Sunday, October 07, 2007

Jungle Book Documentary (and some musings on pacing in animated film)

I bought the new "Jungle Book" DVD yesterday and I was pleasantly surprised to find a documentary included in the bonus materials about the development of the film's story. It talks about Bill Peet's first written treatment for the movie and compares it with both the original book and the final version as overseen by Walt after Bill had left the studio. There's some great storyboards in the documentary that I've never seen before and more details about Peet's version than I've ever heard before.

Peet's original ending had Mowgli able to move within the world of the "Man Village" and the world of the jungle as well. That's interesting because I always think of the modern Disney films as having those kind of "have your cake and eat it too" endings - like Ariel being able to marry Price Eric and keep a relationship with her father as well, or Aladdin setting the Genie free and becoming a prince besides.

Some pictures of Bill Peet at work. Click to see all of these bigger.

This one (below) appears to be a Vance Gerry drawing. The rest all appear to be by Bill Peet.

One of the sections of the documentary shows a sequence Peet had in mind for the film. It begins with Bagheera and Mowgli up in a tree, with Col. Hathi (the elephant) below, threatening to kill Mowgli if he catches him. Then the two of them descend the tree and run into a rhino, who can smell Mowgli and threatens to kill Mowgli if he can catch him. The Rhino ends up chasing Bagheera and Mowgli into a tree. It seems like an odd sequence because it has a weird symmetry - the same things happen twice: they start and end in a tree and are threatened by two big animals inbetween. It would be great to read Peet's original treatment and see how he saw this part fitting in with the overall story.

One of the comments made by Walt during the making of the movie was that "fewer events (in the story) make more room for character", supposedly in regard to Peet having too many complicated events and too much expositionary dialogue. I never heard of Walt actually saying it that plainly but it's interesting because many of us have said this over the years recently at Disney, because on many of our recent films it always felt like the movie was moving at a breakneck pace from event to event and the movies would never slow down to let the movie breathe and showcase the personalities of the characters that populate our movies. "Jungle Book" is certainly the most leisurely-paced of the Disney movies made during Walt's life with the plot being basically a "road trip" - a journey from one place to another and episodes of meeting different characters along the way. To me there is nothing wrong with this approach - I've always felt that the first "false notes" that the story hits are at the point where the vultures are introduced and then the climax and defeat of Shere Kahn feels distinctly unsatisfying and underwheming. These parts of the movie were the ones that were cobbled together after Walt's death (supposedly Walt didn't think much of the real-life Beatles and I wonder what he would have thought about the idea of four vultures that look like the Beatles and yet sound more like a Barbershop quartet than the Beatles).

Anyway, in the modern Disney executive-driven era, we were always encouraged to make the pace of our movies faster, faster, faster in order to avoid boring the audience. One executive was (in)famous for yelling out "I'm going for popcorn!" in the middle of a story pitch if it seemed like the pace of the story was bogging down. Certainly it can be said that Disney movies made after Walt's death and before the arrival of the modern executive era suffered from a pace that was too slow and lacked a narrative drive, generally meandering from place to place without enough cohesive threads to hold the whole thing together. So I think the executives were trying to leave that kind of filmmaking behind and begin to create movies more akin to the live action films of the time, films like "Top Gun" that had a lot of adrenaline and energy along with a very fast pace.

After a few years of pushing the Disney films to go at a faster and faster pace, it just became habit. Nobody was ever surprised to hear an executive say "cut this part out, hurry this part along quicker" but many of us were tired of this policy because it obviously isn't appropriate to every situation. There are many types of moments in a film that need time to breathe or else they just won't work. It's hard to imagine Walt telling his story guys that they should hurry through "When You Wish Upon a Star", "April Showers" or "Baby Mine" or else the audience would get bored. Even many modern animated films prove this theory out. Think about Jesse's song in "Toy Story 2" and how effective it was. A film has to slow down and take it's time with certain moments for them to work, and in general all of the Pixar movies have much longer running times than their modern Disney counterparts and obviously audiences have found them much more rewarding and satisfying.

