How Basil Saved Disney Feature Animation: Part Twoby Jim Korkis, contributing writer
As I mentioned in part one (link) “The Great Mouse Detective” was rushing to completion in 1985 and the fate of Disney feature animation was in the balance.
Could inexperienced and unproven young animators like Andreas Deja, Mark Henn, Glen Keane, Ruben Aquino, David Pruiksma, Ed Gombert, David Pacheco, Rob Minkoff, Tony Anselmo, Mark Dindal Toby Shelton and other then unfamiliar names working with four different equally inexperienced directors complete a Disney animated feature in a seemingly impossible lack of time?
Director Ron Clements told the press: “The idea was to make it different from The Rescuers, because there are no humans involved in the story at all. It’s an adventure that takes place in a miniature world hidden away from our own. We wanted to do it totally in this miniature mouse world. Humans are in this story only as backdrops.”
Actually, because of economic cutbacks in budgets the mice often seemed like backdrops as well. In the waterfront dive, The Rat Trap, the mice customers in the background are motionless, frozen as if in a painting. A scene of Basil and Dawson scampering through a convoluted pipe system chasing Fidget the bat is accomplished not by showing the characters, but by the camera panning over the background painting of the outside of the pipe.
Continuity errors abound in the film with objects like hats, costumes, props and more appearing and disappearing with alarming frequency, obviously, as a result of the shortened production schedule. Gaps in story logic were glossed over by a breakneck pace that left little time from one scene to another.
In those early days, it was hoped that computer animation might be a faster and less expensive alternative to time consuming traditional animation. The first use of compute- assisted animation in a Disney animated feature was in The Black Cauldron, although it was never promoted as part of the publicity. However, part of the marketing for The Great Mouse Detective was its two minute scene with computer animation.
Layout artist Mike Peraza was a fan of Hayo Miyazkai’s animated feature Castle of Cagliostro, which features a climatic scene of the characters amidst giant turning gears and a clock tower. Originally, the finale of The Great Mouse Detective was to take place on the hands of Big Ben with Ratigan eventually falling to his demise. Peraza approached director John Musker with the idea of restaging the fight so that the final confrontation would break through the face of Big Ben with the grinding clockwork gears providing added menace to the diminutive mice. Musker agreed and that eventually led to the use of an early version of computer animation.
“We were having a bit of a time locating photographs of specific area in Big Ben and other things we needed for the film,” explained Peraza in a publicity interview in October 1984. “The trouble was that no one makes tour brochures of London and surrounding scenic areas from a viewpoint six inches (mouse height) from the ground. These scenes had to be referenced on site from a mouse’s own unusual point of view.”
Eva Redfern, who managed the Disney Studios branch in London, sent pictures from the Department of the Interior, but they didn’t reveal the angles that were needed.
“The pictures we received were always from a human point of view. We found ourselves asking more and more questions about what different areas looked like from various angles,” Peraza said.
Peraza begged for the opportunity to visit the interior of Big Ben to get the needed reference, but kept getting turned down because there were no public tours through Big Ben for a variety of reason.
Finally, after repeated requests, Peraza received a phone call: “It must have been midnight London time, and it’s Eva saying ‘well, we’ve set it all up for you. Can you come some time in May?”
The tour was arranged through the Resident Engineer over the House of Parliament (the department responsible for the maintenance of all government buildings in London and the Commonwealth). Big Ben is considered part of the Palace of Westminister. Peraza and his wife visited London to film the reference footage, not only in Big Ben, but in other areas where Basil and his friends would visit.
For the Big Ben trip, the Perazas hauled heavy video equipment (in those days, the camera and the recording device were each separate and large and bulky) up seemingly endless stairs to behind the face of the milky white glass face of the famous clock. As they made their trek upward, they discovered that the entire tower would vibrate significantly every time the bells would chime.
“We found out a lot of things when we visited Big Ben, like what the clock hands were made of," Peraza said. "This helps when you’re drawing hands close up. We’re going to have shots where the camera will be in very close to the face. Here the correct detail can make the difference in the believability of the setting. It’s such a famous landmark that if you cheat it, I think people will feel cheated. If you do a thorough job and get the accuracy when you can, but then have to exaggerate something for artistic license or to make something more dramatic then you’d at least have a good foundation to draw from."
