Disney’s Digital Dance

Lunchtime came and went hours ago, but a tray piled high with muffins and sweets goes unnoticed in the tightly packed editing room. Ten people in assorted stages of exhaustion crowd a small screen, attentions focused on an animated freeze-frame: Donald Duck at the wheel of a minibus packed with Fantasia 2000’s cast of hippo ballerinas.

A man with boundless energy, glasses and flyaway grey hair furiously sketches variations of the scene on an oversized notepad. The group groans when he holds his drawings up to the monitor: The Donald on the screen looks different from the Donald on paper, meaning more changes have to be made. They’ve been through this routine four times already.

The sketcher is Eric Goldberg, a longtime Disney feature animator best known for his creation of Aladdin’s droll Genie; the other people in the room include Venice, Calif.-based commercial director Joe Pytka as well as representatives from Walt Disney Parks and Resorts’ lead ad agency, Publicis Groupe’s Leo Burnett USA, Chicago, and Venice, Calif.-based digital effects studio Digital Domain. They are working with the Disney marketing department on “Coming Home,” a live-action computer-generated animation piece that the company terms its most “creatively elaborate commercial” yet.

When the 60-second spot broke globally on New Year’s Day, it marked the first time Disney attempted to leverage the global appeal of all its parks at one time. Touting the company’s estimated $1 billion, 18-month 50th anniversary celebration of the original Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif., the spot features computer-generated characters in live-action scenes filmed at locations including the Egyptian pyramids, the Great Wall of China, the African savannah and the Golden Gate Bridge. From each of these locales, 13 Disney characters—including Mickey, Cinderella, Herbie the Love Bug and Stitch—scramble to make their way “home” in time for the kickoff of the 50th celebration in May. A voiceover by actor Kelsey Grammer teases, “The only one missing is you.” The spot directs viewers to a new vacation-planning Web site, www.disneydestinations.com.

According to Disney, this is the first time the Parks and Resorts department has worked directly with the feature animation team. It’s also the first time many of Disney’s most popular characters were brought together in one spot and seen as CGI characters. That’s what makes the project so intrinsically Disney, says Michael Mendenhall, Parks and Resorts evp, global marketing. “It’s a nod toward the past, to look to the future,” he notes.

It’s also what makes the production so nerve-racking. Previously, characters’ personalities were defined by and limited to cel animation, which resulted in certain expected rhythms: the way Donald turns his head; Mickey’s expression when he’s surprised. “There are so many instances where people have taken icons and fouled them up,” says Pytka, who worked with Leo Burnett on Disney’s “Magic Happens” campaign. The director has also worked on many other live-action/animation projects, notably the 1996 feature film Space Jam, starring Michael Jordan and a cast of Looney Tunes characters. Character subtleties, he says, need to stay true in the new arena.

“All the feel, all the charm—all that came from Eric [Goldberg],” says Fred Raimondi, Digital Domain visual effects supervisor. “He’s the touchstone for what is and isn’t proper for the characters.”

The characters had to evolve as well, says Cheryl Berman, chairman and chief creative officer at Leo Burnett, who has worked on Disney for 11 years. “This isn’t selling. It’s the heart and soul of Disney,” says Berman. Executive creative directors Ned Crowley and Jim Moore started with the scripts, “but with Disney, the key is to collaborate,” she says.

Collaboration is vital when dealing with three different—and at times conflicting—elements: live action, interaction and effects, says Pytka, who was frequently at Digital Domain during the six-month process.

In August, the group started to toss around script ideas. As Digital Domain began building CGI models based on traditional animation work sheets, it became clear that an entirely new aspect of each character needed to be addressed. “In a 3-D world, you’re able to put cameras in places you couldn’t put [them before],” says Pytka. Another consideration, he adds, was the energy of the live footage. In one scene, for example, Goofy wears a Hawaiian shirt, not something from his past wardrobe. “The way he looked and behaved reminded me of memories,” says Pytka. “But we re-created [Goofy] just enough to make the brand new again.”

“It’s about taking the artistic mandate to the next level,” says Raimondi. Based on animators’ model sheets and some already-existing digital models, Digital Domain built its CGI characters to “maintain whimsical, cartoon-like features, but have textures—real clothes, real fur, real skin,” he notes. A team of digital artists assigned to each character oversaw the transition, done in concurrent segments over a three-month period. Twenty to 30 animators worked on the spot. Several times a week, teams presented their updated creations, and Digital Domain compositors edited them into the master spot; several times a week, Goldberg and Mendenhall suggested another attempt.

Another factor Digital Domain had to consider was the unpredictability of light, Raimondi says. Upon receiving Pytka’s footage, the effects house generated a proprietary lighting grid system to keep the CG environment to precise scale. Digital Domain relied on a “squash and stretch” plug-in for this project, allowing characters to move as they would in real life, but keep their cartoon properties of stretching, squishing and bending.

All this required data-integration specialists to measure real-world settings, a feature stylist to pull fabric swatches, and a fur-and-feather expert to oversee character textures. In addition, says Mendenhall, the spot needed “a wonderful composition—pacing, timing, delivery, message” to successfully drive the action.

The team called on Academy Award-winning composer Alan Silvestri (Forrest Gump, The Polar Express) to score the spot. Silvestri wanted “something that had a good sense of motion” and conveyed anticipation and a sense of urgency. The piece, recorded by an 85-piece orchestra at Los Angeles’ Sony soundstage, incorporated long notes “for a multidimensional effect, and a lush string overlay,” Silvestri says. “[It’s] celebratory, nostalgic, and ends with a boom.” As when scoring a film, the composer needs to establish clearly identifiable themes in the spot. “It involves compressing a lot of information into a small period of time,” says Silvestri.

Back in the editing room—just a week from the spot’s Christmas Eve deadline—Mendenhall continues to push the team on every detail: “I want to hear the ambient sounds in this spot—car engines, hippos huffing and puffing, the water moving!”

To ensure that viewers’ eyes are drawn to the characters, some last-minute adjustments are made. A zoom-in is added on the Brother Bear moose twins, who had been slightly lost amid a hectic street scene; Dumbo’s eyes are made a brighter white, his mouth a bit more red. Raimondi displays the before-and-after Dumbo images side by side on a monitor. “See that?” he says. “It was cute, but that’s cuter.”

After every huddle, the animators rush back to their dimly lit cubicles, meticulously adjusting the characters’ color and light for the next group screening. “The progress was agonizingly slow,” says Pytka, steadily throwing out suggestions, dry wit and general commentary. This could go on for another six months, and each update would make the work that much better, he adds.

Mendenhall—enthusiastic to the point of yelling, “I’m going to Disneyland!”—would probably have given the team six more months if time had allowed; he says he looks forward to applying these new techniques to future features. But for now, Disneyland has a Christmas Eve deadline that cannot be missed. “You know that final you saw of Donald? That final is not the final,” he tells the team. Goldberg, he says, wants to take another look.

Sweets still piled high on the table, a fresh team of digital artists enters the editing room. Some dig into the snacks, and Raimondi doesn’t blame them. “They know it could be a long afternoon,” he laughs.