Sunday, March 21, 2010

Waking Sleeping Beauty - Special Screening at BAM

On jolly green St. Patrick's day, I was in New York again, weaving through a sea of barely-legal drunk people dressed as leprechauns and other lucky blokes.

Blokes.. I don't know why I got all British just then, please excuse that.

I window-shopped around in the morning in the fashion district, and thought about putting together a bogus photography project called "I want to be a mannequin." I'd need a nicer camera and a little more direction, perhaps.

At any rate, I was there not to get drunk, but to make my way around town people-watching during the day, eating appetizers at my favorite spots, and making my way over to the much quieter Brooklyn for the evening hours to enjoy a very special presentation at BAM: a screening of Waking Sleeping Beauty intro'd and followed by a Q&A by the director, Don Hahn, the producer, Peter Schneider, and the writer, Patrick Pacheco.

The film was wonderful, with humor-filled but very touching narrations, news clips, and even home movies shot on the Disney campus illegally. There were very few if any talking heads, just a voice over storyteller and a lot of original archival footage. Don's direction relied on the idea that the audience would forgive grainy footage as long as they felt engaged, and at least for me and the audience I sat in that night, that theory was all too true. Apparently Disney was all too happy with the production of the documentary and not only approved but also provided distribution of the film. For anyone not in-the-know, it is about the comeback years after being beaten out by a CareBears movie, all the way until computers started coming onto the scene (and before all the traditional animators were ultimately fired). For ten years, people pulled together and recreated the sense of magic originally discovered and popularized by Walt Disney. It had been a few hard years that no one really wanted to bury the dead, making executive decisions based almost solely on "what Walt would've done." The rising action occurs with the late Roy Disney and the addition of Jeffrey Katzenberg, Michael Eisner, and greats like the late and clearly amazing Howard Ashman and of course animators like Glen Keane and all the rest. The film is as much or more about relationships and the business and politics of animation than the art of animation itself, but it was all held together by the desire to do something great, to lift up the company and to survive. It's a fantastic, inspiring story in that way.

See a clip from the movie at the Animation World Network:

Don and Peter stayed for a Q&A period after the show, introducing Patrick as the outside journalist they hired to help balance the writing and shaping of the story the two of them knew so well. They all spoke fondly about Howard and his heartbreaking story as well as how key he was to the rebirth of Disney in the early 90s. They also shared how special and emotional it was having Roy's last interview on camera included in this movie. They talked about Michael Eisner not wanting to do a current interview, but lending ideas and older interview tapes to be included.

One interesting question was if the magic of Disney was still alive for them, having seen the internal struggles and ugliness of the business, and they responded with a resounding yes, that especially seeing and hearing an audience react to their creations is what reinvigorates the magic for them and encourages them to keep moving forward. Don answered, "You never get tired of that, even though you're a magician of sorts, and you know all the trick work. You never get tired of going out in front of an audience and hearing them go 'wow!' And that's very much the same thing with animation. And I still marvel that it works."

They also addressed the new age of Disney since Bob Iger made the deal with Pixar, and how the culture has been quite good in the past few years now that John Lasseter is back working both studios, translating Pixar's success and happy-go-lucky feel into the Disney environment, making for a really good time for animation. This is especially true because Don credits John as being "the biggest proponent of 2d animation on the planet" despite his ironic and historic career in computer graphics animation. Aside from Princess And The Frog, there is apparently a Winnie the Pooh feature in the works, so traditional animation may be on the rise again. But as Don said and as many agree, it isn't about the technique nearly as much as it is about the story.

Another question was if there were any problems they encountered making this movie in terms of Disney not wanting to show bits and pieces of their internal strife. Don also answered that there were times the three of them wondered if the film would see the light of day, but also that part of Disney's legacy is preserving its history, and that was well recognized during the making of the film, which allowed the inclusion of even the illegally-recorded home movies on the Disney campus shot by folks like John Lasseter. They had to call in a lot of favors, asking for these hidden gems, including an Apocalypse now reenactment involving nerf-style weapons, which the animators did in the early days after Walt's death, thinking the studio might go under. Mothers sent in news reports taped off of television in which Jeffrey in the limelight got mauled by a lion during a promotional shoot. Animators and directors submitted controversial caricatures, including one of Howard roasting someone during a meeting, and other caricatures which were popularly drawn around the studio - especially during caricature shows that were encouraged on April Fool's Day and would result in 400-500 public drawings. The shows served almost like a hazing ritual, in which case, if you didn't show up, you really didn't want to see the extent of wicked ways your colleagues would depict you. Moreso than from the Disney company, they had a lot of internal debate about what should be included in the film, such as Eisner jokingly wanting a better introduction at a eulogy, Roy not allowing Michael to promote Jeffrey, emotional warring over getting and giving credit, and other uncomfortable moments. And as Patrick pointed out, "Hollywood is just high school with money," so there were a lot of those moments.

They talked about union compensation as well as voice over royalties a bit, such as how one line out of a little Blueberry character in A Bug's Life translated into staggering residuals of around $27,000.

They also addressed Disney's chapter turn in 1994, citing Michael Eisner's heart attack, the earthquake knocking out the studio, creating Lion King in garages and basements, Lion King grossing a billion dollars in the box office, Frank's death, Jeffrey leaving Disney, and the subsequent money/bidding wars with animators being stolen away to emerging competing studios as Disney's time as a monopoly came to an end. Therefore, they felt that this point in time would be a good place to end their documentary.

Small snippet of the Q&A:

I was able to capture a little video on my phone about the three of them chatting about making the film. Also I made a point to catch Don and thank him for his eye-opening documentary, and win some encouragement from him as well: I had gone into a bookstore earlier in the day and picked up a $3 Little Mermaid Golden Book, which he signed, "To Laura - Enjoy, & Keep Animating! Your Pal, Don Hahn." Peter also scribbled his name on it as they were all leaving for a late dinner. I was so very lucky to see this, and would encourage everyone to try to make it to a local screening. It's an enlightening piece of animation history you don't want to miss.

No comments: