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November 25, 2002
The creators of Treasure Planet sail the animated spaceways

By Cindy White

It may be difficult to remember a time when the Walt Disney Company's Feature Animation division was not at the leading edge of the industry, but back in the mid-1980s a series of uninspired films featuring second-rate animation left the company with a need for revitalization. It was at this time that director Ron Clements pitched two ideas to the creative team for consideration.

One was an adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson's classic pirate adventure entitled Treasure Island in Space. The other was a large-scale musical version of Hans Christian Andersen's story The Little Mermaid. As history tells, Clements and his partner, Ron Musker, went on to make The Little Mermaid, a monumental critical and financial success that launched a new era in Disney animation.

In years following, Clements and Musker continued to develop such hits as Aladdin and Hercules, all the while keeping the original concept of Treasure Island in Space on the back burner. Finally, in 1997, the project went forward under the title Treasure Planet, and the directors began adapting the familiar characters and situations in Stevenson's novel and cleverly translating them into a science-fiction motif. With the help of state-of-the-art technology (which hadn't even been dreamed of 17 years ago, when the project was first conceived), the filmmakers have also combined traditional animation and digital graphics in ways that have never been done before.

Early in the process, actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt, best known for his role as Tommy Solomon on NBC's 3rd Rock From the Sun, was brought on as the voice of Jim Hawkins, the fatherless adolescent whose relationship with the cyborg pirate Silver is at the heart of the story. Another television veteran, David Hyde Pierce, known to many as Dr. Niles Crane on NBC's long-running series Frasier, performs the voice of Dr. Doppler, a doglike astrophysicist who is an amalgam of two characters from the novel.

Clements, Musker, Gordon-Levitt and Hyde Pierce talked with Science Fiction Weekly recently about the long process of bringing Treasure Planet to life and the legacy of becoming a permanent part of the Disney Feature Animation canon.
Why did you wait so long to bring this to the big screen? Were you waiting for technology to allow you to do things you wanted to do?
Clements: I think that was part of it. And part of it was there were just other films we were doing before we got to this.

Musker: Had we made the film 17 years ago, we couldn't have made the film that we actually did. I mean, we could have made it, but it would have been completely different, I think. We would have simplified [Silver's computer-animated] arm and we wouldn't have shots where you could fly in. If you did, they'd be very few and far between. So we're actually sort of happy that we did wait for technology to sort of catch up with us.
Did the animation meet what you envisioned in your head?

Clements: I would say it went beyond. I would honestly say it went quite a bit beyond what we were picturing.

Musker: I hadn't seen anything quite like that, certainly, where you could move even dimensionally into it. It was a thrill when we first started seeing tests where we were trying to prove this stuff out and it was really working. That was exciting because it was like nothing we had ever seen before.

Clements: This one was longer than most, I think, but they usually take from like three to four years to do. ... This film, we actually had five years, so that's two extra years compared to that. Usually it's about four, and the extra year really was a big help. I think really a lot of what happened that first year was it gave us a chance to really test out the new technology and figure out if this stuff could be made to work and get things a little set before we got into the production mode, where you are really working hundreds of people and it gets pretty intense.
How do you keep the rhythm for five years?

Musker: Well, fortunately you're not doing the same thing all the time. At the beginning, it's just us in a room, starting from scratch. Then we're typing. Then you start adding visual artists ... and they're starting to explore characters and ideas, and then it opens up wider as you get into it. So, ultimately, it's 350 people, or whatever it is, but that's at the height of the thing. And each day is different. Even an animator's job, you might say, "Oh, being an animator, it must be boring drawing the same character all the time." But really, every scene is different, and every performance has its different challenges and for us. One might be more oriented toward working with the animators, the other one's working with the cinematographers, talking about how the town is going to work, so it isn't like every day is the same thing.

Clements: In live action, I think there's this very clear delineation between preproduction, as they develop the script and develop and figure out the art direction, and then production, which is where you're on the set, the actors are there, you are shooting film every day. And then there's post-production, where it's all edited and put together and the sound is mixed. With animation, it's a little vaguer, a lot of that stuff. Like, editing is going on almost constantly from the beginning, from the very early stages. It's almost hard to define where you go from development to production. We kind of define it when we start animation, the real animation that is going in the movie. We do a lot of test animation before we start doing production animation, where you are on a schedule and you have to do so much animation per week. They want every animator to do so much animation per week, but it's still vague. It's still a constantly evolving job, which makes it fun. It's almost every day, every day is different.
How did you go about adapting the story of Treasure Island from the very beginning?

