SDCC 2009: Disney Animation Round Three – Kirk Wise

08.18.09 8 years ago 2 Comments

Walt Disney Animation Studios

First, let me say that after listening to this tape again, I sort of took over this particular roundtable, and I feel bad that no one else asked… well… anything, pretty much.  I think Kirk Wise was the guy who the people at the table were least familiar with or who they had the fewest questions for, so I just did my best to keep the conversation going.  I thought Wise came across in person as very mellow and very fond of his job and his movie.  He also seemed perpetually amused by us, which is preferable to perpetually annoyed, I suppose.

At the actual animation panel, Wise screened the entire opening sequence from “Beauty And The Beast” in full-rendered 3D, and the results are sort of amazing.  It’s not just a matter of popping each layer of the animation out to a different plane, which would be the easy way of doing things.  Instead, they’ve tried to give the characters a rounded, dimensional appearance, and the results feel more organic than I would have expected for a movie that was retrofitted.

So by this point, we’ve had Hayao Miyazaki and John Lasseter talk to us, followed by Ron Musker and John Clements.  And as they get up to walk away, Kirk Wise steps up, checking out the array of recording equipment that’s been pushed to his side of the table.

Kirk Wise:  Hello?  Everybody good?  Everybody have their recording devices in place?  Excellent.

[more after the jump]

Drew McWeeny:  As you did the 3-D translation of the film, there is almost an inevitable urge when you revisit material that’s now almost 20 years old… so do you ever want to tinker and have to resist the urge?  Do you ever want to fix something or is there a character that you just want to…

As a filmmaker, you always feel like there’s something that you could have done better, but when you’re working on a movie you deal with the facts as they are on the ground, you know?  Making a movie is like a battle, and nothing ever goes quite as you’ve planned, and there are little bits and pieces of artwork here and there in every movie that I’ve worked on that you would love to tweak or change or maybe do a little bit differently.  But I don’t think it’s healthy to constantly revise and constantly try to make it perfect, because perfection is unobtainable.  And I think that some of the little things in the movie that kind of may not be perfect are part of its hand-crafted charm ultimately and, believe it or not, give it warmth.

Drew McWeeny:  I would say that filmmakers… you risk tampering with the thing that makes somebody love your film.  And if you don’t know what they responded to, you might change that by mistake.

Very possibly.

Question:  This isn’t going to be a Star Wars special edition version.  Gaston won’t shoot first, right?

Oh, God, no.

Drew McWeeny:  When you talk about directing an American version of, say, “Spirited Away,” what does that entail?  Because obviously you’re not re-directing anything visually… so you’re working with the voice cast?

Yes.  When I worked on “Spirited Away,” and that was 7 years ago, we took the original film.  We had a literal translation made, a literal English translation of the script made.  I worked very closely with the writers in the editing room with their script and watched the lip-sync trying to shape the dialogue to fit the animation, but also to make sure the dialogue… the biggest challenge was making sure that the dialogue still sounded like it had the rhythm of natural human speech.  And then the second part of that process was the casting and finding voices that really felt like they fit the personalities of those characters.  I listened to the Japanese track and even though I don’t speak a word of Japanese, it’s very evocative.  Just from listening to the original track, you can kind of divine the filmmaker’s intent and so I let that, in many cases, be my guide when directing the English sessions.

Drew McWeeny:  I’ve just always wondered about that process.  I’m also baffled when people say they won’t watch a dubbed animated film.  Aren’t all animated films technically dubbed?

[laughs]  Depends.  In Japan they post-dub everything, meaning that the animation is done first and the voices are done after.  In American animation typically, certainly at Disney, it’s the other way around.  We record all the voices first, and the animators animate to that soundtrack.

Drew McWeeny:  Right.  But even so, when you’re working with Ghibli, you’re not fundamentally altering anything.  It’s just that you are Westernizing to some extent.

