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Rhett Wickham: It's Baaack!
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The tide has fully turned and an authentic vision is well in place at Disney once again. Reports are that John Lasseter's approach to developing, motivating and supporting his creative colleagues - from the top down - has everyone so excited and so committed that the atmosphere is once again jubilant under the Sorcerer's Hat. Not only is the age old pixels vs pencils battle blown over entirely, the morale is high and staffers once again think of themselves as part of a creative family working in tandem to imagine entertainment and magic that has been the hallmark of the Disney name for nearly 100 years. For anyone who ever thought that Disney's acquisition of Pixar was going to turn the Mouse House into a poorer southern California cousin to the Emeryville digital giant, well...think again.
Disney officials have now confirmed to me that Lasseter, after reviewing projects currently in development at Feature Animation, singled out at least two works now brewing that could be appropriate for being produced in traditional hand-drawn animation. This wasn't some strategic move spurred by the synergy or net-present value of anything, but a solid artistic choice made with calm and intelligence and good old common sense. In a town where sense is neither common nor actually sensible, I vote for everyone drinking the same water as John Lasseter.
The report is that Lasseter first offered director Glen Keane the opportunity to re-tool Rapunzel for production as a traditional hand-drawn feature, if he so desired (pay attention to this unusually supportive and respectful offer of "a choiceâ€?), but Keane, who had done so much work in advancing and adapting current CG technology to get the look he wanted for his fractured fairy tale, felt committed to its production in CG. That was fine with Lasseter. Next up was Lasseter's offer to directing and writing team Ron Clements and John Musker, currently at work penning the screenplay for The Frog Princess. Described as a decidedly "American fairy taleâ€?, the project is currently in the very earliest stages of development, and not yet green-lit for production, per se. Nevertheless, Lasseter was confident enough to have made mention of the project at a division wide meeting held on one of the studio's sound stages recently, and it is confirmed that the Ron and John project was given the option of being produced in either hand drawn or CG. With a script expected from the Ron and John (and only Ron and John) sometime in the late fall of 2006, and with no artistic staff yet in place for even visual development or storyboarding, its nonetheless official - Musker and Clements have elected to produce their project in the traditional hand-drawn approach, and Lasseter is 100% behind that choice!
Imagine this, a studio creative chief who not only has brought back into the fold the creative team that single handedly revived the art of great storytelling with The Little Mermaid, but gave them free reign to craft the story on their own without bringing in a screenwriter from outside, and then offered them a choice, repeat - a choice of what look they thought was best for their film. At this stage John Lasseter could all but insist on a revival of Snow White in live action starring Demi Moore and he'd still go down in recent history as the greatest visionary leader feature animation has had since Walt!
There are a number of considerations yet to be explored, including the fact that old CAPS system is already outdated - as some off the shelf software currently offer advantages for inking and painting that outshine the old CAPS system - but technological advances to support the production process are hardly new territory for the likes of Lasseter and Ed Catmull. Needless to say, Musker and Clements have a tall order ahead of them assembling a team of animators, considering that the best of them were scattered like the orphans of London during the blitz when Disney "downsizedâ€? and put all their eggs in one basket at the turn of the millennium. While nobody should be sending in their portfolios and reels yet, it's hard to imagine anyone who wouldn't want to beat a path straight for Disney's door when the time comes for pencil to meet paper on The Frog Princess. One obviously absent Ron and John favorite player will doubtless be otherwise occupied, as Glen Keane will still be at the helm of his own project. Don't discount how Rapunzel could shake up the way we think of CG films as well. It's highly unlikely that John Lasseter is going to let this Fragonard inspired project falter en route to theatres.