The Tradition Lives On
Issue: Volume: 33 Issue: 1 (Jan. 2010)

The Tradition Lives On

When Walt Disney Animation Studios quit making 2D animated features in favor of films made with 3D computer graphics, it signaled, for many people, the death of that traditional medium. Ironically, directors Ron Clements and John Musker—who were the first directors at Disney to use 3D computer graphics in a film (for the clockworks climax in The Great Mouse Detective), and the first to use CAPS, a computer-aided production system developed by Pixar and Disney for 2D films (for the next to last shot in The Little Mermaid)—have become the first directors to bring traditional animation back to Disney.

Although background painters created the lush environments using Adobe’s Photoshop, they did so one brush stroke at a time, much as they might have done using oil paints and watercolors.

The directing duo’s latest film, The Princess and the Frog, is the first traditionally animated feature created at Disney in five years. It’s entirely hand-drawn. Entirely hand-drawn, that is, with a little help from computer graphics: Toon Boom Animation’s Harmony replaced CAPS, which is in semi-retirement, as the production system; Autodesk’s Maya helped set designers build reference models; Side Effects Software’s Houdini created some particle effects; Adobe’s Photoshop provided tools for background painters; and that company’s After Effects helped enliven those paintings. But all, very subtly.
Fairy-tale Frogs
The idea for the film had been rolling around Disney and Pixar for some time before John Lasseter, chief creative officer at Pixar and Disney Animation, had asked Clements and Musker to put their spin on the story. “We took elements from the Disney and the Pixar versions,” Clements says, “and pitched it to John [Lasseter] and Ed Catmull [president of Walt Disney and Pixar Animation Studios] as an American fairy tale/musical set in New Orleans’s French Quarter in the 1920s jazz age, and as a hand-drawn animation, with Randy Newman doing the music. There’s a kind of romance and warmth and magic to hand-drawn animation.”

Using plug-ins and scripts, Disney’s R&D team incorporated color-blending and other techniques into Harmony from the studio’s semi-retired, in-house computer-aided production system (CAPS).

Musker believes that this film, in particular, is appropriate for 2D animation. “People have struggled with human characters in CG,” he says. “But human characters are one of the strengths of hand-drawn animation. And, drawings and paintings helped us accomplish the lyrical, romantic, warm, organic nature of the bayou.”

In the story, a young African-American woman, Tiana [Anika Noni Rose], works hard to save money to open her own restaurant. One day, a frog appears on her windowsill. He’s a prince from a faraway country who, while visiting New Orleans, tangled with a bad voodoo priest who turned him into a frog. Believing that Tiana is a princess, he persuades her to kiss him and break the spell. But, she isn’t a princess, and the spell backfires. She turns into a frog, and the two become lost in the bayou.

“They’re a mismatched couple,” Musker says, “like Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable in It Happened One Night. Only he’s more the Claudette Colbert character: rich, with not much sense of reality. She’s the blue-collar person who has worked all her life.”

Borrowing a technique from CG films, the directors moved beyond filming storyboards with dialog: They created animatics with Toon Boom’s Harmony and Photoshop to evaluate staging and lighting.

2D Redux
Once they received the green light, the directors began looking for animators who could draw 2D performances. “Because hand-drawn animation was gone, it was almost like building the studio again,” Clements says. “Some of the 2D artists had become 3D stars, but many had left. Yet, just about everybody who did draw wanted to come back. We put together an all-star team of animators.”
In addition to current and former Disney animators, the production crew, which topped 300 at its peak, included recent graduates from the California Institute of the Arts. “They had studied hand-drawn animation without knowing if they’d have a place to apply their learning, and they blossomed into real talent,” Musker says.

Clements adds, “With this type of animation, you have to work with a mentor to learn how to do it and get proficient. It’s a craft and an art that requires a lot of dedication. But, there’s an intuitive connection about drawing, from the brain to the hand to paper, that people miss with computer animation. With just the flip of a pencil, you can change an expression. That casual interaction is much tougher with 3D.”

With Lasseter’s encouragement, though, the directors borrowed a process that Pixar uses in creating its 3D animated features: layout animatics. Before with traditional animation, they would film the storyboards and add the dialog track to see the film before they began animating. This time, they added staging and lighting.  

