It's been long time since we've had a new interview, but I hope this'll make it allll up to you. This 'chat' is with Darla & Max's supervising animator, Frans Vischer. So keep on reading, -it's just getting good!
How did you become interested in animation?
I grew up in Holland, and spent many a rainy afternoon drawing from Donald Duck magazine. Disney cartoons were only occasionally shown on TV, and I was enthralled watching them. My parents rarely took us kids to the movies, and the only Disney animated film I can recall seeing was “Mary Poppins.” It knocked my socks off. I was pulled into another world, and I didn’t want to leave.
In 1970, when I was 11, my family immigrated to the US. I didn’t speak English, and I was quite shy. Few kids at that time played soccer, my other love, so making friends was difficult for me. Fortunately there were cartoons galore on TV, and drawing was my escape, so I withdrew into my own little world. I drew constantly, to the point of worrying my parents.
When I was 13, my mother sent a letter to the Disney studio, along with a sample of my drawings. A reply letter invited us to visit the studio, and the following summer my family took a trip to Southern California. My parents, two brothers, sister and I were given a tour of the Disney studio, and I was over the moon. I got to meet some animators, and was encouraged to make my own films. I knew then that I was meant to be an animator.
What formal training did you have? How did you come to join
Turner Features and the CDD crew?
My parents bought me a used super 8 mm. camera, my father built a light table, and I jumped right in. I learned by trial and error, making short films all through high school. I sent one of my films to Chuck Jones, (after seeing him speak at a Junior College,) and with his help I enrolled in the Cal Arts character animation program. In 1981, following my 3rd year at Cal Arts, I was hired by Disney, and my career in animation began.
Mark Dindal was my 2nd year Cal Arts dorm roommate, and we became good friends. I lost touch with him when my wife and I moved to London from 1991 to early 1993. Upon returning to Los Angeles, I made the rounds of the studios, and discovered that Mark was directing a film at Turner Feature Animation, (a then new studio, since absorbed into Warners Feature Animation and then dissolved.) I visited the studio and loved what I saw- fun, cartoony designs, and an engaging story. I knew a number of people working there: Jay Jackson, Brian McEntee, (also a Cal Arts classmate,) Bob Scott, and many more. Mark promptly offered me the job of supervising Darla Dimple and Max, and I accepted immediately.
What were your duties as Supervising Animator, and who were the people you worked with?
As a supervising animator I was in charge of all the scenes involving Darla and Max. I oversaw the clean-up, making sure the characters were drawn on model, and the subtleties of the acting was kept intact. (Meaning, the characters were drawn in their proper proportions, and that the energy and caricature, expressions, [all the things that the animator pushed in a scene,] survived. An unfortunate thing in traditional animation is at times some of the action or expression animators put in their rough animation is lost, or toned down, in the clean-up process, in order to conform the character to its model. Irene Parkins was the clean-up lead on Darla and Max. She did a terrific job.
I had four animators working with me; Wayne Carlisi, Ralph Fernan, Jeff Johnson,
and Mike Kunkle. I strived to create a good working relationship, and form
a real team. We often went to lunch together; played stupid pranks on each
other, saw some movies. We even played soccer on the roof of our three-story
building. (The ’94 World Cup took place during that summer. We moved our desks
close to a TV to catch as many games as we could. Jeff Johnson, Mike Kunkle and
I saw several games together at the Rose Bowl, including the final between Italy
and Brazil. Somehow we managed to get our work done.) I made sure everyone
had their share of fun scenes, and shared the burden of the more mundane scenes.
We shared ideas, pitched them to Mark Dindal as a team, and backed each other
I was also at Ashley Peldon's ( Darla's voice talent) recording sessions, and gave suggestions on dialogue and different takes on interpreting Darla’s lines. Mark Dindal gave me quite a free hand in overseeing Darla and Max, a level of creative freedom I haven’t had since.
you help create Darla’s character design? I assume
Mark had an early version, but I got the impression supervising animators also had some input. Correct?
I had a hand in Darla’s design. Mark Dindal did the initial, basic character designs of all the characters, kind of a rough style pass. Then other artists became involved, so before I started work on the film, the basic design was in place. I played with Darla’s design- I made her proportions cuter by enlarging her head, making her arms and legs a bit chunky, and giving her a slight gap in her front teeth. I added texture to Darla’s hair. In an animation test I used the hair as an extension of Darla’s personality. When she was happy it bounced playfully, when she was upset, it was tight and springy. I did a similar thing with the bow on the top of her head. It was round and soft when she was acting cute; it became pointy and sharp, (essentially devil’s horns,) when her true character came out.
