The directing team of Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale has brought the world classics like Beauty and the Beast and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, in addition to fan favorites like Atlantis: The Lost Empire. The pair recently participated in the Walt Disney Family Museum’s Happily Ever After Hours virtual event, answering questions from fans about their work and sharing some behind-the-scenes anecdotes. Here are ten things we learned from Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale.
1. They Met at CalArts.
“Gary and I actually met at CalArts in my first year, that would’ve been 1981,” Kirk Wise shared. “We didn’t cross paths again until I was at Disney…. I worked at the end of The Great Mouse Detective, I got laid off for a year and came back in ‘87/’88 on Oliver & Company in the story department and that’s where Gary and I started working together.” After that, they were paired up in the story department on The Rescuers Down Under, but got kicked off the project and tasked with coming up with Roger Rabbit short concepts. They fully storyboarded a short called “Baby Buggy Blunder” that was never produced where Baby Herman’s stroller gets away from Roger while out in the city.
2. Their Directorial Debut… At Epcot.
Surprisingly Walt Disney Imagineering doesn’t often collaborate with Walt Disney Animation Studios. For the Epcot attraction Cranium Command, WDI outsourced the pre-show animation to another studio and was very unhappy with the result. That’s how it got dropped in Kirk and Gary’s lap to redo. “Kirk and I were the principal [storyboarders] on that and it got chosen and rushed into production,” Gar Trousdale explained about the project. “Then there was a shakeup on the directorial side… they said you guys go, that’s how we got put together.” The pair didn’t just direct the animation, but also wrote the entire show with the Buzzy animatronic and live-action screens. “Cranium Command was unique in that it involved animation and live-action and in-theater effects,” Kirk Wise shared. “Jerry Rees oversaw the whole thing, but Gary and I were responsible for the main show.”
3. They Felt Thrown into the Deep End on Beauty and the Beast.
While developing a project called “Goofy of the Apes,” described as “Goofy as Tarzan,” Kirk and Gary received a call asking if they could drop what they were doing and fly to New York to take over directorial duties on Beauty and the Beast, which was being retooled after over a year in development with another director. “We were thrown on it because they were desperate,” Kirk said. “We were available at the right time and we didn’t screw up Cranium Command,” Gary added. “We really were dropped into the deep end of the pool.”
4. Howard Ashman Changed Disney Animation.
“If you had to point to one person responsible for the Disney renaissance, I would say it was Howard,” Kirk Wise shared when talking about the late lyricist who worked with them on Beauty and the Beast. “I remember he did a seminar, a talk for the entire staff of Feature Animation and the staff was a lot smaller. We all fit into one theater on Flower St. and he talked to us about the history of Broadway musicals and storytelling and how that style influenced animation and how these two American art forms developed on similar tracks and he made a really convincing case for it.”
“Howard taught us a lot,” Gary Trousdale reflected. “Particularly when we were going to New York for the casting calls, we didn’t know much… Howard and Alan [Menken] both were a wealth of information on how to talk to singers and performers… and what to look for. What kind of things to look for in an actor or an actress… It was an acting class in a kind of rushed time.”
“I remember in my very earliest voice recording sessions for Beauty and the Beast, Howard was there and he would talk to the actors,” Kirk added. “I picked up so much from him in how to give an actor direction, especially a voice actor, and I kind of modeled my style after his style.”
5. Adapting a French Literary Classic.
“We got a call from Jeffrey Katzenburg like ‘You guys, you gotta drop what you’re doing. This project is gonna change your life.’ And that’s how we got Hunchback,” Gary Trousdale shared about how their next project began. “We were working on a project about humpback whales so we went from humpbacks to Hunchbacks,” Kirk Wise joked. “The biggest challenge for me was staying true to the tone and the spirit of the original novel. Honoring the versions that had come before it, and at the same time making it feel like a Disney animated feature. That was the challenge throughout the production. Fortunately, I think a lot of critics agreed. We managed to maintain true to the original source material. I think a lot of people were surprised.”
6. Fear of Rejection with The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
“We were kind of worried that, because this is such beloved literature in France… we’re trumping all over it with our big Disney boots,” Gary Trousdale shared about their concerns with going too far with the material. “We want to honor it, but it is a Disney cartoon, so it’s finding that balance. Ultimately, we heard that France really accepted it… they didn’t get upset with us for taking liberties.”
