Animated People: L.E.G. Productions’ Laura Elkus Gross

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We all know about the people who make the animated movies we love to watch over and over again on DVD and Blu-ray — at least in part because of the great bonus features that come with most movies.

Fans are far less familiar with the folks who put those features together, such as Laura Elkus Gross and her L.E.G. Productions. The company has produced bonus features for many animated (and live-action) movies for the likes of Disney, Pixar, Sony and more.

Most recently, L.E.G. produced the bonus features for Waking Sleeping Beauty, the documentary about the revival of Disney’s feature animation division in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

We caught up with Gross and talked to her about creating these features — think of this as a bonus feature for the bonus features.

Animag Online: What was the biggest challenge in doing the special features for Waking Sleeping Beauty?

Laura Elkus Gross: First, I’d like to share the most rewarding part of working on Waking Sleeping Beauty. But, there are so many! I’m a Disney geek, and I love the films created during the period Waking Sleeping Beauty covers. I thought Don Hahn did a masterful job at telling an incredibly complex story that covered 10 years with dozens, if not hundreds, of fascinating characters, in a concise and emotionally compelling way. So, it was incredibly exciting to be able to add to the tapestry of the story with more information. And, my favorite part of all was working with Don Hahn, he is a king among men: supportive, thoughtful, creative, and kind. He made my team and I feel like we were as much a part of the movie as he was!!

The most challenging aspect of doing the special features was creating the audio commentary. Usually that’s a rather simple process, the talent records their commentary, perhaps twice, and we edit together the best material. But, Don challenged us to add some of his archival interviews with the players from the film: Roy E. Disney, Jeffrey Katzenberg, filmmakers, animators. Weaving them into his and Peter Schneider’s commentary in a fluid way, making sure they were adding new information not heard in the film, and marrying it to the picture – that was a challenge! I think Matt Levitz, the producer/editor who handled that, did an amazing job, and I know Don was happy with the end result.

Animag Online: How does doing special features for an animated movie differ from working on a live-action movie?

Gross: Special features for animated films do need to be approached differently. First, there’s not really a “set,” per se. There are voice sessions, which we shoot, and it’s critically important that we cover the sessions without getting in the way, making noise, or distracting the voice talent or filmmakers in any way.

Then, there’s the technology angle. New ways to create animated films are cropping up constantly, and each film we’ve worked on has had its own unique technology story to tell. Often, these are scientific, or math-driven (with complex algorithms) elements to how the animation is created. These stories need to be told, but in a way the viewer can understand. I do not mean “dumbing it down,” by the way, something I totally don’t believe in. These behind-the-scenes stories need to be smart, entertaining, and understandable. That’s a tall order, and I like to think it’s something the team at L.E.G. is especially adept at. Some examples are how CG water was created for Finding Nemo, how Coraline was shot with special perspectives in 3D, and how the creative team for Surf’s Up put their virtual world inside a real camera, so you could actually put the camera on your shoulder and look in the viewfinder and move within the animated world. That kind of inventiveness is so exciting, and it’s always fun to find the best way to tell these stories.

Another difference is that animated films take so much longer to make than live action films do. If you’re really lucky, your time as the behind-the-scenes producer nurtures a feeling that you are part of the crew, and gives you special insights into the filmmakers and their process, which then can be reflected in the materials created for the DVD. Also, there are friendships I’ve created on these films that will last a lifetime.

Animag Online: What are some of the animated movies you’ve done bonus features for? Do you have a favorite?

Gross: We’ve been privileged to work on TV specials, EPK’s and DVD/Blu-ray bonus features on so many animated films, both new productions and re-released classics like Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Pinocchio, Bambi, 101 Dalmations and Yellow Submarine, to name just a few. We worked on Coraline, 9, Surf’s Up, Open Season 2, Finding Nemo, Toy Story 2, A Bug’s Life, Monsters, Inc., Tinker Bell, Lilo and Stitch, Dinosaur, Spirited Away, My Neighbor Totoro, and many others. We’ve probably worked on well over 100 animated titles.

