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A Dog's Best Friends

Mar 24th, 2009
Q & A with Nathan Greno and Mark Walton

 

March 24, 2009

by Kenneth J. Souza

It took over a decade of diligently working behind the scenes at Disney before Nathan Greno and Mark Walton found success with Bolt, the bold new computer-generated Disney animated feature that — surprise! — wasn’t a product of the brains at Pixar. Greno, who previously worked as a clean-up artist on Mulan and also did work on Brother Bear and Meet the Robinsons, served as story supervisor on Bolt and also inspired the breakout character of Rhino — the lovable hamster within a plastic ball that was named after one of his pet cats. He’s currently co-directing the studio’s upcoming feature, Rapunzel, alongside Byron Howard, co-director of Bolt. Walton, who brought Rhino to life with his impeccable voice characterization, first worked as a story apprentice for Disney’s Tarzan and will next serve as visual development artist for the forthcoming King of the Elves.

The two recently participated in an online press junket to discuss their work on the Oscar-nominated Bolt, the first production under the new “Disney Animation” banner, and their collaboration on Super Rhino, an animated short that appears exclusively on the new Bolt BD and DVD.

Question: Could you tell us about the success of the film Bolt? Were you pleased with its overall reception?

Mark Walton: The reception was really gratifying — lots and lots of positive reviews (an unusually high “Rotten Tomatoes” rating), the Academy Award nomination, an Annie nomination for me — it was awesome. Hopefully even more people will watch the DVD.

Question: When did you get the idea to do the Super Rhino short for the DVD? How long did it take to make it?

Nathan Greno: When I was finishing up as story supervisor on Bolt, John Lasseter asked for short pitches for the DVD. I pitched the idea of Rhino getting Bolt’s powers. John was onboard and asked me to start developing the idea. The schedule was very tight. I believe we finished the entire short in 3-4 months — the crew was still finishing Bolt at the time!

Question for Mark Walton: Rhino is supposed to be a lot like you. Was there a portion of the movie that was unusually hard for you to do, or where you had the hardest time doing it “in character”?

Mark Walton: Actually, most of the time, it was pretty easy — the directors pretty much just wanted me to be myself as much as possible (well, if I happened to be a hamster). The hardest part for me, I think, was just enunciating, speaking clearly and not too slowly — I sound pretty mumbly and unintelligible in normal life, but I tried to step up my game for Rhino, and having the editors choose the best takes of every line reading (sometimes 60 for a single line) helped too!

Question for Mark Walton: Was it hard to do the singing part in the short? How familiar did you have to get with the collected works of Miley Cyrus to prepare for it?

Mark Walton: (laughs) Well, I had to listen to that “Best of Both Worlds” song over and over, but as it turned out, what was funnier was Rhino singing a really bad version of the song that wasn’t quite accurate. I actually did the song several times before they got me to sing it bad enough, so I guess that was a challenge. It was fun, though!

Question: Will Super Rhino be theatrically screened so that it can be considered for the Best Short Oscar?

Mark Walton: Sadly, no, but hey — if millions and millions and millions of people buy the DVD, that will be the best award of all!

Question for Nathan Greno: What was the biggest change for you moving to the director’s chair for the first time in Super Rhino? What do you think was the most valuable thing you learned and will use in Rapunzel?

Nathan Greno: The biggest change was getting to know the other departments. I had been in the story department for over 10 years. The short program at Disney Animation is fantastic because it gives you a chance to direct on a much smaller level before jumping into a full-length feature. The knowledge I’ve gained has been incredibly helpful on Rapunzel.

Question: Is there going to be some kind of sequel/spinoff to Bolt?

Mark Walton: Well, there is the Super Rhino short on the DVD/Blu-Ray, which is cool, but I hope there’s more! Write a letter! I need the money! Seriously, I really love performing Rhino, and it would be great to do more.

Question: What is that blobby thing on Rhino’s side? Is it supposed to represent something like Bolt’s lightning bolt, or is it just a different colored patch of fur?

Mark Walton: I think it’s just a patch of darker fur, but Rhino, delusional as ever, equates it to Bolt’s lightning bolt mark, linking him (in his mind) even more closely to his hero.

Question: Who were some of your animation influences?

