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The Princess And The Frog’s Supervising Animator Mark Henn – Part 2: The “Disney Decade”

Jeremie Noyer continues his multi-part discussion with Mark Henn, presenting a new chapter each fortnight in celebration of the worldwide launch of The Princess And The Frog from the US release to its European debut, and evoking the chronology and different aspects of the veteran animator’s career, from his studies and dreams of working for Disney, to his first assignments and serving as supervising animator on the Studio’s current contemporary classic!


During the early part of the 1990s, Michael Eisner and his partners set out to plan “The Disney Decade”, which was to feature new parks around the world, existing park expansions, new films, and new media investments.

That plan led to the production of some of the most acclaimed Disney animated films of the end of the century, most of which benefited from Mark Henn’s expertise, be it in animating Belle, Jasmine, Young Simba or Pocahontas.

In this second part of our discussion with Mark, he shares his memories of this new golden age of animation, the Disney renaissance.

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Animated Views: At the beginning of the Florida studio’s launch, the main activity was contributing scenes to the predominantly California-made feature films such as Beauty and the Beast.

Mark Henn: Actually, we started that back on Rescuers Down Under. The studio started giving us particular sequences to animate to help contribute to the film. So, we carried that over with Beauty and the Beast. For that, I was animating sequences with Belle that the directors in California wanted me to do. I did the sequence where she sneaks into the West wing. I also did a sequence with Aaron Blaise, who was animating Beast, after she’s attacked by the wolves and he rescues her and there is this sequence where she’s bandaging up his arm. We also did the winter sequence where there is the Something There song. That was actually added right toward the end of the movie. That was a last minute song because the film needed one more song. We did that and I did Belle all over the place wherever the directors needed me to do her.

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AV: How did your work on the song go?

MH: When they decided to do the song, Don Hahn and the directors told us that were going to give us that sequence. It’s a great sequence. I loved doing that. I love to animate songs. You know, it’s not too different from the regular acting sequences. But I love musical theater; I have my entire life. To be able not to only act but now kind of sing (as an animator!) is for me a lot of fun. It’s something that brings rhythm to the animation, maybe a little dance, depending on what’s going on. Song sequences are a lot of fun.

AV:Back at that time in California, animators encountered difficulties being forced to work in Glendale and not in the historical Burbank studios. What are your memories of this period and how did you feel, just after that, working in that new environment in Orlando?

MH: When I started at the studio, I spent five years in the animation building on the lot. I was with the department when they told us they were going to move everybody over to Glendale. We hadn’t very much choice, you know. That’s what the company decided to do and I suppose in a lot of ways most of us felt we were sad to see animation leave the main lot. We thought that that was some of the magic that was leaving. But on the other hand, we felt emboldened, if you will, to kind of roll our sleeves up and just to prove that it didn’t really matter if we weren’t in a nice studio environment as we had on the lot but in generic warehouse buildings in Glendale.

The building doesn’t make Disney animation, it was the artists and the people involved. So we said “ok, we’ll still make great movies but we’ll be in a warehouse to do it.” The studio, then, in Florida, was very nice although it had one unique aspect to it that no other studio had in that it was opened to the public. The entire studio was behind glass. We called it the “fish bowl” because the guests that came to the park could actually walk through, they followed a little tour with a guide who kind of explained the process. They went through and watched us work.

AV:What was your involvement in the Beauty and the Beast extended version released in 2002 on DVD?

MH: I got to do a couple of scenes. Primarily, the other characters sing that they can’t wait to be human. There were just a couple of shots with Belle and Beast where she’s reading to him a book. I animated Belle and Aaron Blaise animated Beast. So, we worked together again on those scenes for the extended version.

AV:How was it to go back to this beautiful film ten years later?

MH: I thought it was fun. It was a unique situation and I enjoyed that very much.

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AV:Your next character was Jasmine for Aladdin. Can you tell me about this very special assignment that is creating a Disney Princess?

MH: Well, it was a little challenging at that point because I had done several Disney princesses in a row, so I really wanted to try to do something different.

AV:All the more since she’s not European…

MH: Exactly. Which helps. For the inspiration, I ended up not having to go any further than my wallet where I had a picture of my sister. And I used her photograph to kind of be the basis for developing the design for Jasmine. That seemed to worked out pretty well.

AV:It reminds me that for the design of Ariel, Glen Keane took his own wife for his inspiration…

MH: That’s not unusual for animators to do that. Eric Larson had used a nephew that he had for the inspiration for Figaro the cat in Pinocchio. That was certainly not unprecedented for me to look at my sister and have her as the basis for Jasmine.

AV:Does the appealing to family references make the emotional connection with the character easier ?