What were some of the guidelines did they give you for handling Darla? How would you describe her?
Mark Dindal had fairly specific ideas for Darla, yet there was plenty of room for exploration and discovery. I remember Mark discussing the fun we could have with Darla doing naughty things, misbehaving in a way kids watching the film weren’t allowed to do at home- disrespecting adults, throwing tantrums and getting her way because of it. Darla is first and foremost a spoiled brat. Being a child star, she has lavish attention heaped on her, and no one, including the head of her studio, has the guts to challenge her. So she’s an emotional yoyo headed for a train wreck, with no one willing to pull the brakes. It takes naive Danny to do that.
It was fun to apply a broad range of adult behavioral traits to a child. Darla is insecure, jealous, impatient, etc. Like countless Hollywood actresses whose good looks outshone their talent, Darla gets by because she’s cute, over-the-top, adorably so. She’s a mediocre actress, but clever enough to use these looks for her own benefit. She can pour on the charm, and feign sympathy, innocence and kindness.
Yet unlike mature adult Hollywood film actresses, (many of whom aren’t terribly mature either,) Darla has no self-control. So when things don’t go her way, her immaturity takes over-, which is the fun part for animators. The subtlety lay in her struggle for self-control, which was the most interesting part for me.
Which Darla scenes were your favorites?
I'll list a couple of my favorite scenes;
A. Darla grabbing her director Flannigan (animated by Steve Wahl), during the filming of the “Li’l Ark Angel” scene.
It was a joy to animate something so broad, with such a wide range in a few scenes of a character unraveling, with moments of subtlety thrown in. Darla struggles with her self-control when confronting Flannigan, a battle she ultimately loses. The vocal delivery of Ashley Pelton is wonderful- starting with a measure of controlled anger, and gradually building into a full-fledged rage. When Darla grabs Flannigan’s collar to bring him down to her level, she speaks to him in a condescending tone, intending to lay down the law. But her anger and immaturity quickly get the better of her. As she struggles to maintain control, her movements become more and more erratic,
Darla singing to Danny on the piano.
I storyboarded this sequence, so I was able to work out a lot of the business in advance, knowing I’d be animating it. I was inspired by Michelle Pfeiffer in “The Fabulous Baker Boys,” in the scene where she seduces Jeff Bridges on the piano. We did a rough CG piano, with the camera slowly dollying past Max as he plays piano. To simplify the scene, as well as keep costs down, we cheated the piano ground-plane, switching to a flat background after Max’s torso covers/wipes the screen. Max was great for things like this. He was like a human building that we could place anywhere we wanted, as needed. He was always fun to use as a compositional element. Animating Darla’s curls as she rolled around in perspective was a bit of a nightmare. I think I actually numbered them to keep track. The clean-up character lead, Irene Parkins, and her team of assistants, did an amazing job of keeping it all consistent.
I began the scene by plotting Darla’s main poses first, partially because of the technical challenges, but also for acting purposes. Then Mark, Brian McEntee, the art director, and I discussed the scene- it’s timing, when Danny enters the scene, the lighting, camera move, length of the scene, etc.
The content of the scene was tricky. Unlike “The Fabulous Baker Boys,” which had underlying sexuality, our scene was comedic based- Darla manipulating Danny to ensure that he won’t steal her spotlight. There is perhaps a hint of girlish sexuality, but only as a little girl’s studied observations from movies- Darla’s attempt at domination. Danny is so naive, and smitten by Darla, that he happily believes every word she sings.
An interesting note: I wanted a little more screen time at the scene’s tail
end, but we were stuck to the timing of the song. I spoke with the editor, Dan
Molina, if there was some way to stretch the last few notes in the scene. The
techno wizard that Mr. Molina is, he was able to isolate and select roughly one
second of the high note that Darla sang at that point of the scene. He copied
this one-second snippet, and pasted it three or four times, thereby extending
the song, (and my scene) by a few bars. Then he smoothed the edges at both ends,
making the whole thing sound natural. Mark Dindal, though dubious at first,
liked it, and approved it. So I went ahead and animated the end of the scene.
The result is Darla leaning ever closer to Danny, mesmerizing him while holding
her note longer than humanly possible.
