"Off His Rockers": The Forgotten Disney Animation Short:by Jim Korkis, staff writer
Most people don't stay for the credits of a film unless they are waiting for some little extra teaser that pops up at the end, like the Disney-produced Marvel superhero films.
I took my nephew to see the latest CGI animated feature Walking With Dinosaurs and while we did not stay to view the credits, I did catch the name of one of the two directors: Barry Cook.
Cook was also the co-director on the animated film Arthur Christmas and co-director on Disney's Mulan.
How Cook became an animation director is actually a true Disney "Cinderella" story and it all began two decades ago in Orlando, Florida. I got a chance to meet Cook briefly when I first came to Florida in 1996, and he impressed me as a nice guy sincerely interested in animation.
Cook was born in Nashville, Tennessee. After graduation, Cook worked briefly as an animation intern on television projects at Hanna-Barbera before coming to Disney in 1981 to work as an effects animator on the film Tron.
He worked as an effects animator or effects supervisor on several films, such as The Black Cauldron, Oliver & Company, The Little Mermaid, Roller Coaster Rabbit, The Rescuers Down Under and Beauty and the Beast.
He also contributed animated effects to live-action Disney projects like My Science Project and Captain EO (where he created the Major Domo stop-motion transformation sequence).
In 1989, Cook was relocated to the new Disney animation studio at the Disney-MGM Studios. His role was officially to supervise the Disney special-effects animation department in Florida.
However, he had a dream called Off His Rockers, that would allow him to demonstrate his skills as an animation director to Disney Feature Animation. He began sketching and taking notes on the idea a few years before he was re-located from California to Florida in 1989.
Off His Rockers evolved into an approximately five-minute animated short created entirely at Walt Disney Animation Florida over a two-year period by people working in their spare time.
Done very much in the design style of a CalArts student film of the time period, the cartoon told the story of a young boy who has become so mesmerized by the latest video games that he has abandoned his old playthings, in particular, a talented and clever rocking horse who tries to rescue his friend from the mind-numbing technology.
It is a simple, sweet story with two engaging characters. The short was a combination of hand-drawn animation and computer animation.
"Our goal was to design and animate a film combining hand-drawn and computer-generated images in a fashion that would not call attention to either technique, but instead use the inherent strength of both approaches to provide the ideal characters and settings for the story," Cook told the press in 1992 when the short was released theatrically.
"We were interested in experimenting with the techniques but wanted to keep our foucus on the story and the characters. The audience doesn't really care how a film is done as long as it's entertaining," he said. "The essence of the story is that the boy's imagination is being held captive by a video game, and the horse finally sets him free. The film's two interwoven themes are to value one's friendships and the importance of exercising one's imagination."
Cook felt that if successful that the after-hours project might be showcased at a computer animation trade show, as well as demonstrate to the Disney Company the talents that were untapped in Florida.
Cook assembled a core team of about six people to bring the project to life. Eventually, most of the Florida animation staff of 73 people going beyond their official job roles donated time to the project.
They labored nights and weekends and during daytime hours as other official projects, including helping out on feature films like The Rescuers Down Under, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin, allowed them.
Cook had managed to get Disney to allow the use of Disney resources at the Florida studio for the production as a type of training exercise.
"We would do whatever we could whenever we had the time to do it," Cook told the Orlando Sentinel in a July 15, 1992, interview. "My goal was to do something every day. Every day I would try to do something, no matter how small, to keep the ball rolling."
He further stated, in that same article, that the message of the story was: "In the first place, one should be true to his friends; second, he should be true to himself. The moral is not to let your imagination be taken captive by something else, to use your imagination, That's what happens in the end. The point is not the video game. The point is the boy can't think for himself anymore. The machine is doing all the thinking. It's controlling him."
In fact, the first image of the boy with the electronic gun in his hand gazing at the television screen shows his eyes very small just like a small animal caught in the headlights of a car. The persistence and charm of the rocking horse eventually reminds him of the real joys of childhood that he has forgotten and shoved in a closet.
If you listen closely, at the end of the film is a snippet of the "William Tell Overture," better known to some generations as the Lone Ranger theme song.
"The catalyst for the whole idea was the rocking horse itself," Cook said. "I was thinking 'what kind of character would contain geometric shapes and be suitable for the level of computer graphics that we wanted to experiment with.' The horse is made of carved wood and has flat surfaces on the sides and the legs. He looks like he's cut out of boards."
Because of the nature of the production, and no budget, there was little chance to re-draw anything, even though, as Cook pointed out "the tradition in Disney animation is if we don't do a scene two or three times, we haven't even started."
"It was extremely difficult, at times, because the thing that is so important is to maintain people's interest level," he said. "I knew there were times when Rob [Bekuhrs] was ready to strangle me."
Bekuhrs, , who was supervising animator for the horse (along with James Tooley), recalled, "The horse was made up of 52 shapes or components, which we would manipulate individually inside the computer. The real challenge was to put emotion into something which would eventually be synthesized into a stream of numbers."
