Monday, October 10, 2011

Walt's People - Volume 11

Didier Ghez is still going strong with his Walt's People series, a collection of interviews that shed light on Walt Disney's work and his legacy. Volume 11 has just been released and features, among many others, a phone interview I conducted with Andreas Deja and Mark Henn when I wrote for Animated News (now Animated Views -

Here's the impressive list of interviews contained in this latest volume:

  • Foreword: John Canemaker
  • Didier Ghez: Ruthie Tompson
  • Christopher Finch & Linda Rosenkrantz: Walt Pfeiffer
  • John Culhane: Shirley Temple
  • John Culhane: I. Klein
  • Peter Hansen: Basil Reynolds
  • Christopher Finch & Linda Rosenkrantz: Eric Larson
  • John Culhane: John Hubley
  • Robin Allan: Jules Engel
  • Darrell Van Citters: Ed Love
  • Darrell Van Citters: Mike Lah
  • JB Kaufman: Frank Thomas
  • Dave Smith: Carl Nater
  • John Culhane: John Hench
  • John Canemaker: Ward Kimball
  • Dave Smith: Ward Kimball
  • Didier Ghez: Frank Armitage
  • Robin Allan: Ray Aragon
  • Didier Ghez: Ray Aragon
  • Gord Wilson: Jacques Rupp
  • David Tietyen: George Bruns
  • John Canemaker: Dale Oliver
  • John Canemaker: Iwao Takamoto
  • John Canemaker: Richard Williams
  • Charles Solomon: Brad Bird
  • Alberto Becattini: Don R. Christensen
  • Jim Korkis: Tom Nabbe
  • Dave Smith: Roger Broggie
  • Didier Ghez: David Snyder
  • Didier Ghez: Carl Bongirno
  • John Culhane: Daniel MacManus
  • John Culhane: Ted Kierscey
  • John Canemaker: Glen Keane
  • Didier Ghez: Joe Hale
  • Jérémie Noyer: Mark Henn
  • Christian Ziebarth: Andreas Deja and Mark Henn
  • Didier Ghez: Ed Catmull

Reprinted here with permission is an excerpt from the interview of Ed Catmull conducted by Didier. It covers some interesting historical points about the acquisition of Pixar by Disney and the fact that the Pixar people never actually wanted to see hand-drawn animation go away, contrary to the opinion of so many people who thought Pixar was trying to destroy hand-drawn animation.

DG: Talking about Frank Thomas, Frank in 1984 wrote an article about computer animation. Did you ever read that article? Did you ever have a chance to discuss that with him?

EC: No, I didn't know about it. He came up and he visited us at Lucasfilm in the early ‘80s. John [Lasseter] had invited Frank and Ollie to come up and give a talk. The thing that really impressed me was how energetic they were. They said they wished they were young again, because this was the kind of energy they felt in the early days at Disney. Then he signed my book. What he said in it was, "Good luck, we need you." It was a really gracious note. It meant a lot to me when he wrote that.

DG: So then your next contact with Disney was on the CAPS system. I was wondering who approached whom to discuss CAPS with Pixar?

EC: What happened there was that when Roy [E. Disney] returned to Disney after the hostile takeover, they brought in Michael [Eisner] and Jeffrey [Katzenberg]. Roy wanted to revitalize hand-drawn animation. At that time animation didn't mean anything to either Michael or Jeffrey. They had just inherited it. It wasn't until The Little Mermaid that they actually got how valuable it was. And that changed everything. Roy knew that Walt was in favor of using technology. So Roy said, "The world of computers is new—let’s bring technology into animation," leading Disney to examine the possibility of using the computer to help paint the cels. They approached us and others. I believe they used Al Barr, who was a professor at Caltech—he is still a professor there—as an advisor to help work their way through the technical issues. This is the point at which we were competing with others for writing the software. We had an advantage in that we had built a cel-painting system in the past. In addition, we had built a special-purpose computer, called the Pixar Image Computer, for processing film resolution images at high speeds. I think we did some little test, as I recall, then entered into a contract to write the software.

DG: I am going to skip over all of the years from Toy Story to 2005. Not because I am not interested in them, but because they have been documented in a lot of other books. What convinced you that Disney buying Pixar would be a good thing for Pixar? What discussions with Bob Iger did the trick?

EC: There are a couple of preparatory things leading up to that. One of them was that we were aware that in the long run we needed to have strong marketing, consumer products, and of course wanted presence in the parks. There were many capabilities that Disney had that we didn't have as a production company, and we were heading toward the end of our deal with Disney. Things were starting to get rocky largely because we would become Disney's biggest competitor at the end of this. We would also need to tie up with somebody else, or we would have to develop marketing and consumer products ourselves. That would have turned us into a different kind of company. No matter what happened, we were going to be subject to different kinds of stresses and strains. So really it was a matter of being practical about what was going to be good. The second consideration was the poor relationship between us and Michael Eisner. While we stayed completely out of the very public spat between Roy E. Disney and Michael, for obvious reasons, when it was done and Michael was gone, we got to know Bob Iger and found he was the polar opposite—a very different kind of leader. He was a different person than Eisner. That opened the door. Bob called Steve and they got to know each other. Then they negotiated a deal to release prime ABC content on iTunes. It went so well that John and I then met with Iger and were very impressed. The negotiations went well, although one of our main concerns was that the bureaucracy of Disney would accidentally roll over us. Because Iger had been through two acquisitions—one good and one bad—he was already sensitive to the problems that can happen when a big company buys a smaller one. A lot of our negotiations had to do with setting up mechanisms to protect the Pixar culture.

DG: Now the next step is to get the big success in a 2-D movie, right?

EC: That is tougher, because we didn't have other directors operating in parallel with Ron and John on 2-D. The result was that when The Princess and the Frog was done, we didn't have another major feature ready, although the company did want us to make another Winnie the Pooh, to try to get back to the quality of the original films. Over the years, people started to think of Winnie the Pooh as for kids only, so the challenge with Winnie the Pooh was to get people to associate it with the charm of the original rather than the later derivative material, which was poorer.

Meanwhile, Ron and John were working on something else, but they were basing it on a property that had ownership complications that ultimately prevented us from proceeding. So Ron and John had to restart and do something different. We are still in an iffy place here. It is one of those things where if The Princess and the Frog had not been put up against Avatar, we would be in a very different situation. I want to stress that the goal that John and I had was to bring Disney back to being at the top of animation again, and both of us wanted hand-drawn animation to be restored to its glory. I think we are well on our way to having Disney have its own sensibility and to being great, that I feel very good about, but I don't feel like we’ve arrived where we want to be with hand-drawn animation.

DG: When did you decide to launch that short program at Disney with great stuff like Goofy and How to Hook Up Your Home Theater, and things like that?

EC: Almost immediately we wanted to get a shorts program going. Since we had to put the 2-D pipeline back together again for hand-drawn animation, we started off with a Goofy short. Our hope was that the Goofy short would be successful and that we could continue to make them. We did find, though, that the Goofy shorts are from a somewhat different era. The humor and pacing from that time is different than current expectations and we didn’t turn it around. We made the Goofy short and we had a funny idea for another short, but we didn't get enough traction from How to Hook Up Your Home Theater to go on to the next one. Then, as you may know, we decided to re-cut a number of the earlier shorts, the Mickey Mouse shorts. We re-cut them to get better pacing and they played very well. It was a very successful program. We certainly had plans to do more things with Mickey Mouse. But we were so overwhelmed with things to do that we just couldn't put more energy into it. We do plan on making a theatrical short film with Mickey Mouse because we were presented with a brilliant idea.

Also available from Xlibris.

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