Exclusive Interview: Winnie The Pooh Directors Stephen J. Anderson And Don Hall

By Eric Eisenberg 2011-07-16 14:18:37discussion comments
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If there’s a person on this planet who doesn’t like Winnie The Pooh, I have no interest in ever meeting them. Whether you’re just a kid who sees the silly old bear and his friends running around the Hundred Acre Wood or an adult who sees each character as a physical psychological representation, the stories by A.A. Milne are classic in every sense of the word. But every time you try and bring classic characters to a new audience there is a risk of alienating those that loved them previously. Fortunately, directors Stephen J. Anderson and Don Hall perfectly avoided the problem with their new film, Winnie The Pooh.

A couple weeks back I had the incredible chance to sit down with the directors at Walt Disney Pictures Animation to discuss the incredible new film. In the chat below, we discuss finding both the voice actors and animators for each character, working with John Lasseter and visiting the real Hundred Acre Wood. Check it out!

I’m kind of one of those guys that when I was a teenager watched Twelve Angry Men and said, “Piglet is juror number 2!” So I’m curious, when it came to casting the voice for this, obviously you had Jim Cummings who has been doing the voice for decades, but were you actively trying to find someone who sounded like previous voice actors that played the parts?

Anderson: We asked ourselves early on, which of these characters is really married to the voice and which of the characters is really more about the personality but not necessarily a specific voice? And you get Pooh, Piglet, Tigger, Eeyore, those guys, those characters, there would be huge controversies if they didn’t sound like they’ve always sounded. But we felt like if Rabbit doesn’t sound exactly like he did back in Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree, probably not going to be as much of an uproar, or the same thing with Owl. If their personalities were different, if we changed that there would be issues. So that’s why it gave us license, we felt a free to shake things up a little bit with some of those characters and say, let’s rethink this. What if we still kept their personalities in tact, but just expanded them, pushed them a little farther into that insanity level with people like Tom and Craig.

I guess one voice you mentioned, Eeyore’s my favorite character, when I was reading last night, I noticed that Bud Luckey also did the voice for Chuckles the Clown. Was that something you saw?

Hall: It wasn’t that, it was actually Incredibles. We were kind of down to the wire as far as casting Eeyore, I mean Bernie was a candidate at one point, he does a pretty good Eeyore. I just happened to be watching Incredibles, he plays Rick Dicker, it think is his name, and I was like “Oh my god, Bud Luckey!” And I came in and told Steve and Peter, and thought he was pretty funny, and when we pitched it to Johnny he just cracked up laughing. It’s like the “Of course, why didn’t we think of this before. He is Eeyore.” So John just gave his full blessing and we called him up, and it just so happens to be Bud’s favorite character of all time and so yeah, all the pieces kind of fell into place. We did say, “You are going to have to sing,” and then we realized, oh yeah, he sings, he did some stints in Boundin’, in Sesame Street, shorts and stuff like that, so he had no problem with that.

Anderson: You know in fact it was, we had already, I think we had done all of our recording at the point when Toy Story 3 came out last summer, and I don’t think I even knew he was in the movie.

Hall: I’m not sure. I saw some reels but I don’t know if I ever knew it was him.

Anderson: Yeah, that’s right, we saw reels but was he cast in there? I don’t know. It was really weird to suddenly, I mean it made sense because it’s Bud and he’s done other voices, but I remember being in the theater going, “Wow, that’s really weird. That’s Eeyore.” He’s Eeyore now, he’s not Bud Luckey anymore, so to hear that voice coming out of that clown was really weird.

And you mention John, you’re talking about, John Lasseter. What was the experience working with him like?

Hall: Well, he’s like the biggest cheerleader in the world and as a boss, it’s awesome because he speaks our language. He is us. He’s just the biggest fan of animation that there will ever be. So he just gets excited by entertainment, and he was such a great collaborator on this film. He must have trusted us because he kind of, at a certain point, we saw him less and less because he was directing Cars 2 obviously, but I think he kind of trusted us to, you know, it was on a good path. He trusted our choices, I guess. We’d run everything by him and he’d seem to buy it.

Anderson: The meetings were always fun and never controversial. I think we kept thinking, “Are we going to have a bad meeting one of these days? Is he gonna yell at us for something?” I’m not saying that we’re perfect or anything but he’s just so enthusiastic about these characters and of course about all Disney, classic Disney, he just loves that stuff. So to us it just meant, “Well I guess we’re on the right track. We must be doing something, we must be honoring the characters in the spirit of these otherwise he would have stopped us.” So that was a lot of, that was great encouragement, just to have him walk out of a meeting with a smile and saying, “Great stuff, keep going, can’t wait to see it next time.”

Hall: I think also, we talked about it early on, just about how, I shouldn’t say it was a breeze because that makes it seem like it was easy, you know it obviously wasn’t. There was just a sort of joy to the project and I think John felt that too. It wasn’t like, you know you’re ripping your hair out thinking, how are we going to solve that, we’re behind in production, all the normal stuff that happens on films just sort of didn’t happen on this one. It was just sort of a really fun kind of, I think we all just felt like it was a fun place. The Hundred Acre Wood is a fun place to hang out every now and then. I think John kind of felt that too.

