One of the greatest adventure stories ever told, Robert Louis Stevenson's ?Treasure Island?, takes on a whole new dimension in Disney?s animated feature, ?Treasure Planet?. Once again the state of the art for animation has been pushed along even further with this film as the filmmakers have combined expert handdrawn animation and incredible 3D "virtual sets" with superb acting and storytelling.
At the centre of the story is fifteen year old Jim Hawkins (Joseph GordonLevitt), who joins the crew of an intergalactic expedition as the cabin boy aboard a stunning space galleon. Making friends with the ship's cook, a cyborg (part man, part machine) named John Silver (Brian Murray), Jim grows into manhood. Together with a friend of his mother?s, Dr Doppler (David Hyde Pierce) and the catlike ship?s Captain, Amelia (Emma Thompson) the crew head off to find a fantastic hoard of hidden treasure. The dangers that lie ahead, however, are nothing to the pain that Jim feels when he discovers that his trusted friend Silver is actually a scheming pirate with mutiny in mind.
Overseeing the entire production in his role as producer was Roy Conli, a ten year veteran of Disney?s Feature Animation department, whose previous assignments include a coproducing role on the 1996 animated feature ?The Hunchback of Notre Dame? and three years running Disney?s Paris based animation studio to oversee the production of both ?Hercules? and ?Tarzan?. Conli?s background also includes impressive and extensive credits producing and managing stage productions. Cineworld editor Clayton Everett managed to spend some time talking to Roy about the amazing work that his team put in for ?Treasure Planet?.
Clayton: Who first came up with the idea of adapting Robert Louis Stevenson?s classic novel?
Roy: That was devised by one of the directors, Ron Clements, who had always been interested in taking some kind of science fiction story into an animated film. And about seventeen years ago he came up with a concept and a treatment that he called ?Treasure Island in Space?, and that was the beginning of things. What he realised was that in live action you can do space and science fiction in what has become a very classic way ? that very stainless steel, blue, smoke coming from the bowels of heavily pipe laden? very ?Blade Runner? style. He thought that it would be interesting to develop a space world that was warm and had more life to it than you would normally think of in a science fiction film. He thought that by taking ?Treasure Island? and adapting it and utilising the warmth of that story, which is such a culturally ingrained story, you could adapt that into a fantasy space world and maintain the warmth and recognition and yet create your own fantasy universe.
C: So it was always the intention to place the story in a futuristic setting, and it was never going to be a straightforward adaptation?
R: Well exactly. The thought had always been that if we were gonna do ?Treasure Island? as a straightforward adaptation, it would be better to do it live action. By taking it into, well, not really futuristic ? we have a little rule that we developed called ?seventy/thirty?, which basically said that seventy percent of the film would somehow be recognisable and relate to the old, and that thirty percent would be fantasy oriented and futuristic. So it?s an amazing combination of the eighteenth century and the twentyfourth century.
C: Did you encounter difficulties in adapting such a classic tale to the world of Scifi?
R: Well, strangely enough, I think that it is inherently adaptable. Developing of worlds that relate to the old was possibly easier than finding out what the line of the new would be. You had to be able to infuse these two worlds to make it into one and we already knew the classic structure of the story. So then it was a question of how do you adapt that classic structure into something new and young and fresh.
C: Once it was decided, how long did it take for the idea to get from storyboard to screen?
R: Well, in this particular case, he pitched ?Treasure Island in Space? at the same time as he pitched ?The Little Mermaid?. ?The Little Mermaid? got picked up immediately and ?Treasure Island in Space? became ?Treasure Planet?, which they continued to work on for several years. It wasn?t until about five years ago that we locked the date for it and it was about a five year process then in terms of taking it from concept to final production.
C: A common question asked in the cinema is ?Are the characters hand drawn as they were traditionally or is everything computer generated??
