Thursday, October 2, 2014


Maleficent Book Signing re-cap

Imagine yourself and about 40 other people in a room filled with art, in a setting like the living room of a film industry colleague, talking about how they made one of your favorite movies. It wasn’t a dream… it was the “Once Upon a Dream” book signing event, held at Center Stage Gallery in Burbank. Guests included (left to right) Dylan Cole, Robert Stromberg, Charles Solomon and Don Hahn.

Here’s my re-cap of the event. (Including Amy asides --- such as: along with food and beverage options at the refreshments buffet, wine and chocolates were served!!--- don’t worry, I kept to my coffee.)

The real coup of the evening was having author Charles Solomon, a leading scholar and writer on animation history, to moderate the Q&A. His thoughtful questions and easy manner set just the right tone for the event. The talk was informal, as the four guests sat on sofas and chairs in the center of the room, with the audience in a circle of chairs around them. Topics ranged from the origins of the animated classic, to insights into the production of the current Maleficent film, and even addressed some of the on-line rumors about unseen footage and deleted scenes.

Charles started the discussion by asking each of the guests to describe their first exposure to the Disney animated classic Sleeping Beauty and how it had impacted them.

For director Robert Stromberg, his early Disney influence was all about drawing. His father had given him the Christopher Finch book “The Art of Walt Disney” and young Robert drew every image he found inside it. He drew the character Maleficent, along with other Disney characters that frightened him. He sometimes even drew on sheets of plastic to imitate animation cels.

Production Designer Dylan Cole talked about being amazed by the Sleeping Beauty dragon and the castle as a kid… then re-discovering the film in college and being dazzled by its hallmark Eyvind Earle style.

For producer Don Hahn, his early visits to Disneyland always included the walk-through of the Sleeping Beauty castle that featured moments from the film. He loved the look of the movie.

All the guests often mentioned the resonance of the Earle style in their appreciation of the classic film, and in the development of the current version. (pic below of Evyind Earle w/ concept art from animated film)

For Robert and Dylan, the extreme world of Sleeping Beauty was not strange territory. They had worked together on Avatar (2009), Alice in Wonderland (2010) and Oz the Great and Powerful (2013).  
(Amy note here to artists reading this re-cap --- Robert and Dylan started collaborating years ago when they met on Chronicles of Riddick. See how one job can mean meeting a colleague who becomes a key element in your creative process and progress!).

The idea of a Maleficent film was making the rounds during the production of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland. (Robert won his second Art Direction Oscar on that film). Don Hahn had brought a Marc Davis drawing of Maleficent to Burton, who literally grabbed the drawing and the chance to direct the film. While that scenario didn’t work out … Don also approached Alice screenwriter Linda Woolverton after a Comic Con panel (he was there promoting Frankenweenie) and she quickly committed to the script. (Woolverton is one of my favorite writers --- she also wrote the scripts for Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King).

Exploring new ways to tell the Sleeping Beauty story included considering an animated version …. But the project was destined for live action, especially once producer/Disney exec Sean Bailey got Angelina Jolie on board.

Around the time of Alice in Wonderland, Robert had heard that Burton was doing Maleficent, but the project languished. It was Producer Joe Roth (who worked with Robert on Alice and Oz the Great and Powerful) who made the Maleficent pitch meeting happen for Robert.

Robert’s re-launch of Maleficent began with his concept art, and a call to his friend Dylan to help get the portfolio together. Dylan recalls doing about 4 paintings to Roberts 20. Their artwork illustrated Robert’s take on the characters and the world of Maleficent. While working on the pitch portfolio, Robert and Dylan started evolving the look of the film. They experimented with more extreme environments for the story, but quickly realized they could not lose the characters to a dream land. The setting had to be earth-like.

Don added that the film world of Maleficent was crazy, but it had to be plausible. (Ironically; the less-realistic situation facing the filmmakers was that, due to scheduling situations, they only had a four-month window to prep, build and shoot the film … at overseas locations in England!).

With Maleficent, the Disney studio had a star vehicle, but it also needed a visual director … someone who could express the characters, action and narrative style of the story through images. Robert was a dark horse – a first-time director, but he understood the visual demands of the project, and the importance of communicating with the actors. The pitch at the studio went well and earned him the most important meeting of all: with Angelina Jolie. Robert looked around the room at the Gallery, then, in a “we’re all friends here” tone …shared a charming anecdote that described the step-by-step process that brought him and the actress together.

As Production geared-up, artwork and images became an important reference point for all the departments. Shooting live action required environments that worked with human-scaled proportions. This ended up guiding the visual style of their film …. However, they still experimented with seeing how extreme they could go. Dylan did concept art for a scene with Aurora and Prince Phillip that pushed the geometric look for the forest and mimicked the angles and lines of the Earle-style rectangular trees.

Charles shared some of the history of the Maleficent character, as interpreted by Marc Davis. Davis’s challenges with the character concerned her tendency to talk at other characters, but not really engage with them. Davis added Diablo, her Raven side-kick, to give Maleficent someone to talk to.