You guys actually visited the real Hundred Acre Woods?

Hall: Yeah.

What did you take from that trip that you implemented into the film?

Anderson: Well really what I was to make, to create a Hundred Acre Wood that no one’s really ever seen on screen before, because it is observed and recorded from the real place. Locations, you can go to Ashdown Forest now and see parts, you see locations there that we used in the movie verbatim. But the feel of it, the lighting, the foliage, everything, it’s observed. And it gave us a lot of pride and confidence going forward that the story we can tell to everybody is that we did our homework. We didn’t just go to the ARL and drag out all the old backgrounds and just copy those. We actually went to the place out of respect and absorbed it all and put it up on screen. So the Hundred Acre Woods is almost like another character, the place is so important so it helps make a better movie ultimately.

Hall: We didn’t want to make a Xerox of a Xerox, you know. Obviously we knew it was going to be stylistically the same. It was going to be scratchy black line and over that would be watercolor washing. So we wanted to put our spin on it in any way we could, and that meant going to the real place and getting the real foliage in there. For a forest there’s not a lot of trees. It’s not what you think of if you go through a forest around here, like the Redwoods or something like that. There’s very little trees, very few trees. But it’s still a beautiful place, very calm and the light was amazing, so yeah.

And just to talk about the animation a bit, I mean obviously 3D animation has become the norm, do you just jump at the opportunity to make a 2D animated film?

Hall: Yeah.

Anderson: Yeah, think so, yeah. It’s funny, I mean, both mediums are great. They both have such great things to offer and its fun just to be able to be in a building where both is going on. It’s really one of the only places in the world that’s doing, the only studio, big studio, that’s doing hand drawn and computer animation simultaneously. And that’s really exciting, you feel that energy, you feel the vitality and the versatility of this place and the different kinds of artists. So to be able to jump back and forth to both of those different mediums, and for Winnie the Pooh it was the perfect way, it was the perfect vehicle to tell this story. Because obviously it began as drawings, began two-dimensionally, so it just felt right. It has the simplicity, the charm, the handmade feel that you want out of Winnie the Pooh.

Hall: I have to say, too, just the first time Eric Goldberg kind of flipped a scene, like a Rabbit scene, he’s like, “Hey, I’m here, come take a look at this scene.” We’re supposed to be composed, you know, “Yes, Eric,” you know, do that, but I couldn’t and I just reverted to this CalArts student and was just sort of in awe of it. I think both of us, we never underestimated that or took it for granted, sort of the magic trick that these guys do with a pencil and paper. There’s just nothing like it. Theirs is still an awe.

Walking around today I got the sense that it’s impossible to be jaded by all of this, every single time, you start from these pencil sketches to the final product, I mean it’s magic, it’s really impressive.

Hall: And we draw, we do storyboards, we’ve animated before, and so we should be jaded by it. I don’t know I just remember that, yeah it’s just really cool. They’ve also integrated the rest of the studio, I mean they’re providing some exploratory animation for CG films, we’re becoming a very ambidextrous studio. Which I think is kind of awesome.

Obviously you’ve worked in both 2D and 3D now, other than the equipment which is obvious, what is different about building a 2D versus 3D film?

Hall: You should speak to that.

Anderson: Well, for me I guess I’d look at it as computer animation is more like photography, whereas hand drawn animation is more like doing a painting. If I want to capture this landscape, I can take a photograph of it, which is more of a realistic representation. There’s still interpretation, there’s how you light it, there’s what lenses you use, there’s all kinds of creativity that you can do, but it’s more of an exact, it’s a little bit more of a one to one representation of the location. But were I to take out a canvas and do an impressionistic type of painting, there’s even more interpretation involved in that and it’s farther from the source. It’s the artist just doing so much more interpretation with that. So for me that’s kind of how I see the two. They are both caricatures of reality. The computer animation we make is not photorealism, but certainly you’re dealing with texture, you’re dealing with lighting, you’re dealing with space, even though it’s virtual, it’s very, you perceive it as depth. Versus 2D where it’s all impressions of that. It’s impressions of fabric and it’s impressions of trees and of atmosphere, you’re creating that illusion through graphics, through story, through lighting, shading, color.

With animated films, you also have just so many moving parts. You have illustrators for each individual character, I’m curious, how do you keep that all organized? How do you keep being the heads of the production? How do you keep your head on straight?

Anderson: It helps when everybody is so goddamn good at what they do. They really know what they’re doing, and not just, certainly the artists, but also the production/management side of things. Our Producer Peter, Associate producers, production managers, all the department managers. They all came off the Princess and the Frog so they were a well-oiled machine. So this crew was just, give them something to do and they’re already wound up and ready to go. They’re all professional, they all understand their jobs, they know how to make these movies blindfolded. So for us it was just about, we have to make sure that the content is worthy of being in their hands, you know? So it was knocking ourselves dead in the story room, in the editorial room, making sure we had great content. I don’t feel that we had to do, you know, we didn’t do a lot of whip cracking. Everybody was very self-managing.

