The Inside Scoop on Disney’s The Princess and The Frog
It’s been a few days now since Disney released the Blu-ray and DVD of their latest classic, The Princess and the Frog. In that time, there’s been a lot of continued hype and praise as this film marks Disney’s return to traditional animation, as well as their amazingly popular princess franchise. Included in the hype machine is a series of interviews conducted with artists, designers, musicians, composers, producers, and other magical creatures between the House of Mouse and Pixar, with some very important questions like: How did ‘Princess Expert’ Mark Henn fit Tiana into the Disney Princess Legacy? What has Disney’s traditional animation team learned from Pixar’s CG team? Take a listen as Mark Henn, Eric Goldberg, and Bruce Smith delve into these questions and more!
Walt Disney Animation Studio’s upcoming animated musical, THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG, brings classic fairy tale animation back to the motion picture screen. The art form that launched the Walt Disney Studios with SNOW WHITE (1937) now showcases the talents of some of animation’s ‘super stars.’ We were lucky enough to nab these artists and sit down to discuss exactly what it means to be a supervising animator on the latest Disney musical fairy tale, THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG. With us were: Mark Henn (supervising animator, Tiana), Eric Goldberg (supervising animator, Louis) and Bruce Smith (supervising animator, Dr. Facilier).
Q: Congratulations on the movie. It’s absolutely fantastic . It must be really exciting to get to be working on Disney’s triumphant return to fairy tale form.
MARK HENN: Oh, absolutely and thank you for the compliment. It’s been a great journey.
ERIC GOLDBERG: You know, thank goodness for John Lassiter wanting to do it full tilt. It really is this company’s history, its legacy, There’s nothing going like it everywhere else.
BRUCE SMITH: Yeah, and we had a great team in place, right from the top with the directors, Ron and John; they really had a handle on the story and the characters and knew the story that they wanted to tell. And we just had a great team of animators. So from top to bottom it was really sort of an all-star team to really pull this together.
Q: How long have you guys been with Disney?
MARK HENN: Well, I guess I’m probably the elder here in one sense. I’ve been here almost thirty years, it will be thirty years this coming year. So, twenty nine and counting.
ERIC GOLDBERG: I was here for two stints. I’ve been back for three years. I was gone for a little bit, and I was here prior to that for about eleven years.
BRUCE SMITH: Yeah, and I’ve been here for about three stints, so overall it’s probably been just inside about nine years.
Q: How much has Disney changed between the old times and now? How do you feel about it now?
MARK HENN: Depends on how far back into the old times you want to go. Well, a lot has changed and not a lot has changed. I think this film kind of represents those things. Iin my mind one of the biggest changes is the fact that when John and Ed took over leadership of the studio, for the first time in a long time, we had a creative executive who is running the animation department, which is great because he talks our same language. He grew up in this business like we did and so he knows artists. And we understand him, so we have I think a much greater appreciation from that side of things because of John’s position and his background. And I think that’s probably one of the biggest changes.
ERIC GOLDBERG: Yeah, to be able to talk artist to artist is a huge, huge difference. We all have the same reference points, we all love the same kinds of Disney films, and the same kinds of things we like to see in animation. And so, you’re not talking to somebody not quite getting the process or not appreciating all the great Disney stuff that’s come before. I won’t say that that’s happened in previous regimes, but this one’s an improvement.
MARK HENN: Definitely.
Q: I think it’s pretty surprising that you’ve got this southern accent. How did you get it, I mean, apart from your characters? All of you somehow have different accents.
ERIC GOLDBERG: I think it’s down to the cast that John and Ron chose, but also our awareness of the place and time in which the story was set. It’s in the South, it’s in New Orleans, and you have to have representative voices that actually sound like that. So I think really when you make one of these films, everything contributes to creating this role, this sense of time and place that you’re going to get lost in for the next ninety minutes. And, voice casting and likewise layout and production design and the color scheme and the way that the characters move—it all contributes to that place and time.
BRUCE SMITH: Just so you know, Eric is Louis, Mark is Tiana, and I’m Dr. Facilier. Just so you can understand each animator has his own assignment. And I think as animators, we fashion ourselves as actors with pencils. So we research our roles entirely, and that’s where you bring out the best in us. We try to put all of what we know, in terms of research and everything, right down to the accents.
Q: Mark, you’re a princess expert, it’s not your first princess?
MARK HENN : It’s not my first princess, no. I admit it, yes.
Q: How is Tiana a new Disney princess? How does she relate to what has come in the past?
MARK HENN: Well, I think she is following kind of a new trend in our princess, starting going back to say Ariel, where their roles in the story structure and the plot is a lot more proactive. You know, she kind of makes decisions and she really propels the story along much more so than I think some of the princesses from the past generation have. So I think she’s carrying that on in that sense. But, she has to stand all alone and be her own unique individual character so and hopefully, you think of them. I was at the screening last night and they had nine in one building, nine of the princesses were all there on these little stages. And it’s just amazing that they’re all nine individual characters and personalities. And but I think his notion that they’re more involved in the story is kind of a new thing that we started back in “Little Mermaid,” and I think subsequently they’ve had that kind of role.
