In this issue of Exposure Sheet we are very proud to bring you something different: a sneak preview of our new fully-animated film An American Tail. Over 20 months in the making, Tail is our second full theatrical release, the first in cooperation with Steven Spielberg. As this is written, the finishing touches are being added to the film; so we decided to lift the tent flap just a bit and let you get a privileged First Peek!
A subject that comes up occasionally through the Fan Club regards Beauty and the Beast and Dragon's Lair II and other projects that are associated with Bluth. A number of readers have asked what has become of these projects, and why An American Tail was done first. Mostly it has to do with the Bluth commitment to produce high quality entertainment through animation. As you've read in previous issues, there are many elements involved in presenting an entertaining story. Taking advantage of rare opportunities is an important element, too; the greatest story ever created is wasted if it's never shared with an audience. In the case of Tail, the story, the talent needed to tell it properly, and the opportunity to share it with the world all came together under the proper guidance to allow an exciting story to greet the world.
Beauty and Lair II are still on the boards; they have not been abandoned. When the time comes for them to greet the world, they too will be presented with the same love and enthusiasm that surrounds all Bluth projects. When the time is right--not a moment before.
In this issue, animation writer Jerry Beck shares his interview with Don about the upcoming release of An American Tail. There's lots of excitement as the film is polished and prepared for release, and our special Sneak Preview will let you share that excitement all the way to the opening.
So read on, and discover the excitement of An American Tail!
JB: How did the Bluth group get connected with Steven Spielberg?
DON: Four years ago, we were introduced to Steven by Jerry Goldsmith, who had scored THE SECRET OF NIMH, as well as many of Steven's films. Steven viewed NIMH and was thrilled by what he saw. He didn't realize animation like ours still existed. We agreed that if we found a property we both liked, we'd make a picture together. Two years ago, as we were winding down on Dragon's Lair II, Steven called, "What about now? Can you come over?"
We went to his office and were introduced to David Kirschner, who had conceptualized a mouse story called AN AMERICAN TAIL. My eyes rolled upward, "Another mouse story?...How do we make another ORIGINAL one?"
David Kirschner told us the story, which involved a mouse world which paralleled that of the human immigrants coming to the United States. Steven loved the story because it was actually the story of his family--his grandfather immigrated to America from Russia in 1880. We named our little star Feivel, after Steven's grandfather.
JB: About the film: What is the story of AN AMERICAN TAIL?
DON: It's the story of a family of Russian mice, the Mousekewitz family. Papa is convinced that "There are no cats in America." As the Cossacks plague the human peasants, so do the Cat-sacks terrorize the mice. Papa tells his children, "In America the streets are paved with cheese, there are mouseholes in every wall and bread crumbs on every floor. But most important, in America there are no cats!"
AN AMERICAN TAIL is filled with exciting characters and adventures, but I want you to discover them for yourself.
JB: What was Steven Spielberg's creative involvement with the animation studio?
DON: Steven's an interesting naimal. He's a lot of fun to work with because he's a child at heart. In the beginning of the project, we spent a lot of time together in story meetings. I like the creative process with Steven because he contributes a tremendous number of vusual ideas, yet listens to my ideas as well.
Steven has not dominated the creative growth of TAIL at all. There is an equal share of both of us in the picture. At the beginning Steven said, "I want you to do this picture. Make me something pretty like you did in NIMH...make it beautiful," which is what we are doing.
JB: Did he come by the studio on a regular basis?
DON: No. Our meetings took place at his office. I'd draw the storyboards and then send them over to him. Often, I brought them over myself, so that I could explain them. Steven would get very excited by what we saw, and we'd edit the boards right then and there...adding more drawings, or trimming some back.
I remember the first time we went over to Steven's office with our first black & white pencil test clips. It was "WOW" time...finally Steven could see the picture being born. When we showed him the first color scenes, he was even more thrilled.
Those color scenes were a real lift for Steven. He is one of the true fans of animation. He has always loved the Disney films, and is a true appreciator of the old, classical style. He told me on the phone one day, "If I can just help keep animation alive, I'll be happy."
JB: Now that Steven has gotten his feet wet in animation, do you think he'll stay?
