JASON RYAN on 'CHICKEN LITTLE' Contributed by Michael J. Lee, Executive Editor for Radio Free Entertainment
October 16, 2005
In Chicken Little, Disney's first fully computer generated feature made without the folks of animation pioneer Pixar, the filmmakers take the cautionary fable of the minuscule bird who declared that the sky was falling and turn it into a comical, imaginative romp for the whole family. In this updated version, Chicken Little (voice of Zach Braff) discovers that a so-called piece of falling sky is a prelude to a visitation from outer space aliens that eventually escalates into a full scale invasion. But the potential for a war of the worlds is just one of his many dilemmas as he struggles with social problems at school and what he sees as a growing rift between him and his father (voice of Garry Marshall).
In this interview, supervising animator Jason Ryan talks about the art and technology behind Chicken Little.
MEDIA: Could you describe your role in Chicken Little?
JASON: Yeah. Basically, my job was supervising animator on the character Chicken Little. So everything that you see on the screen from how he walks to how he talks to how he gestures, how his facial expressions work, right down to how he blinks...That's my job. I'm in charge of setting the bar, creating a lot of the animation, and making sure that 40 animators who are animating Chicken Little stay consistent with that bar.
How long have you been involved in animation?
I've been learning animation for the last, almost, 16 years. And I say "learning animation" because it's something that you'll never stop learning at. You know, Glen Keane, one of the best animators in the world, has been here like for 31 years. He still says he's learning. So I suck compared to Glen Keane. [laughs] So I still got a lot to learn, but having fun in the process.
In designing Chicken Little, were you compelled to follow a certain Disney style or template?
Not really. Chicken Little and all the characters have their own style of animation. Runt of the Litter, who's this 900-pound pig, has its own way of walking. I didn't animate this character. It was another animator who was the lead on that character. He had this great way of walking that just seemed so entertaining and believable. But I didn't use that kind of style and technique for animating Chicken Little.
Do you think Chicken Little is recognizable as a Disney film?
Yeah, it feels very, very Disney. But it's the story, really, that makes it feel very Disney as well. And from concept to screen, this film took five years. But most of that time was actually in story, making sure that it's a solid, structural story. Because otherwise, if there's no story, it's just eye candy on the screen.
What were some changes that Chicken Little went through during the character design phase?
It actually started out as a girl chicken, believe it or not. We actually had a few sequences animated. But Michael Eisner came in and he made a great decision. He basically said, "A small girl doesn't really worry about being small. But a small boy"--and I can relate to that--"has some more issues with that." So you root for this underdog, this unlikely hero, because he's a small, little boy.
So the father/son element of the story didn't happen until a later stage in development?
Yeah. Well, that's at the heart of the story. I mean, the basic story is Chicken Little trying to live down the embarrassment of telling everybody that the sky fell. And just when he thinks that the town has forgotten, another piece of the sky falls and it turns out to this full-on alien invasion. And then at the heart of the story, it's really kind of Chicken Little trying to earn the love of his dad, because he feels that he embarrassed him so much that he's lost that love. And the dad really needs to tell Chicken Little that love is unconditional. And I think that theme is so strong throughout the whole film.
How did you come up with the look for the character?
Obviously, he's got chicken qualities. But we try and go for the most appealing shapes. We go for these round edges so he feels soft and appealing. You know, Mickey Mouse is the same way. So we try and stay away from hard edges when we're trying to go for appealing shapes.
Has anyone said that Chicken Little has a passing resemblance to the little chicken in the old Looney Tunes cartoons?
Are you talking about Egghead?
Yeah, the little one with the glasses in the Foghorn Leghorn cartoons.
Not really, no. I mean, we kind of just went for this really adorable looking chicken, so we went through a ton of different designs. Probably about 14 or 15, from long, skinny, with glasses, real geeky looking, to something that feels a little bit more appealing.
Did you base the character design on Zach Braff in any way?
Not really. I mean, when we actually designed the facial expressions for the actual character, we kind of keep Zach sort of in mind. He's got these really appealing eyes and eyebrows that go really high. We really want to try and get that kind of feeling. But when I'm actually animating to Zach's voice, I tend not to look at Zach's acting, but let his vocal performance dictate how he acts.
As an animator with an extensive background in traditional 2-D animation, do you enjoy working on computer generated features?
