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Building Character From the Ground Up : Movies: The movements of models often provide the inspiration for the quirks and idiosyncrasies of animated stars.

January 11, 1991|R. DANIEL FOSTER; SPECIAL TO THE TIMES | Foster is a regular contributor to Valley Calendar

It could be described as life imitating animated art.Behind the animation of Snow White, Captain Hook, Sleeping Beauty and the Little Mermaid are people who modeled the characters, painstakingly acting out each movement, scene, song and line of dialogue. Even Bambi had a stand-in.

The rarely publicized truth is that animators draw heavily upon live models who lend realistic subtleties to animated forms.

"In animation, everything you do is based on real life," said animator Glen Keane, who joined Walt Disney studios as an animator trainee in 1974. "Studying models really gives you the edge because your character is then based in reality--something that really moved and existed."

The use of "live-action reference models" is a Disney practice that dates back to the 1930s. Actress Marge Champion was the model for Snow White; Hans Conried played Captain Hook in the 1953 release of "Peter Pan," and Helene Stanley modeled a variety of roles in the 1950s, including Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella.

Walt Disney Pictures' animated film, "The Rescuers Down Under," features a mammoth mythical eagle modeled partly after six eagles residing at the Peregrine Fund in Boise, Ida. Keane studied the eagles before designing the character of Marahute, a majestic nine-foot eagle with a 40-foot wingspan. A huge stuffed American eagle on loan from the Los Angeles Museum of Natural History was also used, as well as an eagle skeleton.

Today, Keane's studio is bereft of eagles but packed waist-high with an assortment of other beasts--models for the more woolly member of "The Beauty and the Beast," the subject of a Disney animated feature to be released in late 1991. A wild boar head drools from one wall of Keane's studio, just opposite a buffalo head and bearskin that crowd the entrance. Tacked around a drawing board are photographs of lions, leopards and gorillas. Perched to the right of Keane's desk is a plaster model combining the most fearsome elements found in all the beasts.

As for the beast character, Keane, 37, said he is not yet certain if a human will be used as a model since complex animal-like movements would need to be interpreted. Beyond those comments, Disney would not elaborate, citing a longstanding policy of keeping films in production under tight security.

However, Keane elaborates on "The Rescuers Down Under," a tale about Cody, an 8-year-old boy who struggles to protect Marahute from a sadistic poacher in Australia's Outback. Marahute, the most detailed character that Keane and his assistants say they have labored over, appears in brief sequences in the beginning and end of the film.

To heighten the eagle's realism, Keane first enlarged the bird, then shrunk its head, elongated its neck and wings, and puffed out its chest. Keane also slowed the bird's wing movements to about 25% to 30% of an eagle's flight speed. From his observations, Keane incorporated such detail as the flash of a nictitating membrane, a bird's eyelid, across Marahute's eye.

"We were told to pull out all the stops in the eagle sequences," said Keane, who worked for one year on the Marahute scenes, which totaled only seven minutes of the 75-minute film. "If someone is going to tell me that, there are going to be veins on nictitating membranes and feathers that ruffle up majestically."

Keane was referring to three seconds of film showing Marahute ruffling her feathers in pride over her brood of eggs. "We had seen great footage of eagles puffing up their feathers and we all agreed that we had to find some place in the film to use it," said Brian Cleft, who supervises characters for "The Rescuers Down Under."

Cleft and three others labored three days on that particular shot, packed with about 14,400 drawings, a bit of theater that could have easily been missed by viewers reaching down to retrieve a pail of popcorn.

To keep track of the 200 feathers, each was tagged with an employee name--from Disney Chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg to animation assistant Peggy Tonkongy.

Although the process may seem involved, it's not as complicated as tracking actors who are used as live-action reference models.

Keane also was principal animator for "The Little Mermaid," released in 1989. In that picture, he used actress Sherri Stoner as a model for Ariel, the Little Mermaid, to pick up nuances such as hand and arm gestures, facial features and the flow of hair when Stoner was filmed underwater. Stoner, who lives in Santa Monica, is modeling the character of Belle, the fairer half of "The Beauty and the Beast."

Stoner, also a member of the Groundlings improvisational troupe in Los Angeles, is filmed two days a month for about a year and a half. She receives $500 a session for her work.

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