clark-spencerEverything in Lilo & Stitch, be it the story, the characters, the old school watercolor backgrounds, the incredible Elvis music and even the production process, is extraordinary.

Just like Stitch crashing on Earth, the movie is a kind of its own UFO in the Disney galaxy. The second animated feature created by the remarkable crew at Walt Disney Feature Animation Florida is a refreshing and deeply moving miniature, offering a stunning counterpoint to the epic animated films of the time like Dinosaur, Atlantis: the Lost Empire and Treasure Planet.

One of the original aspects of Lilo & Stitch is the influence of a producer that didn’t come from animation but rather from finance. But Clark Spencer rapidly became an asset to the movie through his expertise at managing a budget and his respect and helpfulness for the artists. No surprise he then executive produced Meet the Robinsons and produced Bolt with the same artistic success.

Now that Lilo & Stitch is being released in a special Big-Wave Edition on DVD, we asked its producer about how he joined the Disney animation “Ohana” for that one of a kind adventure from Florida to Hawaii!

lilo_stitch_1Animated Views: Your experience at Disney didn’t start in animation. Can you tell me about your journey up to producing Lilo & Stitch?

Clark Spencer: I kinda have an odd and interesting path. I started out at Disney in the finance area. My background was finance: I had got an MBA from Harvard when Disney hired me into Finance and Strategy Planning. I did work for different divisions of the company like the Disney Channel, live-action films and TV, and I did a project for Disney Feature Animation where I met the heads of that division, Thomas Schumacher and Peter Schneider, and they hired me into Feature Animation to be their CFO (Chief Financial Officer). I did that for several years and Tom came to me one day and asked if I would be moved from Los Angeles to Orlando, Florida, to head up the animation studio down there.

It was a great opportunity for me to get out of finance and do something more in the general management area. So, I said yes to this wonderful opportunity and moved to Orlando, Florida, and I was heading up the Studio for about six months when they came to me and asked if I would like to produce this movie, Lilo & Stitch, which was gonna move from California down to Orlando to get made. It had always been my dream to actually produce a film. So, when they asked, of course I said yes, and I was the producer of the film for about three years.

AV: In producing an animated film, it’s no only about budget, but also about creativity. What did you discover in that aspect through your new position?

CS: The most interesting part I found was this wonderful tension, if you will, a positive tension between the financial budget and production side of the business of making a film, and the creative side of the business. The creative side wants as much time as possible to make the project. They want to really flesh out the story and discover the characters and make sure they spent as much time figuring out the movie as possible. The production side has all the constraints because on that side, you have a very specific budget and a timeframe you have to finish the movie in. So, the production side is really trying to watch that side of that. And my job is kind of the merging of the two. Because you can’t allow the creators to go on forever trying to figure out what the movie is, you must have deadlines, but on the other side, you can’t tell somebody to be creative today. Maybe today they can’t solve that story problem. Maybe the solution doesn’t come to them today. Maybe it comes tomorrow or the next day, and so, you have to allow some manoeuvering between it all.

You have to kind of give the creators the time they need to develop the project, but also make sure that they don’t take forever if you will. So, from my standpoint, on the creative side, really, I worked as a partner with Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois, the two directors. They’re the one who really developed the story, and they wrote the script, but they were always nice enough to allow me to be in the room where they were developing these ideas, so we could talk about what’s working and what’s not working and the areas you wanted to focus in. And the door was always open for me to throw in my ideas, even if, pretty much, from the creative standpoint, it is their vision that you see up there on the screen.


AV: How was it decided to produce Lilo & Stitch in Florida?

CS: You know, really, the way our business works is: it depends on which studio is available in terms of having resources available. Florida had just finished Mulan, which was the first full-feature that Florida had made and so, they were waiting for the next feature, and Lilo & Stitch was ready to get made. So, that’s pretty much what decided that it would get made in Orlando. I would say that there’s an interesting dynamic in Orlando. It’s a wonderful production facility because of the fact that it’s small. It’s about 350 people and everybody is working on the same movie. So, as a result, the energy in that building is all focused on this one film, which makes there is a great amount of passion for creating the best movie possible. So, all along the ranks of the production people, all the way from the directors and producer down to the production assistants, everybody is working so hard to make this be a fabulous film because we’re all in it together, if you will. It’s a really great dynamic, in terms of making a film. In California, it’s a much larger studio. It’s about 1,000 people, working on different projects. It’s a little harder to get that same kind of energy and focus. That’s one of the things we feel very blessed about: to be able to work with that crew in Florida because it was such a passionate crew in terms of making this movie!


AV: Another unique aspect of the making of the film was that the directorial team, Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois also created themselves the story, the visual and the sound aspect of the movie.

