Throughout his career, Roger Allers has become a recognizable and respected presence in the animation industry. His talent can be viewed in a wide variety of critically acclaimed films: Animalympics (1980), Oliver & Company (1988), The Little Mermaid (1989), Beauty and the Beast (1991), Aladdin (1992) and The Emperor’s New Groove (2000).
For his directorial debut, Allers co-directed The Lion King, released in 1994, with Rob Minkoff. In 2006, he offered audiences two projects: The Little Matchgirl and Open Season. Following its Hollywood premiere in September 2006, Matchgirl was offered as a bonus feature on The Little Mermaid Platinum Edition DVD. It would later garner an Academy Award nomination for Best Animated Short.
Days before this year’s Oscar ceremony took place, Animated News & Views’ Josh Armstrong discussed Matchgirl with Allers. During the conversation, the director explained how he crafted Matchgirl, stressing his desire for the film to retain the powerful, poignant ending of Hans Christian Andersen’s classic tale. The once-planned inclusion of the short into the now-cancelled second sequel to Fantasia was likewise regarded.
(The following interview contains spoilers regarding The Little Matchgirl. Before reading the interview, it is highly recommended that one view the short, now available at iTunes.)
Animated Views: How did you become involved with The Little Matchgirl?
Roger Allers: Well, Don Hahn, the producer, approached me. He and Roy Disney were doing some shorts with the purpose of ultimately making a Fantasia film, using music from around the world. This was one idea. Don came to me and said, “Would you like to do a version of The Little Matchgirl? Does that appeal to you?” And I jumped at it!
It had been a story that always meant a lot to me. I thought that was great. Besides, Fantasia, the one done in the 1940’s, was always a big inspiration to me. And the idea of doing a musical short was really appealing.
AV: Why did you decide to set the short in pre-revolutionary Russia?
RA: For one thing, I think the buildings in Russia are incredibly beautiful. And certainly we associate snow with Russia. The winters there are incredibly hard. So, from a standpoint, it was the physical beauty that would be possible.
Also, in pre-revolutionary Russia, the extremes of the haves and the have-nots – the wealthy classes and the poor people – were quite pronounced. I thought that would also be a good setting to express that. That’s why I chose Russia.
When I went back and looked again at Hans Christian Andersen’s story, he never really said where the story takes place. He describes the girl; he describes her actions with people of the town. But he never actually says what town it is. So, I felt like I could honor the story and still be free to decide to set it in Russia.
AV: Did you consider any other place?
RA: I didn’t, actually. When I start a project – if I have the luxury to do that – I just like to sit and let my mind wander and see what bubbles up to the surface. The thought about Russia – I guess where I started was listening to music. We started with a piece other than the Borodine piece [String Quartet No. 2 in D Major: Third Movement: Notturno (Andante)]; we started with Claire de Lune by Debussy. But we didn’t actually stick with the piece. Sitting in my room and listening to the music, images of onion domes – and snow covering the tops of them – came up. So, that’s why I went there.
AV: What would you say was the biggest challenge you faced in directing Matchgirl?
RA: The biggest challenge – well, there were two. One was doing the main body. That was just coordinating it, I think, because it was what we called a “downtime project.” It was using people just when they weren’t busy on other projects, for only as long as they were free. So, a lot of people got to come through and work on it for a little while, and then they would have to disappear when their projects got going again. So, there was an interesting challenge to coordinate everybody and to keep everything consistent. But then again, it was fun because I got to work with a lot of great people.
Probably the most challenging thing was that after we figured we were finished – you know, we had done the last scene; we had done color timing, for the most part – there was an objection to the ending, that was raised from top executives in the company. Then for the next three years on and off, while I was actually working on Open Season with Sony, kind of long distance, we tried different endings. That was the hardest thing, because I just did not believe in any of them. That was a difficult period. But fortunately, at the end of it all, I was able to put back the original intention. So, that’s a happy ending.
AV: Could you elaborate on the happier, abandoned endings for the short?
RA: Well, I hate to put them out there, because I just don’t even want them to color people’s minds of the storytelling. So, let’s just say there were varying attempts to remove the aspect of death from the end. You know, the girl would be taken off whole and healthy by her grandmother into a door, or the dead body, at one point, was taken away so it was very unclear as to whether she were alive or dead. They were all vague. I think you lost the sense that she had died. To me, that’s where the leniency and the poetry of the thing come in: the only way this girl finally achieves the comfort she’s sought through the burning of her matches is her death.
AV: Were there any other concepts deleted from Matchgirl?
RA: Not really. I boarded the short with three other story artists. It didn’t go through a lot of changes. I remember early versions trying to find the way to visualize and express the idea of the death. But it was all really aiming to express the same thing. So nope, that was one of those rare instances where the thing came together pretty clearly right from the beginning. I had great guys working with me. They made short work.
AV: Are there any inside references that folks should look for, in the short?
