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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, director Mark Dindal and producer Randy Fullmer talk about bringing Chicken Little to the big screen.

The Interview

MEDIA: How did this story come about?

MARK: It came out of my love for these folktales and fairytales. I like to look at those things and ask questions that could potentially expand them into bigger stories. So in the case of Chicken Little, I asked the question, "If that wasn't an acorn and it wasn't a piece of the sky, then what was it that hit this kid on the head? What are all the possibilities that that thing could be? And if it was something real and it was something threatening, and he was so discredited that no one would ever believe him again, then how's he going to deal with that problem?" And so I brought that initial idea into this storyroom that you're sitting in right now, where we'd get together with anywhere from five to twelve story artists, and we'd play this really fun "what if" game, where everybody just throws out suggestions for characters, for situations, and then we just literally worked on that for essentially five and a half years, just trying every sort of possibility that we could.

What were some of the biggest differences between the final script and its earliest drafts?

RANDY: Well, we had Chicken Little as a girl for two years.

MARK: And the Ugly Duckling was a boy, also.

Was this film always going to be computer generated animation?

RANDY: No. About four years ago, we switched over to CG.

What prompted the shift?

RANDY: We were presented with, "Would you guys like to make a CG movie?" And we had never made one.

MARK: Yeah. The two of us had dinner one night, and we were on a 2-D path, and we thought, "I wish this could be a CG movie," because we feel like there's an opportunity there for a whole toolset that's really interesting. And we thought we would miss the opportunity.

RANDY: We were grumbling, actually.

MARK: And then like a month later, they said they would like this to be a CG movie. And you get the coolest bunch of tools that you can imagine to make a movie. And both of us were really interested in it because you essentially get to make kind of a live-action movie, or use live-action filmmaking principles to do a CG movie, because the sets, the camera, the characters exist in three-dimensional space, and they're virtually real. So our director of photography had live-action experience, and he set up all of our shots like we were on a set. And suddenly you get to realize what emotional impact camera crane moves can have on your story. So it was the most exciting opportunity we could ever get.

Disney was such a pioneer in the field of hand-drawn animation, and all of their previous CG features were done by Pixar. Was there any apprehension about abandoning 2-D animation in favor of CG?

RANDY: We had a long debate in the studio: what was the legacy of Disney? Was it 2-D, pencil-drawn animation, or was it telling great stories with great characters? And Joe Grant, who passed away just this past year, that we dedicated the movie to...I think he was, at 94 years old, really the youngest voice in the room, saying to all of us, "Look, Walt Disney stood for cutting-edge technology. He stood for whatever tool you could assemble that would do the best job of telling your story. Don't get hung up on the technology and say, 'No, it's the pencil.'" He said, "Walt never would have locked in and said, 'You gotta stick with the pencil forever, no matter what happens with technology.'" So I think it was undeniable. I think of the top ten grossing [animated movies], Lion King is the only one in there that's a 2-D movie. It's undeniable that there's a great public appetite, and it's because you just have such a rich palette. Like Buck Cluck's feathers--he has 250,000 feathers on his head and his arms that can all move to wind and gravity. Those are things that you could only dream of in a 2-D realm.

Would you ever want to go back to doing 2-D animation?

MARK: I personally wouldn't. But I wouldn't say that 2-D is dead by any means, any more than the western was dead, and the pirate movies are dead, and everything else that everybody says is dead.

RANDY: Or black and white movies are dead. Occasionally, a director says, "That's what I want..."

Do you think Disney's dominance in traditional hand-drawn animation made them slower than the competition in moving to CG?

RANDY: I think we probably did move a little slow. But boy, the last four years, we moved really fast. Because we had to. And it's been the most exciting time. Four years ago, when the decision was made [to] make this CG, we sort of had half a crew of CG people that we inherited from Dinosaur. But they were unproven in terms of, "Can they animate a cartoony style?" They'd been doing real slow, lumbering dinosaurs. And we had brilliant 2-D animators [with] no CG experience. So we sort of glued the two groups together, and it was like a buddy system, and everybody had to train each other. And we had more fun making this movie than any movie I've ever worked on.

What was the basis for some of the specific situations in this movie?

MARK: The gym teacher is the gym teacher I had in school. We look for experiences that we had and things that people can relate to. A lot of people have the dream where you went to school without your pants. And I'm sure everybody has been frustrated trying to put a dollar in a vending machine and the little corner's wrinkled. And that's the kind of thing that we like to put in the movie, because people of all ages can respond and relate to it.