The whole process was very challenging, and a real blast to get to do.
Which scene/s were the most challenging, from technical or acting standpoints?
There was one scene that stands out for me for it’s technical challenge. Toward the end of the “Big and loud,” number, Darla leaps from the giant cake into the hands of the orange clad beefcake guys. I did a fair amount of cheating on this scene. I animated only one beefcake guy, and made notes to the technical department to copy and mirror image the guy, delaying the copied guy’s motion, (bending forward and holding his hands out,) by roughly a third of a second. Then, with the two guys locked together, they were copied and pasted, so more and more of them appeared from the bottom of the screen. A camera move was added, where they were drifting back toward an off-screen vanishing point, giving the appearance of the camera pulling back past a row of nearly 100 men. The first two guys gradually faded in exposure as they drifted toward the top of the screen, (like the prologue in the Star Wars movies,) as Darla, screen center, hopped from hand to hand.
Towards the end of the scene, I did another cheat. As Darla leapt from the last beefcake guy, I animated the camera zooming around the group of guys holding Darla. The perspective changed radically, but because the background was only a dark color with a spotlight, it was easy to cheat. I heard the technical people grumbled plenty about having to copy and reproduce the guys in the first part of the scene, but they did a great job.
Darla has some of the most entertaining tantrums...what was the inspiration for those?
Shirley Temple was of course our main inspiration- the cute Darla Dimple was a thinly disguised Shirley Temple caricature. My son, Julian who was born five or six months before I started working on “Cats Don’t Dance”, also inspired me. He learned to walk and talk during the production, and I observed and sketched him quite a bit.
I remember standing in line late one night at a drugstore pharmacy, getting medicine for my wife. Behind me in line was a woman with a little girl roughly Darla’s age. The girl was tired, and clearly beyond herself. While my heart went out to the poor mom, I keenly observed her daughter’s behavior. She crawled on all fours, pounding the floor with her tiny fists. Completely uninhibited, she threw herself at her mom’s side, clinging with all her might. I made numerous mental sketches, which in one scene or another made their way into the film.
As volatile as Darla was, she still needed a little muscle – enter, Max. What guidelines were given that effected how he was handled?
Mark Dindal had very specific ideas about Max. He wanted Max very robotic, stiff, and emotionless. We had numerous discussions, after which I did some test animation. After analyzing my animation, Mark felt he wanted still less movement- fewer overlapping motions. I spent some time thinking about this, and decided to take Mark’s ideas to the max, (pardon the terrible pun.) Thinking about Max’s personality, I compared him to a Mercedez Benz- a marvel of modern engineering, designed for specific purposes, and functioning with near perfection. Max wasn’t simply a muscle-bound brute- he was an energy-efficient machine. His movements became short, staccato-like. Each body part had specific functions, and moved independently. Like a shark, emotionless and predatory, Max was all function.
I decided there would be no fluidity in Max’s motions. I pushed the idea even further with his dialogue. Max never spoke while in motion, (until the movie’s end when his ego, like the Darla balloon he floated away on, was deflating.) I always had Max freeze before delivering a line of dialogue. I took the idea of limitation yet further by keeping Max’s jaws permanently clenched, and only moving his lips when speaking. (This also reinforced the effect that he was always tense, muscles taught, ready for action.) Since Max's jaw never moved, I was able to give him a very detailed set of teeth. (With CG, this is no consideration. But in traditional animation, where everything must be drawn over and over, detail is kept to a minimum.) With Max only speaking while his body was held still, I was able to give him a set of detailed choppers, since we only had to draw them once per scene and hold them in place.
This caused some consternation among Turner execs when the first pencil tests were screened. Because rough pencil tests are shot with numerous layers of paper superimposed, all the layers are fully exposed. Therefore, the drawn background level and other characters in a given seen are all visible. Not until a scene is painted will the characters be opaque. So the early pencil tests of Max looked a little strange when he spoke- his teeth showed through his skin as his lips moved over them. I had to explain repeatedly to executives that once the scene was painted, the teeth would be hidden behind the lips, and only made visible when Max’s lips opened to reveal the teeth.. I don’t think they ever understood this until the first Max dialogue color scene came through.
Another thing I experimented with to counter Max’s limited movement was putting all his movements on ones. Most animation requires only twos, meaning two exposures shot per drawing, to keep the action smooth, but fast actions or camera moves require animation to be on ones. I wanted Max’s limited movement to be ultra-smooth, to contrast with his inactivity, and to also give him more weight and depth.
