Interview by Carla Sanchez Taylor
By Carla Taylor (RiPple Pudddle)At the beginning of every creative journey lies a spark, perpetuated by curiosity, excitement and passion; all the feelings we have when we are falling in love. At the jump off, the venture is met with resistance or accolade, community support or rejection. The creator pushes harder, longer…fights for a vision that needs a warrior to champion.
I have always related to this stage of the game. The successful entrepreneurs and creatives that I know have long held an elusive, wild-eyed mystery. The inner working of enterprise, on a larger scale, appear from the outside to operate on successful algorithms, copyrighted and hidden stage left. So I’ve always wondered if companies like Disney kept formulated secrets to proven box office success. If so, how did they crack this psychological code that has withstood time and maintained universality?
I got a chance to speak to Malcon Pierce (Tangled, Wreck It Ralph and Frozen), supervising animator for Walt Disney Animation Studios about this and the new, brilliantly animated Disney creation, Moana, releasing in theatres on November 24th.
Carla: What makes Moana stand out from the Disney princesses we’ve seen in the past?
Malcon: She’s sixteen, which makes her younger than most of our main characters in the past. Having a young character was fun because we got to flex different parts of our animation actor brains. A lot of our characters have love interests as part of the central plotline, so having Moana do this on her own, without the need to fall in love or have someone else solve her problems was what I really liked that about this film.
Carla: I was thinking about how much I love Wreck It Ralph.
Malcon: Me too!
Carla: What made that movie effective for me is the fact that the characters were multifaceted. Both male and female characters showed elements of strength and vulnerability. I think that’s very different from what we’ve seen in the past. So do you think this was accomplished with Moana too?
Malcon: Oh yeah. Not only does Moana have a very great arch in growing into who she becomes, but I think the Maui character (Dwayne Johnson) does too in the search for what he needs to feel fulfilled. They both have very similar themes that are very true for both of them, but just from different angles.That’s really nice about the chemistry of the characters. They both need to come to terms with who they are and what they want. But it’s from two completely different separate points of view.
Carla: When it comes to animation, what do you feel breathes life into a character?
Malcon: That is an easy one. For me it’s about the believability of the characters. You can get totally obsessed with making the character look or move a certain way but if you’re not believing who they are and want them to succeed, it’s a lost cause.
Like Mark Henn (animator whose work includes The Little Mermaid and Belle of Beauty and the Beast) said “we’re not trying to make realistic characters but believable characters.” I think that’s why some of the Disney characters are so timeless. Because they have an imagination. You’re imagining what they used to do and what they’re going to do in the future. They don’t just live within this one 90 minute film. To me that’s what makes Disney characters stand apart.
Carla: Were there elements of discovery that occurred during the animation process that either ended up informing or changing the script?
Malcon: The Heihei character was supposed to be an angry sidekick. We came to a point where it seemed that his character wasn’t supporting the point of the story as much as it needed to to be in the film. And then the story team and the animation team got together along with the writer and said, “ok, what are the things we can do to earn his way back into the story?” They spent a week or two just coming up with all these crazy ideas, eventually arriving at ‘dumb’ Heihei, which, I think, is hilarious. And now we look back and it’s like, how could it have been any other Heihei? Because it’s so funny. I think we had to arrive at that road block in order to get through it: have everybody jump on it and tackle it to achieve this character. But that was one of those moments where you can see that it’s really the people in the studio that are such an important part of making this project, fighting for what they believe to make it happen. That was definitely artists taking charge and trying to solve the problem creatively.
Carla: I love hearing that. It’s nice to know that the creative spirit is driving it.
Malcon: When we were working on Tangled, animator John Khars said ‘when you think of Disney, you think of this big company that knows how to do it. They’ve been doing it forever. But it really feels like we’re this boutique studio just trying to prove ourselves and make these films as best we can.’ I took that to heart because when you walk in the animation studio, it’s just a bunch of us walking around in pajamas drinking a bunch of coffee trying to figure out how to make this movie work. That’s what I love about it. It’s just a bunch of people in a room trying to solve problems. Each problem specifically affects each person. You have to have all those people together to make the movie.
Carla: I’ve heard that before about the process. There’s a synchronicity that drives the bus.Did you find that difficult to manage, with all the things that happen beyond control happening simultaneously?
Malcon: We are still animating even though we are supervisors. I feel like it’s so engrained in our DNA that I don’t think that we would do it if we couldn’t animate. We do less, yes, but there’s something to be said like, for example, in the South Pacific when you get those amazing tattoos, they symbolize a rite of passage. They don’t do it alone. They do it with their brother…what that allows you to do is to run harder, push harder if there is someone there to do it with. If the supervisors didn’t animate, we wouldn’t feel like we were as united. I would go crazy if I couldn’t animate. You spend so much time getting a character ready and then to not touch the character for the project would just suck.
Carla: How do you look at your work with fresh eyes day in and day out?
Malcon: That’s hard, because I think you can easily get into a rut, like writer’s block. For me, I’ve found it’s most important to try to find real inspiration creatively. It’s easy to find passive inspiration where you see it and you think ‘oh that’s cool. I’d like to do something like that.’ Active inspiration to me is finding something that’s really inspiring to work towards. It doesn’t fade. It stays in there and it keeps you pushing farther and farther.
And for this project it was just about having a character that felt for the crew, that you could really do anything with performance-wise. It didn’t feel like she’d ever lost direction. The inspiration for me, early on, was sculpture, a lot of the renaissance stuff. You look at it and you can be anywhere in the room and it’s still has that impact. So from an art side, I really wanted to give that aspect to the character that way when all the amazing animators came on, they weren’t confined to anything graphically. They were able to explore these great acting choices and not feel limited by the character.
But it definitely changes from show to show. Like on Big Hero 6 I was into really amazing hand poses, especially the J.C. Leyendecker’s illustrations. His hands were really expressive. And then even just looking at Tumblr and looking at hands that I thought were really nice. And then on Frozen, I really wanted to push the twist of the characters to make them feel like they had a lot of dynamism to their movement. That came from being inspired by (Disney animator) Glen Keane, who’s always talking about tilt, rhythm, and twist. I think that’s something that we can do more in CG animation.
It can be done with anything…it’s finding something that inspires you to think ‘wouldn’t it be cool to do this.’ It evolves with you. To me that’s exciting. I wonder what the next thing will be so, in an important sense, the adventure is also the journey.