We’re lucky. We’re smack dab in the middle of a golden era of animation. There are dozens of cartoon channels, all types of animated films, and even a variety of animation formats, from CG to stop motion to traditional cel animation. As fans, this is a glorious time for all of us. So just imagine how amazing it must be to be part of the animation process! That’s just what lucky and talented folks like Byron Howard and Nathan Greno get to brag about, as two pair of directors finish off projects like Disney’s recent film, Tangled, now available on Blu-ray and DVD. Read this this Q&A segment with the Disney team, and get a glimpse of this golden era from their eyes.
AN INTERVIEW WITH BYRON HOWARD AND NATHAN GRENO, CO-DIRECTORS OF THE DISNEY ANIMATION, TANGLED
What is your favorite animated film of all time?
BYRON HOWARD: That’s a tough question. I have many favorites, including a lot of the Disney classics like Cinderella and Pinocchio. I also love more contemporary animations, such as the Miyazaki films. I’m hugely fond of Spirited Away and Totoro. I was blown away the first time I saw Totoro because it’s such a beautiful film.
NATHAN GRENO: Dumbo is my favorite. It’s not just my favorite animated film, but it’s also my favorite film of all time. I love it. Every time I watch it, the emotion gets to me. It’s funny, it’s heartwarming and the pacing is just right. To me, it’s perfect.
BYRON HOWARD: Dumbo is a testament to the power of animation. A silly-looking, squishy, animated elephant can make people cry. It’s crazy. It was animated back in 1940 and it still works more than 70 years later.
Was the look of Tangled inspired by any of the Disney classics such as Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty?
BYRON HOWARD: Early on, Nathan and I sat down to talk about what we loved from the classics. He and I are both huge fans of old Disney animation, so they have all influenced the look of the film. For example, if you look at the pub scene in Tangled, you’ll notice that there’s a sort of Pinocchio-esque influence.
NATHAN GRENO: It was really interesting for us to take the look of classic Disney films and translate them to CG because that’s never been done before. All of a sudden, it gives a very fresh, new look to a Disney movie – but at the same time, we love our roots and they shine through. We are very proud of that in the finished film.
How did you come up with the look of the characters in Tangled?
BYRON HOWARD: We spent a lot of time on the look of the characters because we had to come up with believable individuals. You have to love Flynn, you have to love Rapunzel and you have to believe that they can love each other. You also want the audience to forget that they are watching computer-generated characters and just let their heart go with the story. It was a tough challenge, but I hope we’ve achieved that.
NATHAN GRENO: Movies are all about escapism. We want people to be able to sit there and get swept away with our story. We want them to forget about the rest of their life for 80 to 90 minutes. That was always the goal and that has so much to do with the way that the characters are modeled.
BYRON HOWARD: During the early stages of filmmaking, we had hundreds of drawings of Rapunzel but we kept coming back to one image. It encompassed Rapunzel completely, so we went with that – but we had to hone into the smallest of details to make sure that she was appealing. Tiny things like eyelashes can affect the appeal of a character. Even Rapunzel’s teeth are very specific. She’s got little, tiny, buck teeth. She’s also got cute little freckles. She is adorable.
What about the rest of the characters in the movie?
BYRON HOWARD: Flynn’s hair is very specific in the film. We talked to loads of women at Disney about how he should look and they had very specific ideas on his hair. We’d get feedback like, “His hair needs to be a little shorter… It needs to be a little longer in the back… Okay, that’s good, that’s good.” We spent a lot of time on each of the characters to get as much visual appeal out of them.
NATHAN GRENO: We also tried to do the unexpected with the characters, which is why Mother Gothel is strikingly beautiful in the film. It’s very easy for villains to become arched, dark figures. We could have made her an ugly old woman who keeps a girl locked away in a tower. However, we wanted to do the unexpected and that’s why we made her a really flamboyant, beautiful woman.
What made Mandy Moore perfect for the voice of Rapunzel?