DON: I don't think he'll jump out. We've started another project together, which I think will be even more exciting than TAIL.
JB: Who did the music for AN AMERICAN TAIL?
DON: Music plays an important part in AMERICAN TAIL and we chose James Horner to compose the score. I really enjoyed the score he wrote for COCOON. When I first showed James the pencil test reels for TAIL he remarked, "How in the world can I write music that can compete with the old Disney film scores?"
JB: Did James Horner also write the songs for the film?
DON: Yes, he did. There were four songs in the film to be written. James needed someone to write the lyrics, so we hired one of the premier song-writing teams: Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil. With this powerful music trio, we knew we'd get songs that will be memorable like the Disney classics. With the melody, James went for simple hummable tunes. It's the simple melodies that remain etched in your memory over the years.
I remember the first day I went up to James' house to listen to the melodies for the songs. I was a little nervous, because I had great expectations for these songs. James played them for me on the piano; I loved what I heard. James then played the various melodies he had written to represent our important characters. For example: PAPA has a theme of his own, which represents him whenever we hear it. Papa plays the violin, and it is his song that Feivel keeps thinking he hears as he searches for his family throughout New York. We needed a special theme for Papa to play which the audience would be able to identify with Feivel during the search. We also needed a special melody to represent Feivel.
John and I have just returned from London where James recorded the TAIL score. He used 135 members of the London Symphony Orchestra and a 16 voice choir. Gary was already in London working on the Sound Dub with our editor, Dan Molina. We were thrilled with James' music...it was more fantastic than I hoped it would be. James composed a glittering score that shimmers.
JB: Who did the voices?
DON: We hunted long and hard for Feivel, our star. We needed a very special six-year-old boy's voice. After more than a month of listening to countless tapes submitted by acting agencies, we were beginning to wonder, "Will we ever find our Feivel?" Then, one day we heard a precocious little voice reading an auditioning part for an Oscar Meyer commercial. I called in several of our artists to listen and everyone reacted enthusiastically. Next, we sent the tape over to Steven and received a call-back, "Who is he?" We all knew instantly we had found our Feivel. His name is Phillip Glasser and is now sevene-years-old.
This was Phillip's first "big break." When he began work on TAIL he was only six, and his attention span was quite short which is normal for a six-year-old. I had to work with him to help him remember his lines, and many of them were recorded again and again. But, by the end of all the recording sessions, Phillip had become quite a thespian. It was very rewarding to me personally helping mold Phillip into an actor.
When it was time to record the songs, I found that Phillip has a good singing voice and perfect pitch...which is very unusual in one so young. My favorite song that Phillip sings is "SOMEWHERE OUT THERE." It is written a little high for his range, so he has to strain for a couple of the higher notes...which sounds very "natural" for a little boy. This song is Steven's favorite musical number as well.
JB: Are there any celebrities among the voices?
DON: Yes! Dom De Luise is one. We brought him back to perform the voice of a cat named Tiger. We knew that if we were going to say "all cats are bad," we wanted to have at least one "good" one...and that's Tiger. Tiger turns out to be a really terrific feline that everyone will love. He loves mice and wants to have mice friends. He and Feivel become good buddies and sing a number called, "A DUO."
Madeline Kahn is another of our celebrity voices. She plays Gussie Mausheimer, a rich and powerful mouse...the matron of New York mouse society. We flew to New York to record Madeline because we really wanted her for Gussie. She gave a terrific performance as an aloof, bossy and elite mouse...who doesn't realize she's a snob.
The voice of Henri, the pigeon, was one of our greatest challenges...he was a difficult character to pin down. After recording several voices, we decided upon Christopher Plummer who was perfect! We needed a warm, fatherly image..."your favorite uncle" type, and Christopher came to mind. We were worried that he would be too busy, but he agreed to do the part, "for the love of animation" and flew down from San Francisco, where they were shooting CROSSINGS, for the day. As it turns out, NIMH is a great favorite of his.
Most of the other voices are not well known. They are voices from Screen Actors Guild members who fit the characters.
JB: Unlike THE SECRET OF NIMH, which was written in-house, you hired a pair of outside writers to develop the screenplay. Why was that?
