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The artists who made the creation a reality and the movie a memory.

Disney's Tarzan Adventure: Two Worlds Merge

By Joe Tracy

Walt Disney Pictures Tarzan is the biggest Box Office success Disney's animation team has seen since The Lion King.  What is it about this movie that is captivating children and adults? The majority of success can be placed with the entire animation team and the great job they did at bringing the story of Tarzan to life… at merging two worlds. From the daring decision to cut back on characters singing to the implementation of a new "deep canvas" technique, all the artists joined forces with one common focus – the creation of a legend…

The Creation of a Legend

Disney's Tarzan story is based on a book by Edgar Rice Burroughs called "Tarzan of the Apes" that was published in 1914. It quickly became a blockbuster best-seller. The story became so popular that between the time it was written and Disney's film was brought to life, there had already been 47 Tarzan movies.  So what could Disney do that the other 47 films couldn't?  Perhaps the grandson of Edgar Rice Burroughs says it best:

Tarzan's great adventure"When I saw the Disney film it was such a thrill to finally see my grandfather's characters portrayed as he truly wrote and described them in his books," says Danton Burroghs. "Having Tarzan interact with his ape mother is an amazingly touching scene and I was absolutely flabbergasted to see it visualized on the screen. The animators also captured my grandfather's ability to have Tarzan flying through the jungle's upper terraces. He [the grandfather] described these wonderful scenes where Tarzan would just leap and fly, grabbing branches wildly like in a tornado and Glen Keane [supervising animator of the Tarzan character] has captured that movement in his scenes."

To appreciate the wonder of the entire creation, one must first step back and go to the beginning to discover how nurturing the creation with the Disney touch contributed to the artistry of the film.

Nurturing the Creation with the Disney Touch

The director of Tarzan , Kevin Lima, was first approached to direct the movie in 1995 while he was still hard at work on A Goofy Movie. Before accepting the job, Lima read "Tarzan of the Apes" for the first time.  As he read Burroughs' book, Lima came up with an visualization that he felt captured Tarzan's search for his own identity. It was the image of two hands held up against one another.  Lima immediately knew that this Tarzan movie was the job for him.

Many artist were brought together in 1995 to help realize the vision of bringing the Tarzan creation to life. Among them was screenwriter Tab Murphy, who wrote Gorillas in the Mist and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Murphy was responsible for writing the first several treatments of Tarzan. Then Bob Tzudiker and Noni White (The Lion King and The Hunchback of Notre Dame ) were brought on board to bring a family and emotional focus to the film as well as giving each of the characters definition. Comedy writer Dave Reynolds then was brought on board to add humorous dialogue to the film. That job took Reynolds over a year to accomplish!

The whole team, however, faced one major dilemma from the beginning. Which part of the Tarzan story should they focus on?

"When we first began looking at the book, we asked ourselves 'what do we want to say that's different from what other Tarzan movies have said,'" recalls Lima. "One of the things that we thought we could do, which is very relevant today, is explore the idea of family. What constitutes a family? Is it those that you look like or those that you love? We also decided that we wanted the animals to talk. Audiences go to movies to get a glimpse of another world, so why show them a world they already know? They can turn on the Discovery Channel and watch gorillas in a natural habitat. We wanted to give them something different and something that only animation could deliver."

Tarzan producer Bonnie Arnold emphasizes the importance the team placed on the relationships in the film.

"We decided early on that the relationship between Tarzan and Kala was going to be of primary importance. The close bond they share is the heart of our story. Showing what happened in his childhood that would affect his whole life was a significant piece of the story puzzle."

That significant piece of the story puzzle became one of the greatest Disney animated openings ever, topped only by The Lion King .  But even a strong opening didn't help what seemed to be a rushed ending. There was even respectable disagreement among the artists as to how Tarzan should end.

Tarzan and Porter"The big question mark from the start was the ending," says Murphy [the original screenwriter of Tarzan]. "In the book, the third act essentially takes place outside the jungle. I was in favor of Tarzan leaving and having him go to England. That's how I wrote the first draft of the script. From the very beginning Kevin [Lima] and Chris [Chris Buck, who also directed Tarzan], believed that the story lost some of its magic if we left the jungle. I think it was a process we had to go through to find out that the story would be better served by keeping it in the jungle. The great thing about working for Disney is that if you believe in an idea, in the early stages, you have time to explore and try things that may ultimately fail."