ERIC GOLDBERG: I would also say for Tiana, that she’s a realist compared to the other princesses, as well. She has to work hard to achieve what she wants. And she understands, exactly what’s going on around her, which is very, very different from princesses past.
MARK HENN: She lives in a seemingly fully real world. People can maybe identify with being so focused on a dream or a goal that they, as I mentioned in other times, she pushes aside the rest of her life. And I think that’s the journey that she has to learn. That’s the moral, if you will, of what she has to learn on the journey.
Q: What exactly do you look for to create these characters? And their performances?
MARK HENN : Well, as Bruce alluded to, we think of ourselves as actors. But we draw. But we have other tools at our disposal. For Bruce’s character, the human characters particularly tend to be a little more difficult. So we’ve, you know, we had a lipstick cam in voice recording sessions, we videotape her, so I can see her performance and see some of her mannerisms, and we’ve had discussions. I mean, the other thing that we did, which is a very old process going way back to “Snow White,” is the idea of shooting live-action reference for the animators to look at. So you bring in an actress who will act out certain scenes and depending on the production, they can be fairly elaborately staged or just simply shot, literally. We would go over on an empty warehouse and just put up a camera and with very scant props act out a scene. And particularly with the dancing and the choreography, that was a big help, because I don’t dance that well and so it just helps. So I would look at the reference material and would start making notes and jots. I didn’t trace anything, it is just something as artists have done for centuries. It’s like having a model and creating from a model. And that’s one tool that we use. And the other things come from us, come from our own ideas and talking with the director and how these characters’ roles fit in the story.
BRUCE SMITH: Right, you where your character’s starting and where he needs to end up by the end of the movie. So in essence, it’s method acting in that way. And, you know, not to diss Eric, because he’s fantastic animato, but he brought his alligator into the studio one day and that didn’t turn out so well. [LAUGHTER] But still, he really has to study the essence of what a gator is, but truly exaggerate that form for the sake of the performance. And you have to know that that’s a gator, that’s an alligator, but you also realize that what Eric brings to the character is everything that you can think of, even in the Genie in “Aladdin.” There are no real genies to reference, but out of the imagination of this man comes a fantastic and brilliant performance. So all the way around, that’s how we work. We start with where we feel the bones of the character are, and you have to know where you are at any certain point in the film, because we don’t receive our footage in consecutive order. You know, we’re not starting from the start of the film, we’re not ending with the end of the film. We start comfortably in the middle someplace, so you have to know where your character is at whatever point in the movie and somehow, you have to make sure that your performance has that arc through the whole performance.
ERIC GOLDBERG: To Bruce’s point, we all have to start by knowing who our characters are. What their personalities are. And that evolves over time as the film is being made. But if you have a sense of what your character’s role is in the story and what your character’s personality is supposed to convey, then you can start thinking about, well, how do I convey that through the acting and the drawings? You know, it can’t come just by putting a bunch of drawings down randomly and saying, okay, I think there’s a character in here somewhere. For example, with Louis, Ron and John always wanted him to be a coward. They always wanted him to be a coward and then have his expansive side when he played his jazz. So it’s the kind of thing where I could play that as a contrast. With Dr. Facilier, they always wanted him to be oily and unctuous and very, very clever.
BRUCE SMITH: And it was not a stretch. I’m oily [LAUGHTER] and that’s how I come in and leave every day. So I had the easiest job, actually.
Q: Tiana is your first African-Amerian princess. How was working on that?
MARK HENN: I didn’t approach her any differently than I would have approached any of the other characters that I’ve done. It was certainly an honor to literally have a hand in creating her in that sense, and it is a big moment. But I really just said, who is this character? And really that was what’s most important. She had to be a very believable character, whether she was a white girl or otherwise, you know.
Q: Did you see her from the beginning being African-American?
MARK HENN : Yes, that was always the case. So I never gave it a second thought. It was like, who is this character? What is her role, what is arc to the film?
Q: She’s much more down to earth compared to others.
MARK HENN: Yes, it’s like Eric was saying, yeah, her life’s been tough, so she’s got her feel well planted on the ground, to a fault, like I say. Her life had gotten very narrow and focused on this dream, to a fault. So that’s what she had to learn. She forgot what her dad always told her to remember, which is about love and having that balance in your life.
Q: When and by whom was it decided to make Tiana an African-American princess?
MARK HENN: Well, when they pitched the story to John Lassiter, it was the perfect storm of ideas, timing and everything just working together.
