Mike Gabriel Talks Oscar Nominee Lorenzo

Of a Big Blue Cat, Animation Dreams and the Best Ending for a Fluffy Tail

An hour after accepting the grand prize at the Annecy Int’l. Animation Film Festival for the creation of the Disney short, Lorenzo, director Mike Gabriel found himself in a folding chair on a chilly bit of grass beneath a starry sky, eating dinner off a floppy paper plate. While he probably should have been signing autographs and hobnobbing, the rather exhausted and overwhelmed Gabriel seemed to enjoy the quiet company of former Disney-ite Joseph Gilland (vfx supervisor, Lilo & Stitch) and myself, and the chance to unwind.

The three of us bumped into each other in the food line and just kept talking. While Mike and Joseph discussed the old days at Disney–what it was like, what they wished it was like and how, no matter what, the name still means "animation"–I couldn’t help staring at the crowd. Here was a true animation hero and people were just walking by as if we weren’t there; as if the making of Lorenzo didn’t just change a little bit of history by taking home the ultimate animation award for a hand-drawn cartoon. It was like we were in a bubble.

So, during a break in conversation, I asked what I’d been dying to ask. "In Lorenzo, is that black cat, the one that takes the big blue cat’s tail, a devil or an angel?" And Mike explained that Malo, the black cat, is really a good guy. He comes into town like a maverick and sees this fat cat sitting in a shop window eating goodies and showing off his beautiful tail. Malo figures the best way to be a pal to this obnoxious guy is to hold up a mirror to his face; show him just how ugly vanity can be.

"So, in that way," says Mike, "He’s a guardian angel." And I look around for Malo, as if he’s the reason we’ve got Mike for a bit with no interruptions, because you definitely have to have a guardian angel to have an evening this grand. I think Malo also helped me get this juicy interview earlier in the Annecy week:

Rita Street: Mike, did you always know you wanted to be a Disney animator?

Mike Gabriel: From the age of five I wanted to grow up and work at Walt Disney … and it took me another twenty years to do it. In high school I started writing to the studio and sending in drawings and they would actually write back and tell me that I needed to draw more from life. So I kept at it. I drew every frame of the Muybridge studies–every human, every horse. I copied all the masters’ drawings–DaVinci, Hogarth. When I was in junior college and working a part-time job in the audio-visual department, I decided to start drawing six hours a day to train my hands. I’d gotten so many rejections from Disney’s by then, but I was totally devoted. When I was twenty-four, I finally got a letter back inviting me for an interview, and I was really like John Boy heading off to the big city. I packed up my portfolio and headed out to the Valley in 150-degree heat. Half way through the interview though, I realized I still wasn’t going to get in. All I could think was, "How am I going to go home and tell my parents?" But they liked my work and said that if I could do some more quick sketches and send those in, I might have a chance. So, over the weekend, I sketched sports events on TV and golf. I sketched my brother playing on the basketball court, Frisbee games at the beach, everything. On Monday I mailed those in and waited, but I didn’t hear anything. So finally I called the HR office and Ed Hanson answered the phone. He said, "Yeah, we’ve been trying to reach you all week. We had the wrong number. You’re in!" I remember that was the first time my dad gave me the proverbial pat on the back.

RS: You worked as an inbetweener and assistant on Fox and the Hound, then did design and some lead work on The Great Mouse Detective, but you really came into your own on Oliver & Company. Can you tell us about work on that movie?

MG: I worked as a directing animator on that movie and supervised a lot of sequences, I storyboarded sequences and pitched story ideas. The first day I had to pitch, I almost turned around and drove home I was so nervous. I walked in and there were seven guys in suits. If I’d known it was going to be that bad I definitely would have turned around, but then when I got started I didn’t care anymore. I just started acting out the scenes, doing the voices and it all fell into place. At one point I got this emotional reaction–I really touched them–and I knew I had it right.

Another great experience from that movie was directing some of the voiceover. I got to fly to New York and stay in a great hotel, but it was winter and it was snowing and I got the flu. I started vomiting when I got in my room and didn’t stop for twelve hours. In the morning, I just threw on my clothes and went to the recording studio–I don’t even know how I got there, but when the doors opened, there was Billy Joel in his sunglasses. He was really pleasant and definitely loosened up when he started working with Joseph Lawrence, the boy who played Oliver.

After that, Peter Schneider asked me if I’d ever consider directing and I said, "Well, after watching George [Scribner, director, Oliver & Company], it doesn’t look like it would be much fun." It was sort of a non-committal reaction, but in a couple of months he called me into his office and asked if I’d direct Rescuers Down Under. And I thought to myself at the time, and I probably should have said it out loud, "Now there’s a movie everyone’s gonna want to see. How could you top the first one?" But I didn’t and I took the job and co-directed with Hendel [Butoy]. Actually, that was a great experience because the characters were so fun to work on. And working with the voice talent–I can’t say enough about George C. Scott. Judi Dench was just delightful and has this way of making everyone around her feel good. With people like that, you don’t really direct you just ask them to do it again, or not. With Bob Newhart, I asked him to do a second take and he said, "You know, I’m happy to do it, but it’s not going to be any different. This is just the way I am, on the second take or on the sixteenth."

