Spring 2017

A Different Kind of Movie Magic

Directors breathe live-action life into animated Disney classics


Bill Condon directing Emma Watson in Beauty and the Beast. (Photo: Laurie Sparham/Disney Enterprises, Inc.)

Adapting beloved, even classic animated films to live-action life is tricky. A potentially cultish audience with a huge emotional connection forged in childhood is already accustomed to experiencing these stories in a certain way, with all the reality-bending attributes animation brings to bear in creating fantasy worlds and characters. But as times and technologies change, Disney, which holds a near monopoly on animated features old enough to be considered a classic, continues to reimagine its catalogue for a contemporary audience.

For the directors behind these tentpole adaptations, the question of what live action can accomplish that their animated predecessors couldn't has been paramount. An alternate form also makes different aesthetic demands, leading the filmmaker further from the original when, for instance, viewers might enter Bill Condon's upcoming Beauty and the Beast with expectations created by Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise's 1991 version, and its Alan Menken/Howard Ashman score. So how to approach the needs of a live-action update and what can a director add to a classic?

"The answer for me, to 'Why remake a perfect movie?'" says Condon, "was that the original always seemed to me to have its roots in a history of live-action movie musicals. That score didn't feel like other Disney cartoon scores. Ultimately, though, I had to trust my own instincts about when to invent and when not to. For example, in the animated film, LeFou is basically a human punching bag for comic relief. But outside of Abbott and Costello, that's not as interesting in a live-action context. So the essence of script development was figuring how to make these into credible, real characters."

BEAUTY AND THE BEAST: (Top) A scene from the 1991 animated film; (Bottom) The live action version. (Photos: (Top) Disney/Photofest; (Bottom) Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures/Photofest)

Sean Bailey, president of Walt Disney Studios Motion Picture Production, believes Walt Disney himself would have made The Jungle Book photo realistically with CG technology, had it been at his disposal, as Jon Favreau did for the studio in 2016.

"As we start to look back and consider these movies," Bailey says, "we feel the bones of the stories are timeless for a reason. But I think we have new things to say about gender and diversity to make these stories truly timeless, but also made for the 21st century."

Disney has also turned 101 Dalmatians into live action under Stephen Herek and Cinderella under Kenneth Branagh, and has in the works The Lion King with Favreau, Dumbo with Tim Burton, Aladdin with Guy Ritchie, Mulan with Niki Caro and The Little Mermaid with no director yet attached. All either have or will meld varying degrees of live action with CG technology.

"It's an interesting challenge," continues Bailey. "I've noticed a big difference from the Walt era. With Lion King- or Beauty and the Beast-era movies, there are certain things the audience wants to feel, and certain moments and memories that they don't want compromised or reinvented. But there are other elements where you are given great latitude, and that's something we always talk a lot about at the beginning."

Herek estimates his 101 Dalmatians followed 85 percent of the original's narrative without having the dogs talk, as they did in the animated version. He used real dogs and wanted to keep it "as real feeling as possible," rarely using CG with the Dalmatians for anything other than to create personifying expressions.

"One of my problems was, how do I get personality without having the dogs speak?" says Herek. "We did discuss having them talk but I wanted to use their natural lines of communication, which dogs do have. So that's where ILM came in with facial tics and a head cock here or there. But my daughter grew on the movie and was 8 when I made it. It was very important to me that she wouldn't look at the movie and say, 'I hate that, it's nothing like the cartoon.'"

A factor giving them some leeway, the filmmakers have found, is that memory functions imperfectly and that things one seems to remember with crystal clarity are in reality quite different.

"Even if something has the label iconic, it's already been transmuted in your own viewer's mind," says Kenneth Branagh, surprised by how little he had remembered upon rewatching the original animated Cinderella. "I began to think, 'Well, I suspect other people may find that they have the same experience.'"

In Jon Favreau's case, the original Jungle Book was a lighthearted musical, a far cry from the scarier, adventure adaptation he had planned with photo-real jungle creatures, which raised the bar on visual effects.