BRUCE SMITH: Yeah, I think the way it worked is, first, is the idea of telling the princess and the frog, and then comes the setting. So great, let’s set this in New Orleans. And then with the setting comes the notion that this would be great to tell this story from this perspective, because in that time, during 1920’s, this culture was alive and breathing and really setting the foundation for what New Orleans was about at the time. And we hadn’t really told a story from the perspective of an African-American girl. So it all fits along the way. It’s our first contemporary fairy tale, it’s our first American fairy tale. So there’s plenty of firsts in here, and we thought about reintroducing this fantastic medium to our audience as well.
Q: Could you share your favorite moment in the film?
BRUCE SMITH: The moment would be Facilier’s song. It’s a great song because for me, when characters sing in the movies, sometimes the story stops, because this person is simply singing about it. But if you pay close attention to the lyrics, he’s really pushing the story along. That moment sets everything in motion. The prince is here off the boat and he’s looking for the green. And my character introduces him to the green, which he thinks is money at first, and then, he gives him the real green. And so then he passes that on unfortunately to Tiana. So in essence my character tells the story, sets the pace in a very entertaining way. And it was the first sequence that I got out the box, which was very odd, because I couldn’t warm up to the character. I couldn’t say, couldn’t you give me a couple of evil laughs that I can just warm up to the drama. No, you dance this guy and I’m like, what? So—Yeah, I just had to dive right in to the deep water right away without fins and a swimsuit even, so- in some cases, so, that was good.
MARK HENN: Tiana appears in the movie in so many different forms. I mean, she’s a little girl, she’s an adult human, and then she’s a frog, so I guess I’d have to say my favorite young Tiana moment is at the beginning, when she’s wishing on the star and she sees the little frog. That little sequence was one of my favorites.
BRUCE SMITH: That’s an iconic sequence, I think.
MARK HENN: And then the ‘sister sequence,’ when she’s in her blue dress and- and she’s reprising that whole notion of, oh, well, what else have I got to lose? I’ll try, because it seemed to work for Charlotte. But I love the frogs, I loved when she and Naveen were in their verbal banter back and forth, and he’s sticking it to her and she’s giving it right back to him and I think there were some great sequences there—that nice play back and forth. And those were some of my favorites.
ERIC GOLDBERG: I think for me, probably, at least concerning Louis, a lot of my favorite sequences are the introductions of characters. And I think when you introduced a character, if it’s not far enough, then people aren’t with it. So I’m really fond of Louis’ introduction and the bait and switch that they pull on you. You think he’s another gator that is going to attack them, but he turns out to be a jazz nut. And a rather large, little kid one at that. And then leading into the song. I had a ball animating him dancing, playing the trumpet, all that kind of stuff. So the introduction through the song is probably my favorite.
Q: Did you take anything from Pixar, or learn from them?
ERIC GOLDBERG: There aren’t any overt lessons from Pixar, let’s put it this way, because frankly, we all have the same reference points. You talk to the Pixar guys, and they say, oh, well, we look at the old Disney classics. [LAUGHTER] So what we were doing was the same thing that they are doing in- in their way. Now, granted, Pixar doesn’t make musicals, or hasn’t yet. But it’s a kind of thing where the points of reference are almost identical. I think where Pixar was very useful is frequently their story trust would take a look at our reels, and give us good notes, give us really good criticism in terms of where the story might need to be strengthened, where something might need to be dropped. And we do that internally amongst ourselves as well. So, I mean, all of us are our own worst critics. [LAUGHTER] And that’s what makes the movies as strong as they are, I hope.
MARK HENN: Right, but the other thing, too, the common denominator between us and Pixar of course is John Lassiter. And John is that glue that is making both those places work now, because he grew up here. He started in this studio and so he’s learned the same lessons that we all learned growing up. And he took those to Pixar, so it’s almost come back full circle now. But I think that’s one of the key things that’s unspoken. But the story trust, again, like Eric said, is one of those key things where they’ve taken everything they learned from how he did it at Disney, and then have added to that, and now John’s brought that back here and that just makes us better animators and makes us make better movies and stories.
Q: What were the biggest challenges? Working on this film, what was the biggest challenge for you?
MARK HENN: Well, frankly, for me, you guys may have it different, but just getting it done. [LAUGHTER] The studio was very gracious and said, great, let’s make this movie. But, here’s a budget, here’s a time frame—and we had to work hard. I don’t think I’ve worked as hard on any other film.
BRUCE SMITH: Yeah, I think a year ago around this time, we had no color scenes done.
MARK HENN: And we were probably less than fifty percent animated—
BRUCE SMITH: Less than fifty percent animated, that’s not how we normally are. That’s not on schedule.
MARK HENN: But everybody loved the movie and we had that ‘we want to show them what we can do!’ attitude.
BRUCE SMITH: We got growth spurts somewhere between last December and today.
ERIC GOLDBERG: I think it’s called fear. [LAUGHTER]
Anika Noni Rose,
animators Andres Deja, Randy Haycock, Mike Surry
producer Peter Del Vecho
screenwriter Rob Edwards