An Interview With Roy Conli, Producer of "Treasure Planet"
Treasures On The Really Big Screen
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The 70mm Newsletter
|Written by: William Kallay||Date: December 2002|
|Producer, Roy Conli. © Disney Enterprises, Inc.|
The Walt Disney Company is no stranger to breaking barriers of film technology. Take the case of their newest animated feature, "Treasure Planet". The film takes a classic story, Robert Lewis Stevenson's adventure of Treasure Island, and mixes it with a science fiction universe of exotic planets and interesting characters. Not high tech enough, you might say? The film also mixes traditional cel animation with new digital animation techniques that combine 2D with 3D. And it is the first film to go out simultaneously in four different movie exhibition formats, including standard 35mm, digital projection, Large Format 8-perf 70mm and IMAX 15-perf 70mm.
Producer Roy Conli is one of the talented people behind this epic film adventure. He was kind enough to take a few moments out of his busy schedule to talk about the film, its development and the large format release.
Kallay- Can you tell me about your producing background?
Conli- Sure. I came to Disney in 1993 and worked on the development of "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" and was co-producer on that film. I went to France to run the French unit, and then ended up staying for three years running the French studio, where I worked on the production of "Hercules" (1997) and "Tarzan" (1999). And then I came back here five years ago to produce this film. And previous to that, I was in the theatre.
Kallay- Tell me about that.
Conli- I worked for 16 years in professional theatre, and I was heavily involved with the re-opening of the Pasadena Playhouse back in the late '70s, early '80s. I went back and got my Masters Degree in Boston, then ran a Shakespeare company in Camden, Maine for several years. That led me to a job at the Mark Taper Forum where I oversaw production for the new play development program there. That's where Disney found me. I had produced a piece at the Getty Museum, in which a couple of executives saw it. One of whom I knew came up and asked me if I might be interested in doing animation. And up to that point, I had never thought of animation as a career path. They had invited me to see "Beauty and the Beast" (1991). I went and saw it and was blown away. I thought, "What a great way to tell a story." And I had realized that they had reinvented the American musical.
Conli- And then, at the same time, they were just completing Ron (Clements) and John's (Musker) film, "Aladdin" (1992). They said, "We want you to see that as well, just in case you're not convinced." And I saw "Aladdin" and I was just blown away. One of the great things about Ron and John are they are able to build a film that appeals to both kids and adults equally. And I think "Aladdin" is a great example of that. It was really Ron and John that inspired me into the medium, and I'm so glad to get the chance to work with them. I think what they've done with "Treasure Planet" is basically the same thing in terms of being able to tell a story that is totally cross generational that appeals to kids of any age. And at the heart of it is this great emotional core, which I think in terms of any story that you tell, if you don't have that emotional core, it's never quite the story it could be. And a great Disney film always centers on this great emotional core and then it's surrounded by wonderful comedy and action and adventure. And there's just a good balance in the film. I'm looking forward to its full release.
Kallay- When you started out on the film, did you build the animation in the computer, or was there a lot of hand drawn work done first?
Conli- This film is really a blend of traditional hand drawn and computer generated imagery. A lot of the computer techniques that we utilized have to do with the sets, and actually the painting of the film. We were able to employ a technology that was developed during "Tarzan" called Deep Canvas, which allowed us to build sets in the computer, three-dimensionally. It's almost as if you're going in on a live action set, and stroke-for-stroke, painting it as if you're painting a regular background. Only what you're utilizing is a digital paint brush that's being controlled by a stylist and a digital paint palette.
|Further in 70mm reading:|
The Lion King: The IMAX Experience An Interview with Don Hahn
|Kallay- It's like a multi-million dollar version of PhotoshopÒ in 3-D.|
Conli- Well, the software itself is proprietary to Disney. And it has been streamlined, focused specifically for what an animation background artist needs. It is really kind of extraordinary.
Kallay- The film seems to have a mixture of different animated elements. I noticed some of it looks like traditional, cel animation, and other parts computer animation and some 3D.
Conli- Yes, the other thing we employed on this was a combination of traditionally hand drawn characters and CG characters. The majority of characters are hand drawn, and then you have John Silver, who is a hybrid character. Being a cyborg, he's half-man and half-machine. His machine half has been animated in a computer with the latest state-of-the-art, 3D animation software. And then his human half, or his biological half, is traditionally hand drawn by probably the greatest living Disney animator today, Glen Keane.