The Perazas got to visit the bell chamber itself, but only had roughly 10 minutes to take photographs and film video because the bells would chime on the quarter hour. They did wear earmuffs and that helped somewhat. Video and photographs were taken of the inside, outside and around Big Ben. However, those pictures had to be taken at mouse level so the Perazas would often be lying down on the ground.
That same unique way of photographing was duplicated at other locations from Buckingham Palace to the Tower Bridge to the waterfront district of the East End of London.
Returning to his second floor work area in the Animation Building in California, Mike Peraza decorated it with many of the sketches and photos (and wind up toys and dolls) that he obtained in London. In addition, he built a 1/24th scale model of the Big Ben clock tower that was on a desk in the corner of his room.
Through his friendship with Dave English, who he worked with on some multiplane shots for films for Epcot, Peraza met Lem Davis and Tad Gielow at WED Imagineering. Together they plotted drawings (inputting the data on a keyboard in those days before a mouse) for the clock gears. They used mechanical drawings made at the machine shop on the Disney backlot to get the correct reference for the inputting.
Taking the colored line plots and putting character animation poses on top of them convinced the new management to take a chance on this radical new concept of combining computer-generated images with hand-drawn animation.
The final two minute geometric background maze of clockwork gears was the work of Tad Gielow with character animation by Phil Nibbelink.
“Gielow and I were locked in the same room for months, slaving over a hot computer," Nibbelink shared with interviewer Steve Biodrowski in 1986. "And then it is going to go through the projector in the twinkling of an eye. At one point we left the computer running overnight because we were in such a production crunch. Some janitor thought he was doing us a favor and closed the door. In the morning it was like a 1,000 degrees in this hot box. The computer had completely self destructed. Of course it had forgotten what we had meticulously programmed into it. Fortunately we had it all on paper so we had to sit there and type it back in.”
“This sequence represents a hybrid of what the computer does best and what animators does best,” stated Nibbelink in publicity material for the film. “A computer is adept at creating precise, geometric shapes or inanimate objects. If an animator tries to draw a gear or a car of a house, it’s imperfect. What we do best is fluid organic character animation. By combining the two, we get the best of both worlds and hopefully create a more believable and exciting world for the characters to interact in.”
"We have completely rebuilt the inside of the Big Ben clock with the help of our new computers," Nibbelink said. "With traditional animation, we would have been forced to stick with a single moving trajectory, from left to right. The computer, however, has given us the possibility to perform a rotary motion around the clock mechanism. For the first time we were able to simulate the indoor notion of space; the 'camera' was floating in a space above the wheels and was capturing the characters in action. We printed the computer animation of the wheels on special pieces of paper, which were then photocopied onto cells and later colored the traditional way. We tried to color them on the computer, but there was a too great a difference between the computer result and the rest of the film."
At one point there were 54 moving gears, winches, ratchets, beams and pulleys in the scene. Nibbelink and Gielow spent months designing the interior of Big Ben, building a room in the computer’s brain with each gear represented digitally as a set of radiuses, diameters, distances and lengths. Nibbelink was able to use a joystick control mechanism to zero-in on any specified location.
“To paint the whole thing would have been a horrific job, so all we paint is highlights and half-tones," he continued. "The bulk of the color you are seeing through the cel to a color card.” Nibbelink recalled. “I would draw the characters in grease pencil right on the TV monitor and line the room up to fit the drawing. One of the biggest tricks was to make the feet look like they’re constantly planted. If you look very carefully, on some scenes we blew it. I’m a little worried whether it will mesh or not. We’re hoping it’ll be OK, because it’s night and there’s lot of lightning flashes so everything’s pretty surrealistic.”
With great confidence, Nibbelink concluded 25 years ago, “It is improbable that computers will ever be able to create the kind of personality-oriented character animation that Disney artists have mastered, largely because the animator is actually the actor who supplies the emotional core with his own timing and imagination. However, The Great Mouse Detective offers evidence of just how helpful a tool computers can be.”
Geometric shaped objects like cityscapes, cars, buses, bridges, sewer pipes and a piano were created for the next film, Oliver and Company. By the way, the same basic technique was also used for the schools of fish, Prince Eric’s carriage and Ursula’s fleet of ships in The Little Mermaid.
