Red Stick’s Peek at Disney’s Princess & the Frog

Disney’s veteran animation visual effects supervisor Marlon West gave an excellent and inspiring presentation about the making of the much-anticipated holiday release The Princess and the Frog on Friday at the Red Stick Animation Festival in Baton Rouge. The Disney veteran showed several animatic clips and one semi-finished sequence from the feature, while discussing the process of bringing the studio’s first African American princess to animated life.

West began his presentation by talking about how as a child he was fascinated by monster movies and early vfx-driven features such as 1925′s The Lost World and the 1933 version of King Kong. He said, ‘I saw this picture of stop-motion pioneer Willis O’Brien in this book’and there they were, this grown man and his homies playing with dinosaurs and toys at work, and I thought, I got to get a gig like that!’

He went on to discuss how he got his start in Los Angeles as an effects animator, adding production values such as smoke and fire to animated projects. Having worked on 2D Disney hits such as The Lion King, Hercules, Tarzan and Pocahontas, he then segued into CG-animated projects such as Chicken Little and Meet the Robinsons. He noted, ‘Back then, the common wisdom was that 2D was dead, and the studio shut down the traditional animation department, so I got into digital effects.’

Of course, Disney’s purchase of Pixar and the arrival of John Lasseter and Ed Catmull at the Mouse House changed the scene dramatically. ‘Those guys had this bright idea to bring back hand-drawn animation, but everything had to be started again from the ground up. One of the first things we did was focus on producing shorts, to help us re-introduce the 2D pipeline. I worked as vfx supervisor on the Goofy short, How to Hook Up Your Home Theater.’ West said the only difference now is that his Wacom tablet replaced paper. ‘It was a real plus for the effects department, so we went paperless for The Princess and the Frog.’

Directed by Disney veterans Ron Clements and John Musker (The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Hercules, Treasure Planet), the movie is set in New Orleans during the ’20s and centers on a hard-working African American woman named Tiana (voiced by Dreamgirls‘ Anika Noni Rose) who dreams of owning her own restaurant. Her aspirations are sidetracked after encountering a prince (voiced by Bruno Campos) who has been turned into a frog by the evil Dr. Facilier (Keith David). Oprah Winfrey, John Goodman, Jenifer Lewis and Terrence Howard are also part of the voice cast. New Orleans native Randy Newman provides the jazz and blues-influenced music for the film.

Impact of Company’s Culture Change

West pointed out that everyone could really feel the impact of the leadership of Lasseter on the project. ‘There was a real cultural change at the studio,’ he added. ‘Everyone had more ownership of the film’I've been on projects were the team that worked on clean-up didn’t talk that much, but on this show, the 2D people were so delighted to be back, they felt more of a collaborative vibe. Ron and John [the directors] don’t need anyone’s opinion, but everyone was really interested in making the best film possible. Everything was in the service of making the coolest 2D film possible. It really was kind of like Our Gang‘ just everyone saying, ‘Hey, let’s get together and put on a show.’ ‘

When asked about the production time of the project, West said that although the directors were on the project for about three years, overall it probably took five years from the time somebody said ‘let’s make a movie about a sister who turns into a frog!’ He also added that the movie has been screened every 12 weeks for people at the studio to get feedback and to tweak the story and design elements. ‘It’s really gotten better and better every time. There were times when the movie wasn’t so good, but we really have a great movie with a sweet story as a result of that process.’

According to West, digital effects were employed, but they weren’t ‘crazy dimensional’ sequences. ‘You could compare them more to old-school multiplane camera effects seen in Pinocchio or Lady and the Tramp.’ The team used Toon Boom’s Harmony to create compositing effects, as well as Maya, Houdini and After Effects. However, West says there was a conscious effort on the behalf of the creators to make sure the backgrounds had a beautiful texture of gouache paintings of the classic Disney films. ‘We definitely have digital elements, like fireflies, doors, the magical transformation sequences ‘ to keep the production values up, but we don’t want them to be noticeable.’

When someone in the audience asked why it took Disney so long to create an animated feature about an African American princess, West blamed it on the tough development process. ‘Through the years, there have been lots of things in development, but for an animated movie to get greenlit, all the different elements have to be in place. This time around, everything just came together’we had two directors with real juice behind them who really wanted to make this movie. John Lasseter was really excited about this movie’and all three gentlemen really love New Orleans. The truth is that while 35 movies have been made at the studio, there are 500 or more ideas that people were hoping to get made and they just didn’t happen because all the different elements weren’t in place.’

Disney’s Princess and the Frog opens in New York and Los Angeles on Nov. 25 and will go wide on Dec. 11.