Great Animated Performances: Meeko as Supervised by Nik Ranieri
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In keeping with the noir setting I start things off by asking the animator how his "affair with a demanding mistress named MAYA is goingâ€? and he laughs. Ranieri was among the first master animators at Disney to be trained on this computer animation software, and he is presently at work animating the father of Chicken Little, in the all CG feature of the same name directed by THE EMPEROR'S NEW GROOVE's Mark Dindal.
"I've got my good days and my bad days with this stuffâ€?, he says while waving his hand over the table in the universal gesture for â€˜mesa mesa.' He balks at a remark made by a previous subject of this series, John Pomeroy, who commented that the stuff he's seen Ranieri turn out on CHICKEN LITTLE is some of the best he's seen Ranieri do, and possibly some of the best of his career.
"Does that mean that what I was doing before was really that bad?!â€? I assure him it was delivered as a great compliment from an admiring colleague and he laughs. "It just kind of cracks me up. It's like I've become the poster child for Most Surprising Animator at the Computer.â€? Unclear about whether this is uncomfortably modesty or cautious pride I watch as he raises and eyebrow and shrugs his shoulders. As far as what the transition from traditional to digital means for Ranieri personally and professionally, he says he'll have to wait for the end of the film to see how it all turns out. "But right now? It's okay.â€?
Like many of the traditionally trained artists transitioning from pencil to pixel, Ranieri is experiencing the vaguely familiar feeling of staring out fresh in the business. The trip from novice to master, however, is unlikely to be such a long and bumpy path this time around. After graduating from Sheridan College in Ontario, Ranieri went to work for Atkinson Film-ARTS animation production studio. His first job was on THE RACCOONS - an animated series that became a Canadian classic, and was later aired on the Disney Channel. After a little more than a year at Atkinson, Ranieri moved to Pastel Blade, a commercial studio in Montreal. While at Pastel Blade Ranieri was loaned out to director Gerald Potterton - who directed the animated cult classic HEAVY METAL - to work on a series of films based on the Oz books. Potterton's Oz production couldn't get funding in Canada unless it had Canadian content and used Canadian talent, so he animated the titles in Montreal and the rest of the series was shipped overseas. Ranieri's recollection is "he (Potterton) had me work on the titles with him and then listed me as one of the animators!â€? He moans at the thought of having the show listed as one of his credits.
Ranieri left Montreal shortly thereafter and moved to Lightbox Studios - a commercial house in Toronto where he did some commercial work before experiencing something that can be very upsetting but ultimately very good for any ambitious career professional -- getting fired. Ranieri smiles. "It came down to the fact that I couldn't do my job because I didn't have what I needed. They wanted the product done so fast, almost last week, and without the materials to test the animation. I couldn't do it because I was still just learning my way in the business. They did it the old fashioned way where they shot it on film and sent it out and it came back the next day. So he kept wanting changes, and his partner, she kept cutting my salary because I kept missing deadlines. And finally, she fired me. He did come back later and say he was sorry because he liked my work and really wanted to keep working together. He was a nice guy.â€? And he means it. Ranieri doesn't hold a grudge. He may grumble a little and grouse about some people and some situations, but in spite of any frustration he expresses there is a tone in his voice that reveals the spirit of someone who just wants to do the right thing. High personal expectations can make someone seem very demanding to others, but it also makes them particularly hard on themselves.
The turn of events in Montreal may have cemented several things for the artist that impacted his career from that point forward. Ranieri - one of the funniest animator the new generation produced - takes this business very seriously. His no-nonsense approach to crafting his performance takes into consideration not only the art, but also the craft. Hearing him talk about his work has the familiar ring of the biographies of great television comedy pioneers like Ernie Kovaks, Lucille Ball and Jack Benny. If you know what you need to do your work then you don't compromise. There's a right way and then there's all the other ways. If you see it clearly then it's perfectly reasonable to expect others to see it, and not waste time battling the obvious. Black and white.
So, what do you do when you lose your job? You go to Europe! At least Ranieri did. "I saved a lot of money up and said to a friend, let's go to London and try to get a job! Because it was cheaper to go through Dublin we stopped off at Bluth for a couple of days and tried to get a job there.â€? He reflects on how fortunate he was to escape being hired. "They told me to come back the next day. So I did and they said â€˜Nobody can see you, so come back in a week.' And I told them that I only had three days in Dublin and they said â€˜That's okay, just leave your portfolio and then pick it up on your way back from London.' Here I had flown from Canada to look for work in London and they expected me to leave my book with them while I wandered around for a week!? So I left them a resume and told them I'd check back with them on my way back through Dublin, and that's the last I saw of them.â€? The two artists flew on to London where they hit all the commercial studios and then made a final stop at Richard William's studio where ROGER RABBIT was being produced.
"I went in to talk to Don Hahn and he looked over my portfolio and my reel and said â€˜I'm sorry, we can't hire you because we're not going to hire any more assistants', at which point I said â€˜Did I mention I also have an Italian passport?' and he said â€˜Welcome aboard!' Thanks in part to his Father's work with the Italian consulate, Ranieri landed a job that would forever change his life, and the face of Disney animation.
Nik started as an in-betweener on WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT?. The animator had done some very impressive commercial work in Montreal on two spots that combined live action and toons. The problem was that nobody had seen them. "I had my reel in chronological order, so they turned it off before they ever got to the Astrix commercial and the Sugar Bear commercials that were a combination of live action and animation. The animator I was assisting, David Byers Brown, fortunately had been more patient than Simon Wells. David was called in to Richard Williams' office while assisting Dick on Baby Herman. The two of them are going over scenes together when David says to Dick â€˜You should see my assistant's reel. He's actually better than I am.' And Dick said â€˜Go get it and let me see it.' So David showed the commercial section to Dick who says â€˜Yeah, he can do it', and 15 minutes later I hear â€˜Nik, pack your stuff, you're moving to the fifth floor.' The first thing they gave me was the Baby Herman stuff.â€? He takes a deep breath. "That's when I made my BIG mistake. They handed me this stack of drawings and I looked them over and thought â€˜Oh, these are nice drawings...I'll use them as reference', well...they were keys...they were Richard Williams' keys!â€? He raises both hands to his head and hides his face, then drops them to his lap. "He screamed at me in front of everybody on the floor, Williams did.â€? Puffing his chest out and mimicking the legendary Oscar winning animator, "'You think you can put my 35 years of experience up against your little college training!?!?' Oh, it went on like that for a while, off and on through the entire production. But we ended on a good note where we actually liked each other. But it was touch and go there for a while.â€? And partly because Ranieri the novice was just as demanding as Williams the master.