The film got some unintentionally embarrassing publicity before its release. Disney leadership was nervous and wanted to distance the film from Steven Spielberg’s Paramount film, Young Sherlock Holmes (1985), that failed to ignite the boxoffice. Disney kept insisting that the animators remove anything that was too British and, at one point, considered re-dubbing the film with American accents for the United States release. The primary poster featured Basil swinging in the air in a regular suit, not his deerstalker cap and his long Inverness coat that would call to mind the Sherlock Holmes connection.
Disney marketing claimed that testing with children confirmed that The Great Mouse Detective was a stronger title than “Basil of Baker Street” that reportedly sounded “too British for American kids”.
The animators came up with a fake memo falsely credited to vice president of Disney Feature Animation Peter Schneider that lampooned the new generic title for the film. The fabled memo stated that other Disney classics would also be renamed including “Seven Little Men Help a Girl” (for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs), “Color and Music” (for Fantasia), “The Wonderful Elephant Who Could Really Fly” (for Dumbo), “Two Dogs Fall In Love” (for Lady and the Tramp) and “The Girl with the See Through Shoes” (for Cinderella).
To add to the gag, the only title that wasn’t changed on the list was The Aristocats. A copy was leaked to the Los Angeles Times and upper management was furious and held what some called an “inquisition” to try and identify the offender. While everyone on the crew knew the author, they never revealed his true name. The memo’s contents even ended up as a category on the game show Jeopardy.
In retaliation, as well as the belief the film would be a failure, a good deal of support and marketing effort were withdrawn from the initial release of the feature. Roy E. Disney personally provided the funds needed to develop the costumed “meet and greet” characters from the film for the Disney theme parks. So, only Basil and Ratigan were brought to life under the coordination of costume designer Alyja Kalinich.
"Unlike an animated movie where a character's facial expressions can change any time, our in-Park characters must communicate a variety of feelings with one expression and without the use of a speaking voice,” Kalinich stated. "The challenge was to make these characters look like what the animator created and bring them to three-dimensional life. What I like most about this project is that Basil and Ratigan are from a new animated release, which to me, is very exciting.”
The finished characters had to be approved by Roy E. Disney, as well as Mattinson, Musker, Clements and Michener.
When it was released on July 2, 1986 as the 26th Disney animated feature, The Great Mouse Detective budgeted at $12 million brought in $24 million, as well as some laudatory reviews praising the film as a charming addition to the Disney classics. Oddly, for the film’s later re-releases, it was re-titled The Adventures of the Great Mouse Detective.
For the moment, the future of Disney feature animation was saved. However, it wasn’t a perfect happy ending. Four months later in November, An American Tail, directed by Don Bluth was released and it became the highest-grossing non-Disney animated film in history at that time, eventually beating The Great Mouse Detective by $22 million.
“The fact is, for this company [Disney], animation has a value that is way beyond the specific profits that you measure for a film itself," said Katzenberg in 1986. "We create new characters, these characters will come to life in our theme parks and in our merchandising, and have a longevity and a value in many other aspects of this corporation that are totally unique."
While still in production on The Great Mouse Detective, director Ron Clements brought to the Disney animation Gong Show a proposal to do The Little Mermaid. At first, Eisner and Katzenberg were hesitant because they felt it might be too close to the live-action film Splash, but reading Clements more upbeat approach to the well known fairy tale convinced them to take a chance.
If not for The Great Mouse Detective, there may never have been The Little Mermaid or Beauty and the Beast and a renaissance in Disney feature animation.
The animators obviously had great fun working on the film. On the shelves of the human toy shop are some interesting toys, including a Dumbo that blows bubbles from his trunk and a loud mechanical band modeled after the infamous Firehouse Five. The first map that Basil pulls out to look at briefly has in the upper right hand corner a location marked “Downtown Burbank.” The voodoo doll of Basil that Ratigan uses is based after the design of Basil done by the book illustrator Paul Galdone.
If nothing else, hopefully this article will inspire some readers with an idle hour or so to pop it into the DVD and watch the film that saved Disney feature animation. It is a diverting and satisfying little film that accomplished what it needed to do and is definitely deserving of another look.
If you are fascinated by the story of The Great Mouse Detective, two great sites to visit are Mike Peraza’s “Memories of the House of Mouse” (link) and this delightful site “The Game’s Afoot!” (link).