RS: And after that you pitched Pocahontas?

MG: That pitch was so simple and so successful. I created a poster of the movie, which was basically Tiger Lilly with animals around her feet. I was in a room with Jeffrey Katzenberg, Michael Eisner, Roy Disney and Peter Schneider, and I just explained it would be a story about an Indian princess who falls in love with a European man and has to decide between his love and the love of her homeland. They put it immediately into production; I mean the next day we were in production. It was a simpler world. But the movie was the usual rollercoaster ride. After that I pitched Sweating Bullets. I actually came up with that idea before Pocahontas because I was trying to think of an idea that might combine Captains Courageous with a Western. Something simple like that, I thought, would make a hell of a movie. So after Pocahontas, I wrote up about forty pages and sent it to Peter and he wrote back, "Wow." So, Sweating Bullets [later renamed Home on the Range] went into development and five years later I was taken off the project. The spirals of logic in the development process … It was a learning experience, I’ll say that. I’m a different director now. I learned you have to believe in the movie that’s evolving, but that it’s also your duty to protect it from being changed to the point of ruin. Because if it gets ruined and it’s a flop at the box office, you’re always the one who gets blamed.

RS: How did you recover from that blow?

MG: I took three months off. Then I came back, and Don Hahn gave me two options for a short film. One was a Tahitian story and one was based on some drawings by Joe Grant that had a Tango feel. I looked up music for both and was actually leaning toward the Tahitian idea. But then I bought a ton of tango CDs and the first CD I listened to was Juan Jose Mosalini and his Big Tango Orchestra, and I fell in love with the first track. I went through all the other CDs, all $346 that I paid for myself, but kept going back to that first track. I got an approval for that and boarded to that track.

RS: What materials did you work with early on to tackle Lorenzo’s design?

MG: Joe Grant always works in pastels, but I don’t have a prayer in pastels. It just ends up a pile of chalk and when I blow on it, the drawing just goes away. So I worked loose with acrylics and a one-inch wide brush, just big glob shapes with a tail. They were so simple that everyone responded to them. Lorenzo was just this cartoon blob and so appealing.

RS: It took you three years to complete Lorenzo. Was that because you were working on other projects as well?

MG: Mainly I was the only guy on the project for about the first year and a half. I got called off to work on character designs for projects like Mickey’s Philharmagic. But Pam Coates helped get it back on track, along with Baker Bloodworth, when it was really starting to stall out. They got the Paris studio involved to animate. Dan Teece really cracked the programming that allowed for the painted look. The CG guys did that work in their spare time. It was really a miracle Lorenzo got done and for Disney to get behind it, ultimately, just because it was worth getting done. It was really a bit of that old Disney sparkle. Roy Disney was always behind it, though, and as the executive producer he gave great notes all the way through. He was particularly good at finding weak areas, especially in parts that I really thought I had. I’d always think, "Why wasn’t I able to see that without Roy telling me?" He was always right, which was wonderful and frustrating. He brought up the scene where the cat gets hit by the train. I really didn’t have an exit out of that moment. Roy wanted that fixed and Dean Willems said, "Why don’t you just have the train run over his tail?" That’s when I realized I’d been on features too long, I just didn’t come up with that moment. But, I did add the blue paint splash on the railroad sign. We didn’t want to show blood, but the blue paint really works.

RS: What was the best part about working on this project?

MG: Being the singular director. I didn’t have to go to anyone for approvals or tell anyone what to do. I didn’t have to compromise my decisions or ask anyone else what to do.

RS: It seems like the studios should have more faith in the vision of a director.

MG: Well, it’s a dilemma. An auteur making a movie would be so nice. It just seems like they could have a little faith and let the artist travel down a certain road, just for better or worse, make his mistakes. But, sometimes, like with Roy, you get a good producer and they give you just a little guidance and it gets you back on the right path again. Sometimes being an auteur, without any input, can be harder.

RS: And, I have to ask the almighty question of questions. What do you think will be the future of hand-drawn animation?

MG: It’s definitely in a lull right now, but nobody knows. I think there is still something interesting coming out of these 2D/3D hybrids; something we’ve never seen before. But, then again, why is there all this really good CG? It’s definitely appealing. Still, my basic reaction is this, "No one’s ever gonna get tired of looking at somebody’s art!"

Lorenzo is up for Best Animated Short at the 77th Annual Academy Awards, taking place Sunday, Feb. 27, at the Kodak Theater in Hollywood. ABC will televise the event live starting at 5 p.m.