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Jump Cut

The Monthly Column on Film and Media Arts
for the
New England Entertainment Digest

By George T. Marshall, RIIFF Executive Director/CEO

 

(September 2006) I am writing this in the middle of the 10th Anniversary of the Rhode Island International Film Festival. The crowds have been steady and over 200 filmmakers have registered for the films screening during the week. Advance statistics indicate a minimum of four sell-outs. This year, counting some last minute additions, RIIFF will have screened 303 titles.

 

Filmmakers have come in from as far away as Australia and Germany. The Lifetime Achievement Award went to legendary actress, Cicely Tyson and RIIFF had the world premiere of her most recent film, “Fat Rose & Squeaky.” Local filmmaker, Michael Corrente was honored with an annual Creative Vision Award while a retrospective of his work took place at the local Showcase Cinema.


The opening night was rather unusual for a festival since it featured ten shorts covering a broad range of genres. The crowd of over 600 witnessed some amazing narrative work and several unusual animations. This year three of the shorts screened were animations, each coming with attached pedigrees.

One unusual piece was a film I wrote about last month in this column: “The Little Matchgirl.” I’ve received a fair amount of comments about the article and was asked questions which I could not answer. So, for our readers, here are some of those questions and the answers I received from the director and producer of this powerful new work from the Walt Disney Animation Studios.


Roger Allers is the director of “The Little Matchgirl,” and Don Hahn, the Producer. The film was made by the Walt Disney Animation Studios and the RIIFF screening on Tuesday. August 8, marked its East Coast premiere:


THE INTERVIEWS:


GTM: The production on this short film began in 2000, why does it take so long to complete an animated film?


Roger Allers: The initial production took about a year including storyboarding animation, effects, and final color. For three years after completion, Michael Eisner had us trying different endings (none of which to my mind were satisfactory). This was done while I was directing a film at Sony, and so was done "long distance". At the end of three years, I was able to restore the original ending. We then added the credits, balanced the color and "voila!"- a 6 minute movie finished in five years!


Don Hahn: Matchgirl was made by many talented artists that were between projects so the tempo of production was slow and steady.


GTM: What is it like to work with the Disney Animation division?


Don Hahn: Well I’ve been here 30 years and it’s been different every day. When you’re working with creative people on creative projects, it’s the best job on the planet.


Roger Allers: Its a pleasure and a thrill to work with so many talented people.


GTM: How is the look of an animated film determined? From the choice of color to the over feel of the piece?


Roger Allers:. Sometimes an artist (a development artist, an art director, or the director) will do a piece and it will inspire everyone and it becomes the initiating guide for the look of a picture. Other times, there is much exploring of looks and styles before a look develops.


GTM: What makes an animated film a Disney film? What goes on to determine that it meets the criteria for the Disney brand?


Roger Allers: You could ask 50 people that question and perhaps get as many answers. For me personally, a Disney film is one that remembers all the age groups in the audience, neither trying to "talk down to" some, or "pander to the lowest common demoninator", but respecting their intelligence, and seeking to delight and touch them.


Don Hahn: We don’t think of a brand or a criteria when we make a film. But films with great story, great character and heart have always been associated with Disney since the days of Snow White. Matchgirl is no different in its sincereity and depth of character.


GTM: How many artists usually work on this type of short?


Roger Allers: Honestly, I don't know what is "usual". On Match Girl, artists who were free in between projects or on "downtime" (pauses in production while stories get retooled) worked on it while they could. Consequently, we had a quite a large number of people contribute, both from our Burbank studio and our Paris studio.


Don Hahn: Each is different. Many artists in Los Angeles and Paris touched this film over the 4 years it was made depending upon their area of expertise and their availability.


GTM: What does it mean to direct an animated film? The actors are really only characters that are created by the artists. How does one “direct” animation?


Roger Allers: Its not really so different from live-action if you think of it this way. Take a recent movie- Mr and Mrs Smith- Mr John Smith was only a character, an idea (albeit a one-dimensional one). The director guided the writer, the actor (B. Pitt), the stunt double, the cinematographer, the editing, the dubbing session, etc., to make him come alive. In animation, the character's voice is the performance of one actor and the physical performance is created by the other "actor with a pencil"-the animator. Each performance is guided by the director as well as all the other functions: camera moves, editing, etc, that are present in live-action. We animation directors just never get to yell "Cut!"


Don Hahn: The actors are really only characters that are created by the artists. How does one “direct” animation? It’s no different than directing theatre or live action. There is a story to be told and the director has to guide all the aspects of character, costume, set, effects, lighting and staging to the benefit of that story. The technique is different, but the director’s job is still to create a compelling story on the screen.


