Just a few years ago, the prospect of computer-driven feature animation struck terror into veteran animation directors Don Bluth and Gary Goldman. But now, having completed “Anastasia,” 20th Century Fox’s initial entry into the feature animation race, and the most heavily digitized animated film since “Toy Story,” the two have become converts.

“I panicked at first,” confesses Bluth. “Someone said, no more cels, you get to draw on paper and articulate everything there, but we’re going to scan it into a computer and from then on, it’s only going to be that keyboard. Then about three months down the line I began to feel the tremendous boon that was to us.”

Aside from inking and painting digitally, which has become the industry norm, and the use of CGI for such effects as directional snow, computers were used to clean up the hand-drawn animation, alter the screen size of characters, and composite enough images to fill “Anastasia’s” epic-scale scenes.

A panoramic shot of St. Petersburg, for instance, comprises some 27 levels of layouts stacked on top of each other, while another scene features 940 animated figures, an army of people created by digitally replicating about forty hand-drawn characters in different sizes, positions, timings and costume colors. CGI was also used extensively for major action set-pieces, including a realistic runaway train and a storm-tossed ship at sea.

But in contrast to “Anastasia’s” ambitious scale, the picture was completed by an animation staff a third or less the size of Disney’s. “We only had a total of 24 animators, including directing animators, on the whole picture,” states Goldman. “It was the same in our CG department, where there were only seven people.”

(Disney, incidentally, is countering the release of “Anastasia” with a reissue of 1989’s “The Little Mermaid” and a double bill of “Hercules” and “George of the Jungle.”)

Making the picture even more challenging was the fact that nearly all its characters are human, which is the hardest form to animate convincingly. Extensive live-action footage was shot with actors miming to the pre-recorded dialogue track, which was used by the animators as reference.

To further heighten the sense of reality for the audience, scenes were staged and edited in a quick-cut, live-action style. “We knew we were telling a story that had a little more weight than just a cartoon,” Bluth says. “We shot it like a live-action picture so that you felt you were watching a real drama and not just something that was so traditionally rooted in the cartoon form.”

Like the stage play and previous live-action version, this “Anastasia” centers around a con man’s attempts to pass off a young girl as the long-lost daughter of the Tsar, but it differs from the earlier versions through its fairy tale trappings, romantic angle and its villain, the vengeful, undying Rasputin. And, of course, the Broadway-style song score by “Ragtime” composers Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty.

The voice of Anya (Anastasia) is provided by Meg Ryan, who, according to Bluth, also influenced the animation of the character. “Meg’s voice has an edge to it,” he says. “It’s not the usual vanilla heroine voice that you’re used to hearing. When that voice happened I began to look at all the little gestures (Ryan) does with her head and her face, and then studied a lot of her films. We made it look for the most part as Meg would have acted it.” The voice cast also includes John Cusack, Christopher Lloyd, Angela Lansbury, Kelsey Grammer and Kirsten Dunst.

The filmmakers’ decision to make the picture in Cinemascope, which increased the standard 16-field animation frame to 25-field, necessitated some special considerations, including custom-sized animation paper for some scenes and a special video projector outfitted with an anamorphic lens for viewing rushes. And now that “Anastasia” has been transferred from the computer to film there is some concern as to how many screens can accommodate true Cinemascope.

“A lot of theaters are limited to Panavision, and there’s a few fields difference between the width,” notes Goldman. “There may be three or four scenes it may affect.”

For Bluth, though, the decision was a necessity. “It seemed like 1.85 was too small a picture to tell the story,” he says. (The Cinemascope aspect ratio is 2.35:1.) “Feature animation has gotten to a point in its development where I don’t think it accommodates a small, stable story very much anymore. It has to be a big story, and some kind of event you’re creating.”

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