“We took the storyboards to the next step,” Musker says. “We added camera moves and compositing. We wanted to know if the composition was strong enough to carry the idea quickly, so we composed all our shots in black and white to see the values. Being able to evaluate that in real time, with real lights and darks, was a valuable step.”

To give painters perspective reference, set designers built non-organic objects in Autodesk’s Maya and printed those 3D models so the painters could draw over them.

Kim Keech, technical supervisor, explains that the layout artists created the animatics using Harmony and Photoshop. In-house tools then linked individual scenes created in those programs to entire sequences.

Effects artists also worked directly with Harmony; however, layout, character animation including all the in-betweens, and cleanup all originated on paper.

“We didn’t have any automatic in-betweens,” says Marlon West, visual effects supervisor. “We have been doing early development on automatic in-betweening, but we did this film just like we would have done before.” One change: For this film, all the animators had a desktop scanner to scan in their own drawings and composite an animation test at any stage they wanted.

What’s Old Is New Again
For painting and compositing the approved drawings, the studio enhanced Harmony with plug-ins and by using the program’s scripting capability. “Harmony comes with a set of plug-ins and compositing nodes, but we have the capability of developing our own, and the interface allowed that, so we developed a dozen or more plug-ins in-house,” Keech says.

In addition, the studio asked Toon Boom to incorporate some new tools. “We asked them to implement the color picker and some functions we had in CAPS for color styling,” Keech points out.

The technical team at Disney also created plug-ins to mimic the look they had gotten from CAPS. “Because we have people in production who would say, ‘I wish the software could do things like CAPS did,’ we used the CAPS technology in our plug-ins to get a similar look, so the film would look more like a Disney movie,” Keech says, adding, “I was a CAPS developer, so it was nice to see 2D
come back.”

Using the plug-ins Disney developed, colors in Harmony blend from one region to another on the characters’ cheeks, for example, as they did in the CAPS system, with a soft, rather than a hard, line. The effects teams also asked for plug-ins. In their case, they wanted to reproduce CAPS’ “turbulence.” “It’s a noise that moves slow or fast that we got used to for rain or mist,” West says. And compositors requested plug-ins that imitated Shake functions.

A Touch of 3D

In addition to Harmony, the effects team, in particular, created some 3D elements. “We wanted this film to look handcrafted,” West says. “But there are some fireflies and some vehicle wheels that are 3D, and some 3D doors open and shut in Maya. But, it’s a very, very understated use of 3D.”

Maya also worked in the background. Set designers built the non-organic parts of the film—the buildings, vehicles and other structures—in 3D to give the painters perspective reference for paintings. “In the old days, we would have built models and photographed them,” West says. Instead, the painters printed the 3D models and then drew over them.

 “The background paintings were 99 percent handcrafted,” West says. “They were done in Photoshop, but they were drawn or inked or painted one stroke at a time. The painters applied every brush stroke as they would with a regular painting.” In addition, the effects team sometimes used the puppet tool in After Effects to move trees and leaves, and help bring the background paintings alive.  

By feeding their drawings into Harmony using desktop scanners, animators could easily see animation tests for their hand-drawn characters at any time during the process.

“The challenge was to not have a hybrid movie,” West says. “I thought Atlantis and Tarzan were really cool, and I don’t see a problem with integrating digital elements into a hand-drawn film. But the architects of this film wanted an old-school 2D film like Bambi or Lady and the Tramp.”

The directors and the crew believe the return to the rich look of the 2D films of the 1950s will be a novelty for children of the 21st century. “A lot of television animation has moved into stylized graphics,” Musker says. “We felt there was something about the fullness of characters in hand-drawn films that children haven’t seen on a big screen with this caliber of dimensional drawing and atmospheric landscapes.”

Adds Clement: “We’re kind of recapturing and reinventing at the same time.”

The same was true of the studio itself.

“There was a real desire to make a lush, beautiful, entertaining, hand-drawn film even though [traditional] animation had been pronounced dead,” West says. “It wasn’t dead to any of us. So, it was nice to have another time at bat. When the opportunity came to make this film, I had to participate. It was a wonderful experience­—the return of co-workers and good friends. I wouldn’t have missed it for anything.”