Was there any ‘Max’ moment that was your favorite? Mine is the scene where he starts dancing to the animal jam music in the alley.
Mike Kunkle animated Max’s dancing scene. It’s a funny scene that we’d all hoped would be longer, but the film didn’t allow it. My personal favorite scenes are Max’s early scenes, where his weird speaking style is introduced. I like the build-up, the animals’ frightened anticipation, the moody lighting, all culminating with Mark Dindal’s great delivery, “Yeeees, Miss Dimple?”
This question is about one version of the ending of Cats Don’t Dance. In this alternate end, Darla doesn’t ‘do’ anything to thwart the animals and just stays in the box seat with L.B. When they finish she makes her exit by throwing a mega tantrum after L.B. and other audience members show their approval of the animals’ performance. She ends up running out of the theater and into the old ‘statue’ gag in the fresh cement she just put handprint to. Do you remember anything about this ending, or help change it to the one we know in the final film cut?
You are correct on that end version.. Darla, unable to reveal her emotion during the show, bursts out of the theater into freshly poured cement, awaiting her handprints. I liked the ending, but it was decided it was too cruel for a little girl, (even one as wicked as Darla.) The existing ending shows Darla throwing a tantrum in public, to great effect. An animator named Ernie Keane came up with the idea of Darla trying to sabotage the animals’ show. After struggling and failing to control herself, Darla has a classic blow up, and reveals her true character to one and all. I think it works quite well. During Darla’s full-throttle tantrum, she accidentally fesses up to her previous sabotaging the animals’ big show, resulting in Mammoth Studios being flooded, thereby bringing her career to a final stop.
In retrospect, was Turner Features a pleasant place to work?
Turner Feature Animation was a terrific place to work. I have to give credit to David Kirschner and Mark Dindal. They created a very open and friendly atmosphere, where we all felt we had a hand in making the film. Cats Don’t Dance was our film, and we worked hard together to make it the best we could. David Steinberg was the producer. He was very approachable, and even as we disagreed at times, there was always mutual respect. (David has written a number of children’s books since that time.) Brad Bird was developing a terrific sci-fi detective film there, and it was exciting to spend some time with him. I’m still close friends with many of the people I worked with; Jay Jackson, Jeff Johnson, Steve Wahl, I see Kevin Johnson, another supervising animator on Cats, quite a lot.
It was especially fun to have Ted Turner at the head. A real maverick, few of whom are left in Hollywood, he’s quite a character, and was really behind our film. We got to meet him a few times, which was very inspirational. Unfortunately Turner Feature Animation became a casualty of Turner Broadcasting’s merger with Warner Bros., and dissolved into Warners Feature Animation, which has since ceased to exist.
You earned an Annie Award nomination in 97 for Best Individual Achievement: Character Animation for Darla and Max, but have gone on to work in other feature films too … like Curious George?
I was offered the role of Turk, the Rosie O’ Donnel voiced character, in “Tarzan,” after “Cats Don’t Dance,” but opted for the excitement of something new, and joined DreamWorks. (As Warner Bros. swallowed up “Cats Don’t Dance,” I saw little promise in their feature department, as evidenced by their first feature, “The Quest For Camelot.”)
At DreamWorks, “The Prince of Egypt” was a little too live-actiony for me. I really wanted to both do storyboards and animate on the same film, which I was able to do on “The Road to El Dorado.” Among others, I storyboarded the ball game sequence and the scene where Chel, the Rosie Perez voiced bombshell seduces Tulio. A lot of good people worked on “The Road to El Dorado,” but it ultimately failed because it was never clearly decided what kind of film it was; some drama moments without being a drama, some humor though not a comedy, some adventure but no “Indiana Jones,” songs without being a musical. The film had many things going on, but was unsuccessful in all of them.
The next feature to go into production was “Spririt,” which held no interest for me. (Another live-action styled film, beautifully but tediously animated.) I shifted back to storyboarding, and joined the crew of “Tusker,” A CG feature to be produced in Northern California by Pacific Data Images ( PDI ), a company DreamWorks had bought to help produce “Antz” and “Shrek''. “Tusker” was another film with much promise; a solid basic plot and potentially interesting characters, that the studio couldn’t decide what to make of.