Musker: Well, if you are familiar with the novel, it's told in the first person. And normally, we have our stories told in first person, too. So that was an important thing, although, ultimately, it got in the way. Originally, we had a bookend where Jim was an adult, and at the end you pull back and it's Jim as an adult flying a ship. It just seemed like that bookend felt a little extraneous, so we wound up reworking the close. We combined characters in the novel. In the novel, there's a Dr. Livesey and Squire Trelawney, who are mentor figures for Jim. One is more comic and the other's very straight. Those sort of got fused into Dr. Doppler. I think it was Ron's idea to make him into an astronomer, just because that fit into that whole science-fiction milieu there.

Clements: And then one of the big changes was a little bit in the character of Jim Hawkins. Because in the book, Jim is a very smart, very capable kid, and it's a great story, but we felt like we wanted a little bit of a change in Jim. It was a major idea that we wanted to start him out as a little troubled kid. He's still the kid in the book in the sense that he's smart, capable and resourceful, but he doesn't really know that he is or think that he is and so his relationship with Silver could actually kind of help him. I think we were picturing Jim as a kid who was a little bit at a crossroads, where his future is a little uncertain, and if he makes the wrong choices, he could take the wrong path and throw away his future. And if he makes the right choices, he could be great. We wanted to feel that Silver and the relationship, aside from the whole adventure-story aspect, that Silver really makes a difference in this kid's life as a mentor or surrogate father, and that he really sets Jim on the right path. And even though at the end of the story I think Silver is still going to be a pirate, he knows that he really did something good. The whole father-son thing is in the Stevenson story, to some degree, but we wanted to bring that out a little more.
How did you go about casting the roles?

Musker: We did have David Hyde Pierce in mind for the character of Dr. Doppler. So we wrote it with him in mind, not knowing if he would do it, but we pictured him doing the performance. ... With Joseph Gordon Levitt, he read out here. He's a really good actor, and he, for us, combined enough vulnerability and intelligence and a combination of youthfulness but incompleteness. We just liked his approach. The trick with Joey was he was at that transition where his voice had changed. If you listen to some of the lines at the end of the movie compared to the beginning of the movie, there's a little bit of a difference there.

Clements: At the beginning, he had never done any animation before and felt a little strange standing in front of a microphone, because everything he'd ever done was interacting with other actors. So he [said], "Why can't I interact with the actor playing Silver? I would feel a lot more comfortable doing that." As it turned out, he started going to school at Columbia in New York, and Brian Murray's in New York, so we worked out some sessions where they did interact. And they did a lot of their dialogue together, and I think he was right, it did help all the way through. As well, Brian and Joey sort of developed a relationship as the veteran stage actor with all his experience and Joseph being this young, very eager actor who wants to know everything, so that was nice.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt, can you talk about the vocal sessions you did with Brian Murray?
Gordon-Levitt: I'd never done any voiceover before, and I guess standard form for voiceover work is you stand in a booth and you do one line at a time, and that's hard. What I know of acting is you draw your inspiration from who you're acting with, and that's what keeps you in it. So, for the more emotional scenes, almost all the scenes, really, between Jim and Silver, it was tough alone. And when we got together, it made all the difference in the world to be able to look someone in the eye while you're acting, and to be able to do a whole scene in its entirety. I mean, how can you know anything about a line without hearing the three preceding lines?
How long did it take for you to record, and what's it like to see the final product?

Gordon-Levitt: It took four years of interspersed, every couple months, every six months, [I'd] go in and do a couple days or a day or whatever. What's it like to see the final project? It's like a realization of this thing that I've been imagining the whole time. I've been committed to doing a performance for years and years and years, but it's only half a performance because it's only the voice. To get to see the performance in its totality is incredibly fulfilling.
Did you have trouble with your voice changing?

Gordon-Levitt: I started this when I was 17, and I've done sessions not even that long ago. It's a really long process. So as the years went by I'd go in and raise my voice.
Did they watch the vocal sessions and incorporate any of you into the character? Do you see yourself in Jim?

Gordon-Levitt: I'm better-looking than he is [laughs]. But, yeah, they do. They take a videotape of when you're recording the voice, just for the artists to look at for ideas for facial expressions and gestures and whatnot. I don't know about myself. Sure, I guess. It's hard to say if I see myself. I'm sure they did, but I wouldn't know what I do.
Did you see any of the artwork during the recording process?

Gordon-Levitt: They show you drawings the whole time. Every time you do a scene, you come out of the booth and they have a binder and they go, "OK, now, in this scene ... ." And they've got a whole binder of the storyboards, and Ron and John would tell me a story like I was their son. "And then Jim's going to come down the stairs and he's going to be kind of hesitant and down and la la la." And they'd show you all the drawings. So yeah, I had an image of it the whole time.
Did you read the original Treasure Island?