DON: The Disney tradition for years has been to write the animation feature as they animate it, thinking the vision will increase as characters are animated--therefore they wait to complete the script until after they've seen some animation.
More and more we are getting away from that concept. In AN AMERICAN TAIL we hired Tony Geiss and Judy Freudberg to write the script. Both are veteran writers for SESAME STREET and wrote FOLLOW THAT BIRD (1985).
Tony and Judy took David Kirschner's outline and developed a treatment, after which they set up their offices at our studio and began to write the script.
It was during our story meetings that characters like DIGIT (a cockroach sidekick to the story's villain) were added to the film. As Tony and Judy were writing the script, I was storyboarding the picture.
JB: There seems to be a difference in the design of the characters in TAIL. They are 'rounder' and 'cuter' than the characters of your previous works. Was that deliberate?
DON: Yes. There are so many mouse pictures and weLl known mice that all seem to have the same look about them, we decided to go in a different direction. We've done THE SECRET OF NIMH, we've done the angular design which seems to be the style Disney is heading in right now, so why don't we go back to the old "DWARFS" look...where characters are round and soft and have a cuddly feel. The look we've achieved with AN AMERICAN TAIL is different from both that of NIMH and Disney's GREAT MOUSE DETECTIVE.
JB: With all of your responsibilities as Director, did you find time to animate on this film?
DON: Yes, I did, but it wasn't on purpose. At one point during production we has to animate so many feet of film per week that we fell a bit behind schedule, so I picked up a pencil to help. I animated three or four scenes in the picture which add up to about one minute of screen time.
JB: Which scenes did John Pomeroy animate?
DON: John animated an enormous share of the picture. He did more footage than any other single animator on the project. He animated approximately 75% of our villain, Warren T. Rat. Warren T's a great character. Strange it should be a rat again. John animated Jenner, the villainous rat, in NIMH and now he's a rat again. He's hoping that on the next picture he won't be dealing with rats or mice.
JB: Any multiplane shots in this film?
DON: Yes, we'll have approximately four to five minutes of Multiplane. These scenes haven't been shot as we speak, for they'll be the last ones shot in the film. Not since Bambi has an animated picture has as much Multiplane as this picture will.
JB: How long did it take to make AN AMERICAN TAIL?
DON: About 20 months; almost two years.
JB: How would you compare the production of this film to THE SECRET OF NIMH? Was this an easier or harder film to make?
DON: This has been harder in many ways than NIMH. Mainly, I think, because there was so much more pencil mileage. In NIMH we had fewer characters to look at. On TAIL there's a lot more going on on the screen: there are many more characters, the film is animated to music for pacing, and the special effects are more complicated and oppulent.
There are scenes in this picture were we have mobs of mice, one where there are 50 mice on the screen standing on boxes and singing a song. It took FOREVER to draw! We couldn't cheat that--the audience would know. Part of the fun of the old pictures was when you saw all those characters dancing in a big number.
JB: When making an animated feature, how is it decided which scene will be animated first? Is it animated out of sequence like in a live action film, or do you start from the beginning and draw straight through to the end?
DON: It isn't animated in order that will occur on the screen. We always start with a sequence which will help us understand and establish the personality of the main character.
When we started TAIL we didn't have any dialogue recorded on Feivel; we didn't even have his voice yet, but I had many animators who needed scenes to go to work on. So, we discussed what Feivel would be like and what he'd think like. Next, we decided to start on an action sequence since a soundtrack wouldn't be necessary. We began animation on the chase sequence where Feivel is trying to chase the Cat-sacks out of the village.
It was only after we heard Phillip Glasser's voice, that we could get a handle on him as a character. I played the voice for the animators and once they understood who Feivel was, they began to animate the close-ups.
We had three units on this picture, headed up by our three strongest animators. I then placed the other animators under these three leaders. After the voices were recorded and the dialogue tracks built, we has three sequences in animation at once.
JB: What happened to your announce feature, BEAUTY AND THE BEAST?
DON: It was our intention to begin BEAUTY after DRAGON'S LAIR II. However, AMERICAN TAIL ws offered to us at that time and I was so excited about the prospect of merging Spielberg's imagination with our talents that we decided to put BEAUTY on the "back-burner" for awhile. We still plan to do it.