MH: I think it wasn’t so much the emotional connection as it was just the physical design. Emotionally, Jasmine grew out of the story made by the story artists and the directors. But I needed something fresh to help with the physical look of her. That’s where my sister’s photograph became invaluable. But I had also Linda Larkin who was the voice of Jasmine to get my inspiration. I had a dinner with her once in Florida. We talked and she was also very inspirational in terms of finding Jasmine’s emotional side.

AV:Was it easy to animate a love story where Glen Keane, the animator of Aladdin, was in California and you were in Florida?

MH: Not really. Scenes were going back and forth to the studios or put into mail, shipped over night. So, a lot of it was just a matter of communicating and deciding which one of us would animate first on the scene. If he went first, he would send scenes to me and if I went first, then I would send my scene to California and he would animated from that. In some cases, he would do both characters and in some cases I would do both characters in some scenes. It just all depended. It just worked out fine and you wouldn’t know that we were 2000 miles apart animating these characters. It all has to do with communication.

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AV:Did Glen and you become friends after this experience or were you friends before ?

MH: Glen and I were friends since I started. I’ve known him for almost ten years at that point. So we were good friends already. It was just more about talking about the scenes, going over different ideas…the usual kind of things that we would have done if we were just down the hall from each other. This time, we just talked over the phone or have satellite conference call, so that wasn’t that difficult.

AV:Can you tell me about your experience on The Lion King, for which you animated Young Simba?

MH: Lion King was a great opportunity because I got to do something other than a girl, which was nice for a change. Initially, I campaigned hard and asked several times to possibly do Scar, to do the villain because I really wanted to do something different. But Don Hahn came to me and said “I know you’re interested in doing Scar but the whole picture really kind of hinges on Simba.” So, they felt, as the producer and the directors, that if Simba didn’t play well, then the movie wouldn’t work and that that was played right into my strengths. So, I’m still disappointed I didn’t get to do the villain but knowing that they needed me to work on Simba like that, that was a challenge I happily took up.

AV:What was your approach to Simba?

MH: Storywise, I knew what was coming. We all knew what the story was and what Simba was going to go through. But ultimately, I just wanted to make him – as I strive on all the characters that I animate – believable as this young, maybe a little cocky, confident character at the beginning. Remember the I Just Can’t Wait To Be King song? He didn’t understand. He hadn’t maturity; he had to grow up. Which is what the film is about. It’s about him growing up and learning responsibility. That’s why I just wanted to make him believable so that people can identify either with maybe themselves or their own children, to see that they remember maybe being that way when they were younger or they see that in their kids. I wanted to make him believable so that you understood how he felt, the mistakes that he did, how bad he felt and then how he grew, how he eventually matured and became the king, the leader that his father was trying to teach him to be. But it just took a few hard lessons for him to learn all of that.

AV:How did you assure the transition from cub to adult Simba?

MH: Well, I actually animated the first adult scene of Simba, from the beginning up through the end of Hakuna Matata where you see the time change and Simba adult for the first time. I think, as a young cub, he was a little looser. In his animation, he was maybe a little more not assured of himself physically, he could be a little more awkward, his feet were a little bigger, they could be a little floppier than when he’s an adult. He was a little more uncontrolled with his movements. But even though at the end of Hakuna Matata he’s caught up in the fun of the song that he’s singing with Pumbaa and Timon. He’s still a little bit of a young cub but physically now he’s a mature lion. He’s different.

AV:Did you talk about that transition with Ruben Aquino, the supervisor of Adult Simba?

MH: I’ve known Ruben since back when he came at the studio around The Black Cauldron, so he and I have known each others for several years. But I can’t say we spent a lot of time discussing how he was going to animate Simba. He was in California at the time and I was in Florida. But, in both locations, we got the same input from the research that we were doing. We both had the opportunity to sketch and draw from live lions, we both had the animal experts coming in and giving lectures and talked about lions. So, our research was identical in terms of what he was hearing and I was hearing. So I think we were both getting the same information about how lions move, how they look, what they do and how they act.

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AV:You collaborated again with Glen Keane on Pocahontas. How did you blend your own styles into one character?

MH: Well, in this particular case, I had started working on Mulan and the story wasn’t quite ready yet so they decided that they needed extra help on Pocahontas. So, I came on to help out with Glen’s unit. My goal was the same as it is for all my characters: to make them believable, whatever their situation and their acting and all that. But the design was set, so my role was primarily to come alongside and get part of Glen’s unit to help get the picture done and make sure that Pocahontas as a character was believable and correct and everything. I was pretty much taking my orders from Glen on that particular production. I enjoyed working on Pocahontas; she was a lot of fun to do. She was very difficult to draw. Glen has very specific ways and things about the way he wanted her drawn, so that took a lot of extra effort. And the directors also were very particular on how she looked. So, that was always a struggle to make sure that the drawings and everything were what Glen and the directors wanted to see. Nonetheless, it was a lot of fun. I enjoyed the working on this character.