BYRON HOWARD: It was a tough job casting Rapunzel. In fact, we saw more than 400 people for the role. We cast a wide net because we wanted to make sure we were making the right choice – but Mandy Moore really shined. It was very important to us that the speaking voice of Rapunzel would also be the singing voice for the character, which is one of the many ways in which Mandy stood out from the crowd.
NATHAN GRENO: If you saw the list of actresses who came into chat about the role, you’d know most of them. The list was very impressive and there were a lot of A-listers on there. When the word got out that we were casting this movie, people were very excited to get involved – but we knew Mandy was right for the role from the very first meeting. When she came in, she had such a sweet sincerity about her. Plus, we knew she could sing.
Who did you cast first: Mandy Moore or Zachary Levi?
BYRON HOWARD: Mandy was cast first. But once we found the voice for Rapunzel, we then had to find the voice for Flynn. That was another tough task for us because he’s such a complex character. It’s very easy for a ‘Smart Alec’ character to be unlikable, but we couldn’t have that with Flynn. We needed someone who sounded smart and sarcastic but above all, the audience has to like him.
What made Zachary Levi stand out in his audition?
BYRON HOWARD: Zachary Levi made us laugh with everything he said. I remember thinking to myself, ‘He’s great… I just hope he can sing.’ And then he started to sing a James Taylor song and I was on cloud nine because he had a really great natural voice. When it comes to singing, Zach doesn’t sound trained and that was perfect for Flynn because he shouldn’t sound like a trained singer. Zach was perfect for the role.
How well did Zachary Levi perform in the sound booth when he recorded the dialogue for Flynn?
NATHAN GRENO: Zach was amazing. We always start the recording sessions by recording every single in the script, but then we encourage the actors to ad-lib. Zach is so good with ad-libs. He’s incredibly funny. In fact, some of Flynn’s funniest lines are ad-libs from Zach.
Do you remember any specific lines that Zach ad-libbed for the film?
BYRON HOWARD: They are all over the movie, but one line that comes to my mind is: “Sympatico”. That was one of Zach’s ad-libs. It’s a great word.
Can you talk about working with Alan Menken on the music of the movie?
BYRON HOWARD: Alan is a genius. One of the first things he said to us was, “Let’s not do what we’ve done before. Let’s do something different.” We said, “That’s great. That’s exactly what we want to do.”
NATHAN GRENO: Alan Menken is a Disney legend. He’s written some of the greatest music ever for animated features. To have him jump on board and want to do something fresh and different was a dream come true because that was always our goal. We wanted to make Tangled a very unexpected, fresh and contemporary movie. Alan helped us do that.
How did he accomplish that?
BYRON HOWARD: Alan said to us, “Why don’t we make Rapunzel’s songs sound like Joni Mitchell songs? They should sound like something a 70s singer-songwriter would sing.” It fit the story perfectly because Rapunzel is a teenage girl stuck in a room with a guitar. That guitar started to represent her musically, so a lot of her songs are very guitar driven. It was very different from what we’ve done traditionally in the past with Disney songs. It was great.
NATHAN GRENO: We look at the music as another storytelling tool and Alan is all about storytelling. To have that in our toolbox and to help us tell the story was a huge win.
BYRON HOWARD: The score is beautiful, too. We recorded it with a 100-piece orchestra and it’s very sweeping and dynamic. It’s extremely emotional and it gives the movie a scope that you rarely find in movies like this. We couldn’t be happier with all of the music in the movie.
It sounds like you’re extremely proud of Tangled…
NATHAN GRENO: We’re extremely proud of this project. The great thing about this film is that it’s a funny, action-packed rollercoaster of a ride. It’s non-stop entertainment and there are a lot of unexpected twists and turns that the audience seems to love.
BYRON HOWARD: It’s the 50th animated feature for Disney, so it also has a significant place in Disney history. We’re really happy with how it’s turned out. We couldn’t be more proud.