Sunday 15 July 2012

Interview: Robb Pratt, Disney Storyboard Artist and Bizarro Classic Director

A while back, I shared with you a wonderful little short film called Superman Classic from Disney animator and storyboard artist, Robb Pratt. I fell in love with the tone and animation of the films and the, well, classic visual style of it; as well as a very witty and classically Superman-esque script. So, I was very excited two weeks ago when Robb released his follow up, Bizarro Classic. Longer, funnier, wonderful music, and, in my eyes, even better than Superman Classic, I was completely enamoured with Bizarro too!

In fact, I was so enamoured with Bizarro Classic that I sent Robb an email, telling him how much I'd enjoyed his Classic shorts, and asking if he'd mind doing an interview for the blog. Robb, a very kind and modest person, thankfully said yes.

You can read our extensive interview after the jump break, in which we talk about his work at Disney, on films like Tarzan and Hercules, his work at Disney Channel, his current work at DisneyToon Studios on Planes, how direct-to-DVD productions compare to normal features, and his Superman short films. Enjoy!

A113Animation: Robb, you’ve worked at Disney since 1994, and have worked on Disney classics like Tarzan and Hercules, can you tell us a bit about working for Disney during the Renaissance of Disney Animation? It must’ve been great!
Robb Pratt: It was an amazing time! This was right after Disney had done not only "Lion King", but "Beauty and the Beast", "Aladdin", and "Little Mermaid" as well. There was no Dreamworks yet, and Pixar hadn't started making features, so Disney was without question, the premier animation studio enjoying one of it's finest eras. I was starstruck as I would walk through the studio seeing animators like Eric Goldberg, Mark Henn, and Bruce Smith, not to mention others! I remember bringing an "Art of Aladdin" book with me and having my idols sign it! I felt a real sense of connection to a wonderful, iconic piece of American culture, and was beyond excited try to carry on this tradition.

A113: You mainly work as a storyboard artist and have also worked on Disney Channel shows like American Dragon, Kim Possible and even directed The Replacements. How fun was this, and how do you feel that’s useful now; how does it translate to working on films?
RP: From the start of my love of animation, I was interested in all phases of production. What fascinated me about the artform was that it wasn't simply drawing (which I love in of itself!), but the staging, use of paint and color, sound and motion to create stories. Learning keeps me engaged, so I feel very fortunate to have been able to do so many different things at the studio. It's important for artists to have some understanding about how the whole team comes together, because it can make the production easier on everybody. Having animated and directed, I try to make my storyboards as clear as possible because they will communicate to every part of production that follows how the sequence should be executed.

A113: More recently though, you’ve been working with DisneyToon Studios. You’ve worked on Tarzan 2 and The Lion King 1 1/2, amongst others. And now you’re working on Planes, the direct-to-DVD Cars spin-off. How’s that been?
RP: "PLANES" has been a pleasure to work on largely because of the support John Lasseter has shown for the production. "Cars" is clearly a passion project for him, and he is so excited about having that world expanded. My director, Klay Hall, is an inspiring guy to be around, so knowledgeable and a great collaborator. I've learned a lot from him! The story crew got to be very close - I truly like and respect everyone on our team. I'm very proud of how the movie is coming out!

A113: Presumably the pressure’s very high, to try and adapt and live up to Cars. To be compared to Pixar. How’d you feel Planes copes with this?
RP: There is a lot riding on this! Pixar's work is the state of the art right now, and because we're working in their universe, we have to do our best to keep up, which is a true challenge. What makes this seemingly impossible task seem feasable is John Lasseter's involvement. From what I can tell, he's very engaged with it, screening the work-in-progress every couple months to give notes, and putting the right people on it to do the best job possible. He's brought in some animators who specialize in airplane movement, and so far he results have been outstanding!

A113: Yeah, and how is it working on a direct-to-DVD/video film? It’s surely very different to working on a regular feature. Is it ever a case of being told to do things cheaply? Or do you try and make a great film regardless?
RP: It's challenging in the regard that we don't have everyone working on it under the same roof, as would be the case at Pixar. If you have a question about your scene, it's not as simple as just walking down the hall and talking directly with the artist that's working on it. Story-wise, it's the same as working on any production, so we try to do our best to make it as funny and engaging as we can.

A113: Can you tell us what your favourite part of Planes is? Which bits and characters do you think will be particularly well received?
RP: The racing sequences are really coming together nicely. The sense of speed and being high up in the air is really beautiful and makes you feel like you're in the movie. There's a character called El Chupacabre that is charming and funny, so I hope that the audience loves him as much as I do!

A113: So when’s Planes due for release then? Sometime in 2013 I think?
RP: Now that Disney has merged with Pixar, we have to plan out the release schedule for Pixar, Disney Animation Studios, and DisneyToon for several years in advance. I guess that I know as much as you: it comes out in 2013, but I'm not sure which part of the year.

A113: You’ve done your own work also, last year with Superman Classic, and recently with Bizarro Classic, the sequel. I’ve got to say, I absolutely loved both of them, they were fantastic!
RP: Wow! Thank you! I've had a lot of fun making them, and the response has been very gratifying.