AV:What was so specific on Pocahontas?

MH: Her design was difficult. And Glen was the expert in terms of how she was drawn and designed. We were using live action reference again and they were just very particular about trying to pick up a lot of the subtle facial expressions and things that we saw on the live action. They wanted to see that in our animation. That just required a careful balance, knowing how to make a very appealing drawing without it becoming grotesque (which sometimes happens when you try to draw something that’s too real). In live action, it’s fine, but in animation, as a drawing, it doesn’t work as well. To draw the exact expression of a live reference in a drawing can be very ugly in that sense. So, it was just difficult to understand how she’s drawn and how the visual cues, her design can help create the expression Glen and the directors wanted to see.

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AV:You animated so many different and strong characters within a short period of time, each one with great sincerity. Was it easy to go from one leading character to the other so quickly, considering the amount of involvement and the connection you may have had with each of them?

MH: It depends. It’s usually not too difficult. Once you understand and start the process of asking yourself questions about the character, I think there’s always something that makes you very excited about each project and each character. You try to set some goals as what you hope, you’d like to be able to accomplish. For example, when I was doing Jasmine, it took a little extra time to understand her and to find the design. Sometimes it comes very quickly and other times you have a little harder on it.

AV:Each character you animate becomes your companion for a certain amount of time. Is it difficult to leave him or her to concentrate on another one?

MH: It’s always a little sad when the picture’s over because, you’re absolutely right, you spent literally years of your life, every day with the character. And it’s actually a little sad when your last scene is over. But on the other side, it’s important to get the characters out in the public. It’s kind of like sending your children off to school. That’s what you want to raise them to do: you want to raise them so that they can go out in the world. And our characters are the same way. It’s always a little sad when you have to say goodbye, but on the other hand you’re very excited to actually get them out into the world so that the rest of the world can enjoy spending the hour or so with them in the movie theater.

AV:From Ariel to Mulan, you animated every Disney princess of the 90s. How do you feel about that?

MH: I consider myself very fortunate, very blessed to have that opportunity. It just happened that way. If you look at all the characters I have done throughout my career, the one thing that they have in common is the fact that they were all leading characters. Predominantly, they were the leading character or one of the leading characters of the movie. The second element is that along all the movies we did, the stories that we chose to tell involved a leading lady, a heroine that was at the center of the story. So, I became the “girl guy” – sometimes it’s a kind of a label you have – but to me, it just turned out that most of the stories that we ended up telling involved leading ladies. I happened, I guess, to do it well enough so that the directors of all these different movies wanted to ask me to bring those characters to life. So, I’m very thankful for those opportunities. Now that I look back, it’s nice to be included in the legacy of Disney leading ladies that goes all the way back to Snow White. To be included in that group of animators and artists who brought these characters to life, I think, is a special honor for me and I’m very pleased to be considered in that group.

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AV:How do you see the evolution of the personalities of the Disney princesses through that period?

MH: I think, what happened, one of the big differences is the fact that most of these girls in our films were much more aggressive. It seems like they have a much more active part and I think a lot of the early Disney heroines were a little more passive. Things happened to them, more so whereas a lot of our stories tended to get a little more complicated plotwise. As for the role the girls took, there was a much more involved process. They make things happen, they make decisions. So, they kind of drove the story as opposed to just having things happening to them all the time and they were just kind of reacting. Our leading ladies made decisions and propelled the story forward based on the decisions that they made, rightly or wrongly, and that’s what I think in my mind is one of the things that really sets a lot of the girls we have done apart from some of the girls of the past.

AV:Present-day princesses are different from the classic ones, but, as an animator, don’t you keep things from the past to make them true Disney princesses?

MH: A little bit. That was kind of a standard that has been set and I suppose that in our era, our generation, we wanted to surpass that level. That’s a pretty high bar that had been set with the past Disney heroines. It’s always a challenge and an inspiration to try to meet that level and to surpass it. On the same token, you take inspiration from the past but you have to look ahead then and be yourself, expressing yourself as an animator. That’s something that Eric also talked about, from his generation to my generation: to learn from the past but not copy it; learn from it and hopefully take it to a new level.


In Part 3, we’ll look closer at the two feature films produced in Florida that Mark Henn was involved in: Mulan and Lilo & Stitch.




The Art of Princess and the Frog
is available to order now from Amazon.com

art-princessfrog


 


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