Nathan Greno And Byron Howard On Tangled, Animation, Storytelling And Their Next Action Movie

Posted by January 28, 2011 Comment

Finally, the long, long locks of Disney’s Rapunzel-story Tangled are flowing into cinemas across the UK. I listed the film at number 12 in my 51 Films From 2010 That You Should Not Miss and I’m excited to get out and see it again.

It’s a wonderful film that blends old-school storytelling with a cutting edge blend of 2D and 3D animation know-how, bringing old hand-drawn styles into the CG realm to create something exciting and genuinely innovative.

I spoke to the film’s directors, Nathan Greno and Byron Howard about the film, its brand-new version of old-school technique and what they’ll be bringing our way next.

Nathan and Byron, double act

NATHAN: Byron was directing Bolt and I was the head of the story on the film, so we had made that movie and towards the head of that production, John Lasseter asked me if I had any ideas for a short for the Bolt DVD. This was John’s way of sort of testing your directing skills. It was really smart, a really smart business move. He lets you drive the car around the parking lot before you take it out on the street, and he sees what you’re capable of.

So I pitched ideas to John and he liked one so I started storyboarding it out, with one of my friends at the studio, and then I was down in editorial cutting the boards together and those were areas that I was very well aware of, how those departments work. But then after that the film moved on into animation and all those other departments, departments that Byron knows really well, so he was kind of showing me like “Here’s how you work with an animation crew” and “Here’s how you work with all these other departments”. I’d been at the studio for a dozen years, but you’re kind of in your own little bubble, the departments don’t come together so much. But it was great, we were working together, and there was this great chemistry and it was fun working together.

And at the same time, there was this movie Rapunzel going on and that needed directors at some point, and John asked if we were interested in directing that film, and off we went.

BYRON: John Lasseter does watch all of us very carefully, he watches all of our leadership decisions very carefully, looking for people who could potentially do the job. It’s a great job but it can take a certain sort of brain to do it. A lot of it is interpersonal skills, you have to be able to work with a crew and get the best out of a crew. He’s the best example. His crew would go through hell for him, and then produce a great film. And then they’d pop back in to go through it again in a second. They trust him because he has the highest level of expectations of himself, and of his crew. He demands excellence in everything he does.

And I think he saw the same thing in us. We will stop at nothing to get the best from whatever we’re working on, and we actually want that from our crew as well. It is really tough. This film was done in half the amount of time, two years rather than four, but the film itself didn’t suffer and it’s beautiful and more emotional than we ever could have hoped for. The thing that did suffer was our crew. We asked a lot of them, hour wise, and they spent a lot of time away from their families, skipped vacations and holidays and really buckled down for two years and got the thing done.

I think that John does see the dedication on our end to making something that is extraordinary. John always says that he wants every film he works on to over deliver and we’re of the same mind. Hopefully people will go in saying “I don’t exactly know what to expect from this movie but I hope it’s good” but then they come out afterwards saying “My god, that was so much better than I thought it was going to be”. That’s why Pixar inspire trust and I think Disney in the future, you’ll see a bond of trust really growing.

The story is an acorn from which everything else grows

NATHAN: I think everything comes from story. If your story’s not working, if your sequences aren’t right, then you have nothing. We’ve kind of taking on a kind of mentoring role at the studio right now, one of the artists is doing a short and we’re showing him how we did it. We were looking at the short, and they bring us in every once in a while to see what’s going on, and they were showing us some of the development stuff “Here’s what the short is going to look like visually” and “Here’s what the lighting is” and we’re like “Okay – but what are you doing with your story? Where’s your story?”

Your story will tell you what your lighting needs to look like, what your characters should be designed like, all of those things. If you don’t have your story down, if you don’t have your beat board working, I don’t know how you do the rest. That’s why with animated films, even with some of the Disney ones that haven’t been as strong, the ones that haven’t worked, it’s because their story wasn’t in place. Personally, and I know Byron feels the same way, I think that it’s like your designing the roof of the house when you don’t even have the foundation yet.

Look at the sequence with the King and the Queen before the lanterns go up in the air. It was added, actually, very late in the game, because we needed to see how they were feeling. There was something missing, and we had to figure it out. We thought “Okay, you have to know that the celebration, as beautiful as it is, still has its roots in this tragedy, and this loss that is being felt by the parents”. It’s a very simple sequence of shots but its placement, and where it occurs, the fact that it’s behind closed doors, that nobody sees this except for eachother, so they’re not really being a King and Queen, that’s what makes people relate to them and feel “My heart goes out to them”. That’s a choice that comes from structure and sequence, where you’re putting the beats in a certain order, but also, at the same time, we will look at the performances. A lesser animator could have ruined the scene by going too far, but if you look at the animation, it’s so miniscule and tiny and controlled, so subtle that it lets the audience’s mind do the work for them.