Hall: And very good at solving problem. Any problem that would come up, you would get nine hundred solutions to it. It just became about picking the right one. There was a phrase we kept saying through the course of this whole movie, “That’s a good problem to have.” You know, when we first looked at who was going to be the songwriting team for the movie and we kind of did a contest, but we through out the Honeydream idea and a few different teams kind of competed for that. And they were all good, any one of them would have been great stuff, but Bobby and Kristen kind of stuck out a little bit. That phrase, we said that so much during the course of this movie, “That’s a good problem to have.”

When you first got the project, was there any certain names that you immediately thought of that you wanted to be involved with the project?

Hall: Well I think we would have done something horrible, to us or are vehicles, if we didn’t cast Andreas with Tigger, that would have been, that was just such a natural fit. And being such a Milt Kahl fan, it was just the perfect thing. So I think we kind of thought, Andreas will get Tigger, Mark Henn seemed to be the perfect choice for Winnie the Pooh, and then everybody else we kind of played with, like Bruce doing Piglet and casting against type, and Eric, I mean with Rabbit, that was a character that I don’t think any animator would have loved that assignment, but we felt like, in the hands of somebody like Eric Goldberg, he will turn that character into something really fun and enjoyable. In one of our test screens, they always, they break it down into twelve people or so, and the first question they ask is, “Who’s your favorite character?” and all the hands go up. One little girl said Rabbit, and I was like, “Why?” “Well, because he’s so funny when he gets frustrated with Pooh.” I told Eric that, I was like, “In the history of this franchise, nobody has ever said Rabbit is their favorite character,” and that’s a testament to Eric’s animation and Tom Kenny’s voice. They just work so well together.

And when it came to those test screenings, before our screening the producers mentioned that there were, that you tested it a lot, I guess for starters, who were you testing? Who was in the audience?

Hall: Well we do it internally, that’s just our process. Over the course of a movie’s life you screen it about seven times, about every three months internally. Just for the studio and for John Lasseter and the story trust, which is our other directing colleagues. So you screen it, you gauge reaction in the theater, you go back up into the story room with John and the story trust, and you get everybody’s notes, how are we going to make it better, and after two hours you kind of break it apart and you put it back together again. And then we did official test screenings, how many did we do? Two, three?

Anderson: I think it was three.

Hall: The first one was actually pretty early, there was still a considerable amount of story sketch in there, but it was good to do that because that one kind of taught us the pacing lesson. It was pretty clear that we still had some scenes that were paced incorrectly and they were actually hurting some other scenes that were paced correctly, but because we kind of took our time over here it kind of hurt the colony. So that was a tough one to sit through, but it taught us a lot of lessons.

Like which scenes in particular?

Hall: Well the beginning of the film, we really took our time. There was a scene where Pooh finds Eeyore, he doesn’t have his tail, God, that was like twice as long. And animated, and in color. So I think that’s going to be on the DVD. And there’s great animation, great business of Pooh almost playing a doctor.

Anderson: The opening song, Pooh Bear takes care of his honey, off his tummy, that Pooh sings at his house, that was, it had another verse to it. Transitions, the Tigger intro was completely different. He didn’t get the balloon stuck on his back. Transitions through a lot of it, we needed to just get out earlier and get to the next bit later. So things like that. Some of it was nipping and tucking, and others were more wholesale, lop that whole section out and get rid of it because it’s just water-treading.

Hall: It was also, at that meeting, the 2D meeting was awesome because it allowed us to do that, to do it very quickly. I mean we went back in the story room, we story boarded those sequences, the guys went and recorded quickly, sent them to the animators, they got it, boom it was animated before you knew it.

And two years is ridiculous for an animated film. Was it stressful?

Hall: No, I never felt it. I thought we would when we got into production I think, when we heard the quotas, and I know the animators were just like, “We’re never gonna hit this, we’ve never hit this.” Of course they did. It never felt to bad really, I don’t know.

Anderson: What’s different about this movie from what we usually do here is we usually start with the blank page and creating worlds and characters from scratch, which is a great process, very rewarding, but it was kind of a nice thing on this movie to, you’ve already got your world established, you’ve got your cast of characters. Not only do you know your characters but you know how they speak, you know how the voices sound, you know their rhythms and speech patterns. So we didn’t start with the blank page, and it afforded us the opportunity, we could actually just start, we could start drawing from day one, and start coming up with scenarios and brainstorming ideas. And that translated all the way down the line. The story artists had the books and shorts to look at for reference, so did the animators clean up, there was all that wonderful material that we’re standing on the shoulders of that helped this movie a bit faster, because we weren’t banging our heads against the wall going, “Just what is the movie? We don’t even know what that is! We can’t answer that question!” We didn’t have that problem.

Hall: “Who is Pooh in this movie?”

Anderson: Yeah, “Who is Pooh and what...” We didn’t have that issue which was a luxury in a way. We kind of felt spoiled because you just don’t get that opportunity here.
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