A113: What was your inspiration to start work on them? Entirely fan-love? Were you inspired at all by the Fleischers’ Superman shorts?
RP: Superman has been around for so long, and there are so many incarnations of him. I like something in every version, but I would have to say that my favorite interpration is the Fleischer take. The art deco buildings, the tone - they are absolutle gorgeous! They were made at a very early time in his history, though, so there's so much that has come along since that the Fleischers didn't have the opportunity to do. That's why I have Bizarro in the new one - the Fleischers never had any of his supervillains! They didn't have Perry White or Jimmy Olsen or even kryptonite! They didn't have Christopher Reeve's take on Clark Kent. I always dreamed of making a "Superman Classic" that would have everything that I loved about the character, all rolled up into one concept. That's why I describe it as "Classic" instead of simply "retro". A few years ago, I met and became very good friends wih John Newton, who played Superboy on TV. Once I shared my idea with him, he was excited and wanted to be a part of it, and that settled it! I wasn't going to dream of it any more - I was going to do it!

A113: Can you talk us through the process of making these Classic shorts? Was it entirely off your own back? How long did you spend on them, and can you give us a brief outline of its animation process?
RP: They are mostly off my own back, with some help from friends when I can get it. I described the look I wanted, and my friend Brian Woods, who does layouts at Disney TV made the first background that set the look. There were a few layouts that I couldn't handle, so I got some help from Jim Alles, a fantasic layout artist from Disney Feature Animation to help with those. These are made entirely for free, so I only asked for help when I really needed it, and tried to be respectful and not ask for too much. A few animator buddies stepped up and animated some scenes. Each short took about a year. That's because I work full time and am a family man. I didn't want to sacrifice any of my family time, so I waited until everyone was asleep each night, then would work for a few hours. EXHAUSTING, but truely a passion project and too much fun to pass up!

The firt step is coming up with the story and concept for the short. With "Bizarro", I knew that I wanted to show a supervillain and exploit the backwards gimmick with his music and voice. Then, I storyboarded the shots, aiming for a minute and a half piece. You take your best shot, but you don't know if you're hitting the mark on time until you turn the boards into an animatic - the panels edited to time with voices, music and sound added. From there, you trim or add to get to the desired run time. I was fortunate to have John and Jennifer Newton come to my house and record the temporary track to sync to the animatic. Once the animatic was ready, we went into a real studio and recorded the final tack and the animation was ready to begin. I still animate on paper, and then would scan the drawings into the computer when it was time to add color. The backgrounds (all following the storyboard!) were drawn digitally on a Cintiq, then composited with the animation.

A113: You've made two Superman shorts now. Are you making more? A more long-form one maybe?
RP: I could go on making these forever, and I do have another one already in the animatic form! It is A LOT of work, however, so I'm not sure when/if it'll happen. It would be nice to get Warners on board. I can't keep on makeing these for free forever! I think the only way it would be possible to do anything longer form would have to be with Warners' support.

A113: Mm, and what I thought recently, after seeing concept art from John Kahrs’ Paperman (have you seen that by any chance?) is that I’d love to see you animate one of these shorts using the new Meander system! It would look so dynamic, and still retain the vintage hand-drawn animation. Any chance?
RP: We did screen "Paperman" at work and I did find it to be stunningly beatiful! Right up my alley in terms of asthetics. I don't even know if I fully understand how the film was made! It would be wonderful to do any work that retained that unique quality, for sure, but have no idea if I'll ever get that opportunity.

A113: What’s been your favourite project to work on then?
RP: On a personal level, it is the "Superman Classic" shorts because they are completely my vision for what I like to see with that character. On the professional level, I'd have to say "Tarzan" was a highlight. Disney worked out a deal with the local zoo, and for months leading into production, we could go and draw from apes! I felt like I was in one of those classic Disney documentaries, where the artists were drawing from actual deer and elephants, getting ready to animate on "Bambi" and "Dumbo". Working with an animation superstar in Bruce Smith was such an honor, too!

A113: Who do you consider your role model in animation? Your hero, if you like.
RP: There are quite a few for me. Randy Haycock was my mentor and trained me on "Hercules" We are still friends to this day, and we share a lot of geek love over Marvel and DC superheroes! Russ Edmunds saw that I wanted to be an animator when I was his rough inbetweener on "Hunckback from Notre Dame" and used to give me added duties like adding lip sync and overlap on his outstanding Pheobus animation. Mark Henn is one of the most gifted animators I've been exposed to, and such a humble, wonderful person. I like to embarrass him and tell him that he creatd the hottest of the Disney princesses: Princess Jasmine! I had the honor of animating Bugs Bunny for Eric Goldberg on "Looney Tunes"Back in Action", and that's something I think I'll tell me grandchildren about!

A113: You work for Disney. That’s an incredible bragging right. How cool is that? It must be brilliant! And what do you make of Disney Animation’s recent output; hyped for Wreck-It Ralph?
RP: I really am one of the luckiest bums in the world! Sometimes I still have to pinch myself when I think about it! I LOVE working at Disney, and am proud to be working with some very talented artists!

Because I'm not on the "Wreck-It Ralph" production, I have not been able to see it. In a way it's fun - I get to be a fan and look forward to seeing it just as you do! It looks very funny and I can't wait to check it out!

A113: What’s your favourite Disney film then?
RP: I still feel like a child when I see "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs". That "Whistle While You Work" sequence is my favorite animated sequence of all time. It's as charming as anything ever put to film, and I have to admit to getting teary-eyed every time I see it. After that, there are eras that I love from Disney. The 1950s and Disney go so well together! It was the time when Disneyalnd opened, and I love all the films from that decade!

A113: And what’s your favourite animated film in general?
RP: My all-time favorite animated film, though, is "The Incredibles", and nothing comes close! When my kids got into it, I must've watched it fifty times and have to look very hard to find the smallest flaw. It succeeds on every level, from script to design to direction, to animation to color to voice performance to musical score! It's also proof that although I'm a traditional animator at heart that I can appreciate the beauty of CGI at it's highest level.

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