In order for an animation to succeed, it must have a good story to go along with quality animation. While the Disney Feature Animation team had the Edgar Rice Burroughs story of Tarzan, they still had to personalize it… give it that Disney touch.

"A good story is always going to have great characters first and then something that touches or moves you," says Brian Pimental, Tarzan's head of story development. "This film also had to have comedy and action and all these elements had to somehow come together. The strongest parts for me are the emotional core. It's a part of Tarzan you've probably never seen before. In addition to interacting with his gorilla family, our Tarzan is different because he's very introspective. He knows what's going on and is aware of the world around him. He's not completely in control of everything. He's just trying to find a place where he feels comfortable with himself."

Jane and TarzanLike all good stories, though, this one needed a dilemma. For this telling of Tarzan that dilemma came from deep within.

"One of the things we did in all of our brainstorming sessions with the writers was to try and come up with themes in everyday life that contemporary audiences could relate to," says Arnold (producer). "And the theme we kept coming back to was 'what defines a family?' Tarzan is really an adopted child. He's adopted by this ape family and grows up thinking that he's one of them. When he meets Jane and the other humans for the first time, his dilemma is what family does he really belong with. Is it the family that raised and nurtured him or the family that he was born into?"

Of course, the creation of Tarzan didn't just happen overnight. It started with a crew, a book, and a destiny – to bring the creation to life…

Bringing the Creation to Life: Animating Tarzan

One of the most important animation roles to film in Disney's Tarzan was that of the supervising animator for the Tarzan character. For that, Disney veteran Glen Keane was brought on board. Known as one of the top animators in the industry, Keane was given the task to make sure that Tarzan became a living breathing character with sincerity, depth, humor, and fluid movement.

"My first step in finding inspiration for the character was to go to the original source," says Keane. "The Tarzan described in Burroughs' book was incredible and nothing like the one I've seen in the Hollywood films. This Tarzan moves like an animal. He's a genius of adaptation. He takes a movement from a leopard or a gibbon. He can imitate the movement of a serpent. Burroughs describes him as being able to spring 20 feet at a stretch. No human could do that, but an animated Tarzan certainly could."

Keane came up with the idea of having Tarzan "surf" the trees, much like a surfer or skateboarder.  "The more I thought about it, the more it just seemed to work with the moss-covered trees," he says.

The directors loved the idea.  Tarzan would build his own "freeway" system among the trees. Even so, there was another hurdle to overcome to help with the drawings. Exactly what was going on in Tarzan's head?  The answer was discovered when Keane and his son took a trip to Africa in the fall of 1996.

"Before I went to Uganda to observe the mountain gorillas, I couldn't understand how Tarzan would have to struggle with the idea of leaving the jungle to be with Jane," says Keane. "Given a choice between these gorillas and this beautiful girl, the choice didn't seem too difficult.  But watching a family of gorillas in their natural habitat gave me a whole new perspective. I was struck with the love these animals have for each other. They live in this beautiful paradise and there was something wonderful about being under the protection of this big silverback gorilla. Life was simple and fun. I didn't want to leave there myself."

Keane did return to pass on that inspiration to a group of 13 top character animators at the Disney Paris Studio. They're job – bring Tarzan to life with all the right emotions, drive, and dilemmas to make him a strong character.

Beyond Tarzan

While Tarzan was the central character in the film, it took a group of Disney's top supervising animators and hundreds of character animators to bring the entire environment of characters to life.

Brought on for the supervising task of Jane was Ken Duncan who was the supervising animator for Meg, the female lead in Disney's Hercules.

"For me, Jane was really an innocent character with a lot of energy and a tendency to say what's on her mind," says Duncan. "In the beginning she has all these fantasies about what Africa is going to be like and when she gets there, she discovers that there's mud and dirt and some rude baboons. It's a bit different than she imagined."

Another challenging job was the supervising of all the lead animal characters. To do it, Russ Edmonds, the lead animator of the horse Philippe in Beauty and the Beast was brought on board. For Tarzan, his job was to breathe life into Kala, Tarzan's ape mother.Kala

"We didn't want Kala to look like a person in a gorilla suit," says Edmonds. "We wanted her to look and move like a real gorilla. She walks on her knuckles and she doesn't swing from trees, because gorillas are too heavy to do that… My challenge was to keep her alive and make each scene seem fresh and different. This was the most subtle animation I've ever done, but it was possible to get a lot of expressions in her face. If you watch her face, you can see all the expressions in her large brow."

