News Column

The Fresno Bee, Rick Bentley column

November 11, 2013

YellowBrix

Nov. 11--I have repeatedly mentioned how big a fan I am of animation. That's why it was a giant thrill several years ago to talk to Marc Davis and Ward Kimball, who along with Frank Thomas, Les Clark, Ollie Johnston, Milt Kahl, Eric Larson, John Lounsbery and Wolfgang Reitherman, were lovingly known as Disney's Nine Old Men. These artists made up the driving force behind Disney animation becoming the finest in the world.

Sadly, they have all passed away. But, I had a chance to sit down with Ron Clements, whose work at Disney has been so amazing since he started with the company almost 40 years ago as a writer on "The Black Cauldron." He should be considered a 10th Old Man.

His credits include "The Great Mouse Detective," a movie that showed the Disney Animation Department still had life when others were writing its obituary. He then went on to direct "Aladdin," "Hercules," "Treasure Planet" and "The Princess and the Frog." He's directing another film, but details are being kept under wraps.

Working for Disney was a passion for Clements even when he was a child living in Sioux City, Iowa.

"I drew a lot as a kid and I was fascinated by animation," Clements tells me over lunch at the Disney Animation Building. "When I was 9 years old, I saw 'Pinocchio' in the theater and when I walked out of the theater I knew that was what I wanted to do. I wanted to be involved in animation."

When he was old enough, Clements moved to California where he first worked at the Hanna-Barbera Studios before getting accepted into Disney's Talent Development Program, an animator training ground. He then had a two-year apprenticeship under one of the Nine Old Men, Thomas.

It's Clements' work on "The Little Mermaid" that stands as the greatest animation triumph of his career. The 1989 release, that Clements co-wrote and co-directed with John Musker, brought back the stunning animation, great characters and beautiful music that had made Disney animated films under the Nine Old Men so popular.

"When I first started, the future of animation seemed kind of murky because of all the outsourcing," Clements says. "Everybody wanted to be involved with a film that was the equivalent of 'Snow White.' That film was the 'Star Wars' of its time, but because several of the Disney animated films had not been successful, there was a question of whether that would ever happen again. It did happen again."

The idea for "The Little Mermaid" was initially rejected. At that time, the process of picking the next animated project started with the animators putting together suggestions submitted at a roundtable meeting. Clements had seen the Hans Christian Anderson book featuring the mermaid story and thought that would make a good movie.

At the meeting, the idea was rejected before Clements could make his pitch. But the idea was later put back on the schedule and "The Little Mermaid" went on to huge success.

Harrison Ford back in space

Fans and critics are making a bigger deal about Harrison Ford starring in his first space adventure since his "Star Wars" days than the actor is about his work in "Ender's Game."

To Ford, a role is a role.

"It doesn't matter to me if I go back to outer space, the job's the same. I don't have any genre preferences. I am always looking for a good story, a good character -- whether earthbound or not," Ford says.

He does admit that the technology to make these kind of movies has come a long way since "Star Wars" was released in 1977. Ford recalls how the special effects teams on that original trilogy created spacecrafts by putting together pieces from plastic model kits of cars, boats and trains.

"They would put them on a stick and fly them past the camera. And it worked. It was fine. Add a little music and then you believe there's a big spaceship coming over your head," Ford says.

No glue was needed to create the visual effects for "Ender's Game." Ford understands how computers have made the job easier and can create complex visuals with a few key strokes. He has a warning for all those computer wizards.

Ford worries the visuals can be so complex that the human eye doesn't know where to look. He thinks imagination -- the kind he used when he was a kid playing games based on the comic book characters he read -- is still the most important thing.

"You can be wowed by the visual effects but lose touch with the human characters and what it is they would feel. That's still the most important thing. The visual elements should overpower it," Ford says.

There was one special effect in "Ender's Game" that wasn't created with computers. To make it look like Ford's character is weightless, he had to slip into a body harness that was used to move him around the set. As to the discomfort of the harness, Ford smiles and says: "It's just another day at the office."

TV and movie critic Rick Bentley can be reached at (559) 441-6355, rbentley@fresnobee.com or @RickBentley1 on Twitter. Read his blog at fresnobeehive.com.

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(c)2013 The Fresno Bee (Fresno, Calif.)

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