THE JUNGLE BOOK: (Top) Jon Favreau directing actor Neel Sethi; (Middle) The final version of the scene; (Bottom) The 1967 animated film.(Photos: (Top & Middle) Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures/Photofest; (Bottom) Walt Disney Pictures/Everett)

"The balancing act," he says, "is to make sure that you're able to satisfy both the people who have a relationship with the original and to just tell a story as though it was something that nobody has ever told before. I personally had very strong memories of Jungle Book and, as an audience member, would be disappointed if we didn't reference those aspects of the memory."

Without referencing the original film, he assumed as a fan he would be a good proxy for an audience, so he sat down and listed the elements he remembered as an adult: the snake, Kaa, hypnotizing Mowgli and coiling around him; Baloo singing "The Bare Necessities" and paddling down the river; the tiger running through the burning woods; King Louie singing "I Want to Be Like You"; and Mowgli's attitude. "I remember he wasn't really a sweet kid," says Favreau. "He was more realistic, more relatable when I was little."

Through the process, Favreau found the resulting story unfolding not too differently from what was implied in the 1967 original.

Condon, for his part, felt it important to reference from the original Beauty and the Beast an iconic camera sweep of Belle and the Beast dancing, up to the painted putti on the ceiling. But more important was to translate that sweep into another moment that distilled the thrill of the move but offered something new. So Condon designed the sweep upward to reveal the cartouches on the wall coming to life as the orchestra for the song.

"When you're aware of those iconic moments," says Condon, "you either deliver in the way that is expected or you comment on and change in a deliberate way to surprise the audience."

CINDERELLA: (Top) Director Kenneth Branagh filming a scene with actress Lily James; (Bottom) The animated original. (Photos: (Top) Walt Disney Pictures/Photofest; (Bottom) Jonathan Olley/Disney Enterprises Inc.)

Branagh noticed in approaching Cinderella a different kind of characterization than he had remembered in the animated original; there had, in fact, been almost none given to the prince whatsoever.

"Part of what we love about a classic story is that we continue the relationship with it in [our] own minds," he says. "What that creates is a world of viewers who have particular versions that are just their own. But I think once you've accepted that, you feel a little license to bring something different to the new version. I felt freer to make the family element, essentially the backgrounds of the characters, more present."

So what adjustments does live action allow and what does it demand? Like Branagh, for many of the filmmakers it has been a drive to dig deeper and reveal things previously left open to the audience's curiosity.

"What is essential when you don't express characters through paint or drawing, but with live actors," says Condon, "is a type of psychological nuance; more knowledge when we first meet them about how they got there, and behavior that's recognizably human. You couldn't just take the original performances or a number like 'Be Our Guest' and make them work in a live-action context. I think what we did feels like the same number but it's actually very, very different."

The filmmakers seem to concur that when an audience encounters what at least appear to be fleshand- blood characters (even if they're actually photo-real CG), its need to more deeply understand situations increases. All worked to fill in the gaps of backstory and relationships.

In Beauty and the Beast's first number, "Belle," Condon worked to establish the way Belle's town functions; that the boys go to school while the girls wash their clothes. He also felt it was imperative to share what the Prince/Beast had done to deserve his curse, and how Belle and her father Maurice wound up in the town where they were such outsiders.

Stephen Herek's 101 Dalmatians built a boss/employee relationship between Cruella De Vil and Anita, and presented Cruella's obsession over fur more fully.

So, too, did Branagh seize the opportunity to fill in the blanks. "Everything that's to do with how Cinderella's character was formed had an opportunity in this live-action version," he says. "Live-action human beings could convey a presence of familial love and devotion that was going to pay off emotionally many times throughout the movie. We just care differently than we do in even the most glorious of animated films when they absolutely look, talk, walk and speak like us."

The divide between the human element, which reads as "real" to an audience subconsciously, and the computer-generated features and augmentations has thus been a tension to manage. The essence of humanity is imperfection while the nature of computers, especially when coupled with the diligent efforts of designers, is quite the opposite. To better service the live-action effort, therefore, directors have attempted to maintain the feeling of natural imperfections in a variety of their films' aesthetic components.

