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Artists Re-animate Disney's Future

August 23, 1986|CHARLES SOLOMON

"The acting is what I like about Disney animation," says supervising animator Mark Henn. "I have high hopes and aspirations for pushing the art of character animation a lot further. Ideally, I'd like to be good at whatever they hand me, but I prefer to do the acting, the close-up work with the characters."

Henn is one of the talented young artists who have reasserted Disney's preeminent position in animation with the recently released "The Great Mouse Detective." After the poor showing of "The Fox and the Hound" (1981) and "The Black Cauldron" (1985), there was speculation that the Disney legacy of excellence might be passing to some other studio.

The polished, effective acting of the characters in "Mouse Detective" dispelled those fears and provided a showcase for the skills of the new animators, who came to the studio from CalArts during the last decade. Like the men who drew the classic Disney films, they're enthusiastic about their work, and young. ("Snow White," "Pinocchio" and "Fantasia" were all completed before Walt Disney's 40th birthday.)

The 28-year-old Henn became a full-fledged animator in 1981, one year after being hired--and was promptly assigned the key animation of Mickey Mouse in "Mickey's Christmas Carol" (1983). Henn didn't concentrate on a particular character or sequence in "Mouse Detective"; rather, he says, his work is "splattered all over the picture." In addition to the initial confrontation between Basil of Baker Street, the title character, and the villainous Prof. Ratigan, he did some deft, understated work with Flaversham, the paternal toy maker kidnaped by Ratigan.

In animation, straightforward personalities like Flaversham are difficult to handle, as they can easily become dull and lifeless. A recent father, Henn found he could express his own feelings through the character.

"I'm a great believer in trying to make the characters as sincere as possible," he says. "Flaversham was a very gentle person who loved his daughter, Olivia, a lot. I felt I could pretty much get inside him--the way I could with Mickey. The fun with him came from the outsized spectacles--it was kind of like drawing myself, with the mustache and the glasses."

Henn's relaxed, open demeanor contrasts markedly with his soft-spoken, reserved co-worker, Hendel Butoy. At 27, Butoy is one of the youngest supervising animators. He came to Disney in 1979 and was promoted to animator on "The Fox and the Hound," where his first assignment was drawing the baby fox's wagging tail.

For "Mouse Detective," he was given scenes involving the subtle interplay of complex emotions, including the pivotal sequence when Basil realizes how to escape from Ratigan's murderous trap. The audience sees Basil go from despair to elation as inspiration strikes.

A quiet, thoughtful man, Butoy speaks slowly, carefully weighing his words. "To prepare those scenes, I'd listen to the sound track and mouth the words as the actors spoke them. I'd try to feel their emotions as I experimented with actions and expressions, then try to get all the feelings of the character down in quick, thumbnail sketches. I'd show the thumbnails to Ron Clements, the director, and we'd discuss them, finally coming up with something that balanced my opinion and his."

Tall, red-haired Phil Nibbelink is the most outgoing of the animators, and his enthusiasm for his work has made him a popular speaker at fan gatherings. He studied cinematography in Rome, but working as an assistant cameraman convinced him that "live action isn't as creative as animation." He went back to school, studied art and animation and came to Disney in 1978.

Although he became an animator on "The Fox and the Hound," Nibbelink is known for his work on "The Black Cauldron." His dynamic animation of the pterodactyl-like Gwythaints provided the high point of that ambitious but flawed film.

"Any good movie is a combination of many elements," he says. "There are guys down the hall who are good at cute and, well, mush; I love death and destruction, so I tend to get cast on the villains or the climactic sequences at the end."

Working with computer graphics specialist Tad Gielow, he created the confrontation between Basil and Ratigan inside the clockwork mechanism of Big Ben--the first extensive use of computer animation in a Disney cartoon.

"I guess the original impetus for that work is that I've always enjoyed doing chase scenes, and I like point-of-view shots," he explains. "You could never achieve them in standard animation because it's limited to flat artwork--all you can do is truck in or out, or pan left or right. When you create the entire environment in the computer, as we did for that sequence, you can spin around and turn corners and move in directions that are very dramatic. So the computer has become a tool that's letting me do the kind of cinematography I've always loved."

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