Author, Publisher, Developer, Stitchcoder


Disney Animated

This was first posted on the Touch Press blog:

I came to Disney late in life. Well, OK, let’s not beat around the bush here, my parents flat out banned Disney in the house while I was growing up. So it was a bit of a surprise when it became clear that I was going to spend nearly a year studying and writing about the past and present of the Walt Disney Animation Studios, for an app to be published in partnership with Disney.

I had some inkling over the years that my parents’ attitudes towards Disney might be slightly off base. Indeed my own kids had plenty of Disney around, though due not to any great enthusiasm on my part, but rather to my general laissez-faire attitude towards parenting. But when I started studying and reading deeply on the subject, I discovered something quite wonderful. As always, behind polished facades, there are gears and levers, and remarkable people.

Perhaps those who grew up with the legendary figure of Walt Disney take him for granted more than I can, having become steeped in his life, his company, and his persona only as an adult. But he was there, playing a central role in the creation of a genuinely new art form.

“Inventing a new art form” is such a cliché: What self-respecting modern artist hasn’t claimed that achievement for themselves? But the development of animation as a storytelling medium isn’t a little twig branching off somewhere far out in the esoterica of conceptual art. It’s a soaring limb diverging very near the roots of the human desire to communicate.

One of those great branches, literature, is distinguished by the ability to weave narratives without limits. Authors can tell of fantastical things without regard to production budgets or the laws of physics: It costs no more to describe a graceful villa with terraces spilling down into an azure sea, than to write about a garden shack purchased at the local home improvement center.

Another branch, the theater and its evolution into motion pictures, can tell stories with images and actions that, when done well, touch the soul as deeply as any writing, and often with more direct force (and to a wider spectrum of humanity) than the written word. But theater by and large is restricted to depicting stories with human actors, and even motion pictures have historically been limited by the need to film real places, or re-create them at fantastic expense.

Animation for the first time in human history broke that dichotomy. Animators have the freedom to tell long-form narrative stories on any topic, no matter how fantastical, using the visual language of performance. Think about it: That really was not possible before the invention of sustained-length animated films in the early 1900s. You had to choose: Either paint pictures metaphorically with words, or hire human actors (and maybe the occasional camel) to tell your story on stage.

But…Disney? Yes, Disney. Although Disney-bashing is a popular pastime, the fact is that Walt Disney and his brother Roy executed with determination a breathtaking vision for the future of animation, and they deserve credit for that no less than the contemporaries of theirs whose efforts were not rewarded with the same popular success.

Creating Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937 was art on an industrial scale. It was the Manhattan Project of drawing, and remains to this day one of the greatest concentrations of human effort, ingenuity, sweat and tears ever assembled with the simple goal of telling an old story in a new way.

It’s easy to dismiss those who enjoy great commercial success as somehow of lesser artistic merit, but this is a mistake. Walt Disney and the team he assembled started with nothing, failed repeatedly, and finally put together enough money and enough guts to bet everything they had on the dream of making a full-color, fully animated, full-length feature film. And what they created was a good film by any standard, as remarkable for the lengths gone to create is as for the fact that those measures were made invisible to the audience by its compelling and beautiful story telling.

All of which is by way of saying that I think the story of animated films, how they are made, where they come from, what goes into creating one, and how Disney in particular goes about its business, is a subject worthy of being written about. Maybe that’s obvious to many, but hey, I’m working through some childhood trauma here, give me a chance to catch up.

When Disney (more specifically the Disney Interactive Entertainment division of that multi-headed corporation) came to Touch Press seeking to discuss an interactive app about animation, we naturally paid attention. And not just because Disney is, well, Disney, but also because animation is a subject matter that cries out for the Touch Press treatment.

This is an intimidating topic to approach. There are quite literally thousands of books that have been written on the subject, some of them very good indeed, told by fine writers and by the animators who were there at the beginning (sometimes combined in the same individuals, as in the case of Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston’s beautiful work The Illusion of Life: Disney Animation).

