, which is exactly what I did last week. Tangled, Disney’s 50th animated feature film, is heading towards the home stretch and it is apparent how much work and dedication has gone into this passion project for the many talented folks involved. We were treated to a work in progress screening, games, a plethora of interviews, and much more, so join me after the break for the full details and my initial impression of the film.
For those unaware, Tangled is the retelling of the story of Rapunzel. You know, the beautiful girl that is locked in a tower by her evil caretaker Gothel, and who has over 70 feet of flowing blonde hair. “Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let your hair down.” The original Brothers Grimm fairy tale dates back to the 1800s, and has variations that are even older. This is the rough basis that Disney has taken and transformed into a story of betrayal, discovery, adventure, and fun.
In Tangled, Gothel (Donna Murphy) steals a young princess with magical golden hair and raises her as Rapunzel (Mandy Moore) in a secluded tower hidden in the woods. Gothel uses Rapunzel’s hair to stay youthful and beautiful, but denies her access to the kingdom beyond her window with the veil of how dangerous and inhospitable it is. Flynn Rider (Zachary Levi), a suave and daring thief, stumbles upon the tower and provides the spark that sets the naïve but intelligent Rapunzel on a path of exploration and adventure beyond her tower that challenges her loyalty to Gothel. Add in some touches that are pure Disney, including a super-cop horse and Rapunzel’s chameleon confidante Pascal, and we have a rousing tale that simply delivers.
As I stated earlier we watched a work in progress print. I’d estimate we saw about 5% storyboard, and 25% of rough animation in different states. The print was approximately three months old and one they pieced together just for the event. This isn’t something usually shown to press, so the fact that Disney invited over 100 members of the media to view the unfinished version should tell you how proud they are of the film already. There will be slight tweaks made here and there, but what I can tell you is that the finished animation was stunning. Before the screening, producer Roy Conli and co-directors Nathan Greno and Byron Howard showed us the different variations of a scene where Rapunzel lifts up her hair and sweeps underneath it. When he showed us a complete version of the animation you could hear a collective gasp from the crowd. The human animation is incredibly well done and I am in love with the art direction. As for the story, it takes twists and turns that isn’t predictable and strays from the original story within the first 15 minutes; fresh, funny, and definitely touching. Additionally, the music had me tapping my toes several times and there is a contemporary feel provided by the legendary Alan Menken.
Following the screening, we were taken to one of the main game halls of Disney and broken up into different teams. My group had Pascal (heck yea!) as the mascot and we immediately started playing some of the games Disney had setup for us while the other groups went elsewhere. There was a converted Whack-A-Mole game termed Whack-A-Flynn that was definitely a hit. They also had a bean-bag toss, and turkey leg toss, and my favorite, ping pong with frying pans as paddles (once you see the movie, this part will actually make sense. For now, trust me that it was fun). The entire area had the Tangled styling, complete with actors playing Rapunzel and Flynn, as well as a bevy of thugs in full costume and weaponry. When we completed all four games, we were given a special gorgeous lithograph painting from a scene of Tangled.
After playing the games for about 30 minutes, we were taken upstairs for a character creation demonstration with Mark Kennedy (head of story), Leo Sanchez-Barbosa (modeler), Becky Besee (animation supervisor), Eric Daniels (hair-creative), Kelly Ward (hair-technical), and Mohit Kallianpur (lighting supervisor) that went over the evolution and challenges of Rapunzel. The main thing to know about Rapunzel is that her hair was an enormous task all by itself. Disney created an entire program to handle the hair animation, and they even created a secondary program for the specific blonde color of Rapunzel’s flowing hair. We were shown some of the problems that arise from animating over 100,000 strands of hair, and how they used 103 reference curves as the basis of what the hair would do when animated.
Sometimes, her hair seemed to have a mind of its own when animated and her character would often end up engulfed in her hair. This was worse than the crazy Claire from Lost. They also spoke a bit about the size of the eyes compared to the face, and how they made sure each character had the same characteristic. They weren’t striving for hyper-realism, as they wanted to avoid the uncanny valley. Additionally, they took heavy influence from J.C. Leyendecker for the character direction and styling.
Next, our group was given a brief tour of the main halls of Disney Animation Studios. They had some of the original artwork from Snow White and Sleeping Beauty on display, and we were shown Greno and Howard’s work stations that looked more like Fisher Price houses than an area to conduct business. Our tour guide had wanted to mix things up and show off a different area than the norm, so she took us to the basement of the studio. This area was painted a pastel green and had a visual timeline mural of all the animated films they had done to that point. While we were down in the basement, we got to see what Tim Mertens, lead editor of Tangled, does on a day to day basis.
He showed us story board animation and how voices are synced with the images. Then, Jennifer Trevorrow of LoveFilm.com was given the chance to voice Rapunzel in a scene, and while he spoke he synched her voice into the clip. The fact that he did this within five minutes was impressive and it was eerie to see Jennifer’s voice coming from a story board animation. Mertens and our tour guide also talked about the long hours they put in and how Disney takes great strides to break up the time with activities, workouts, meals, and an effort to make sure everything they do is ergonomically correct. While it may look fairly corporate and plain on the inside, they certainly treat their employees well.
Since this particular article is long already, stay tuned for part two in which I recap the dailies session that saw a special appearance by John Lasseter and highlights from the round table discussions. Additionally, keep an eye right here for my one on one interviews with Mandy Moore, Alan Menken, Zachary Levi, and Nathan Greno and Byron Howard later this week.