One thing you discover in animated filmmaking is how much of a difference these little pauses can make. At Disney we were always rushed along to make shorter films because every frame adds cost to the budget. Also, the way the films are made has become much different in the last ten years. Instead of working in the story room to work out the movie, much more of the filmmaking process now happens in the editing room because of the invention of digital editing. It's so much easier now to adjust, tweak and experiment with your story reels now in the editing room. As a result, both editors and directors end up watching the story reels over and over and over in editorial much more than they used to. This has an unintended consequence because the more they watch it the more they can become used to the pace of the movie and it starts to seem long to them. If you watch anything over and over and you know what's going to happen next, you become dulled to the rhythm of it and it starts to seem long and boring in all the slow spots. So I would say that modern directors and editors tend to get bored with the quieter parts and they start to trim frames off here and there to keep the pace moving.

After a while this has a cumulative effect and the film starts to feel rushed. I actually can't tell you how many films I saw at Disney that I thought worked really well, only to see the final version in the theater and think that the sincerity and the heart of the film suffered in the final product. A few frames here and there - as crazy as this sounds - makes a big, big difference. Sincerity lives in those few frames. If you don't let a heartfelt moment play out with the length and "air" that it needs it will start to feel forced and manipulative to the audience. And in the last minute panic that happens in making a movie sometimes people give into their fears that they might bore the audience for a moment and they tend to trim a few frames here and there because it doesn't seem like it will effect the film as a whole. By that point everyone involved in the making of the movie is so exhausted from watching the movie day in and day out for years that it's hard to have any perspective on the thing or any ability to look at it objectively. So it can be hard to tell what's working and why.

Anyway, that's just my two cents as a story person. Any director or editor or executive would have a different perspective, and I can only tell you what I've seen from my side of the fence.

For more great information on Ken Anderson and "The Jungle Book" see Will Finn's great post about the topic.


Rhett Wickham said...