This raven character became Diaval in the Maleficent film. He functions as the conscience of Maleficent .. and with his shape-shifting skills, he can literally go places she can’t go. Diablo also took wing for Maleficent in the animated movie, but Diaval acts not just as a spy in the live action version, but also as a vital accomplice.

Dylan shared some of the concept ideas they came up with for the Diaval character – how keeping a bird-like element to all his transformations was important. They even tried putting a beak-and-feathers make-up on a real live horse. In concept form, ideas for Diaval and his transformations went fearlessly into the ridiculous. By finding all the places to pull back from, they were able to hit the right balance.

There were other elements of “timing” that contributed to this version of Maleficent making it to the screen.

Robert and Don credited the “cultural willingness” at Disney to go along with unexpected renderings of classic characters (following the success of Johnny Depp’s controversial take on Captain Jack in Pirates).

The success of projects such as the long-running stage hit Wicked and films like the Jim Carrey Grinch established that audiences had interest in the backstories of villains. The film became a chance to answer all the questions we were all asking…. To look at the character not as a witch, but as a dark fairy…

Another timing element --- a new comfort zone with respect to seeing digital sets and computer-rendered characters. On location for Maleficent, there were sets built for live action, but also scenes to be combined later with digital elements. A special room of wall-to-wall artwork was set aside for the cast and crew to refer to. Film production on this level of digital dependence was comfortable territory for Robert and Dylan.

Don quickly reminded the audience that... with Avatar and Alice … Robert and Dylan are the innovators who turned that corner in the history of film production. These are the guys who made it possible to fearlessly execute a film story that unfolds in a digital environment.

Don explained his producing philosophy: “Hire the best, then do what they tell you to do. You know you’ll see something imaginative and interesting.”

Robert shared some stories about being on set. There was magic when Angelina first arrived in full make-up and costume as Maleficent… she delivered the line “well, well”... then walked out of frame. Even as it happened, Robert recognized this as one of those moments that show up in cinema retrospectives. It just had all those classic elements working for it.

Co-star Elle Fanning was also frequently mentioned during the talk. Robert had admired her work in “Super 8.” He knew he needed an Aurora who could hold the stage with a world-famous movie star. Elle delivered.

The color palette of the backgrounds and interiors was designed to reflect the characters as well. That first battle sequence is quite dark – for a reason.

The concepts behind the 3 fairies were also discussed. In Maleficent, they are more comical and less matronly. This allows Maleficent to compensate for their short comings and take on the “good mother” role.

Charles also addressed some of the history of the Sleeping Beauty fable. Each version of the story is “of its era.” Older versions of the tale have various numbers of fairies, but the Maleficent character we all know and love was the invention of Marc Davis! The story has changed over time to allow each version to be relevant to its contemporary audience.

For this version --- the central theme is not just the power of true love’s first kiss, but “what is true love.” (Amy aside here --- I should have asked more questions about Linda Woolverton!!! I’ve read other places that the “parental-love” angle was her take on the tale.)

A question from the audience brought up some of the rumors about a longer version of Maleficent with extra scenes. Robert explained that there isn’t really a longer version. The current cut includes all the footage shot with Angelina. In earlier versions of the story and script, more time was spent on the young Maleficent and the back story of her romance with Stefan. However, the reality is that Angelina Jolie is a movie star, and audience won’t want to wait an hour to see her show up on screen (nether does the studio paying the bills).

Don added some insider gems about the earlier Woolverton drafts. He shared that she does TONS of research and really hits her stride around draft 2 or 3, where all the background she’s gleaned for the story and characters finds its place. Woolverton did lots of research into Celtic lore for Maleficent … and the actual location shooting in England contributed elements such as the look of ancient trees.

As the evening wrapped up, the guests summarized some moments from the production that stay with them. They all mentioned the art of Marc Davis --- seeing Davis originals and the experience of trips to the Disney Animation Research Library. In the end --- it’s all about the drawing.

Draw every day! (and maybe someday, you’ll get to make your mark).

Special thanks to team players behind the scenes who helped make this event possible: Tina, Kelly, Maggie and Brendan at the Gallery; and Dmitri in Robert’s office. Stuart and I were honored to co-host the evening and handle the book signing portion (with help from our pal Vyvan).

Typical “meet the filmmaker” talks take place in large auditoriums. What makes events at the Gallery so unique isn’t just the lovely setting, customized with images that illumiate the topic …. Or the yummy CATERING and beverage bar!... Who does this??? No one else… It’s Gallery owner Tina Price’s touch that makes the experience personal and memorable. 
Check out other events at the Gallery
and see more Tina magic at the annual CTNX Animation Expo each Nov in Burbank:

After the talk, all four guests signed copies of the Once Upon a Dream book....Signed copies can be ordered via the Stuart Ng Books website:

More photos from the event are on the Center Stage Gallery Facebook page:
More concept art and background on the Robert/Dylan collaboration in my 2 posts on June 2014 "Making of Maleficent" talk at Gnomon School

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