In terms of complexity, the most difficult object created for the film was Fagin’s trike, an odd-looking motorized vehicle which is composed of 18 separate moving parts. With each part subject to 15 different motion controls, the animators were able to give the trike a personality of its own even though it was generated on a computer.
Another challenge for the computer animators was to build a three- dimensional subway tunnel environment for the film’s climactic chase sequence. For this scene the tunnel itself and the cars were created dimensionally in the computer and the characters were hand drawn in the standard two-dimensional way. Whereas the traditional animation camera was limited to pans, scans and zoom motions, the computer allowed a wide range of cinematic options, including helicopter style shots, floating, rolling and tracking effects and variable points of view.
Another innovative use of computer-assisted imagery occurs during Georgette’s big musical number ‘Perfect Isn’t Easy’, (with the vocal talent of Bette Midler) a song that involves a carefully orchestrated descent down a spiral staircase. As Gerrgette comes closer to the screen, the camera changes perspective to reveal the magnitude of the stairway (created as a 3-D environment in the computer) which makes for a highly dramatic and unusual effect.
Yet another impressive display of the computer’s capabilities occurs during the film’s finale. For this sequence a database of the Brooklyn Bridge was fed into the computer, allowing the animators a wide range of choices in staging the climatic confrontation between Sykes and Fagin’s gang.
Supervising animator Mike Gabriel sums up the role of the computer this way: “Computers are a great new tool and if we use them properly, we can add real excitement and believability to a scene. Hopefully people won’t even be aware that something was done with a computer but will simply say ‘That looked great’ or ‘How did they do that?’ Its integration should really be seamless and blend in with the character animation.”
Oliver marks the directorial debut of George Scribner who joined Disney in 1983
as an animator and later became a story man. Scribner is a native of Panama and began his professional career there at a commercials house, after majoring in film at Boston University.
An article in a film magazine about a training programme for aspiring animators at the Disney Studio prompted Scribner to submit his portfolio. When the studio initially passed on his application, he decided to come to Los Angeles anyway.
Scribner landed an assignment as an assistant animator to the legendary Chuck Jones and worked with some of the Warner Brothers veterans on the featurette Duck Dodgers and the Return of the 24 1/2 Centuiy. From there he went on to work with director Ralph Bakshi as an in-betweener and then later as an animator on Lord of the Rings and American Pop. In 1980 Scribner began a two-year animating stint at Hanna-Barbera where he worked on Heidi’s Song and several other projects.
In 1983 Disney hired Scribner to be an animator on The Black Cauldron. Discovering that his real interest was in story development, he began doing some early story sketch work on The Great Mouse Detective before teaming up with head story man Pete Young on the Oliver project. He was subsequently picked to direct the film.
Scribner found directing animation to be an organic process and quite a bit different from his previous assignments. “Animation is something you live with day to day,” observes Scribner. “It’s a cumbersome system where you really have to direct everything twice. First you work with the actors to get the dialogue exactly the way you want it and hope the animator gets enough out of the vocal performances. Then you have to act it out for the animator so that he can create a performance on paper. What you get is a medium like no other. You’re creating another world unlike anything you can do in live action, and the payoff is phenomenal.”
One of the liveliest songs in the film is ‘Why should I Worry?’, which is Dodgers theme song. It is sung by Grammy Award-winning recording artist Billy Joel who was also the speaking voice of Dodger. He got the part by auditioning over the phone.
“Billy Joel was suggested early on for the voice of Dodger by our music director,” recalls Scribner. “We knew he could sing great but we weren’t sure if he could act. So we sent him the dialogue in New York and he got on the phone and read it while I read the part of Oliver. It worked out great. He could really act, and as he got into the part he defined the character and we started rewriting for him.”
“Dodger is kind of a wise-guy,” explains Joel. “He’s got a good heart but has to play some rough games in order to survive. He also puts on a tough front as a protective cover so things don’t get to him. That’s how most New Yorkers are.”
Drawing inspiration from Leo Gorcey of ‘The Dead End Kids,’ whom Joel describes as “the epitome of a tough kid who deep down was a nice guy,” he found himself increasingly comfortable with the role. “It got easier to get into character with every recording session. The dialogue got more realistic and they encouraged me to ad lib with my own slang.”
Despite the fact that Joel grew up seeing all the Disney classics, it was the fact that he now has a daughter of his own that really made this assignment special to him. “I wanted to be a hero to her more than I wanted to be a star in a movie. I knew by the time we were through making it she’d be old enough to see it. It was perfect timing.”
Joel adds, “If I do this character well enough and it’s a Disney classic, I will last as that dog maybe even longer than my records. Who knows?”
This article is based on production information supplied by The Walt Disney Company.
Printed in Animator Issue 26 (Spring 1990)