Mark, this is the most intelligent and cogent commentary I've read on the subject in quite some time.
Having spent the past twelve years wrestling with execs in both animation and live action, including Mr. Popcorn, I often feel like a Who waiting for Horton - please won't somebody hear me? Let the story (and the audience) breathe and trust the silence once in a while. Alas, as you point out, there is both a trend and some inherent pitfalls to the practice that make this a difficult battle to win.
The fallout of the ongoing insistence to "move it along" is actually affecting the choices many writers and story artists are making at the outset (note that the only prejudice in my differentiation here is to use "writers" to describe artists hired to write live action, and "story artists" to describe artists hired to write - or who should be hired to write - animation. Otherwise I typically think and speak of both as "writers".) I have a client now who I have to hog tie to keep them from slashing and burning moments that are not simply charming or indulgent, but essential to making an authentic connection to the characters, and serving to establish specifics that will resonate later in the story when crisis has to count for something more than just a mile marker in the page count. It’s hard enough responding to studio notes that stomp on good writing, how do you stop writers from second guessing themselves in an attempt to “just get it produced!”?
There's a terrible unwritten but much too often adhered to rule that if a script is over 80 pages nobody will read it. I do not exaggerate when I say that I've had development v.p.'s and countless "readers" (loosely defined as anyone right out of Bryn Mawr willing to work for $8 and hour) at major studios tell me directly "If the page count is over 80 then we put it at the bottom of the pile, and often don't bother. It's just too long." …?!....*sigh*
Some of this began when graduates of Harvard, Anderson and other MBA programs who were suddenly making the decisions turned to so-called experts to help them understand the entertainment industry, and thus the cult of Robert McKee. A fine academician, a gifted and astute lecturer with a great deal of solid theories, McKee is still nothing more than someone with an opinion (as, admittedly, am I) but thanks to his anointment as the last line of defense on "how to" write a screenplay, and the rise of Joseph Campbell, countless marketing executives have become experts in storytelling overnight, and the intuitive gifts of great writers and story artists have been ignored for well over 25 years. Instead, we have a guru who insists on making rules about how there are no rules, and written a book that has become the bible for a lot of decision makers who don’t know how to read boards or scripts, but know that they have to give notes or otherwise they’ll look stupid.
I, too, would love to see Bill Peet's first written treatment for the Jungle Book, I know I’m in the minority, but I find the film lacking in the kind of adventurous spirit that the "Chairman of the Boards" would have brought to bear on Mowgli and pals.
I've already posted at length on Will's blog that I think a great deal of the pacing issues with both Jungle Book and Sword in the Stone have to do with direction. And while I don't know Don Bluth well, and I'm only hypothesizing here, I wonder if Bluth didn't learn a great deal of his style from Woolie Reitherman, as I always found the Bluth films suffered from the same aimless pacing and lack of drive.
The other pitfall you so wisely note is the inherent problem of repeated exposure to reels and the myopic focus that results from the protracted process of crafting an animated feature. Some years ago, Ellen Woodbury told me about getting Frank Thomas to agree to review her student film when she was Cal Arts. According to Ellen “I had all these questions like ‘So, do you get this? Do you understand what I’m trying to do here and what I’m trying to get across? And this is my character?’ and stuff like that. And he wrote back, I don’t remember exactly, something like ‘You’re asking the age old question of ‘am I getting what you’re trying to communicate through your animation?’. It was kind of like somehow I felt like…not that I’d been admitted to the hall...but just that I was one of the many - that we all struggle with this. That’s part of the process, and everybody goes through it. You always start out not really knowing as you’re sitting there whether or not anybody is getting it. It was very comforting to know that this was something all animators go through.”
Walt’s frequent refrain toward the end - “you boys know what to do” - may not have been a lack of interest so much as a belief that by that point he didn’t have to drum it into them, and that he trusted what he was seeing at the outset, and he didn’t have to attend every story meeting. Sadly, many well intended and good executives who followed him simply had to have an opinion in order to justify their presence, and no place else to exercise their ego. That it only served to make them more monstrous and inept - both at Disney and beyond - seems proof of their lack of vision from the outset.
That said, I hope that you and other artists of your generation will note that all the answers are not in the classics, and recognize that you’ve mastered a good deal of this yourselves in several of the contemporary features. Remember, Jungle Book was the 19th film in Walt’s canon. Little Mermaid remains a marvel in great story telling through film. There are moments in Mike Gabriel’s Rescuers Down Under and in Pocahontas that are patient and tender, and Lilo and Stitch takes time to bring balance and focus to its heroine and anti-hero alike, long before the chaos takes hold. Mulan and A Goofy Movie all are well paced without being overly frantic (and up to a point in Tarzan). Even Treasure Planet’s relationship between Silver and Jim is truly lovely, and the “Will the Sun Ever Shine Again” sequence in Home on the Range brings a much needed respite to the madness. A great deal of the good manages to get through, although admittedly not enough.
Still, the power of story artists in animation is the greatest untapped resource in the industry. The longer I work in film, the more convinced I am that ALL scripts should be boarded while being "written", and that only in theatre, where its all about the words, should the script come first. That story artists/story writers don’t get trusted isn’t really a surprise. How and why and when it is that they stop trusting themselves I just don’t know. Perhaps the price for being too vocal is more costly than most are willing to pay, and always has been. Just ask Bill Peet. I only wish the training programs and universities pushing out MBAs would come to the aid of their writers and animators by branding them with something Jules Engle said “It’s not what we give them, it’s what we don’t take away.” Keep fighting the good fight. You’re doing a hell of a job.

Michael said...

Speaking as an editor, I have to say that any good editor should always be aware of the "fatigue effect" you describe. If anything, the editor, who spends a lot longer going over and over the same stretch of footage, needs to have a lot of discipline and keep his perspective fresh. It's far more common for a director, I think, in live action anyway, to do what you describe and insist on constant trims. The editor's goal if anything should always be to PREVENT arbitrary trimming like that and act from intention to support the story. I don't doubt that there are editors who do what you describe without realizing their decisions are the product of "getting used to the footage", but I think any editor worth his or her salt is very aware of the "fatigue factor" and is at pains to make decisions bearing that in mind.

Will Finn said...

wow mark, this is great. so well written.
for me much of the problem boils down to plot v.s. character. i recall trouble started when the plots began being taking the driver's seat while character fell more and more to the wayside. the net results were complex plot trapezes populated by less than spectacular characters who only had enough time to hit their marks, exhale, and head for the next hectic plot point.
one reason for this may be that plot is a mechanical thing that is "easier" to manage (or at least get your head around). character is far more ethereal and subjective, yet it is far more important (as JUNGLE BOOK proves, I feel). amazing characters + thin plot tends to succeed much more than amazing plots + weak characters. of course both elements should amaze but given the lesser of two evils, amazing character is more important in my book. if done right, the characters will be so rich they will BE the plot and story. that tends to be the case in great literature.

easier said than done tho, as i can certainly attest...