Kallay- That must have been something of an accomplishment of melding the two ways of animation.
Conli- It was definitely something that as we got into it, we had a lot of concern about it. Because whenever you're taking two mediums, digital and a hand drawn, registration becomes a major factor in how those two aspects will live together in the same image. It was kind of the focus of how we had to figure out how the technology worked. Fortunately, the way that these films are developed, you've got about a year-and-a-half of what I call our development time. This is where we're working with the story, the script and the story reels. We're working on the design, both for the character and sets. Then, we're working on technology that we're going to employ once we get into active production. There's about a six-to-nine month period, which I call pre-production, and that's when you take all of the information that you garnered in that year-and-a-half of development. For instance, we had 15,000 drawings after a year-and-a-half of various designs for each character, various designs for sets and whatnot. You winnow that down to what the visual of the show is going to be. At the same time, you kind of look at the technology and see how far you've gone and realize that you have six months to go. Where are we going to able to bring technology at the end of that six months? Because once you get into active production, which has been about a two-year process, you really can't be tweaking. You really need to be focused. Fortunately, once we discovered a process and system to register those two items, the focus always became on the animation and bringing those characters to life. So initially, it was a technical issue that we were able to solve.
Kallay- Have you found that using this newer technology has it made the process of doing an animated feature film easier?
Conli- It's interesting because at first, you start to think of technology. At first blush, it's maybe a labor saving device, but inevitably it becomes an artistic tool. It's basically a very, very expensive pencil. In the hands of the right artist, someone who totally understands the medium, you can achieve these amazing looks. I think that the hallmark of this film, from a technological standpoint, is that you are never aware of what you are watching, whether it's hand drawn or digital. It all has a very unified look. And what we did with Deep Canvas, in terms of the sets, was we took it a step further than what we had utilized it for in its development for "Tarzan". In that film, Deep Canvas was what we called a shot based system. Basically, what you would do is design a camera shot, build your layout to the camera shot, and then you would paint it in the computer using the camera as the guide of how far you had to paint. On "Treasure Planet", the directors, Ron Clements and John Musker, wanted complete freedom of the camera. So we took Deep Canvas one step further to a thing we called virtual sets. Virtual sets basically meant that we went in and built, rendered and painted an entire 360-degree set before we even started staging. That way, the directors could literally pick their camera angles, or how they wanted to stage the animation.
Kallay- That's really incredible.
Conli- It gives you complete freedom in terms of camera movement, and that's why I think this film lends itself to the IMAX Experience, or the large format experience, because you have this amazing freedom of the camera. Camera is so important in terms of telling your story in that large format. And it just makes for an exciting ride.
Kallay- Were there plans in putting this in IMAX and large format when you were in pre-production? Or did that come later?
Conli- The first time we started talking about it was after we had seen it up on the IMAX screen. Once we started seeing how that camera movement worked, it became evident that this would be great in the IMAX. We had initially had not talked about it, but then once we saw what it was, we realized that it would adapt incredibly well. And fortunately, we always build our images larger than the 35mm format.
Conli- Because we build from the beginning video in mind, knowing that eventually, we're going to have to open the screen. And so as not to have to crop the images, we always build more up and down, which was great because we didn't have to do too much when we doubled back to work on the IMAX format.
Kallay- Were there any logistical problems for the animators that this was going out in three different formats (35mm, digital projection and large format)?
Conli- That was more, I think, from a directorial standpoint in terms of the initial staging. But the animators never really, I don't believe, worried about that. It was really about making sure that from a staging standpoint that it would work in both formats.
Kallay- Right, because IMAX is so gigantic.
Conli- Yeah, and what's really wonderful is that the amount of detail that you see in large format frame is just incredible. And from an art direction standpoint, it's just overwhelmingly lush. And then the camera movement in this film is so wonderful. It's almost a different experience when you're looking at it in large format. Watching it in 35mm, to me, is a very kind of wonderful intimate storytelling experience, whereas watching it in the IMAX format, it's as if you step into the film. You are there in the action, totally encompassed by it.