GTM: Computer generated imagery is becoming so ubiquitous. What are the virtues of hand cell animation over computer work? What was hand drawn and what was computer generated in “The Little Match Girl?”


Roger Allers: For me, the virtue of traditional animation is the intimacy, the directness of the animator's gesture, his line, his touch. In The Little Match Girl, everything but the snowflakes was hand drawn. And even the large snowflakes at the beginning were hand painted and the designs transferred to the 3-D planes which turned and fell.


Don Hahn: The actors are really only characters that are created by the artists. How does one “direct” animation? It’s no different than directing theatre or live action. There is a story to be told and the director has to guide all the aspects of character, costume, set, effects, lighting and staging to the benefit of that story. The technique is different, but the director’s job is still to create a compelling story on the screen.


GTM: When I tell people about “The Little Match Girl” their first impulse is to think of the Hans Christian Anderson story, which essentially is a downer. While remaining true to the original, there is something lyrical and poignant about your take on the story. How was this determined?


Don Hahn: The story is very moving but the essence is a story of hope. We found it especially moving because this is a situation that really happened a hundred years ago and is really happening today in 2006. I hope the audience will see that. I think there is also power in telling a story like this without spoken words. The images can and do carry all the emotion needed.

 

And lastly this is a story for children. We were so happy to recently receive the Children’s Award from the Zagreb Animation Festival voted on by the children in the audience. We thought they would go for something funny or wacky, but to have them respond to the art and story of Roger’s film was really wonderful recognition that children are emotionally so open to stories that are real and compelling regardless of theme.


Roger Allers: From the outset, the intention was to make a musical piece, which, to me, means translating proseto poetry.


GTM: The film appears to be set in Russia. Why the choice of the location?


Roger Allers: Besides the obvious ethnic source of Borodin's music, the setting of czarist Russia provided the "fantasy" element of fantastic architecture, and the social setting of the extremes of wealth and poverty to be the foil for the girl's plight. And nothing says "Cold" like a Russian winter!


Don Hahn:
The music by Borodin flows effortlessly throughout the film; which provides emotional peaks at all the right moments. How was this done? Much labor and careful work by Roger and his editor Jessica Ambinder Rojas to create this gentle timing.


GTM: The music by Borodin flows effortlessly throughout the film; which provides emotional peaks at all the right moments. How was this done?


Roger Allers: I told Mr. Borodin "Look, just make your music follow the storyboards and it will all hang together!" Just kidding. It’s just listening and being sensitive to the music and letting your imagination create scenes to its emotional content.


GTM: New England is rather lucky to have such a large number of schools specializing in film studies; along with young artists learning animation. Why would a graduate from RISD or the Mass College of Art want to work with Disney Feature Animation?


Don Hahn:
Disney is a director driven studio that supports the vision of individual film makers. Now under the creative leadership of John Lasseter, we have a chance to reach out in many directions creatively and emotionally with our work and it makes Disney a very exciting place to be these days.


Roger Allers: The perfect person to talk to would be Kevin Lima, a graduate of RISD, who was a brilliant story artist on Aladdin and others, and directed "Tarzan". But I'm sure he'd tell you, if a student from either school liked to work in the context of a large creative group, bringing his/her skills of visualization, that it is a thrill to create something so large that will be seen by literally millions of people. That's a large canvas!


GTM: Why short film over features? From “Destino,” “Lorenzo” to “The Little Match Girl” why create this type of work? What will ultimately happen with these very special and unique films?


Roger Allers: The structure of a short film allows one to experiment with techniques and telling stories that are more suited to a short story format. The "constraint" of a short format actually allows a kind of freedom that feature films cannot. What will happen with them? They may become part of DVDs of features but I hope they will find their way to the large screen. Of course that's the most satisfying stage for a filmmaker.


Don Hahn: These shorts get exposure in festivals, and certainly on DVDS and in theatrical exhibition. It’s a chance for us to grow new talent and try new techniques and technology that we may not get a chance to try in a feature. It also is a way for our talent to link in a very personal way to the animation community at festivals such as yours.



About the Author:
George T. Marshall is the Producing Director of the Rhode Island-based Flickers Arts Collaborative, the creators of the annual Rhode Island International Film Festival for which he also serves as Executive Director. He teaches film and communications at Rhode Island College and speech communications and documentary film at Roger Williams University. He is a director, writer, producer of commercials and industrials for numerous business clients in the region and will be presenting his current research paper “Teaching and the Blogosphere” at the Annual Conference of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC) in August. He can be reached at flicksart@aol.com