I do actually have four favorite projects, and while I love almost everything we work on, these are the absolute favorites: Toy Story 2, Surf’s Up, Coraline, and The Beatles Anthology. Obviously, The Beatles Anthology was not an animated project, but it will always be my favorite project ever. I had worked with The Beatles as solo artists since I started in this business, and when they brought me on for the Anthology, I got to work with them within the context of The Beatles as a group. It was beyond a dream come true. I love their music, I love them, and that Beatles Anthology team was small, tight, and at the risk of sounding cliched, a family. It was a joyous experience for 18 months, and of course there was hard work with lots of stress as these things always have, but overall, it was the most amazing experience of my career.

Toy Story 2 was incredible. John Lasseter personally requested us, and I learned so much from him, as you can imagine. The biggest lesson, probably, was that no matter what the technology, cool factor, color palette, look, the most important thing in an animated film is Story, Story, Story. And, everything else should be in service of the story. I also learned how important tiny details are while watching John and his Pixar magicians create this beautiful film. Even a speck of dust in the back corner of Andy’s bedroom was not too small for John to notice, comment on, and often improve upon. He, like Don Hahn, was also so inclusive of me and my team when we worked on Toy Story 2. He made us feel welcome and valued. I knew it was quite a compliment, and I will always treasure the opportunity I had to work with him.

Surf’s Up was just so damn much fun! I loved the filmmakers, Chris Jenkins, Chris Buck, and Ash Brannon. They were wildly creative, the film was so unique and brilliant, and again, I was made to feel like a welcome collaborator. I am still friends with each of the guys, and I love what I learned from them and the time I got to share on their movie. Also, Surf’s Up won Best Kids’ DVD!

Finally, Coraline was also one of my top fave films. Henry Selick is another absolutely brilliant filmmaker. Every single nuance of the film was put under his microscope with love and attention. It is mind-blowing to work on a stop-motion film and go from set to set with these incredible miniature characters, sets, clothes, props. The detail on these teeny, tiny elements, down to the buttons on Coraline’s rain jacket, are just so well thought out and executed. I often spent the day in awe of these amazing artists who created this world. I also got to work with the author of the book, Coraline, Neil Gaiman, who has such a unique creative mind. I loved all my interviews with him, because I always learned something. And, he reminds me of John Lennon, which is another plus!

Animag Online: At what point in a movie’s production cycle do you usually begin working on bonus features and how long does it typically take to finish such a project?

Gross: There is no typical answer to when we get involved in a movie’s production, because it varies with each film. So, I’ll say that the best way to do this is to get involved very early in the production, so that you can really document the process and find the behind-the-scenes stories as they unfold. You discover so many things while you’re filming, and if you’re there early, you can plan to continue shooting in order to tell some of the story gems you discover. A perfect example is Finding Nemo. We always knew that the creation of CG water was going to be a big technical story, but when I was shooting the animators, many of them told me how challenging it was to create emotions in animated fish, because they had no hands, shoulders, eyebrows; the body parts animators use to show what a character is thinking. Basically, one of the animators told me, the fish are tubes with eyes. How they met this challenge became one of our behind-the-scenes stories, and it was great.

As to how long it takes, we’ve been given material and had only weeks to work on it, and we’ve been on productions from almost the beginning through the Awards season. We worked for four years on both Coraline and 9. When the studio sent a messenger to finally pick up the 400-plus tapes we’d shot on Coraline, I literally cried. I loved the project so much, and it had been such a big part of my life for so long, I couldn’t believe it was over! I rushed to my computer with tears in my eyes and e-mailed Henry Selick about the emotions I was feeling, and he immediately answered, “Wow, four years and 400 tapes, that’s certainly a milestone!”

Animag Online: How closely do you work with the studio on the bonus features and how do you decide what the features are going to be on any given project?

Gross: Again, there is no typical answer to this question, so I’ll give you the best case scenario. The studio is the boss, but the best executives at the studios are benevolent bosses who hire their vendors for their ideas and creativity, so they usually let us come up with suggested ideas. Also, the filmmakers are a huge part of this process, and usually strategize with us on what stories should be covered. After all, who knows the ins and outs of the films better than they do? Once the filmmakers and our team have agreed on concepts we present that list to the studio. Then, budgets, space on the disc, creative feedback all join forces to whittle down, change, or add to that list to come up with the final features. Every now and then, though, something new just happens, like magic, and it gets added at the last minute. For instance, when we were doing the interviews for Waking Sleeping Beauty, Kirk Wise (co-director of Beauty and the Beast) and Rob Minkoff (co-director of The Lion King) ran into each other as Kirk’s interview was finishing and Rob’s was about to begin. They were so happy to see each other, and started reminiscing about their friendship, so I asked how long they’d known each other, and found out they were friends in junior high school, and used to come home and draw cartoons together, even making an animated short at the age of about 14!! I was so giddy with this hidden gem of information that I asked Kirk to stay so we could interview the two of them about their long history. Rob and Kirk both went through their personal archives to find me drawings from that time, and the result is the DVD Bonus Feature, A Reunion.

