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Buggy Ride to the Screen

If you want to create the most newfangled animated bugs ever in cinema, you've got to think like a bug. And be in Disney's ring.


RICHMOND, Calif. — In feature animation, a "tent pole" is a sequence from a film that's the first to be produced. Two crucial criteria are demanded of such a sequence:

* It should be able to remain intact no matter what other subsequent changes may occur in shaping the film's overall story line.

* It should work without the rest of the film in order to wow studio executives, stockholders and whoever else might get a very early peek at a project. That's no small order.

"One of the most difficult parts of the process is getting the first sequence into production," says John Lasseter, the Oscar-winning director of the groundbreaking computer-animation hit "Toy Story," and, now, "A Bug's Life," in an interview at Pixar's Northern California studio. "It's like, you know the pool is really cold, and you're supposed to jump in the deep end."

In most Disney-animated features, it's a musical number. In "Toy Story," co-produced by Disney and the computer-animation pioneers at Pixar Animation Studios, it was the vignette in which gung-ho green Army men set up their reconnaissance post in a houseplant to discover what new toys were entering the household.

In Disney and Pixar's latest, "A Bug's Life," the film's tent pole is a dazzling, gag-strewn five-minute sequence that introduces the pathetic (and self-immolating, in more ways than one) stars of a ragtag "flea circus."

The film, which opens Friday at the El Capitan and Wednesday in wide release, concerns a hapless ant named Flik (voiced by "NewsRadio's" Dave Foley). Flik mistakes this phalanx of inept insects for warrior bugs and recruits them to protect his colony against a swarm of marauding grasshoppers (led by Kevin Spacey's Hopper).

As "Bug's" co-director Andrew Stanton puts it: "It's about a loser who finds a bunch of other losers, and they're the only way to save the day.

"We worried, 'Do we have too many characters?' But a circus has a certain number of acts, and we couldn't shortchange it."

The "flea circus" was the result of months of work and forms a central part of "A Bug's Life." Here's how it came together.

Step 1: Know everything.

"We do a tremendous amount of research," Lasseter says. "For 'Toy Story,' we went to the toy store and bought tons of toys and just studied them." This time around, the Pixar brain trust studied dead bug models acquired from, well, someone who handles that sort of thing.

They fashioned a "bug-cam" that poked about the yard around the Pixar studios, observing insects behaving naturally in their habitat. They read books and watched movies, from the barn-raising scene in "Witness" (for a bit in which insects band together to build a fake bird to scare the grasshoppers) to "The Greatest Show on Earth" (for the flea circus).

Editor Lee Unkrich recalls the day the animators played Christians and Lions with a praying mantis, a cricket and their bug-cam in a terrarium in the studio's screening room. "We watched on the big screen as this praying mantis grabbed and devoured it, and we were cheering the entire time, like we were watching pro wrestling," he recalls.

For the flea circus sequence, "We read books about circuses--which tend to be really sad," Stanton says with a wicked laugh. "It tends to be really a sad life. You read the book, you get depressed, you put it aside and say, 'Well, that helped!' "

It got more pathetic. To inspire the animators to think ineptly, Lasseter took his crew to a fly-by-night circus performance. "We went as a group and watched them set up the big top in the morning, and we went back in the afternoon, and the people who set up the tent were the performers," Lasseter recalls. "All the animals were a little rough, scruffy."

"It made it very hard to just let yourself go and enjoy the show," Stanton says, "but the morbid part of me just said, 'This is perfect, this is exactly it.' "

Step 2: Stretch comic muscles.

Among the sundry sources of humor that Lasseter, Stanton & Co. cop to looking for inspiration: old Warner Bros. cartoons, the Muppets, classic comedy teams like Abbott and Costello, the Marx Brothers and the Three Stooges, and Blake Edwards movies like "The Pink Panther Strikes Again" and "The Party."

"We'd watch these to get our comic juices flowing more than to do literal adaptations," Stanton says.

"We broke the circus up into acts," Lasseter explains. "We thought about these traveling shows--there are acrobats, there's the wild animal, the clowns. We grouped the characters into acts and thought about each of their personalities [and] where they're deficient."

In the tent-pole sequence, we find that the circus, run by the apoplectic P.T. Flea (voiced by John Ratzenberger), is populated by performers who don't know, don't like or don't care what they're doing. The audience responds accordingly ("I only have 24 hours to live, and I ain't spending it here!" grouses one bug).

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