Matt J said...

Excellent post as usual. I always felt FINDING NEMO was Pixar's Jungle Book-Marlin's 'road-trip' was just the support for a succession of set-pieces with highly entertaining characters (with perfectly cast voices too).

Floyd Norman said...

Great comments, Mark.

As a guy who's had the opportunity to storyboard on both "The Jungle Book," and "Toy Story2," I can only say I'm still learning how to do my job.

In any case, both movies were one heck of a lot of fun to do.

Jorgen Klubien said...

Hi all,

I am touched by this article. I wish we as the newer generation of Disney story men, would have had a greater influence on our pictures, both at Pixar and at Disney's. I was one of the main writers of a Bug's Life and thought it got "sit-commed" in it's final pace and use of rapid dialouge, to the detrement of the final result and at the expence of really liking the main character, Flick.
I knew Bill Peet a little and have always been a great fan of his work. I too would have liked to see his vesion of the Jungle Book, still you have to imagine that Walt saw something wrong here or there, (althought I think it might have been rooted in an odd form of jealouxy and competition between the two.)
My favorite film of all that I have worked on is Toy Story 2, because like you say Mark, it seems to breathe, and the characters are so fun to watch... the collecter is so great a character isn't he?
I wrote the original treatment for Pixar's CARS, and ity would have been a "road-type" picture ala Jungle Book, where the main character who was a little out cast of an electric car, meets all kinds of fun cars with distinct personalities along the way. CARS ended up a big financial success, (they are making a secqual already because the merchandise have been fenomenal), so all is fine I guess.
Anyway, loved your elequent writing on this subject and wholeheartet;y agree with what you are talking about.

Jorgen Klubien

Maxeem said...

I was wondering why Atlantis felt so much like run-run-run-run ... with an excess of characters with minimal development ... this commentary on disney studio's hyper pace makes so much sense.

Anonymous said...

So Pixar really is going to make a Cars 2?

Doron Meir said...

Interesting idea about the way digital editing influenced film pace. I believe you're right about that.

It reminds me about when I was a beginner 2D animator. Senior animators would always advise me to plan carefully, rather than rush to the pencil-test camera twice a day.


I really look forward to hearing your comments on that upcoming release.
Great posts on this blog.....thought prevoking.


Rob Bodnar said...

I agree, and one of the "best ever" bonus DVD's I have ever seen.

mark kennedy said...

Thanks, everyone, for leaving a comment.

rhett- great stuff, thanks for taking the time to write such a great comment. Very good points - you add a lot of depth to the discussion.

michael- at Disney we have recently been under a TON of pressure to shorten our movies constantly, so this is a big part of the problem as well.

will - yes, very well put. That is certainly very true.

matt j -yes, I was thinking the same thing while writing about "Jungle Book" as a "road trip".

floyd - to be able to say you worked on both of those movies is pretty extraordinary. Job well done!

jorgen - thanks so much for chiming in, great to read your comment. It is truly hard for all of us story guys to see the story discussions move out of the story room and down to the editorial room, but so it goes and in the end it only matters if the film is good, of course. Toy Story 2 is surely an amazing film, great stuff you guys managed to pull off there. Glad you enjoyed the post.

maxeem - Yes, that certainly has been the tendency in recent years (because "Atlantis" was more like an action movie than most of our other efforts it probably suffered less from the trimming and cutting thing than some of our other films, I think).

anon - I don't know!

doron - that's funny you should say that, I was thinking about that same connection myself!

gogopedro and rob - thanks, glad you liked it!

pappy d said...

I want to praise you for your fair & dispassionate post on a subject that must tempt you to go postal.

A recent release I animated on was so frantically timed, characters were stepping on each other's punch lines!

mark kennedy said...

pappy - yes, I am very careful to be objective about everything, but it's never easy.

Anonymous said...

What if Winnie the Pooh came out in 1953?

Anonymous said...

Great post as always.

Bill Peet once told me that that pic of him on the floor was set up by the photographer. He told me he never sat around on the floor drawing.

Ooooh the pageantry on it all.

I guess drawing at a desk isn't "showy" enough.


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