Mark Walton: Well, all of the Disney classics are films I’ve watched over and over — Snow White, Pinocchio, Fantasia, 101 Dalmations (Milt Kahl and Marc Davis are geniuses!), and so many of the Pixar movies — Toy Story, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, The Nightmare Before Christmas ... heh, maybe I should email you a complete list later — this could take all day!

Question: Are you more a dog person or a cat person? Or maybe a hamster person?

Nathan Greno: I have two cats — Cheese and Rhino — yep, that’s where the name came from! But I do love dogs, too. At some point, when my schedule cools off, I want to adopt a puppy … not sure how the cats are going to handle that!

Question: What was it like working with John Lasseter?

Mark Walton: Well, I wasn’t really working directly with John doing the recording, but it was really encouraging to hear that he liked Rhino and liked what I was doing! He is a real inspiration to the entire studio, being a successful filmmaker himself.

Question: Since the short was produced so quickly, had Rhino been popular with test audiences beforehand?

Nathan Greno: Rhino was extremely popular within the studio — and a favorite character among the story department — so it seemed fitting to build a short around him.

Question: Is it more difficult to create a story from scratch or to transform an earlier treatment?

Mark Walton: Nathan probably has his own take, but I think that both are easy and hard in different ways. When you’re adapting a book or a script, the good thing is you already have a structure to build upon — a lot of the questions about how the characters relate to each other, and what the story is really about, have hopefully already been answered. There’s almost always still a lot of details that need to be resolved or changed to make the story work as a movie, but there’s not as much to figure out from scratch — and, of course, there’s the hope that if people liked the book or whatever, that we know the story works in some way, and that there’s a built-in audience. Of course, the problem is, if there’s characters or story elements that don’t work at all, it’s hard to know how much you can get away with changing without violating the spirit of the original, or alienating fans of the original. When you have to make everything up from scratch, it’s obviously a lot of work, and you have to prove the story will work, and that people will show up to something new, but you don't have any of the baggage of a previous story or fans to please — you can do whatever you want.

Question for Mark Walton: In a lot of countries the voices are dubbed. Do you think that dubbing is still necessary when subtitles are not enough? And how important is it for you to choose the voices?

Mark Walton: Well, I guess it’s necessary for the people who don’t want to read subtitles! And I know many people in the United States and abroad don’t, so it’s great that they can watch an accessible version of great movies. I really like to try to watch films in the original language, because I want to hear the original performance as it was directed, and I think there’s a lot of people that feel that way. It’s hard when people want to see the original language version but the only one that plays is the dubbed version, but there’s always the DVD at least. Picking the right voice is really important, and the guys who do the dubbing have to be amazing, to match the lip-synch, and say things that have often been changed in intent (not just the language) to make more sense to the local culture, and still act — and I have to say, the people that Disney international picks usually do a really good job.

Question: Mark, are you going to “be” any other character in animation?

Mark Walton: Well, I sure hope so! I’m hoping that if people make a really big fuss about the DVD (nudge, nudge) that directors everywhere will be fighting each other to cast me in their films! If not, I always have my day job as a story artist for Disney, so that’s not too shabby either.

Question: What is your favorite scene in Bolt and why?

Nathan Greno: It’s hard to pick a favorite! I love the “fake” TV ending — it’s really goofy and unexpected. It’s also really heartbreaking to watch Bolt return to the set only to find Penny has “replaced” him. I’m really proud of what we did with that scene. I love the bit where Bolt thinks that Penny has “moved on” and he drops the carrot — it chokes me up just writing about it!

Mark Walton: I really like the escape from the animal shelter — the writing, the designs of the guards, the animation, the voice performances all came together in top form … plus, I got to sing!

Question: What was your favourite animated movie when you were kids?

Nathan Greno: Dumbo is my favorite animated film of all time. It has the perfect balance of everything. Humor, emotion — it’s really a fun, entertaining, heartbreaking film. I love it.

Mark Walton: That’s a hard question, lots of contenders … mostly Disney classics, of course! I’d say something between Fantasia — animation! demons! dinosaurs! all together! — The Rescuers, and The Secret of Nimh (of course, it was limited to what was re-released in theaters or available on tape, which wasn’t much when I was a kid! I’m old.