Animag Online: Do you have any interesting or funny stories about making bonus features that you can share?

Gross: Wow, probably too many to count! With Surf’s Up, we went to Malibu Beach with about 100 of the animators and artists as they had surfing lessons. We were shooting them getting out there, falling off of their boards, trying again, and Rob Machado, who is a surfing champion and voiced himself (well, his animated penguin self) in the film, was just gliding through all these surfing/falling filmmakers! It was almost like he was a bowling ball and they were the pins. Priceless!

When we record the voice sessions for animated films, we usually record the real session from behind the glass, and then have the talent do some mock-ups for us so we can move around them and not worry about distracting them or being silent. This way, we can get close-ups, interesting dynamic shots, etc. and not disrupt the process. At this point, sometimes the directors leave, because they have so much work to do on the movie. But, for Toy Story 2, our first session was with Tom Hanks and Tim Allen, and John Lasseter told me he was going to continue to record dialogue, just in case anything magic happened during the mock-ups. This is a brilliant strategy, because actors are used to playing to the camera, and sometimes its presence actually adds to their performance. John stayed and directed them, Tom and Tim were hilarious, brilliant, lively, and when our portion was finished, John came up to me and said, “No question, Laura, some of that material will be in the film.” And, it was! I most particularly noted when Woody finds all the old toys and laughs about the bubble maker. It was so exciting to have been a part of not only the behind-the-scenes, but a teeny tiny bit of the filmmaking, itself!

And, during the Anthology, we had a hard time pinning Paul, George and Ringo down to dates to do their first interviews. I just knew once one of them set a time, the others would want the same day … and I was almost right. Paul wanted to do his interview in New York on a Thursday, and George decided to do his in London on the next day, Friday. So, I literally reserved a seat on every flight from JFK to Heathrow for Thursday evening, and the minute Paul’s interview was done I ran down to a waiting car to take me to the airport. I got to my hotel in London at about 11 a.m., enough time for a quick shower and then I rushed to Apple (The Beatles’ offices) for my 1 p.m. call time. I kept mentioning to George things Paul had said the day before when he asked me, quite bemused, “How could you have seen Paul yesterday? Isn’t he in New York?” When I told him yes, and about my crazy flight situation, he was shocked. “I’d have changed my interview time, Laura, I’m so sorry. You must be exhausted!” No one had even considered asking him to change his schedule, and it’s a testament to what a truly kind man he was that he would have done so happily. I really miss George Harrison!

There are so many amazing stories, and above I highlighted some from my favorite projects, but briefly I’ll add a few more:

I got to dance with Prince Charming on the Princess stage at Disneyland when we filmed a dance lesson for Cinderella 3. What girl wouldn’t love that??

I sat in a movie theatre with a crowd full of people watching Jordin Sparks on screen hosting the pre-show for the Beauty and the Beast sing-along that we had produced and directed. To hear people laugh, sing and enjoy the piece was such a thrill, because usually our work is viewed in homes, and I don’t get to experience the audience response.

I had a different kind of thrill, sort of a terror/thrill, when a panther got loose on set when we were filming behind-the-scenes for The Jungle Book 2 live action. He was stalking us, and fortunately his trainer got to him before he got to me and my crew!

But, the absolutely best part of being behind-the-scenes on all of these films is to capture the amazing work the filmmakers and animators create every day. It truly is magic, and in my opinion, is the equivalent of filming someone like Picasso as he paints.

Animag Online: What bonus feature projects are you working on now, and can you give us any teasers about what to expect?

Gross: While I can’t name any projects because of confidentiality, I can say that the new direction/challenge is to create bonus materials in 3D. I’ve been meeting with many 3D crews and editors, and I’ve seen some breathtaking work, and I’m excited about this new avenue to tell behind-the-scenes stories.