From Tarzan to Kala and Jane to Terk, each supervising animator and teams of character animators faced the challenge of making their creations realistic, alive, and believable. Of course, part of the belief of what a person is watching comes from the background scenes and interaction of characters with those scenes. For this, Disney had a trick up its sleeve. A new process that Disney dubbed "Deep Canvas."

 

The Birth of Disney's Deep Canvas Technique

Traditionally, animation has existed in a two-dimensional world.  Characters created on paper are photographed one frame at a time against flat hand-painted backgrounds.  Walt Disney and his technical team tried to add dimension to the process as early as the 1930s with the multiplane camera.  The next real innovation came in the mid-1980s with new technological innovations and the introduction of computers.  By 1991, Disney was able to create dimensional moving backgrounds like the swirling ballroom in Beauty and the Beast .  Other notable Disney milestones include the wildebeest stampede in The Lion King, the sweeping camera movements and crowd scenes in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and the powerful attack by an army of Huns in last years' Mulan.

With Tarzan, artistry and technology blend as never before with the introduction of a new breakthrough technique called "Deep Canvas." The filmmakers' desire to integrate Tarzan into his jungle environment led to this exciting development and opened up a world of possibilities.  Deep Canvas required a closer collaboration with a variety of different departments (layout, scene planning, background) and, most importantly, put the technology into the hands of the artists themselves.

So how was the theory behind Deep Canvas born?

As one of Disney's veteran layout supervisors, Dan St. Pierre had long been frustrated by the limitations of his medium.  He felt that there must be some way to add greater depth to animated films and integrate the characters into the backgrounds.  While finishing up his assignment in Paris on The Hunchback of Notre Dame, St. Pierre had an opportunity to express his views to Peter Schneider, then-president of Disney Feature Animation.  Schneider was intrigued by St. Pierre's comments and agreed to let him take his theories to the next step.  This required a significant commitment to research and development as well as major expenditures for new computer equipment.

St. Pierre tenaciously pursued his ideas for "Deep Canvas" in his new role as art director on Tarzan and enlisted the support of CG (computer graphics) supervisor Eric Daniels to help make it a reality.  Daniels and his team of digital production software experts -- Tasso Lappas and George Katanics -- were willing experimenters and set about making St. Pierre's vision a reality.

"The world of Tarzan takes place in what we call the 'ultimate jungle,'" says St. Pierre. "We took the best parts of jungles from around the world, including the ones that we visited in Africa, and pumped up the scale to create a larger-than-life place for Tarzan to live in.  It has elements of fantasy but it's based on real plants and trees.  We had to play with the size of plants to try and decorate the landscape and keep it elegant and organic.  The result is heightened naturalism."

What the Deep Canvas technique allowed the artists to do was take the "camera" and move it like you would with a live action film. The camera could follow characters while adding depth and strong movement to the film.

"One of the most unique things about Deep Canvas is that it enables these wonderfully trained traditional background painters to create entire environments instead of just flat square pieces of art," says St. Pierre. "The software we created allows them to paint Tarzanwith a stylus and a digitizing tablet on a three-dimensional model.  It feels very much like they're doing a normal painting only they're reaching back to paint a distant mountain top or reaching forward to paint a foreground object.  Their brushstrokes fly back in space and sort of stick onto the object that they were painting on."

Even though the Deep Canvas technique changed many aspects of traditional animation, it was still embraced by those artists.

"The idea of actually being able to paint a background that can be animated and seen from all different sides in a three-dimensional form is like a dream," says Doug Ball, head of backgrounds for the film. "People who have practically no experience with computers have dived into the program and within weeks were painting as prolifically as they were with traditional painting tools."

Even with the Deep Canvas technique, many traditional animation elements were still applied to Tarzan. This included things like:

    - Shadows wrapping around characters and moving across their faces to suggest the canopy of plants and trees above. 

    - The generous use of dappled light also added a sense of realism. 

    - Overlays of plants covering feet to make it feel like the characters were wading through the jungles. This stitched them credibly into the scene.

From three spots across the world (California, Florida, and Paris), teams of animators, designers, artists, and filmmakers brought a vision to life. They merged the worlds of Tarzan and animation into one to create a lively and fun adventure for the whole family. In the end, it is Tarzan's world that we come to appreciate as one man with two worlds faces his ultimate destiny.