Return to Disney
Things had really changed in the thirteen years since I had been away from Disney Studios.
For one thing, the studio management had changed. The studio was larger, richer, and was in the middle of its own animation renaissance due largely to the shrewd recruiting of new talent by Walt’s nephew, Roy E. Disney.
While rediscovering painting, I reconnected with a subject that I used to paint in my art college days: military history. It was because of this reconnection that I was so excited and invigorated about Pocahontas – to bring to life a real adventurer and soldier of fortune, Captain John Smith. In a way, it seemed to represent a new pinnacle for me.
My room at Disney was right beside Glen Keane’s. We ate together, worked late together, and listened to his music together. It was a blast.
We each had about fourteen to fifteen animators to supervise. During our 9 to 5 work days, we were constantly getting interrupted while in our deepest creative process – like pearl diving, only to be yanked up to the water’s surface to answer an animation question. Since then, Glen and I have always affectionately called each other “diving buddies.”
One test scene involved John Smith asking Pocahontas “not to go,” and then he kisses her. In the scene he is bare-chested. I guess the executive command were getting squeamish about the scene's sensuality, so they had me re-animate it with his shirt on. Luckily, I held onto the “shirtless” version. (I’ll give you a sneak peek in the future.)
During this period, I remained in contact with my old partners – Don and Gary – even though it felt good being back at Disney. While working on Pocahontas, Don and Gary had left Ireland and were now producing Anastasia out of Phoenix, Arizona for 20th Century Fox.
After Pocahontas came Fantasia 2000, and with it a chance to animate a character from a piece of music that I fell in love with in my formative years. I remember when I was writing letters to Disney Studios as a high school sophomore. I listened to my mom’s copy of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring,” imagining what it must have been like in the late 30’s working with Walt on the original Fantasia. On the flip side of this record was another Stravinsky piece that I slowly began to fall in love with. More and more I listened to it, not knowing that one day I would be animating it. It was the “Firebird Suite.”
Working with French directing brothers Paul and Gaetan Brizzi was a pure delight. They were very passionate and encouraging. The production on Fantasia 2000 was very short and intense, and it was during that time I got to really know my next door neighbor Roy Disney. Roy told me that he felt the “Firebird Suite” was the crown jewel of his Fantasia 2000.
After this film, I was approached to work on The Emperor’s New Groove. Though it sounded like a fun project, I was left pondering, “Is this really for me?” It was at precisely this time that my old pal, Don Hahn, approached me about animating a frustrated museum assistant/cartographer by the name of Milo Thatch. The project was Atlantis: The Lost Empire. It was loaded with historical drama and fun tidbits, which immediately excited me. I was very tempted, and Hahn said to me, “You don’t want to work on New Groove – come and work with us on Atlantis.”
How could I say no?
It turned out to be one of the best times I ever had as an animator. The film included great characters, a great crew, and above all else: a great story. Although I was supervising a team of fourteen other animators, I was given an opportunity to stretch and grow like no other project I had ever been on. For two and a half years, I was Milo Thatch. My passion to make everything about his character authentic pushed me to shoot live action film of myself as an animation reference.
At one point my wife, Cami, thought we were being burglarized at two in the morning. She came sneaking into our downstairs kids playroom, only to find me shooting what was probably take number seventeen to vocal playback of Michael J. Fox’s dialogue recording!
When you share the challenges and triumphs and bond with the crew in a two-and-a-half year effort, you become like a family, and as in all productions there comes a time when you have to bid adieu. This time was particularly hard, but I am grateful for the chance. To this day, whenever I run into an old Atlantis crew mate, we reminisce like army buddies.
Treasure Planet followed and a chance to work with some other old pals, Ron Clements and John Musker. They knew I loved painting battle scenes, and they asked me to animate the opening of their movie with Captain Flint and his crew storming an intergalactic treasure galleon. This was followed by an animation development assignment with the Brizzi brothers production of Don Quixote, then storyboarding on the Snow Queen – which later to become Frozen – and then on to Gnomeo and Juliet.
Upheaval was beginning to hit Disney’s feature animation films. Devastatingly, in 2001-2002 the studio decided to phase out traditional 2D animation in favor of CGI. Between 2002-2003, Disney began a session of classes to teach 2D animators CGI techniques using the MAYA program. They were grooming us to work on Chicken Little. It was a slow process, and just when I was starting to catch on, they decided not to renew my contract.
I became a free agent.