“I remember our research trip to Paris,” Kirk Wise reflected. “Me, Gary, and a whole team of artists basically crawled all over medieval Paris… and I remember part of that experience was sitting in Notre Dame cathedral and listening to an organ music recital… this organ, you could feel it in your chest, it gave me goosebumps.”
7. Creating Their Own Project with Atlantis: The Lost Empire.
At Disney Animation, production crews typically were divided and assigned to other projects after a film wrapped. Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale wanted to keep the Hunchback crew together for another film and Producer Don Hahn encouraged them to choose another project quickly. “Don approached us and said ‘Okay, we’ve done a couple of movies,” Gary shared. “Iif we want to do another movie that we want to do and not have one assigned to us by the studio bosses, we should sit down and decide what we want to do.” They began talking about the Jules Verne films that Walt Disney made in the 1950’s and ‘60’s like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and In Search of the Castaways.
“From our standpoint, we felt like we had done as a studio, as a group of artists, for ten years we’d been making movies that mostly took place in Fantasyland, to use a Disneyland metaphor,” Kirk Wise shared about how the project was sold to Disney. “So we said what if we take a left turn and make a movie that takes place in Adventureland?” The pitch worked and Atlantis got the greenlight. “It was a Jedi mind trick,” Gary joked.
8. A Research Trip to… Atlantis?
For The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Kirk and Gary got to visit Paris. Other teams at Disney Animation were visiting China for Mulan and Greece for Hercules. So where do you go when you’re making a film about a lost civilization? “The internet was a lot more wild and wooly back then,” Gary Trousdale explained. The team looked at everything they could get their hands on, from books about Atlantis and cryptozoology to a visit to Carlsbad Caverns to get a better understanding of what an underground cavern looks like. They also looked at the history of written records of the lost civilization and historians who are ever in search of it. “Good old Edward Casey because as much as we wanted to give an aura of authenticity in our envisioning of the city itself, we also knew that some of the nuttier theories would be a lot more fun for an animated movie,” Kirk Wise shared.
9. Kirk Wise Got Spirited Away by Hayao Miyazaki’s Film.
“I was kind of pulled into that at the last minute,” Kirk Wise shared about his role as the director of the English language dub of Studio Ghibli’s Spirited Away. “It was after we had finished Atlantis and I had some downtime. I got a call from Thomas Schumacher and he said Disney was going to distribute this Miyazaki movie and I was a huge fan, as all animators are… It turned out to be a lot more challenging than I expected it to be because I remember watching it in the theater in the original Japanese and thinking I need to capture the quality of these voices and the characters and translate that back into English and not lose any of that… My edict for everybody for the writers and the actors was I didn’t want Speed Racer and by that I mean the most important thing for me is I didn’t want it to sound like it was dubbed.” Kirk’s commitment to keeping the dialogue and acting feel true to the characters and the spirit of the original version helped the film win Best Animated Feature at the Academy Awards.
10. Hidden Easter Eggs in Their Films.
Kirk: “It’s always fun to throw little details in that reward repeat viewings of the films and we knew going into the age of home video… that people would be watching these movies over and over,” Kirk Wise shared. “And it was never to put anything subversive in the films. It was always with a sense of fun. The chuckle someone might get seeing Belle walk through medieval Paris.” Gary added to that same shot from The Hunchback of Notre Dame. “That same scene also has the magic carpet and Pumba. In Atlantis when the sub is going over a graveyard of ships… there is a dragon head viking ship, there is a Titanic, and the S.S. Minnow is in there as well.”
“In Beauty and the Beast, the signpost that Maruice encounters has, if you look closely, the names of things that are fairly significant to many of the artists that worked on the movie,” Kirk shardd. “One of them says Valencia, Anaheim is in there, another might’ve been Burbank.” Gary added one final Easter Egg that few people have spotted from Hunchback. “On the top of Notre Dame cathedral, in the last shot as the camera pulls away, the statues are Buzz and Woody. They’re very hard to see in the film.” Kirk Wise shared his limits on what he will and won't approve for Easter Eggs. “I think the limit for me is it needs to be a fun little touch, like a little bit of seasoning on a repeat viewing, but it can’t distract from the main movie.”
Alex has been blogging about Disney films since 2009 after a lifetime of fandom. He joined the Laughing Place team in 2014 and covers films across all of Disney’s brands, including Star Wars, Marvel, and Fox, in addition to books, music, toys, consumer products, and food. You can hear his voice as a member of the Laughing Place Podcast and his face can be seen on Laughing Place’s YouTube channel where he unboxes stuff.