Favreau used living scene partners, puppeteers and even jumped in himself to bolster the performance of his child actor in the green screen studio, rather than forcing him to act opposite tennis balls on sticks. The trick to visual effects, he claims, is its interactivity with the live elements, be it emotional interaction or the way light hits the subject in the plate. Favreau also contrived lens aberrations—water splashing the virtual lens and imperfect framings.

"When you have a digital camera, you can capture everything perfectly, and that's one of the tip-offs to a lot of CGI work," he says. "We would often miss the important part of the shot because that's what would really happen if you were filming this thing in the actual environment. If you're shooting for a beautiful sky, you're probably sacrificing the foreground to silhouette. We looked at a lot of beautiful old pre-DI cinematography, like from The Black Stallion or Never Cry Wolf. So much of my input was to ugly-up the shot."

101 DALMATIANS:(Top) Glenn Close as Cruella De Ville in the 1996 live action film; (Middle & Bottom) Scenes from the 1961 original. (Photos:(Top) Everett; (Middle) Walt Disney Pictures/Everett; (Bottom) Buena Vista Pictures/Photofest)

Branagh approached the same idea by shooting on film instead of digital for the "under-the-skin quality" he feels it imparts, and by allowing production designer Dante Ferretti to deliberately build asymmetries into the architectural fabric of his sets, like on a door frame or underneath a balcony.

But the effort also impacted his approach to performance. Branagh preferred not to rehearse much and would often use takes where he found himself caught off-guard. Inside his elegant settings, he liked to capture a human dimension that was more unguarded than expected, so often first takes were used, and sometimes even rehearsals.

With Glenn Close as Cruella De Vil in 101 Dalmatians, Herek says, "It was trying to find that line between being way over the top but also keeping it somewhat rooted in reality. But Glenn is so good. She had just come off Sunset Boulevard on Broadway; she gave it a theatrical quality. I think she brought a lot of Norma Desmond and we brought in the same designer to do her costumes, Anthony Powell. So every time she made an entrance, before she even said anything—her hair, the lighting, the long ferile snout of her iconic car coming around a corner—she had a bigger-than-life quality."

But while the technology could in ways be something to combat, there's no question a live-action fantasy film was dependent on it for its verisimilitude. Toward that end, Condon guided his legendary lighting designers Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer to utterly obsessive ends, for example, challenging them to light a lavish dining room as the Beast's household staff would have in an era with no electricity.

"They said that most of the light would have to come from the reflective surfaces of the dishes and the utensils and the glassware," recalls Condon.

"They came with a ton of sophisticated equipment and figured out where the reflections would go based on shiny objects that weren't there," he continues, echoing Favreau's note on interactivity. "So, there's moonlight refracted off of reflective surfaces and there are butter dishes that have candles in them, which are half open to create foot lights, with other objects creating shadows. Light goes against a punchbowl filled with a pink liquid that then refracts into the chandelier and creates a little pink spot. That's how crazy it was. You could have done it with CG light later, but you wouldn't have had that same feeling of 'Oh, my God, this is like you're here. Somehow this is something real.'"

Studios are increasingly relying on remakes of prior titles to fill and ensure their pipelines, so it stands to reason there will be more transference between animated and live-action properties, though after Carrie Fisher's and Peter Cushing's CG appearances in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, what live action means could prove increasingly malleable. But Star Wars points particularly to what Favreau identifies as making these fantasy-based films ripe for reinvention: mythic journey and iconography.

"There's something really magical about the iconography of Disney that we share, not just as an American culture, but globally," he says. "Walt was a bit of a Johnny Appleseed in pulling stories from everywhere and making them feel emotionally charged, allowing there to be great laughter but also sadness and fear, experienced as a kid with your parents or people close to you.

"Simultaneously, though," he adds, "how do you make these old stories relevant? And how do you take advantage of the new tools and techniques that are available? Hopefully, you want to reference and add to the older film, not replace it, and then maybe open the door for a younger generation, if they like what you did, to go seek out what was done 25 or 50 years ago. Ultimately, you want to keep that tradition connected to the things you yourself loved."


Feature stories about the craft and challenges of directors and their teams working on feature films.

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