Gordon-Levitt: I didn't read it when I was a kid, but yeah, I read it. I really hope that if people haven't read the novel and they see this movie, it inspires them to go read the novel, because it's not repetitive at all. They're similar stories, and they're kind of the same characters, but it's two totally different takes on the story. And not just because it's in space. That's the least of it. The novel is very detailed in the physicality, in almost the military aspects of the whole thing. It doesn't pay much attention to the emotions or the humanity of the people involved, which is really what's emphasized in this movie. I think they're really interesting complements to each other. What would make me happy is if parents take their kids to see this movie and the kids like it, that the parents would read the novel to their kids. That would just totally knock me out.
What did you think about being cast in a Disney movie?

Gordon-Levitt: It's like when I was a kid, and I'll do it now and then, you play pretend. You play with your imagination. You're standing up on your parents' sofa screaming and yelling and jumping around. You don't picture that you're on your parents' sofa, you picture you're on a pirate ship or something like that. It was like going and getting to do that and then walking into a cinema and having these amazing artists have drawn the fantasy that I was enacting.
David Hyde Pierce, did you do any action sessions with anyone else?

Hyde Pierce: No, all solo, all by myself.
You've done vocal work for Disney before in A Bug's Life and Hercules. How did it compare?

Hyde Pierce: This is my third feature, and I don't know, I guess I've gotten more and more into it, and more and more enjoyed the process and accepted the freedom of it as opposed to feeling the restraint of it.
Did it help that they had you in mind for the part from the beginning, or was it more pressure?

Hyde Pierce: Very upsetting [laughs]. No. If they were disappointed, they didn't tell me. No, because they sent me the script, which I loved. They sent sort of preliminary sketches of the character, which were hysterical. And also some of the scenic work, which just gave you such an idea of the palette and the depth of what it was going to be, and made you understand instantly that it was going to be outer space, but outer space in a very rich kind of old-world way, as opposed to Space Odyssey.
How long did it take you to record?

Hyde Pierce: It was four years, and it was I think every four or six months I'd go in and do a session. It's what we did on Bug's Life. ... First, nothing's animated. You start out, you do a reading of the entire script. But because there's so many people, so many characters, over time things evolve about which characters take importance at what points in the film and what storylines to follow. I think originally my love interest was Jim Hawkins' mom in the movie. You can see the roots of that, but I think because so much of the movie is away from there, it didn't have the kind of emotional appeal of getting hooked up with the captain and the opposites-attract sort of aspect.
What was your favorite scene in the movie?

Hyde Pierce: This is really embarrassing, but this is when I saw the movie and went to the screening. When the character meets the pirate that speaks flatulence I laughed so hard. Because, also, that's not something I really did. At the end of each recording session, they have a series of different random noises that they have you make, just ridiculous. Every movie they always do the same thing. Including horrifying things like that. But they're the ones that put it all together and then animate it. Every time that farting pirate comes on, it is hysterical.
So was it you making the farting noises?

Hyde Pierce: I think it was probably a mix. Some of them were, although I can tell you they were all orally produced.
What kind of vocal direction did you get from Ron and John?

Hyde Pierce: Some of it is just to say the line a bunch of different ways. Some of it is more specific: "I think it needs to have more weight" or "more energy" or "it has to be louder." Like, if there's a big storm going on, sometimes we would juggle whether something was better funny or not. Because if it was at a very suspenseful part of the movie, you had to weigh what you were gaining and what you were losing by having a laugh there. That kind of stuff.
Did you meet the lead animator for your character?

Hyde Pierce: Yeah, he was very much a part, especially in the early recording sessions, because he is the character as much as you are the character. Probably more. So, he had a very vocal and very impassioned stake in the choices you make in the recording and how the character is played and why at this moment it's got to be more this way. And we'd discuss stuff and try different ways, but he was very much a part of that process.
What did you learn on your previous animated projects that you brought to this?

Hyde Pierce: I can say one thing that I've learned, I took voice lessons over the time since I've done Bug's Life and before doing this, for totally different reasons, for doing singing stuff. But as you learn how to use your voice, it really is helpful in something like this, because then when you have to scream for half an hour, you can do it without then ripping out your vocal chords and losing them. And in fact, there were times, because it's recorded over such a long period of time, where I'd come back in after having done a musical.

At one point, they said, "Your voice is too big. Your voice is too rich. It's not matching." So I had to change the way I used the voice to get back to it. And then later on in the movie that actually becomes appropriate, because the character becomes more adventuresome and heroic.
Would you do voice acting again?

Hyde Pierce: Yes, I would. I've been really spoiled. I mean, Bug's Life is one of the greatest animated movies, and I think this is spectacular, too. So, yeah, it's gotta be good, but I'd absolutely do it again. And because I have nieces and nephews. [My niece is] seven. She just loves it.