Yeah, this is so exciting for us, because basically what we've done is we've taken all the tools and techniques from our 2-D world, and we've wrapped them into the CG world. So we've taken the best of both worlds and put them into one. Things that we couldn't do in 2-D are like really complicated textures and real-time lighting and shadows. We could animate those shadows, but this is amazing that it like comes for free. You set up a light source, and it casts amazing shadows. And it seems like the suspension of disbelief is so much greater in CG because the characters actually look so three-dimensional that they feel like they're living and breathing on the screen rather than just being a cartoon.
What challenges did the 2-D animators face in making the transition to CG?
Well, the most complicated thing is instead of like pencil to paper, it's like you're kind of using this robotic arm--a virtual mouse that controls something on the screen. So it's a bit of a disconnect. But it didn't take them very long to learn it, because all the same principles from the 2-D world still kind of go hand in hand with the CG world. Because eventually, it's going to be projected on a 2-D plane, so all the same poses and the same timing, the same animation techniques, still apply.
With all of the shortcuts computers offer, why does a CG feature take just about as long as a 2-D feature to complete?
It seems about the same because you've got whole new departments. In 2-D, you had assistants and breakdown artists and in-betweeners and clean-up artists, where now you're like the one-man animation team. So the departments that you lost in 2-D, you kind of gained other departments in CG. There's lighters and compositors and the people that put the texture maps on there--whole new departments that we never really had in 2-D.
When the computer is doing a lot of the work for you, what's the creative challenge for you as an artist?
It's so much harder, because now we've got to make it work in three dimensions. In 2-D, we could cheat a lot of things, because you're really just kind of making it look like it's three dimensions. But now, you know, if a hand goes behind the body, we've got to make sure that it moves correctly, and the right arc, from a top view, from a side view, from a front view, perspective view, and to the camera view. So it's so much harder because every movement has to feel that much more believable. Because if you have any kind of flaws in the animation, the audience will perceive something wrong. They may not know what's wrong, but they'll kind of be brought out of the motion, kind of going, "That didn't look quite right."
Do you perceive those types of problems in cheaper, shoddier CG productions?
Yeah, you see it. But what we've got behind us is this great legacy of animation in 2-D from Disney that's been going on for 70 years. And we're kind of capitalizing on all that has been learned so far. So new studios that are coming up are still trying to learn how to animate, and we're kind of taking all these amazing animation techniques that we've already learned and just [enhancing] it with all this great look and detail, and all the textures and stuff, that we've got from the CG world. So it's really, again, taking the best of both worlds and putting them together.
Do you still use pencil and paper for preliminary sketches, before you start working on the computer to produce the final product?
Actually, because I am from a 2-D background, it's so much faster for me to use pencil to paper to work out my actual animation. But instead of pencil to paper, now we use stylus to screen. And it's so cool! It's like a digital markup on the screen. So we actually solve our animation so quickly, as if I was doing it on paper, and then I use that as a reference to pose the actual virtual puppet. There's about 120 controls on the character. There's probably about 18 controls on his comb alone to get that motion. So for me, I need to solve the animation first, really quickly show that to the director, and when he buys off on the performance as a 2-D markup, then I can go ahead and relax and just kind of pose out my 3-D model.
Do you think 2-D animation will eventually die out?
You know, I don't think you're going to see it disappear. I think we will actually get to do some more 2-D films. But right now, what's really selling is CG. And it's so exciting because it's a new medium for us. We just feel like we're scratching the surface. I've actually been doing it for ten years, so it doesn't feel that new to me. But it feels like we're really kind of like, "Wow, we can do this now! Oh my God!" And it seems with every new technology breakthrough, we're really capitalizing on it.
Was there a certain segment or character in this movie that was particularly difficult to animate?
The baseball game took a while to configure, because that was the first sequence that we actually did--to actually make sure that the timings are right, that the cuts are working right, that the actual animation feels like it's building up to a momentum and then crashing down. And then, making the audience really, really root for this character.
What about the sequence with the sky falling?
Yeah, that's a real technological breakthrough right there--really trying to make that sky break apart and all the little debris falling, and changing the sky into the motherships. That was so cool.
How do you feel about Disney fully embracing the CG feature?
It really feels like this is kind of an evolution for Disney. It's kind of like we've explored 2-D. We went to the multi-plane camera, kind of getting dimensional. And we've always been putting in elements of CG into our two-dimensional films. So this feels like it's kind of an evolution. This is the first time we've done like an all CG film. But in Treasure Planet, we had the cyborg, which had the traditional and the CG elements married together.