I had guarded interest in CG- the results obviously can’t be argued with. But the process is very technical heavy- not intuitive or artist friendly. I’d taken some classes, and picked up some things from the people at PDI, but storyboarding was more interesting to me. So I took a major change of direction and joined Klasky-Csupo to work on “The Rugrats Go Wild.” Due to script problems, I spent the first six months animating on “The Wild Thornberrys” feature, a very underrated film. The character designs at Klasky-Csupo are a bit out there, lacking basic appeal, but I really like their way of storytelling, their inventive staging and use of camera movement, and the vocal talent is great. It was quite a change from DreamWorks, but I got a lot of hands-on involvement and responsibility, and despite a punishing schedule, I had a terrific time.
Next came Curious George, the feature. After storyboarding on the film for six months, I shifted over to animation. I spent the next year doing experimental animation and refining character designs, while story languished as it was continually revised. A new director came on board, Matt O’Callaghan, a friend of mine since Cal Arts days, and the story was entirely revised again. Some characters were dropped, new ones created, others redesigned, and I did test scenes for many of them. Having complete freedom to create scenes, I picked lines from movies featuring the actors who would provide the voices, and with the editor, cut them together into workable scenes, and had a great time animating. I was slated to oversee three characters- Junior, the disgruntled son, voiced by David Cross, Miss Plushbottom, the temperamental opera diva, voiced by Joan Plowright, and Ivan the doorman, the peculiar security guard at the man in the yellow hat’s building.
At last the film went into production. As most of the budget was used up on story, little money was left for the animation, and we were given six months to make the film. Consequently we outsourced to nine different studios, despite protests from the artists, and production was rushed through. I was asked to supervise the animation at the lone Los Angeles outsource studio, July films in Simi Valley, headed by Mike Nguyen, another Cal Arts alum, who briefly worked on “Cats Don’t Dance.” They set aside production on their own film, “My Little World,” to work on Curious George. Check out their website, www.julyfilms.com.
I had more freedom and input at July Films- I worked with their animators, and I’m proud of what we produced there. A good example is the sequence where George follows Ted to his apartment building, and Ivan subsequently searches the place for George, and George escapes through the air vents and ends up painting Miss Plushbottom’s penthouse. Considering how rushed the production was, the animation is fairly consistent. Given a little more time, we could’ve made a far better looking film, but the charm of Curious George does come through. Matt O’Callaghan deserves a lot of credit, though I had my story disagreements with him. Yarrow Cheney, the art-director, and an inbetweener on “Cats,” deserves a lot of credit for the film’s look.
I've bounced around through various productions since "Curious George", and now I've landed back at Disney as an animator on 'The Frog Princess". I'm very excited about Disney's return to traditional animation and the future looks very exciting.
Are there other non-film related projects you are working on?
While working on “The Road to El Dorado” and “Tusker” I wrote and illustrated a children’s book, entitled Jimmy Dabble. I have a website named after it:
|click the graphic to visit Jimmy & friends!|
Inspired by the birth of my son, I began playing around with the story toward the end of production on “Cats Don’t Dance.” Making the book was a revelation- there’s nothing like doing your own thing. I wrote much of Jimmy Dabble in my head- solving story problems, plot issues, etc. I scribbled notes at work, and incorporated them into the manuscript at night. Dutton agreed to publish the book, so while flying to PDI in the bay area every few weeks to work on “Tusker”, I spent the travel time sketching the compositions.
Since Jimmy Dabble was published in 2001, I’ve learned much about promoting and publicizing a book. Writing is not easy, but it’s only half the battle. Getting stores to carry a book is another challenge. I did many book signings and readings at schools, drawing for the kids and answering their questions. It’s been really fun.
Having gotten the book bug, I’ve written another novel, called The Magic Set, about a brother and sister who raise havoc fighting over a magic wand, with disastrous results. I’m also working on a picture book called 'Fuddles the Cat", inspired by my own cat, Felix, a lovable, 30 lbs black and white monster. I’m mid-way through a more adult, comic novel, Separation Syndrome, concerning a dad leading his son’s Boy Scout troop on a campout, and failing miserably. I’d like to try writing it in screenplay form as well, in hopes of selling it as a live-action film.
Writing books has given me a freedom completely different from animation, which is cooperative, and teamwork oriented. It’s not easy making a living from books, but it’s a dream I’ll continue to pursue. I have no interest in leaving animation, however. Some day it would be great to split my time doing both.