Winnie the Pooh, the honey-loving, and oh so hug-able bear has hit the big screens this summer in a feature length film. Sarah Peters finds out what goes into making a Disney animation and asks why the film-makers choose to hand draw every single frame!
The first fully animated film released by Walt Disney Studios was Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs in 1937. Since then so many beloved tales have been bought to life; tearjerkers like Bambi; adventures like Toy Story and The Princess And The Frog; romances such as Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella, right up to date with the drama and beauty of Tangled.
Despite the massive leaps forward in technology, trends in film-making and changing demands of the audience, animators still use many of the techniques used over seventy years ago. In fact, the most recent Disney animation, Winnie The Pooh, was completely hand drawn using no computers to generate the images.
When you watch the film you can't help be transported to the charming scenes of childhood bliss: the cheery colours, the enchanting story and the characters' quirky characteristics are a great antidote for the craziness and zany pace of life in the real world. In the Hundred Acre Wood tails can be made of balloons, honey is plentiful and it’s always play time.
Bringing the books to life
When faced with the task of making an animation of this length and calibre the first thing the creative team have to do is get to know the material. For the Californian-based team of writers and animators, this meant lots of reading.
Director Stephen J Anderson (who worked on Tarzan, Emperor's New Groove and Brother Bear) loved the A.A.Milne books. “I read the books and they blew me away: how multi-layered they were and how clever and funny.”
Working with such established characters and drawing on original stories and pictures meant it was rather a balancing act to remain faithful to the books and also bring something new and exciting to the film. The film-makers decided to go back to the drawing board to give Pooh and his friends an authentic look, a hand-drawn feel, to get as near as possible to the original images by E.H.Shepard.
“When we came to the project there was a very strong mandate to return Pooh to its roots,” says the film’s director Don Hall (best known for The Princess And The Frog, Emperor's New Groove, Chicken Little and Tarzan). “Today with our technologies and living life at such a fast pace, things are very chaotic. Hand drawings give a very delicate and unique quality which is what we wanted to capture. It was the perfect time to go back to the peacefulness of the world of Ashdown Forest and let it stand as a counterpoint to everything that we have bombarding us in our lives.”
They maintained that they wanted to use the “right tools for the job” and this meant shutting down the computer and instead reaching for boxes of pencils and sharpeners, and leaning on old-fashioned wooden drawing desks. Some of the huge, heavy drawing desks had been at Disney for decades.
For supervising animator Andreas Deja (whose previous work includes The Princess And The Frog and Beauty And The Beast) it felt right to go back to the original techniques in order to capture the simplicity and beauty of the Pooh stories.
“It was wonderful to think that some of the old classics, such as Peter Pan and Cinderella, had been drawn on the very desks we were using. It was a bit scary actually. But, they were beautiful pieces of furniture and great to work with.”
To get the right feel and atmosphere of Hundred Acre Wood the film's creative team came over to England to spend time in the Ashdown Forest, in Sussex where the stories are set. They took photographs, did paintings and explored the forest for themselves to make the atmosphere and scenery as authentic as possible.
As Don Hall explains, it was a long task. They spent months showcasing sections of the film and using storyboards to get the look just right.
“We screened various scenes five times during production to compare and watch the film evolve. It means we can see what is funny and what is not. We can see if the jokes are right, if we need more humour or less humour. We screened it in front of a whole studio to test their reaction and the end result works really well.”
Pooh, Tigger, Piglet, Owl and Roo are timeless and beloved characters. Many of us who grew up with Pooh and his friends pass on the legend to our children. So, working with such classic and familiar characters must have been harder than starting from scratch purely because there is such a history and expectation already in place. However, having such characters with individual personalities, tendencies and quirky traits actually made it easier for the team.
Director Don Anderson explains why. “So often we are creating the characters from the start. We stare at a blank piece of paper and scratch our heads for while. So much of our time is spent trying to figure out the characters and how they would do things.
“With Pooh, the characters were there already, and well established, so it was much easier for us. The characters had stood the test of time, people could relate to them so they didn't need to change. I like to think of it as an oasis of happiness that you can return to, again and again.”
Peter Del Vecho (Producer for Chicken Little, The Princess And The Frog and Hercules) was entranced by the characters.
“They were already beloved characters all round the world; we needed to change nothing. They are so relatable and everyone can see something of themselves in each character.
“Pooh and his friends have such classic elements of human nature and that is why they will be around forever.”
Tigger was created by the supervising animator Andreas Deja who pounced at the opportunity to take charge of this rather unpredictable, bouncy character.
“With a character like Tigger, if you are going to bring him to life from a page, you still have to keep true to who he is and yet bring a little something new. We looked at all the drawings of Tigger that had ever been drawn, learned about the character and did test scenes.
“We also blew up original drawings and put them up in the corridors outside the office so each time you come in you see them. After drawing about 4 or 5 scenes you learn who the character is and get to grips with him. You no longer think about where the ears are or how big the nose is, you think about the character himself and do your own acting with him.”
When you look at the facts, it is astonishing a film even gets completed when you hear that 12 to 24 drawings are needed for every second of footage!
“You work a week to do one second of the movie,” says Deja. “There are 24 drawings per second for a fast action section down to about 12 drawings per second for a slower moving section.” That's 1444 drawings per minute of film!
When asked about the difference between hand and computer animation, Deja is adamant.
“The process of bringing a character to life by hand is totally different to using a computer. It’s as different as day and night. Computers are for other people; I'll stick with hand drawing.”
Finding the voice talent is a huge task for the team. The actors need to read well in character, have the confidence to improvise and have personalities that will make the characters come alive!
In Winnie The Pooh the only recognisable name in the cast is John Cleese, who voices the narrator. In fact, the talent behind two of the lead characters, namely Pooh and Tigger is the very same man and a veteran of many voices in Disney films, Jim Cummings. He has been King Louie and Kaa in The Jungle Book 2, Ed the hyena in The Lion King and Ray the heroic firefly in The Princess And The Frog to name a few.
The voice of Roo was Wyatt Hall, the seven-year-old son of director Don Hall, who was recruited to provide the scratch voice (the practice voice) of Roo. Hall says his son wasn’t interested at first but accepted the offer after some bribery and the promise of a Transformer toy. He ultimately won the actual role as the official voice of Roo (which is unusual) because the directors were so impressed.
“We may have created a monster, though,” says Hall. “We were trying to direct him on how to say a specific line and he actually said, ‘I don’t think Roo would say it like that!’”
This version of Winnie the Pooh cost some £15 million to make. If that sounds a lot, try Toy Story 3 which cost over £100 million. Who knows if Walt Disney himself would have approved. But for sure there are going to be hundreds of children and adults alike who will adore this film. We Love You Pooh Bear!
Wiinie the Pooh is available to own on Disney DVD from 22nd August 2011.