R: The fact of the matter is that this is a true hybrid film. I would say that fifty percent of it has been done on the computer and fifty percent of it has been done by hand. In the sense that all of our sets have been done in the computer, we utilised a technology called ?Deep Canvas? developed during the making of ?Tarzan? which gave us the ability to move through the jungle as Tarzan was swinging. We took that, and we took it a step further into a process we call ?Virtual Sets?. Basically ?Virtual Sets? is taking the ?Deep Canvas? technology and building the entire set, 360 degrees, before we start staging, so we?re almost building a virtual stage set. Added to that we utilised the technology that allowed us to adjust lighting and lighting direction within that set, so that you could have complete freedom of the camera. It?s stunning what you can do, and in the film you see that, ultimately, it allows you to do the most amazing crane shots, because you don?t need a crane! In the film, we actually travel through space into this amazing space port set, and you?re coming from hundreds of miles away, landing into this amazing world in this one virtual shot, which is incredibly exciting. That one shot however took a year and a half to complete! The whole thing is really an amazing process. From a computer standpoint we have one character in the film that is completely computer generated. Also our Long John Silver is actually a hybrid character. In our film, as opposed to a pegleg pirate, he is a cyborg, halfmachine, and halfbiological. His biological half is drawn by Glen Keane who is probably the most famous Disney animator living. His mechanical half has been done in the computer. We were able to get his mechanical arm, his mechanical leg and part of his head, to get a specific mechanism using the computer animation and then blend that with the hand drawn so that we get this amazingly emotional performance. So we have really used the two technologies at their best, and melded them together.
C: You mentioned that Silver?s character had its own animator; does each character have its own individual animator?
R: Actually the way it works is that a character has a supervisor, a lead animator who is basically responsible for that character, and then beneath them they will have a team of animators that they work with. What that does is ensures that there is a solidity in terms of both the drawn aspects and the character aspects of the character, because everything has to be approved by that supervising animator ? and then ultimately by the directors.
C: How does the personality of the supervisor affect the final character?
R: Oh, hugely! Because ultimately an animator is an actor with a pencil ? or an actor with a keyboard ? depending on whether they?re doing a 2D or 3D character. When you look at John Silver, you can actually see elements of Glen Keane in that character, just as with Jim Hawkins, who is our young hero. John Ripper, an amazing young animator, was the supervisor for Hawkins and you can see elements of him in that character. It?s such a fascinating process, in the sense that you work with the voice talents, and the animator is always at every recording session with the voice talent. He?s sketching and watching certain reactions and catching moments from the session to infuse them into the final animation as well as his own character model.
C: So the appearance of the actor who will be performing the characters voice has as much bearing on the design of the character as the animator?s personality?
R: Absolutely! On top of that, there?s a rather long process in which we ?blue sky? design characters before we even have a voice. So it starts off in the abstract, trying to find elements, then as we get into the casting, we almost try and cast to that picture or that image. Then that image will blend and change once we have chosen the animator and once we have chosen the voice. The animator will then do his finishing touches in terms of that final design.
C: So where do the initial ideas for the visual characteristics for each character come from?
R: The way that one of these animated features develops is that you have about a year and a half of what I call the development process. During that year and a half it is totally ?blue sky? imaging of what characters could look like. On this show I had about thirty development artists, early on and over that year and a half period, there were thousands of drawings produced, both of sets and characters. At one point, as we bring the animators on, the directors sit down with them and they go through maybe a hundred and fifty drawings of the character and talk about elements that they like. Then the animator takes that and starts blending those ideas because when all is said and done that character has got to be owned by the animator. The animator, from a psychological standpoint, has to own the character. From a drawing standpoint you have to make sure that certain aspects of the character are animatable. You have to be almost selective about the amount of lines that you place in a design, because obviously the more lines that you have in a design the more difficult it becomes to animate.
C: Do you know who will be voicing any of the characters before you start designing?
R: Well, as we?re developing the script, certain ideas will come to mind. For instance, in this particular case, as we were developing the character of Captain Amelia, from day one well day six we knew that this would be great if Emma Thompson could do it. In our minds, early on, Emma Thompson was the image that we wrote to.
C: How does it feel when you finally manage to get the actor that you?ve been aiming for?
R: Oh, it?s wonderful. A huge relief actually. It?s so funny, because whenever you get such a strong image our Dr Doppler, David Hyde Pierce, was another actor we had in mind from day one when you get them, its great. The auditioning process can be rather lengthy. For instance, we never had in our mind a specific actor for Long John Silver. Or for Jim Hawkins. So we basically had about four months of auditioning before we found Brian Murray who plays Silver. I think it was about the seventh or eighth month of auditioning before we found Joseph GordonLevitt. When you have an image, and that image falls into line, it?s great because you can move forward that much quicker.
