princess and the frog

Not much going on at WonderCon today. The big event seemed to be a small panel on Walt Disney Animation’s Art of 2D Visual Effects. A bunch of the movie writers from all the movie sites were crammed into the front rows of the small conference room in hopes of seeing the first footage of The Princess and the Frog, Disney’s return to 2D hand-drawn animation. And while we did get to see a glimpse of that movie, the panel was mostly uneventful. I guess we were hoping that it would be less about the art of 2D animated visual effects and more about Princess and the Frog, but that teaches us for not trusting the official panel description.

The panel was hosted by Marlon West, a animated visual effects artist for Walt Disney Animation Studios. He started with the company 15 years ago on Lion King, and has since made the transition from 2D to 3d back to 2D again. Most recently he worked on the Goofy short film How to Hook Up Your Home Entertainment System. His job is basically to add effects to animated sequences. When a dust cloud rises from the ground after someone falls, that’s Marlon. When you see some shadows or background props moving around due to an earthquake, that’s Marlon. I learned a lot about the job of an effects animator, probably more than I’ll ever need to know. It was fascinating.

But what about The Princess and The Frog and the future of 2D hand-drawn animation at Disney? One thing West made clear is that Disney is trying to go back to their roots. He said hybrid films that combined hand drawn animation with computer animated backgrounds now have a stigma attached. And because of that, John Lasseter and company have mandated that The Princess and the Frog not look like it was touched with computers at all. In fact, most of it is not. There are no digital characters or backgrounds, and the film returns to the old multi-plane roots of Snow White. The only thing created for Princess and the Frog that is “digitally created” is the animated effects.

We were shown an early sequence where the film’s villain, a Voodoo hustler named Dr. Facilier, is giving a prince a tarot card reading. The Doctor flips the cards through the air in “maneuvers more inspired by the Harlem Globetrotters than Rickey Jay.” At one point, the arm of the chair the prince is sitting in turns into a snake and a green cocoon engulfs the royal son, as Facilier appears to grow into a giant. None of the footage was finished enough or long enough to really give you any fair review of it, but I will say it looked like an old school Disney feature film, and that made a lot of the people in attendance very happy. West showed us how he integrates computer animated effect elements into the hand drawn character and background elements in a way that everything blends together. And while future hand drawn animated features might feature more computer generated elements such as backgrounds (a la the dance sequence from Beauty and the Beast), the plan is to blend the elements together so that they seem stylistically as one.

West says that Disney plans to have a digital animated film out every 18 months and a traditional hand-drawn animated feature out every two and a half years. The Princess and the Frog is scheduled to hit theaters later this year, and the digitally animated Rupunzel is scheduled for 2010. But what does Disney has up their sleeves for Summer 2011?

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