Kallay- I certainly felt like that, though of course, I was sitting in the front row during the Large Format Cinema Association Conference during a sneak preview (laughter). But it was impressive. The image was so sharp and clean, which is traditional to IMAX anyway.
Conli- It's a testament to the artists here, in a sense that hand drawn animation looks spectacular. You would be worried, generally, in hand animated form that you might get a little quiver in the line. But the artistry of our animators and clean-up artists is so incredible, so tight. And then with these 3D oil painted-looking images, you just get this amazing feeling that you're kind of stepping into a storybook, which is actually where our art direction was headed. We were looking at great illustrators from the turn-of-the-century, coming out of the Brandywine School, guys like Howard Pyle, N.C. Wyeth, Maxfield Parrish and Dean Cornwell. These guys were the visual storytellers before film, and that's the world we wanted to create. And in the IMAX format, it's almost like you turn the page and just step into the book.
Kallay- What are the benefits of seeing "Treasure Planet" in IMAX or large format?
Conli- First of all, the grandeur, it's immense and it's overwhelming. It is just kind of emotionally overpowering in a sense, which is kind of delightful. And then from an art direction standpoint, the artistry is so gorgeous. One of my art directors, who saw it the other day completed, said to me, "It's so amazing. I want to walk up to the screen and take a bite." It's just luscious. And then the ride is amazing. It's a very visceral way of seeing a film, I think. A lot of the action just comes alive. And then for me, I love comparing the two, frankly. I love the 35mm (version). I love the IMAX version. And because I love cinema, it's just fascinating to see viscerally how each makes you feel.
Kallay- When you were lending your guidance to the production staff, did you specify any books or films as influences in making this film?
Conli- You know it's interesting, because there were films that appealed to us. There's the whole conceit of the design of what we call our 70/30 Law. Seventy percent of this film was going to be somehow old and steeped in the 18th century, while 30 percent of it would be new and fantastic. The art direction of the film is neither the past nor the present, nor the future, but its own world. It's almost as if Robert Lewis Stevenson had pulled an old dusty manuscript out of his drawer and had written "Treasure Island" as a space fantasy from an 18th century standpoint.
|John Silver, a mutinous pirate posing as a ship’s cook, and his mate Jim Hawkins (right) examine a map that will lead them to the hidden treasure. © Disney Enterprises, Inc.|
Kallay- That's a great selling point.
Conli- What it does is it makes the film worthy of animation. If were going to do this film as a straightforward Treasure Island, it would be better to do it in live action. We all know what an 18th century galleon looks like. We all know what pirates would've looked like. We know what the rigging is and what not. If we were to do it as a straight forward futuristic, or what we envision as the "Alien" (1979) approach, or a "2001: A Space Odyssey" (1968) approach, we all know what stainless steel looks like, and we all know what pipes with steam jetting from them look like. You are then encumbered by certain visual images that have already been ensconced in our culture. And by taking this into a fantasy world, it gave us complete freedom in terms of visually of what we could do.
Kallay- Absolutely, because I've never seen a movie that mixes those kind of elements, that I can recall. Treasure Island is a great adventure yarn. You have the plot twists, the betrayal of friendship, etc. You couldn't ask for anything more, and to set it in its own parallel universe in "Treasure Planet" is quite unique.
Conli- In a sense, you could say it's a parallel universe. For me, when they asked me if I'd be interested in doing it over five years, I jumped at the chance. And basically for two reasons; one, a chance to work with Ron Clements and John Musker. I ran the Paris Studio before I came back to produce this, and I was back there for three years and had worked with them on "Hercules" (1997), and just adored them. They are amazing animation directors. And then secondly, "Treasure Island", for me, was the book that got me into storytelling.
Kallay- Is that so?
Conli- Yeah, when I was eleven years old, it was the first book that I had ever read that I couldn't put down. And it got me into reading and it got me into fantasy. I think it's kind of a classic young person's book. Get on an expedition alone, without your parents, and somehow prevail.
Kallay- That's a universal story right there.
Conli- Exactly. Absolutely. And so for me the idea of being able to re-invent the visual world, maintain some of the themes and the depths of character in that book, and kind of give it as a gift to kids, and hope that they turn around and go back and pick up the book. It's kind of a double treat that I'm hoping people will be able to invest themselves in.
Kallay- Are the 35mm versions of this film longer than the large format versions?