CS: It’s a very unusual way. And we were lucky because the team in Florida was so talented and so opened to the concept of making this film in a different way that it worked well. Because, basically, because Chris and Dean were writing and directing and storyboarding this movie, designing the characters, and Chris was doing the voice of Stitch, we had to give a lot of authority and approval authority to other people within the Florida studio. So, the head of background and the art director made many of the decisions about the backgrounds, and the head of layout made many decisions about layout, so that the directors could focus on the story. That puts a lot of pressure on your heads of departments who have to be right in line with what the directors were thinking. They had to know kind of what would the directors want out of the scene because they might not actually get to meet the directors that day.

On the other side of it, because it does put pressure in terms of how we make our movies, it made it a little easier because you had two guys, Chris and Dean, who knew the movie they wanted to make. So, from the very beginning, it was clear the film they wanted to make, and it never deviated, it never went off into a different path, because you have two people developing that idea instead of maybe 20 people working on that idea. So, that made their vision be very clear and kept us focus. So, on the other side of it, it made it easier in some sense because we never sat and had big meetings about: “OK, what is this story element about? How is it going to work?”. They knew what it was about and they knew how they wanted it to work.

stitch-guitarAV: Speaking of this as a “satellite studio”, was the Paris crew also involved in the process?

CS: Actually, there were two animators from the Paris studio that came to Orlando, Stephane Sainte Foi and Bolhem Bouchiba, and they were the supervisors of the characters of Nani and Jumbaa. So, they moved to Orlando and lived there for about two years, working on this movie. Then, towards the very end, they moved back to Paris because their time was completed on the film, and we decided at the very, very last minute to add the part of the movie when Stitch starts to play the guitar and it goes into the song Burning Love and you see those little vignettes. They had already relocated, so Stephane and Bolhem worked from Paris, just to animated those part of the movie.

AV: Another great asset to the movie was the presence of Andreas Deja to supervise the animation of Lilo.

CS: We were so fortunate! He saw an early pitch of the film and loved the idea and the concept of the film, and asked to work on it. He came to Chris and Dean and said: “I really want to be a part of this project, and even though it’s gonna get made in Orlando, I will move from Los Angeles to Orlando to make this film.” So, we were very blessed because he’s such a talented and fantastic animator. So, what we did was, we said to him: “why don’t you take a look at all the characters and think about which character you want to animate?” So, he did a little work on Stitch and he did on Lilo, on Nani and he came to us and he said: “I really want to do the character Lilo. I think she’ll be a all new exploration for me in terms of the type of characters, because, typically, I’ve done the villains. So, I don’t really to do the Stitch as much as I want to do the Lilo character”. What a talent!


AV: Can you tell me about the heritage of Walt Disney present in Lilo & Stitch?

CS: We really wanted to kind of harken back to the early films that Walt Disney had done, films that really impacted us as kids, which were films like Bambi and Dumbo. What is really wonderful about them, to us, is that there is this real emotional core to the movies, and you do get kind of emotionally swept away. So, for us, that was a key element. We knew we wanted comedy, we knew we wanted action in the film, because we knew those were key elements to making a great movie, but we wanted to return to what we fell had been missing in some of the films recently in terms of the values of the Disney animated films: that emotional core where you just hopefully are driven to tears or at least get kind of weepy if you will, as you’re watching the film. That was really an important element to us.

We also wanted to do a story that was unique in the sense that it wasn’t good vs evil. It was more a redemption story, and in this case, the villain becomes the hero. And we also wanted to have a story that talks about family, because, in today’s world, family is such an important element. But the dynamic of the family has really changed. It’s not what it used to be 30 or 40 years ago, where you had a mom and a dad, and you had two kids, and that was the definition of family. In today’s world, the definition of family is different all around the world, because so many families are broken, because of divorce or death, or there is single parents out there, or children are orphans. All of these things.

We really wanted to kind of go and talk about that element, and talk about it in a very positive way, and talk about the concept that everybody has a family out there. You just have to discover who your family is. And in this case, Stitch is an orphan. He doesn’t realize he has a family, but he discovers through the course of the film, and through the idea of Ohana that he does have a family and it happens to be Lilo and Nani.


AV: Can you tell me about the incorporation of the Elvis songs, from the production point of view?

CS: Originally in the film, we didn’t plan to use any Elvis music in it. The way Elvis came into it is, when Chris and Dean would pitch the story, they would talk about this character Lilo. She’s a little Hawaiian girl, she’s about six years old, and she’s kind of quirky. She carries around a vinyl record player because she hasn’t embraced CD technology and she loves Elvis music. And whenever they would say she loves Elvis music, people who were hearing the pitch were kind of cracked up. It was a really interesting juxtaposition of a little Disney heroine and Elvis music, which was a really interesting dynamic. So, Dean, one day, decided to pitch a sequence where Lilo’s been rejected by her friends and she goes home and she’s depressed. She turns on the record player and she puts on Heartbreak Hotel. And people cracked up at that sequence. So, we realized that we really had this wonderful element to be incorporated into the film.