C: Apart from David Hyde Pierce, none of the lead actors (Brian Murray, Joseph GordonLevitt & Emma Thompson) had voiced animated characters before. Was that a conscious decision to go with people who were new to the medium?
R: You know we always look for the best voice for the character. We don?t think of voice acting as anything separate from actual acting. If you look at feature animation, we?re always looking for the truth in the moment from an actor and so it?s sometimes better not to have someone who?s done an animated film before, or someone who?s done voice work before, because if you get someone who?s been doing Saturday morning cartoons they?re actually affecting a voice and what we?re looking for, is really the natural voice of the actor. The characters have become so real to us, they need the right voice. When you see the first little bit of animation that character is so ingrained and imagistically solid in our minds that it just works better to have the right actors.
C: How many animators are involved in such a large project as this?
R: I think on our team we had about forty animators. That breaks down into specific groups, for instance, because Jim Hawkins is on screen the most, I think we had sixteen animators working on his team, and for John Silver we had around twelve animators. There were about five or so on Captain Amelia, five or so on Dr Doppler and then Morph was actually just two animators. You know, depending on their screen time, you have to get a team big enough to make sure you have inventory for all of them.
C: Talking about the character Morph, it sounds like a very interesting idea?
R: Morph is a lovely character, because in many ways he is the conscience of the audience. He?s kind of the innocent, watching the story unfold, he?s the equivalent of the parrot, but opposed to being a vocal mimic, he?s a visual mimic. In many senses his innocence comments upon what?s happening at any point in the story. So he?s actually a very important character, from both a comedic standpoint and an emotional one.
C: What creative involvement do you have as a producer?
R: I basically partner with the directors. I am involved in every creative decision that is made, from story development, to scripting, to music. My job, I feel, is to facilitate and support the directors? image particularly when you?re working with guys like Ron Clements and John Musker who are seasoned veterans, and in my mind, probably two of the greatest animation directors living. If there are issues that I disagree with I will always, thanks to their generosity of spirit, courage and comfortableness with their own communication, feel able to question and spark a conversation if things need to be discussed. At the end of that discussion, if the directors think that the direction that they had originally chosen is the way to go, I will always support that. If they believe that the point is valid, they?ll go with me. It?s an amazingly strong relationship in terms of how we are able to work together.
C: So the whole thing is a massive team effort?
R: It?s the most collaborative art form that exists. When all is said and done I think there are one thousand and twenty seven people on my screen credits. That?s probably about four hundred artists and computer artists, about a hundred and fifty musicians and another two hundred technologists. When you have that many people working with you, and you have directors who want to know everyone?s ideas, it is the most collaborative art form.
C: You also coproduced Disney?s ?Hunchback Of Notre Dame? animated feature, how did working on ?Treasure Planet? compare?
R: Well, it?s interesting, every year some sort of technology is developed. From an adaptation standpoint, with the ?Hunchback Of Notre Dame?, we definitely had to massage the story to fit it into the Disney realm. The book itself was not as easily adaptable for kids as ?Treasure Island? was. ?Treasure Island? is an incredibly classic piece of youth literature. I don?t think its children?s literature. Anyone who has a youthful spirit loves that book as an adult I can read it and be as excited as I was when I first read it at eleven years old. I have to say, that I think both films are stunningly beautiful, and it was the ability to utilise the computer generated backgrounds that took ?Treasure Planet? a step further. Each show gets more exciting because the tools available are just that much more incredible.
C: So how did you come to be involved with animated features?
