Disney Gets Deep

EVER SINCE WALT made Mickey sing, the general trajectory of Disney's style has been as much toward the "natural" as the cartoonish. The Duck may squawk himself to pieces, and the Goof may stretch beyond reason--but what about those backgrounds? Atmospheric, neo-impressionist watercolors, depth-laden landscapes with multiple planes, looming skylines with pock-marks in the brickwork: These have been the Disney animator's favorite "characters" of late.

This drift toward the real is no great discovery; critics and historians have noted all along that the route from a squeaky, black-and-white mouse to a robotic, talking Abe Lincoln (in the theme parks' Hall of the Presidents) is pretty direct. Indeed, the fact that Disney animators have now figured out how to make those luscious backgrounds even more "real" by giving dimension to the paint strokes is just the latest in a series of well-drawn conclusions.

The effect is called "Deep Canvas," and it's a centerpiece of Disney's good-looking new Tarzan. As the movie's codirector Kevin Lima puts it during a PR swing through town: "Deep Canvas allows us to have a live-action camera in animation. We can go around the 'back sides' of the backgrounds, and have the characters interact with it, more like a real environment." He and fellow director Chris Buck claim that "one-seventh" of the movie involves this effect, which is essentially a kind of wire-frame/polygon computer-generated framework dressed up with continually painted strokes--sort of like a backdrop regenerating itself as needed. These strokes are especially helpful for the boy-oriented action, since Tarzan not only swings on vines but "skateboards" barefoot along twisty pipes of tree limbs. "There are also a lot of 3-D fog effects and some depth-of-focus effects," adds Buck (who previously directed episodes of the animated Family Dog).

Drawing us in: Tarzan  codirectors Chris Buck (left) and Kevin Lima
Drawing us in: Tarzan codirectors Chris Buck (left) and Kevin Lima

Such attention to environmental and photographic detail was in keeping with the directors' insistence that Tarzan's dilemma is genuine, however fictional. In fact, Buck, Lima, and other core members of the Tarzan crew made a safari to study gorillas. "We were this close to the gorillas," Buck exults, his hands marking a short distance. "We even got between the silverback [the lead male of the gorilla band] and the rest of the family. You know, [Tarzan] is a story about family."

Although that story has been filmed no fewer than 47 times before, Lima and Buck feel that theirs comes close to the ideal Tarzan, even citing a letter in which Edgar Rice Burroughs himself endorsed the idea of an animated version that would "approach Disney excellence." Returning the compliment, Lima (who also directed The Goofy Movie) says he read the original Burroughs text and found it to be emotionally true. "The themes are still valid today: Do you belong with those you look like, or with those you love? The ideas mesh with the situation of broken families, or adoption."

While it might seem a little silly to be discussing the subtleties of a movie about an ape-man's emotional traumas, Lima and Buck are devoted to getting deeper than Disney when they can. "We didn't need dialogue as much," says Lima, "because the characters could relate through body language, and we felt the songs [by Phil Collins] could act as a kind of 'inner voice.' That way we wouldn't need to have Tarzan singing, 'I'm king of the jungle!'"

 
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