Conli- The large format version and the 35mm versions are both exactly the same story.
Kallay- I know that "Star Wars: Episode II- Attack of the Clones: The IMAX Experience" and "Apollo 13: The IMAX Experience" had to be trimmed down on their running time.
Conli- Right. Fortunately, we fit within a 90-minute format, so we're able to tell the entire story.
|The solar galleon, the RLS Legacy. © Disney Enterprises, Inc.|
Kallay- Do you foresee any of your future projects being in large format?
Conli- I think depending on the story, yes, absolutely. I think it's a great way to tell a story cinematically. It's really an amazing medium. I think that animation, particularly, lends itself to the IMAX format. I think that something like In The Bedroom is probably left for the small screen. Whenever you're dealing with some sort of family drama, it probably limits the need for that visceral response that you get from IMAX. But definitely, I would be more than happy, given whatever my next project is, to simultaneously release and come out in IMAX.
Kallay- Were there any concerns in going to large format of close-ups or a lot of movement in the camera work?
Conli- We spent a lot of time making sure that the caliber of animation was at its highest.
Kallay- Right, because there's that one shot of Jim on his solar surfer when he's spinning through the sky and you're kind of moving with him. It's neat because you're in the picture.
Conli- Yeah, I know, absolutely. Once again, I tip my hat to the directors in terms of their use of camera. The development of these amazing camera techniques that have been developed within the last seven or eight years in terms of feature animation. You could be tempted to overuse the camera, but because Ron and John are two seasoned directors, and really recognize what the camera is used for in terms of storytelling, never do you feel like there is extraneous movement on the film. There's never a point at which you get dizzy watching this.
Kallay- Do you have a preference between seeing this in digital, 35mm or large format?
Conli- A lot of people love the digital version. Basically, you're getting the truest representation of the final digital image. I tend to like film. I like the degrading of film. I like the feeling of texture. You know there is a texture that film gives you when you're watching it. I don't know if it's psychological. I don't know if it's the fact that there's 24 frames flashing in front of you each second. I almost feel comfortable and warm when I'm watching film. And either in the 35mm or 70mm format, you're getting that. And I would say that I'm probably not in the same mind of thought that some folks are, because a lot of people love that digital image on the screen. And it is gorgeous. I do not deny that the colors are vivid and gorgeous and beautiful, but there's something about film.
Kallay- Which version between 35mm and 70mm do you prefer?
Conli- It's really hard, because it's two distinct experiences. The 35mm is odd, because you can have a huge 35mm screen, but it's more of a jewel box experience, whereas the 70mm is just more of you're in it. I would say see the film in both formats if you really want to experience the film to its greatest potential. I do think you walk away viscerally from each experience, and for that matter, the digital format, I think you walk away from the digital format with slight different feeling.
Kallay- Did you happen to grow up watching the big screen epics and the roadshow films?
Conli- I was fortunate to grow up in a time before the multiplex. So my neighborhood theatre had matinees. The Temple, which was on the corner of Las Tunas and Rosemead in Temple City, it had one big screen. And everything was one big screen then. You know, the magic of that big screen is really found in very limited theatres and certainly in the IMAX film format. It's just so exciting to see something so big, something so enveloping. Something that you feel like you can step into. Sometimes, I go to a cineplex and I feel sorry for these kids who are 13 or 14 years old. I remember, and this really dates me, we paid 35 cents to go to the films in the early '60s for a matinee.
Kallay- No kidding?
Conli- And I look at these kids who are getting in for the 5-buck matinee price and whatnot, they're not getting half the screen I got.
Kallay- It's amazing. I was lucky enough to grow up from about the mid-70s to the mid-80s with the blockbuster movies. The Star Wars Trilogy and Indiana Jones Trilogy. Even though there were a lot of multiplexes, you still had some of those multiplexes that had at least one auditorium that was big, and they had the big screen and the great projection and the sound. To me, that elevated a summer popcorn movie up to a scale of 11, like in "This Is Spinal Tap". It was just fantastic. And that's why with movies like "Treasure Planet" or "The Lion King" or "Star Wars" coming out in IMAX, I think it's a real treat. I hoping that the 13 and 14 year-olds kids…
Conli- …fall in love with it.
Special thanks to Roy Conli and Elizabeth Wolfe
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