Disney’s first stab at full 3D CG animation, Bolt, hits DVD this week.
We talked to director Chris Williams about the challenges involved in taking over a project that had been developed by a different director and how he shaped the first Disney film mentored by Pixar boss John Lasseter…
Before there was Bolt, there was American Dog…
Lilo & Stitch director Chris Saunders originally developed what became Bolt as American Dog.
But when he failed to see eye to eye with new Disney honcho John Lasseter over the concept and execution, he left the project.
Chris Williams took over what had been a project already at the animation stage.
“The premise is what we took from American Dog - we liked the idea of a dog who is the star of a really OTT action show who comes to believe in the fiction of the show.
“We needed a clean page. Everyone realized that it would not benefit anybody to take bits and pieces of things and try to salvage it. So it was a do-over. As soon as we changed direction we were creating new characters and building new personalities.”
Next: Pressure & Pleasures
Pressure cooker animation
With Bolt locked in, and new Disney overlords in the shape of Lasseter and fellow Pixar boss Ed Catmull looking over their shoulder, Williams’ team faced major time constraints to get the movie made.
“There was pressure, yeah - not undue pressure and not unusual pressure. I think the whole studio was put under a good deal of strain because we had a schedule presented to us that was very difficult and potentially record-breaking.
“But the interesting thing was, it was all by design, all a calculation on Ed Catmull's part. He was very honest with us. He said, 'I'm going to put you guys under a great amount of strain and ask you to meet very difficult deadlines.
'When problems arise, you're going to have to address them and fix them and move on. You can't look the other way and you can't sweep them under the rug.'”
Raising the game
“Having a tighter schedule really helped the movie", says Williams. "There was this real sense of purpose. A real sense of the studio wanting to rise to the challenge of a tough schedule.
"We also understood this was John Lasseter's first Disney movie, so people would be paying special attention to the film.
“So there was pressure in that regard, but I think anyone who works on an animated movie is going to be under a lot of pressure, because you're always up against serious deadlines.
“And anything that is collaborative in animation sometimes has no right to turn out any good because you've got 450 people working on one piece of art over the course of years, it doesn't add up to me that it would ever turn out any good. But it's the result of the commitment of these talented artists.”
Next: Pooches & Paintings
The lead on a leash had to be real...
Williams’ big idea was to focus on Bolt as a dog – to change how canines were portrayed on screen.
“One of the things I wanted to bring is to examine what it was about dogs that we love so much, because you've seen lots of dog movies and there'll be plenty more - but sometimes I feel like they make the mistake of assigning any old personality to a dog. They forget what is so special about them - that they're true and 100% loving and trusting.
“That's something I wanted to bring to the movie and make central to Bolt as a character and therefore to the film. I wanted it to be the engine that drives everything.
"And that seemed to work well with the idea of a character who comes in with one understanding of his world and has that crumble before him, but then has to hold on to the thing that any dog would - which is 'my owner loves me' and let that push him.
“Once we said that was what the movie was about - trust, the pros and cons of trust and the need to take a chance and give yourself over to someone to achieve fulfilment, that's what it was about. From there it started dictating a lot of things for us."
...while the backgrounds got the painterly touch
One of Bolt’s big achievements is the beautiful, watercolour-inspired backgrounds. Williams admits he didn’t spearhead that.
“I'd love to take credit, but I can't. That was our art director Paul Felix, who is a real legend in animation, he's one of the most respected artists in the community.
“He was on board before I was. He's a student of Disney history and a great painter himself. He loved that warmth and texture you get from those hand-painted backgrounds.
"He wanted to find a way to apply that feeling of atmosphere and depth to CG, because CG will try to fight you in that regard, and try to make things cold and clean and mathematical.
“We had this amazing crew of artists and programmers who tried to figure out ways to make that work, so ultimately I was able to concentrate on the characters and the story and things like the look of the film, from my perspective, took care of themselves because we had people like Paul making Bolt look the way that it did.
“People always think you as the director make the movie, but not really - I helped co-ordinate people's efforts towards the same goal. That's what you're really doing.”
Next: Voices & Visions
One voice became an unexpected star...
Story expert Mark Walton lent his voice to the early temp tracks for the films, little expecting that his version of crazed Bolt fan Rhino the hamster would make the final cut.
“At first there was talk about how great Mark was. When you watch story reels early in the film, unfortunately you're listening to all scratch dialogue tracks.
“So I was Bolt and whoever we could find were the parts, and there's something special that a real actor brings. They have a gift us mortals don't. But somehow Rhino was playing like it had been cast. He was just funny - all of his scenes were cracking us up.
“We still thought about actors, but after a while it became apparent that it would be a lost cause to try to replace Mark so he emerged as the voice of Rhino.
“I love John Lasseter for a lot of reasons, but one of the things that's great about him is he doesn't insist on famous people being in the movie playing important parts.
“He's not opposed to it if they are the right person, but that's not first and foremost."
…and the 3D was made to blend
With advance notice that Bolt would be 3D, Williams and his team could focus on making the best movie possible without thinking of the gimmick.
“The nice thing about the 3D was, this was the first Disney movie where they embarked on making the 3D version from the onset, so there was a team of people constructing the 3D footage as we were making it in 2D and there was an edict laid down that we didn't want the 3D to interfere with the decision-making process.
“Because ultimately that will be the version people see at home, the definitive version and we didn't want to compromise anything for the sake of the 3D version. So it really was great for us, because they didn't interfere and nobody asked us to throw things at the camera for the sake of the gimmick.
“At the same time, I loved what the 3D guys did because they were sensitive to how they applied it. They didn't want to be blowing your eyeballs out the back of your head, so they would accentuate the depth for action scenes and stuff with a lot of motion for the fun stuff.
“In quieter scenes, they would narrow the depth - like anything else, it supported the story. It made it easier on the eyes too!"
Next: Feedback From Pixar
Working with Pixar’s boss didn’t hurt…
Since John Lasseter was overseeing the project, Williams and co-director Byron Howard got regular contact and assistance from the Emeryville team.
“We brought the movie up a few times and got feedback from them. Of course you're up there with people who've made one great movie after another.
“So we totally respect what they have to say and it was great to be able to bring it up there and open yourself up to criticism and that's something that really makes the movie better and stronger.
“To be able to screen it down here, screen it up there, invite input from any source and really take it seriously – I think that definitely benefited the movie."
Next: Extra Help & DVD Extras
…and the DVD will be Pixar-level loaded
Williams and his team seem excited by the possibilities now the film has hit DVD.
“The thing about these movies is we don’t make them for ourselves. We make them for an audience. We want people to see them. When you work in these big animated movies, there’s a potential to reach a large audience and so it’s really exciting when we run in the cinemas.
“Now, our movie is going to be exposed to an even bigger audience and we’re all really excited about that.
“We were filmed doing a lot of the movie. One of my favourite things is we have the exact moment that Mark got the news that he was the voice of Rhino. We sprung it on him and he went a little crazy, smashing things and jumping up and down…”
Bolt is released on Disney Blu-ray and DVD from 15th June. For more information, watch our making of below.
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