Question for Nathan Greno: CGI movies often still have to solve really hard technical problems. Did you have to modify or adapt a story point because the animators said, “We don't know how to do that” or “We can’t do that in time”?

Nathan Greno: The studio as a whole is always trying to make the best movies we can. John Lasseter expects the highest level of entertainment in our films and we are more than happy to deliver. It’s amazing what you can accomplish when you think outside of the box.

Q: With Bolt coming simultaneously to DVD/Blu-Ray, what are your thoughts on the quality of the direct-to-disc transfers? Does Blu-Ray faithfully replicate the theatrical experience?

Mark Walton: I think that some transfers are better than others. Obviously it also depends on how good/big you TV and player are, but it can be amazing, when you have a big, detailed picture with great sound. I’ve seen a few Blu-Rays where they took an older film and had trouble cleaning it up — sometimes they lose some of the detail or pump the colors up too much. But the potential for a more cinematic experience is huge. I guess if you really wanted it to be complete, you’d bring annoying strangers in your house to talk loudly and text each other.

Question for Nathan Greno: Rhino is the most charismatic character in Bolt. What challenges did the animators find working with such a small and chubby character that, in addition, moves in a ball?

Nathan Greno: Working on the short, I found Rhino’s shape (a round ball with tiny arms and legs) presented a number of limitations — but the limitations are what makes him so incredibly funny. In the short, we have him doing aerobics in his ball and it’s funny because of his shape. Sometimes the limitations work in your favor.

Question: Mark, what did you bring to the character of Rhino? How did you manage to make him that crazy (in a good sense)?

Mark Walton: Well, I just tried to imagine how I would feel if the character in my favorite book or movie showed up, in the flesh, at my door to take me on an adventure — how would I feel? How would I act? (Ecstatic and slightly crazy.) Luckily, the writing for Rhino was so good, I felt like it was easy to know how to act, and the directors helped coach me a lot. I guess there’s something about my voice and my laugh that some people liked, but so many people — the writers, animators, modelers, etc. — did so much to bring Rhino to life, I feel like I was just the cherry on top.

Question: On Rhino, when the voice was found, did that change your approach to the character? Then, did you want to change things in the story to fit Mark Walton’s performance? What did Mark Walton bring to the character you created?

Mark Walton: Well, I don’t know if they changed or adjusted anything for me — I pretty much just read the lines that were written, they were so funny! I think the character became more and more popular in screenings, so they found ways to give him more to say and do in the movie — I’d like to think I brought a generous helping of “awesome” to the character … or at least a funny voice and laugh.

Question: Mark, did you work with Nathan Greno on building the character of Rhino?

Mark Walton: I think that Nathan, the directors, and the story crew pretty much had Rhino figured out before I ever started doing the voice. I think that they put more of Rhino into the movie as the story evolved, because people liked him — giving him these little speeches to inspire Mittens and Bolt, for example — but I think that was just because Rhino was a really funny idea for a character, and really well-written. I just showed up for the recording and had fun.

Question: Mark, could you describe your work as visual development artist?

Mark Walton: Sure. Basically, I work with the director(s) figuring out the characters and the world of the story. Like, what do the characters look like? What are their personalities like? How do they relate to each other? Where does the movie take place — what country, what time of year, what are some cool places the sequences could happen in? What kinds of things could happen that would showcase the characters’ personalities and be fun to watch? What is the movie really trying to say, if anything — what are the themes? These are all things that can be explored by writing, doodling, discussing, before the storyboarding begins (or while it’s happening). I love it — it’s at the stage where we can try anything and everything.

Question: Are you guys from Disney already thinking in 3D all the time?

Mark Walton: Yes, I think in color too! The prescription drugs really help. Seriously, I do think that we imagine what stuff we can do in 3D sometimes, but great storytelling is great storytelling in 2D and 3D, and not everyone can watch the movie in 3D — not yet, anyway — so we have to make sure the movie and the story work either way.

Question: Nathan, how much can you speak about Rapunzel without putting our lives at risk?

Nathan Greno: I couldn’t be happier with the direction Rapunzel is headed. It’s a very smart, funny comedy. Stay tuned! (Note: Disney’s Rapunzel is slated to be released theatrically in 2010.)

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