R: (laughs) it?s interesting. I?ve been here for about ten years, before that I was in the theatre for about sixteen. I had been working for a theatre company in LA running new play developments and Peter Schneider, who had been the president of feature animation since 1985, actually came from the theatre himself, he found an amazingly rich field to draw talent from. Basically he restructured animation and made it a much more theatrical environment. In essence, back in the late eighties/early nineties, we reinvented the American musical. I had just produced a piece of theatre at the Getty museum here in LA, which they saw and Peter came up to me and said ?we?re doing this stuff called animation, would you be interested in taking a look at it?? They were interested in someone who could develop scripts, and I?d never thought of it before at that point. It happened that a film called ?Beauty And The Beast? had just come out, and they invited me to see a screening. I went and saw it, and I was amazed. I hadn?t seen an animated feature for years. I had seen ?Roger Rabbit? which I thought was an amazing film, but when I saw ?Beauty And The Beast? I thought this was just such a beautiful storytelling medium. They had just finished ?Aladdin?, which Robert and John directed, and they invited me to see that, and once I saw it I knew that this was something that I would be interested in developing. My involvement in theatre has always been about telling great stories and affecting people, and I think that animation is just a terrific way of reaching out and touching many, many people with great stories.
C: Disney have produced a great many fantastic stories over the years. I know that they have ?The Jungle Book 2? heading into cinemas next year, how do you feel about Disney producing sequels to old favourites? Considering that many of their recent films have had sequels that have gone straight into the video market, do you think putting sequels into cinemas is a reasonable idea?
R: Yeah, it?s interesting because the sequel element is really kind of a different production group. Feature animation is really focused towards new pieces. Then there is this wing that is doing the ?twos? as we call them. I have mixed feelings about it, I understand what they?re doing and why they?re doing it and I do believe that there are certain stories that work. For instance, I have no problems with ?Toy Story 2?, it?s a group of characters that you fell in love with and you can actually launch into the story that much sooner because you don?t have to meet them. A lot of the direct to video stuff does work, but I haven?t actually seen ?Jungle Book 2?, so I can?t comment on the validity of that piece. I?m of mixed minds because sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn?t.
C: Given the recent advancements in animation, some of which we?ve talked about in regard to ?Treasure Planet?, what do you think the future holds?
R: It?s something that we?re all asking, and it?s something that we?re all watching, because there is particularly in America, but not so much in Europe a fascination with the computer. The computer has become an amazing tool in animation, both for characters and sets and the technical polish of a film. I adore 2D hand drawn animation, I think it can do things that 3D can?t, but there are also things that computer generated can do that hand drawn can?t. I can?t imagine ?Toy Story? as a hand drawn animated film it just wouldn?t have the charm. Whereas I really can?t imagine ?Treasure Planet? as a fully computer generated film because I think there is something about the hand of the animator, the fact that a pencil stroke is a unique expression, directly going from the artists hand, basically, on to film. That energy is really magic. I think the industry as a whole is going through a revision, given the heyday of the midnineties. We have to continue to work from an animation standpoint choosing the best medium for the story. I do think that certain stories will always lend themselves to certain techniques, and those techniques are basically just an extension of what is the best way to tell a story. It always comes back to the story. The wonderful thing about Disney is that the story is always king and it?s always the thing that from day one, till about a month before your film is completed, you are continually tweaking and adjusting in order to make the best story possible.
C: How do you feel about the possibilities of making animated films with a completely photorealistic CGI cast?
R: It?s a fascinating concept. The question in my mind is, is there is a reason to develop photorealistic characters or just have actual actors play those role. I look at films like ?Final Fantasy?, which I actually liked, but I think that animation in itself is an extension beyond reality, and to try and harness animation in reality is very difficult. I think what they did in ?The Lord Of The Rings? with Gollum is a very interesting approach. Taking a specific character and wanting to take it into a realm where it fits within a realistic fantasy setting? For me where ?Final Fantasy? fell was that the performances were very subdued, and in trying to keep those performances subdued and humanlike, you actually lost the humanity of those characters, because actual humans are way more animated than what we were seeing onscreen. Animation in my sense of the definition is taking that animated quality of life and moving it into a hyper animation, if you will.
C: What future projects have you got lined up?
R: I have a couple of projects in mind in which you would have two or three human characters surrounded by a world of photorealistic alien characters, that could be really a lot of fun. I think if you?re gonna go human you either have to abstract it in a certain way or just have an actual human being play that character. I?m also working on a development project here that I can?t talk about ?cos it?s not green lit yet, and I also have a couple of other stories that I?ve been dealing with. I am interested in this combination of animation and live action, 3D/2D sets and the ability to basically use the projection screen as a canvas is something that appeals to anyone working in animation.
C: Thanks very much for taking the time to talk to us.
R: You?re welcome.