We talked about it for a long time and decided that it would be wonderful to kind of weave Elvis’ music to the film. That meant, of course, we had to go talk to RCA about it and in the beginning, we, as a large company, were nervous about what would be the ability to actually get the rights for these songs to put them in the film, and how open the Elvis Presley estate would be to letting us put Stitch into the white jump suit and to show a picture of Elvis, etc. But what’s interesting is: we decided the best thing to do was sit down with both parties, RCA and the Elvis Presley estate, and talk to them about what our concept was for the entire film. So, we said: “we want to make this movie. We want to put six Elvis songs in it, original Elvis masters. And we want to put Stitch into the big Hawaii concert white jump suit, and show a picture of Elvis.” We basically pitched the entire movie, and they were so excited by the idea of it. Pretty much, it became a very easy negotiation in terms in sitting down and cutting the deal for the rights for the music, because both parties realized it was gonna be great. We realized it would be great for the film, and they realized it would be a wonderful way to introduce Elvis Presley’s music to a whole new generation of kids. So, it actually made it very easy.

One of the good things was we just went forward and we basically told them everything we wanted to do so we weren’t doing little bits at a time. We were doing all as one big package deal and that made it a lot easier. And they were wonderful. They were so supportive of this film from the very beginning, and they allowed us to do so many things that are very unusual: have this many songs in the movie and have all the songs be on the soundtrack. For instance, for the Devil in Disguise sequence, we said: “here’s the way the sequence works: we need the guitar solo to come after the first verse instead of after the second verse. So, we wanted to change it all around. Not only that, but we need to actually play the ukulele guitar on top of the original solo.” And these are just things you don’t do, because you’re actually changing the original master of song. But when they saw the sequence and they realized how it was being done, they thought the sequence was funny and they allowed us to go and actually do those things. They have just been fantastically supportive of the film!


AV: On the other side, how did you produce the Hawaiian music of the film?

CS: When we talked about the film, and we talked about this moment in the movie where we would cut from space, the kind of cool, grey kind of space, to these vibrant colors of Hawaii, we wanted to cut to a wonderful piece of Hawaiian music. And so, we happened to have been working with a gentleman named Mark Keali’i Ho’omalu, who is the gentlemen who helped us choreograph the hula sequence in the movie, and we were working with him and he had a beautiful voice. We asked him about music as we hadn’t picked the song yet to go into that area, and he played for us two different Hawaiian chants, two very ancient Hawaiian chants, both of which we loved. So, we decided to combine those two chants, and that became that song that you hear over the hula sequence.

He came in and he worked with Alan Silvestri, and they combined these two songs, and Mark actually sings it. When over to Hawaii, they recorded the Kamehameha School, the school’s children’s chorus, to sing along with Mark in that sequence. There’s something wonderfully angelic and beautiful about children’s voice. Kids bring such a wonderful innocence to their voice that just translates on the screen. And we were so fortunate because we didn’t have to go build the chorus, we didn’t have to go find 40 kids and teach them how to sing together. There was this school, the Kamehameha School in Hawaii, where you have to be of Hawaiian descent to be able to go to that school, and this school has the most phenomenal children’s choir, and they sing all the time. It’s kind of funny: every year, at the end of the school year, the kids of this school would do a performance. They sing certain Hawaiian songs, but each year, they got to pick one Disney song to sing, because they’re all fans of Disney animated films. So, when we called them and said we wanted them to sing in a Disney animated film, they were so excited! And for us, it was so wonderful because we weren’t creating a new song, we were actually taking two original Hawaiian chants. So, the music sounds real, rich and Hawaiian to us, which is a wonderful plus in getting all-Hawaiians to sing it, which is fantastic.

When it came to the surfing sequence, we talked to Mark about this to find another song that might work in that area and he said: “you know, there’s not a specific chant that would work, but I have an idea of a song that might fit in there and I would put it in both English and Hawaiian lyrics. It would be fantastic for kids because they would get some idea of what’s the song is all about.” So, he actually wrote the song Hawaiian Roller Coaster Ride with Alan Silvestri. That is an original piece of music, but it fits within the Hawaiian chant music arena.

AV: As a result, Lilo & Stitch truly stands out as a one of a kind Disney film.

CS: We’re really proud of that film from the standpoint that we set off to try and kind of break some conventions within the animated film arena in terms of creating a fresh story, a new story, a story that takes place in present day, a story that’s not about good and evil, but more about a redemption. We’re proud of that and we just hope that the people out there, when they go see the film, embrace the same ideas, and see that someway it’s different, but someway it still has all the real core values of the Disney animated films.

The Lilo & Stitch 2-Disc Big Wave Edition is available
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With our sincere thanks to Clark Spencer.