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Disney hits the comeback trail

Eye on the Oscars 2013: Animation

Oscar is smiling on the Mouse House this season, bestowing no fewer than four nominations on Disney-branded animated films.

A nod to Pixar’s “Brave” isn’t surprising, given Pixar’s track record, and “Frankenweenie’s” inclusion echoes the love the Academy showed Tim Burton’s “The Corpse Bride.”

But the nominations for Disney Animation’s inhouse efforts, “Wreck-It Ralph” and the short “Paperman,” suggest that the company’s once-troubled toon division may be back on a winning track.

“It feels like an abundance of riches,” says Disney Animation general manager Andrew Millstein. “It shows that there is room at Disney — capital ‘D’ (as distinct from the animation division) — for great content in whatever form it takes.”

Millstein is particularly proud that the success of “Wreck-It Ralph” validates his division’s efforts to move into broadly appealing computer-animated 3D movies, while the “hybrid” animation of “Paperman” builds on the studio’s legacy of traditional animation.

“We’re stretching the audience’s expectations of a Disney movie, and we’ve had to challenge our own notions of what Disney Animation can create.”

Those challenges to reinvent the Disney model come from the top: from president Ed Catmull and creative guru John Lasseter.

Millstein describes their leadership as “unfettered in their approach to creative risk taking,” explaining, “People are speaking their minds. It feels ‘uncorked.'”

This atmosphere is welcoming to new talent, like “Wreck-It Ralph” director Rich Moore. Known for edgier fare, such as “The Simpsons,” Moore says his Disney experience “makes me more excited than I’ve ever been in my professional life. Our slate of upcoming films is so varied and imaginative — and not what you would think are typical Disney films. There’s still room for films that satisfy the classic Disney feeling, but John and Ed have widened the p.o.v. of what a Disney film can be.”

Moore says a key to pulling off this strategy is developing a Disney version of what at Pixar is dubbed “the brain trust” — an environment where collaborative critiques thrive.

“It’s where the best idea wins,” he says. “When I came to Disney four years ago, part of the charge was not just to make a great movie but to build a culture here. It’s not a Pixar culture. It goes back farther, to CalArts, where John and I learned the art of collaboration.”

(This may be just a coincidence, but Tim Burton and Moore’s other fellow nominees Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman of “Brave” are also CalArts grads. That school’s founder, Walt Disney, really started something.)

Disney may have relied on his “Nine Old Men” of animation, but now the studio has a woman co-directing its next animated fairytale, “Frozen.” Jennifer Lee, who co-wrote “Wreck-It Ralph,” came from live action and reflects what Millstein calls “a feeling that anything is possible.”

With its sophisticated atmospheric effects, “Frozen” will also showcase Disney’s renewed commitment to technical R&D.

Millstein, who brings vfx knowledge from a prior stint at Digital Domain, sees this development as a natural extension of the Disney tradition.

“In Disney’s hand-drawn films, effects were like characters, in both natural and ‘directed’ ways. So our legacy in hand-drawn effects will inspire what we’re doing digitally on ‘Frozen.’ We have artists and technologists pinging off of each other and applying that legacy in new ways.”

Another reflection of this give-and-take is seen in the Oscar-nominated short “Paperman,” which screened before “Wreck-It Ralph.”

Despite its superficially retro stylings, the short debuted the Meander technology, which allowed artists to combine hand-drawn animation with CG in a way that doesn’t look “painted on.”

As Millstein notes, “It takes the best of what hand-drawn can offer in terms of a shape language, and applies it to the digital world.”

This technique, he predicts, “will absolutely be picked up by others within Disney. What we learn in the shorts can pollinate what happens in our long-form films, and what happens in the R&D for our long-form films can impact the shorts. We’re trying to take down as many ‘silos’ as possible for our artists and people in technology.”

If all of these strategies bear fruit, Millstein may be right in his hopes for a Disney Animation renaissance.

“In a sense, we are stepping back to the future,” he says. “We never got the memo that the golden age of animation was over.”

Eye on the Oscars 2013: Animation
Drawn to century old technique | Disney hits the comeback trail | A look at the short film Oscar contenders

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