I remember that at Disney they would have eight to ten pictures in the works at the same time. BLACK CAULDRON was on the boards for 12 years!
JB: What are your hopes for this film after it's released?
DON: I've always hoped that somehow classical animation could be attractive to the adult audience. I don't know if you could ever get a distributor to understand that, but I do think if you aim classical animation at a family, you'll get the family and the children. And since there are more and more families now, and with the video cassette market really happening, we will get films like this into the home.
Always my dream is to get people to appreciate classical animation as an art form. But it has to make a quantum leap forward before it can do that. Right now it's primarily little characters that move about doing silly things. Animation has to do more than that. It has to start with scripts that have more weight in them; maybe they're layered; maybe they have something that's pretty heavy for the adults, but also fun for kids. I'm not talking about films that are heavy with sex or drugs--that isn't what I call an adult film. But you have to have some believability--if it's a comedy it has to have humor that the adults can appreciate so they're not bored by it. I believe the acting of the characters has to be really terrific. You have to go well beyond just graphics for an hour and a half.
Right now we're trying to get our animators to understand what acting is. Most of them draw quite well but they don't act. We've hired a dramatic coach to come in here and we've started drama lessons. We now have our animators up out of their chairs learning how to act--most of them feel like silly fools--doing improvisation, learning that acting isn't putting on masks, but taking them off--actually learning how to reveal what's already underneath.
Also, we are teaching them about how the body functions with rhythm by giving them some dance lessons. Our next picture with Spielberg has a lot of music involved, and our animators will have to understand music better.
All of these things are an endeavor to make that quantum leap forward and catch the interest of the American adult. In Europe, they appreciate the art form more. Americans don't understand it, and television animation has pushed them further away.
JB: Outside of Feivel, did you have a character in AMERICAN TAIL that was your favorite?
DON: If there was any one character I was pushing for more than the rest, it was Henri the pigeon, who everyone wanted to cut out. I said, "No. Henri is the voice of the Statue," and the Statue of Liberty must speak somehow. Because what she represents is hope and what she says is, "if you believe, your dreams will come true."
A motion picture is a long strip of film, well over a mile long. But it is also a series of scenes arranged in such a meticulous order so as to create an emotional response when viewed by an audience.
The architects of the picture are the screenwriter and the director, and their goal should be to create the most powerful presentation of the story they can.
In animation, this accomplishment begins in the storyboard stage. It is at this point the story artist points the way toward scenes of joy, terror, suspense, anguish or whatever. With a simple sketch he should be able to capture just the right emotion. He is both cinematographer and lighting man, and should ask himself many questions:
Are the characters veiled in shadow, are they in light, are objects in the set seen through atmosphere, are objects clearly drawn, what do I want the audience to know at this point in the giant strip of film, what should I keep hidden, what should I draw, what should I leave out, what is the emotion of the scene, what is not?
If a storyman describes character action only, many details could be lost along the way...should they not occur to other artists. Emotional tones should be described early. In Disney's Cinderella, there is a wonderful scene where Cinderella has been blamed for putting a mouse under one of her stepsister's breakfast tea cups. She is called into her stepmother's bedroom to answer for it. The room is draped and dark. The old woman, sitting up in her bed, can barely be seen in the shadows. A sliver of light focuses on her hand while she slowly strokes Lucifer the cat. We hear her hateful accusing voice slithering from the darkeness towards the girl. Cinderella is standing in a harsh relentless inescapeable pool of light. Now, that's good staging!
And all that I've described can be told with a single sketch that will inspire the layout artists, the animators, the color stylists and the background painter. I've drawn a brief example of what the storyboard artist's conceptualization might have looked like.
A GOOD EXERCISE is to study stills from past pictures. By now you know the animated pictures and their emotions well enough. See if you could heighten the drama of any scene by restaging and relighting it. This is an armchair exercise...you needn't redraw the stills.
LAST DITCH ADVICE: remember that everything you draw will be framed by the dimensions of the movie screen. Don't get too logical and crowd more than you need into it. Learn what to leave out. Simplify your statements for clarity. The audience must be able to understand the sketch you create in an instant. If you fail in this, your drawings will have no emotional impact and the movie will suffer.