Yeah.  We’re… again, on “Spirited Away,” we were trying to stay true to the spirit, if you will, of the original film, yet make sure that the experience wasn’t compromised.  And any line that sounded like the syntax was awkward or phrased in a way that made it obvious that we were just trying to cram the right amount of syllables into the character’s mouth, I wouldn’t use.  That sounds too much like “Speed Racer”, you know?  I always hated, even when I was a kid, seeing those old Japanese cartoons on TV where they would just add a completely superfluous “UGH!” or a “HUH?!” just to fit the amount of mouth movements.

Given the change in the Academy Awards nominations to include ten Best Picture nominations, and given the history of your work, how do you feel as an animator?  Do you feel now this is going to be a really golden opportunity for films that are, with the obvious exception of “Beauty and the Beast,” overlooked?  Is this is a great opportunity for them to finally be recognized by the industry?

Yeah.  You know, there’ve been so many great animated movies in the past 20 years since “Beauty and the Beast” came out that richly deserved the nomination for Best Picture.  A few off the top of my head would include “Spirited Away” and “The Incredibles,” in my opinion, which I thought was the best movie of that year.  So I think it’s great to open up the playing field a little bit, you know?  Might be sad for me.  I might lose my title as the director of the only animated feature to be nominated for Best Picture, but that’s fine.  I had a good run.

Question:  Well, you might be nominated for another one the second time around.

You never know.

Drew McWeeny:  We just talked to Musker and Clements about bringing hand animation back.  Would be you interested in doing another hand animated feature?

Absolutely.  If the opportunity presents itself, I would love to direct another traditional 2-D animated feature.

Drew McWeeny:  Would it depend on the material?

Yeah, it depends on the material and the timing.  In addition to working on “Beauty and the Beast,” I’m developing some other ideas.  I’m working with producer Don Hahn over on the main lot.  We’re actually… I’m working on a nature documentary, which is completely different.  It’s been fun.

Drew McWeeny:  Obviously… and again, this was something we just talked to them about… this is a very different age then when you did “Beauty and the Beast”.  There was no Internet.  There was no real community talking about things.

Very true.

Drew McWeeny:  What’s the response been to you guys bringing “Beauty and the Beast” back in 3-D and have you seen… do you sense real anticipation for this title being back in theatres?

I certainly do.  I think there’s a tremendous amount of affection for it out there in the marketplace.  I’m meeting people, or in some cases working with people, who saw this movie when they were kids.  And I’d be willing to bet that there are a lot of people who saw this movie who may have been in their early teens who are now parents and have kids of their own.  To be able to share it with the next generation of movie-goers, that’s a real gift.  Not a lot of movies have that kind of longevity, and I’m just so proud to have been associated with one that has.

Drew McWeeny:  It was an uncommon experience when those movies were coming out… “Aladdin” and “Beauty and the Beast,” in particular.  I went to the El Cap during those first weeks of the run, and it was like going to a Broadway show.  They were applauding and they would stand up and cheer each number, and it was a level of engagement I don’t think I’ve ever really seen in animated pictures or really live-action pictures.  Do you think that that type of experience can happen again?  Because it seems like there’s not that same moviegoing culture anymore…

It’s a good question.  I certainly hope that type of experience can happen again.  I think, to paraphrase the late Howard Ashman, what’s really, really great about Disney animated features that no other type of movie can deliver is this wonderful combination of action and adventure and romance and music.  Music that you can’t get out of your head for days.  And there’s something really unique about that and really special about that, and I personally hope it never goes away.  I hope that Disney animated movies in the future will be able… I hope there’s one out there that gets the same type of response that we got with “Beauty and the Beast”.

Drew McWeeny:  It’s amazing.  Those are still some of the best experiences I think I’ve ever had with a crowd.

Me, too.


I’ve got “Inglourious Basterds” reviews coming for you today, and the last of these Disney roundtables, as well as the Morning Read.  My computer may have made the start of today miserable, but I’m going to get all of this up for you anyway.

And next week?  A full week’s worth of coverage of the new Ricky Gervais film, “The Invention Of Lying.”  Can’t wait.

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