RANDY: And really early on, we had a big debate about baseball. Why not soccer? Because isn't soccer a much more international game? But it didn't matter so much that it was a baseball game. When we played it around Europe, everybody loved it because it was really clear what was happening. It's this little guy who's really overmatched, trying to succeed at something. So it didn't feel like it was only going to relate to an American audience.

Disney animated films, including Chicken Little, seem notorious for having single parents. (The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Pocahontas, Mulan, etc.) Is there some sort of rule that says one parent must be dead?

MARK: Well, in our story, we had a mom for a while. And what we found is that she smoothed out the conflict. She really made it less dramatic. And ultimately, when you have a dad and a kid and they really only have each other, there's more at stake.

RANDY: It forces them to deal with each other.

MARK: It just heightened it. So we took her out. It's not necessarily our rule, and in our last movie, Emperor's New Groove, we had not only a mom and a dad, but the mom was pregnant, about to have a child. So we don't have anything personally against having more than one parent. [laughs]

The opening of Chicken Little jokingly pays homage to The Lion King. Was that an actual 2-D clip, or did you render that scene CG style?

RANDY: That was a clip from The Lion King.

MARK: Not only a clip from Lion King, but that was a clip that Randy himself pushed through production.

RANDY: Yeah, I worked on that. [laughs] I thought it was so good, we had to see it again.

How did you come to pick Zach Braff for the voice of Chicken Little?

MARK: He came in for an audition with probably 40 other people that came. And he was really prepared. He had the right energy level. He really looked at the character and understood him. This little guy has the spirit where he's never going to quit. No matter how much the world throws at him, he always gets back up and pushes on. So he had this great energy, just alone in his voice, that I felt sounded like the spirited little kid. And then he pitches his voice just slightly to sound a little younger, which is a hard thing to do, because often adults will try and do kids' voices, and they sound forced. But he had just the right amount. And then he has great comic timing, obviously, and the character required that as well. But I think it was really just the spirit and the energy that he had.

RANDY: He's wildly uninhibited, too. He's a wild man in the recording studio. [laughs]

MARK: And really game. I mean, when he sings "We Are The Champions," he can actually sing. You know, when you're the typical kid, everybody's out of the house, you grab the spoon and you pretend it's a microphone. And you're probably not all that good, but in your head, you just think you are fantastic. And that's the way I wanted it to sound. So we kept saying, "More off-key. A little more off-key."

What are the advantages of using adults to voice child characters?

RANDY: They're better actors.

MARK: And they've just had more experience, which really comes into play, especially when you need very sincere acting moments. You can always find a great kid that's just ahead of their time--you know, an old soul and you're like, "Oh my gosh, look at their talent." But in this case, I prefer the people that we chose.

In these types of features, the voice actors usually record their lines separate from the rest of the cast. Why did you choose to record Zach Braff and Garry Marshall together at times?

MARK: Just because the chemistry was so fantastic. The two of them really respected one another, and are fans of each other. And when you get two actors together, it just comes alive in a way that it doesn't when there's just a single actor in front of a microphone. So we had the two of them do a lot of the key scenes together, and we had Zach and Joan Cusack do [the] dodgeball scene together. And we had...

RANDY: ...Amy Sedaris and Steve Zahn sing together...

MARK: the end of the movie. And you just find that they come alive. They can play off of someone, and there's just an energy there. And they also ad-lib a lot more when they're with one another, because they know if they throw something out, the other actor is going to come back.

RANDY: A lot of the time why you don't schedule them together is it's impossible. They've got busy schedules or they're shooting live-action movies in different cities, and it's just hard to have that happen.

In what ways did you identify with Chicken Little?

MARK: I actually did win at dodgeball once, so I was really happy about that, and walked around for a week feeling like I had really achieved something fantastic. But other than that...

RANDY: But that line of popular vs. unpopular...I think for most people, that brings you right back to the mentality of junior high school.

Would it make sense for Disney to get back together with Pixar?

MARK: I don't know. We just get the opportunity from the company to just focus on the movie we want to make, and that's really a company decision.

RANDY: We actually know a lot of people at Pixar, and they know us, and we cheer for each other because we all kind of know how hard these things are to make. So there's sort of that political level; but with us, we're just all artists trying to make good movies, really.

Related Material

Chicken Little interview with supervising animator Jason Ryan
Movie Coverage: Chicken Little


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