RA: [laughs] Ah, let’s see… I could really send people scrambling to try to see things… If you look into the pot, into the falling snow, you’ll see a list of all the Disney animators that worked on it! [laughs]
No, there’s nothing hidden. There were a couple of signs that we put in to try to make it feel like a city and to help it feel like Russia by using the language. On one of the streets, on one of the buildings, we wrote over it something that meant pharmacy. I’ve been told recently by Geza Toth, one of the other Animated Short nominees, who is from Hungary and could read it – he said, “No, what it reads is, it says Finnish, as if Made in Finland.” So, I think that was a mistake! We were trying to express something and maybe wrote it incorrectly.
But there wasn’t anything hidden. It’s nothing hidden; it’s just maybe someone’s inability to write Russian.
AV: So, that list of Disney animators you mentioned was just a joke, right?
RA: Right, no, that was a joke. [laughs] People are always hoping to find things like that. Of course, Disney has a history of planting little jokes and improprieties and things like that. But I can’t say we’ve done that in this one. It was such a very simple little film. I think any kind of a rude joke would have been really out of place there.
AV: Are there certain metaphors or elements in the short that people seem to misinterpret?
RA: I don’t know, no one has said anything to me about it, where it seemed they had misinterpreted. I did have a person ask to be clarified as to whether the girl had died or not. I thought that was fairly clear, with the little girl’s body left behind when the spirit of the grandmother takes away the spirit of the girl. I thought having the body there pretty much clenched it. But maybe it happened too quickly for someone.
But other than that, I don’t think so. I think it’s pretty simple.
AV: When it was planned as part of the next Fantasia, do you know where Matchgirl was going to be in the film?
RA: We had talked about that. Since it has such a tragic ending, we had always thought, “Well, this might be a piece you’d put – if it were, for example, a live theatrical play – at the end of the curtain break of Act I, so that when you come back, you could bring a rush of life with some other scene after it and move to the conclusion of your movie. I guess that had always been a theory we talked about – we said it would be somewhere in the middle, to complete a movement, and then we would come in with something brighter or something. But it never got that far. Maybe it will happen someday.
AV: Was the new Fantasia going to use the same template as Fantasia/2000, containing celebrity introductions to the shorts? If it was, which celebrity was going to introduce Matchgirl?
RA: From what I remember – and we didn’t talk about it much – I don’t think we were thinking about celebrity introductions. I think we were thinking more of just letting the films run from one to another, but finding some sort of a visual interstitial rather than an announcer or celebrity figure introducing. But that might be a good question for Roy, since that was kind of his baby.
AV: Looking back on the short, is there anything you wish you had done differently?
RA: Yeah, I see things here and there. There’s one of the scenes of her box of matches lying on the ground. In one scene, it’s basically done as our digital equivalent of cell vinyl, but another scene has one of the water color-painted versions of it, when it was a close-up. And I see one box in one scene is rather pale, and the box in the scene following it is rather dark. Things like that always come back to bug you.
Story-wise – all the really important things – no, I wouldn’t change a thing. It’s just a little bit of fine-tuning here and there that I would probably like to do, in terms of color adjustment and things like that.
AV: Is there any particular message you would like for folks to take from Matchgirl?
RA: This is my hope for the film: I would very much love if this film could reawaken people’s sympathies for the situation of children in the world – children who are hungry, children who are homeless. If we can, I would love for it to have some sort of relation to UNICEF or something, where we could raise awareness and money to help children in that situation. If that were the result of this, I would be very, very happy. So, I’m still going to work on that. That would be my hope for this. That would be the message – that people would be aware of the need of children in the world.
AV: Where do you see yourself in the future? Would you like to do another traditionally animated film?
RA: I would love to do 2D again. Certainly, I grew up with that. It’s very dear to my heart. I love the relationship of the hand-drawn image. I think it’s very expressive, and I love it very much. I enjoyed working in 3D as well. But yeah, I would be very happy to do another 2D picture.
AV: You don’t have any planned at the moment, do you?
RA: I don’t, actually. At this very moment, I’m working on an idea for a musical play, which would be live theater. So, I don’t have one planned.
AV: What advice would you offer anyone wanting to work in animation?
RA: I guess the main thing is, be patient and don’t give up. A lot of times, it’s hard to find a job. A lot of times, when you’ve got the job, animation is a slow process, and there are many challenges along the way. If you work for a large studio, you’re going to have to answer to your bosses and different people’s notes. If you’re working for a small studio, it’s working hard against the clock.
I know, throughout my career, I’ve had very hard times and times of little work. Those sorts of challenges. If you love it, though, keep going for it. Be patient. You’ll have your chance to do it.
on The Little Mermaid Platinum Edition DVD.
The Animated News & Views team thanks Roger Allers for participating in the interview. We are also grateful toward Mac McLean for arranging the discussion.