3. Kill your babies

NATHAN: There is a scene in the movie where Rapunzel and Flynn, the leave the pub and they’re underground and Flynn goes “You know, that was pretty amazing what you did back there” and she’s like “I know!!” and originally the animator had taken Flynn’s reaction and had him almost looking at Rapunzel like she’s a lunatic, then turning his head and keeping walking. But that’s not the way we issued the scene to him. Sometimes we let people take a stab and do what they think is right because they might come up with something brilliant and better than what we were saying and he did this reaction where Flynn treated her like she’s nuts. At the animation dailies everybody laughed, went nuts, but Byron and I were like “This is the part where these two need to connect”. He has to start liking her, so as funny as that piece of animation was, and I guarantee to you anybody who would see that would laugh, we knew “We’ve got to do this”.

And even [legendary Disney animator] Glen Keane, in the room he was like “But isn’t it funny?” and we were like “Yeah, it’s funny” but we had the story in our minds and we knew what that moment had to be because of the story. Anyway, a couple of days later, I saw Glen in the hallway and he said “I’ve got to hand it to you guys. I walked out of that animation room at first thinking you were throwing away brilliant animation but once I saw a couple more shots together I got it. That was the wrong time for that.” Story tells you what the rest of the movie needs to be.

4. Hand drawn animation and CG animation

BYRON: We both came from 2D animation and we’re both artists ourselves, we both draw. It’s amazing how intuitive drawing is, you have this great flow that goes right through your arm, through the pen, onto the page, and it’s amazingly instant gratification. You think of something, you draw it, and it’s so precise, it’s muscle memory. But these guys with computer animation, it’s almost like they’re animating a puppet with chopsticks. How you get any kind of flow or intuition from doing that I don’t know.

Glen would sit down and draw a pose and in ten seconds, there’s Flynn, perfect, and even though it’s rough it’s got like the perfect expression and a great sort of cocky attitude and it’s got appeal, it’s got balance. But just the user interface these guys have to use to pose the CG characters, it’s so frustrating that they have to really work at it. I think you’ll see that getting better over the next couple of years, but what’s great here is that even though the artists had to pose their puppets with chopsticks, so to speak, they had Glen drawing over their scenes and showing them “Here’s where you can really push the flow, here’s where you can really open that eye wider, push that joint out further or really twist this line of action.”

So for those guys it was this masterclass with this guy who’s been at the centre of 2D animation in Disney for the last 30 years. And you see this, you see the results, and even CG animators at Pixar have noticed and asked “How the heck did you guys make the human animation look so good?” It was this perfect storm, this system of Glen there drawing, us there acting out, and the animators willing to take Glenn’s illustrations back to their desk and rethink their approach. They were flexible enough to say “What I have is good, now it’s going to get better.”

It’s really a great way to work and we’d like to continue working like that in future, having a 2D artist as part of that process. You have to find the right guy to do this, but Glen is exceptional in that he’s not only a great guy but he’s also a great teacher.

5. After Tangled

BYRON: We pitched six movies to John Lasseter. We had this meeting in the middle of the Tangled production schedule and John walked in to this meeting and said “Oh , I thought there was a mistake I’m making on the calendar… you’re pitching ideas but you’re still making Tangled” and we were like “I know, but we’ve seen people go through this where they wrap up their film and they don’t know what they’re doing, they go into this development process and we have a friend in the studio who was for a year and a half developing ideas and pitching them and those weren’t right so he went through this whole thing, so we though we’d just try and get something going early, so that when we go on these trips we can look around the world, see different cultures, maybe be inspired, and add to this project that we’re working on.

John looked at the six ideas and there were two, actually, that he thought were great and he said “Why don’t you combine those two?” and that’s the genius of Lasseter is he can always see things like that. And we thought “Wow, that would be a really wild, different concept of a film, so totally weird and different”.

NATHAN: I will tell you it’s a big action movie. It relates to Tangled in that will have a ton of action but it will have that ton of heart. It will feel like a Disney movie yet feel very different to Tangled. It will be really funny. Tangled is a good example of the type of movies we like to make, if you look at that, so the next movie will have more of the same in a different package.

Tangled is in UK cinemas now, and is particularly worth checking out in 3D. My interview with Glen Keane is to follow later this afternoon.

(Last Updated January 28, 2011 9:44 am )

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