"The horse didn't have much elasticity so we had our work cut out for us showing him becoming increasinly animated as the film progresses," he said. "The computer is a great tool for animators and is allowing us to bring new dimensions to the art form."
Bekuhrs later claimed that the creative freedom he was given offset the lack of compensation.
"It's nice to work on a project like this when it's your project… It's a worthwhile tradeoff for me," Bekuhrs said.
Alex Kupershmidst was the supervising animator for the hand-drawn animation of the unnamed young boy and came on board simply because he loved to draw.
"It's really nice to see it up on the screen," Kupershmidt said. "It's a great rush… when you're sitting at the board and you're doing it, that's really when you're having the best time. "The thing about Barry [is] he has a pretty strong personality. He gives you an idea of being a very casual person and he is, but underneath that casualness is very strong will and determination."
Kupershmidt felt the film had a "student-film" feeling but it kept looking better and better. Kupershmidt later went on to being the supervising animator for the hyenas in Lion King and Stitch in Lilo & Stitch. This short was his second Disney project after working on Roller Coaster Rabbit. His most recent work was the horse Maximus in Tangled as well as work in the shorts Paperman and Get a Horse!
"Since most of the story takes place in one room of a house, we wanted to do all we could to make it seem interesting. One of the things we did was to create a wallpaper pattern based on a famous Degas painting using a technique called 'texture mapping.' We also computer rendered the floor to make it look like hardwood and put a rug on it with a texture map containing coffee stains and spills," Cook said.
"I always think of the bigger thing that can happen and sort of shoot for that," said Cook who it was noted loved going to rodeos. Bigger things for the finished short did happen.
Peter Schneider, Disney's president of feature animation, looked at the rough animation on Off His Rockers and saw its potential.
To do the score, he hired Bruce Broughton, the Emmy Award-winning composer who had scored Roller Coaster Rabbit, the animated Roger Rabbit film short produced by Florida animators, and The Rescuers Down Under.
Tad Gielow, a Disney veteran who had been instrumental for many years in pioneering Disney's experimentation with new animation technologies, was made the producer. Ric Sluiter was the art director. Additional animation was supplied by Tom Bancroft, Linda Bel and Paul McDonald. Story development was credited to Barry Cook, Paul Steele, Peter Cook and Alex Kupershimdt.
The plan was to release the film with the theatrical re-release in the summer of 1992 of the animated feature Pinocchio. Randal Kleiser, director of Honey, I Blew Up the Kid, the 1992 sequel to Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, viewed the film.
"When he saw the film, he liked it so much he asked Jeffrey Katzenberg (chairman of Walt Disney Studios) if he could have it as the opening to his film," Cook said.
Off His Rockers premiered July 17, 1992, with the live-action feature. The feature received mixed reviews and few audiences saw the charming short.
However, Disney was so pleased with the work that Cook was hired to direct the next Roger Rabbit theatrical short, Trail Mix-Up, released in 1993. On the flume ride in the cartoon is a wanted poster that is just seen briefly, but pictures the boy from Off His Rockers. Cook had assisted on special effects for the first Roger Rabbit short, Roller Coaster Rabbit.
"Walt Disney Animation Florida has made important contributions to several of our feature films and completed two short films on their own in the three years that they have been in existence," said Peter Schneider, president of Disney feature animation to the press in 1992. "Off His Rockers is an important step in their continuing growth and development and represents the kind of challenging assignments we are constantly looking for to nurture the talents and imaginations of our animators and to push the artistic frontiers of the medium in new directions. Our Florida animation team has become an essential part of our overall production effort and a vital, exciting force in the world of animation."
"It's paid off a bit for the Florida animation studio as far as respect from (California) and trust from management to spread our wings a little further," Cook said.
Soon after the release of the short, the Florida studio facility was expanded, with an additional 20,000 square feet added to the original 14,000 square foot studio The staff was increased from 73 to 180.
The Florida studio went on to deliver hits including the animated features Mulan and Lilo & Stitch as well as the animated short, "John Henry."
On March 19, 2004, Disney decided to close the Florida studio forever. For the last few years, the studio had been working on an innovative animated feature called My Peoples (and sometimes A Few Good Ghosts). The film was cancelled and was added to the list of unmade Disney features.
The Ricky Skaggs' Brand New Strings album has two songs, "Appalachian Joy" and "Monroe Dancin'" written for My Peoples.
Oh, by the way, the director of My Peoples was Barry Cook, and it was based on a story concept he had pitched in 1999. He was not offered a position to remain with the company and relocate back to California.
"It was a great group of artists, who have gone on to do great things," said Cook to interviewer Josh Armstrong in 2012. "It was a fantastic studio, with the esprit de corps of the artists. Everybody had a lot of respect for one another. Removed in California, it was hard for studio execs to really understand or see that. But we felt we had something very special. We were a family of animators, supportive of each other in a tremendous environment."
By the way, when the Disney Company needed an animated segment for the Stitch's Great Escape attraction that opened in November 2004 in the Magic Kingdom, they discovered that they had already let go of most of the animators who worked on the animated feature Lilo & Stitch. Unable to replicate the original film's distinctive style, the project had to be outsourced to Renegade Animation.