Perhaps the biggest help to the animators in rendering authentic animal movements was the steady parade of dogs that were brought to the studio each week for scrutiny. Dogs of every shape and size were recruited and given free run of the Glendale animation facility as animators feverishly filled up pads with rough sketches and drawings.
In cases where the animator wanted to more closely analyze the articulation of a particular walk or run, video footage was shot. A video printer was then used to print out a sequence of still images which would allow greater action analyses and a frame-by-frame examination. Oliver was the first Disney feature to make use of this helpful new process.
Animating four-legged creatures was one thing, but getting them to dance was something else altogether. Several of the supervising animators admitted that the musical sequences in the film were a lot tougher to draw than they might appear.
“It’s tough enough to animate a two-legged character dancing, but when you’ve got four legs to worry about and a weird bone structure, it becomes a real challenge,” says Hendel Butoy, the supervising animator responsible for Tito’s two-step.
According to animator Mike Gabriel, who worked on the ‘Why Should I Worry’ number, “I tried to imagine a Bob Fosse type of choreography that was sassy and with broad poses. You approach it as you would with humans except here you have an extra pair of feet to work with. It was important for us to stay true to the animal’s behaviour so we kept them down on all fours most of the time. Otherwise, it breaks the magic of them being real dogs.”
Art direction on the film was handled by veteran Disney artist Dan Hansen. During the early stages of pre-production, Hansen and production stylist Guy Deel were sent to New York City to photograph authentic street scenes for reference purposes. Since the film was to be told from the dog’s perspective, director George Scribner instructed them to shoot the photos from 18 inches off the ground. Fuffilling this request generated some odd looks from spectators but also provided an excellent starting point for the layout artists.
Background supervisor Jim Coleman employed an illustrative look to give the city a contemporary and hard edged look. This involved using a Xerox overlay on all the painted backgrounds. Oliver was the first Disney film in eleven years to use this approach, which originated with 101 Dalmatians. The background department created a total of 1100 individual paintings for this project.
Colour styling is used efficiently to enhance the film’s emotional and thematic content. According to Hansen, “Our primary goal was to make a strong visual difference between where the dogs live (on Fagin’s barge and on the streets) and Jenny’s brightly lit, contemporary, pastel-coloured Fifth Avenue home.”
Nearly eleven minutes of computer-assisted imagery was used in combination with traditional hand-drawn character animation. The list of inanimate objects created and animated on the computer includes cars of all shapes and sizes, cabs, buses, Sykes’ limo, Fagin’s trike (part scooter and part shopping trolley), a cement mixer, a sewer pipe, a piano, subway tunnels and trains, sunglasses, cityscapes and even the Brooklyn Bridge.
“The computer is a tool used to generate a level of believability and depth in the film that up until now would have been difficult if not impossible to pull off,” says director George Scribner. “Because the city itself is in some respects another character in the picture, we wanted it to be realistic with lots of movement and traffic; not just static backgrounds. The computer has enabled us to generate the rhythm and action that goes with an urban centre and then animate our characters on top of it.”
Disney’s 1986 animated feature The Great Mouse Detective set the stage for the technological advances seen in Oliver. In that film, a climatic two-minute sequence set inside the clock tower of Big Ben found mouse detective Basil pursuing his nemesis Ratigan through a computer- created maze of 54 turning and thrashing gears, winches, ratchets and pullies – all changing in perspective as the chase progressed. That scene was a dramatic highlight of the film and inspired the additional experimentation that led to current breakthroughs.
Unlike that film, where the animator had to work through a computer graphics engineer to realize his drawing, Oliver’s two computer animators (Tina Price and Mike Cedeno) were able to interface directly with the computer. This was also the first film to have its own department set up expressly for the purpose of generating computer animation.
According to Price, a classically trained character animator who has been at the studio for over five years, “Computers are allowing us the flexibility to create situations in animation that were never possible before. We’re just now starting to realize how useful they can be in getting the kind of look or production value that we want for a film. Originally, Oliver was just going to have one or two scenes which involved the computer, but as the film progressed we kept finding new ways to use it.”
“Animating with a computer is like building a set,” adds head computer graphics engineer Tad Gielow. “It may take a day or a week to compose a single frame or model depending on its complexity. But once it’s built you can change the camera angle or revise the scene in no time at all.”