But there’s a fundamental issue when you’re writing about animation in a paper format. The laws of physics dictate that you can’t tap the images. Swiping them is utterly pointless, because they simply and stubbornly do not move. Which is a big problem because many of the images in question not only have movement as an integral part of their nature, but indeed as the fundamental reason for their existence. The very definition of animation is images that move.

The promise of Disney Animated is that it is a serious work about the history and present day practice of making animated feature films, in which the medium is finally able to speak for itself, where every image from every film is in fact a short clip, complete with sound, music, and life. (Except, of course, for those images or objects that call for different treatment, like background paintings zoomable down to the brush strokes, or animation maquettes you can spin with your finger.)

It’s difficult to exaggerate just how difficult that turns out to be. Making a similar print book would have been a walk in the park compared to the logistical, technical, and licensing obstacles to creating the first in-depth, comprehensive interactive telling of the story of animation. (Enough said on these obstacles, because the details of that process, much like that of sausage making, is no topic for polite conversation, and there are still a few raw nerves left exposed to the cleansing sandpaper of release day.)

Aside from creating a book-where-the-pictures-move, we decided early on that we needed to address another aspect of animation: That it is at heart a craft skill to be learned with the hands. You can read about animators at work all you like, but you will not start to feel close to them until you try your own hand at their craft.

But animation is hard. Even simply drawing a good figure in a fixed pose is nearly impossible for many people. (For example, me. I could not draw my way off the edge of a sheet of paper to save my life.) So, because we had no intention of trying to teach animation in a serious way, we tried instead to design interactive experiences that distilled some essences of the process so that it could be experienced even by people with no sense of draftsmanship.

A bouncing ball, for example, can be controlled by sliding individual frames up or down, adjusting the timing without needing to draw anything. This elegantly, I think, makes the point that for master animators, it’s really not about the drawing, it’s about the timing. Indeed some of the best animators of all time were known for their inability to draw anything “on model”. The brilliance of their sketches wasn’t in the shape of the figure, it was in the life they instilled in the movement of their awkward sketches.

The modern world of computer graphics animation is robustly represented by a fully rigged character model, Vanellope from Wreck-It Ralph, which the reader can pose with complete flexibility, distributing key poses along a timeline to create complete animated sequences.

Although I have spent decades working with computer graphics and computer animation from the technical side, I have never tried actually animating a human figure before I started testing early versions of the app. It was a delight to see this strange misshapen creature (the app I mean, not poor Vanellope) slowly shape up into a delightful tool that I hope will inspire a wide range of creative expression by our readers. (Who can share their work both as video files and as editable files that can be loaded into the app for further work and collaboration.)

Which brings me to the final reason for creating this app, beyond my interest in the topic and its natural suitability to the medium. I was privileged over the course of months to visit the Walt Disney Animation Studios many times and talk to the top animators, artists, directors, and technicians working there. (It’s probably a good thing that I didn’t really know who some of these people were until after I’d interviewed them, because it could have been intimidating had I realized just who exactly they were letting me talk to!)

I asked all of them the same question: Why did you get into the animation business? It was striking that in nearly every case, the answer was a book. For many it was Frank & Ollie’s Illusion of Life, for others it was The Art of Walt Disney (named by John Lasseter in a new foreword as his reason for choosing to spend his life in animation), or one of the many other fine books of this kind.

During the early stages of defining this project, when it was very unclear what exactly the subject matter would be, whether it might focus on a particular film, or perhaps be mostly historical, I wrote an email to the senior executives sponsoring the project in which I laid out a simple goal. I said that this app should be the answer to that very question for the generation of animators who today are seeing it as children, and who don’t yet know that they are the future animators, artists, technicians, and perhaps studio heads who usher this art form into its second century.

I hope we’ve created something worthy of such an ambition, but whether we have done it or not, it has been a remarkable ride, and one I would not trade for anything, with the possible exception of a day off.