Let’s get this out of the way: I could never work at Disney. I felt something like an alien newly arrived on a distant planet as I toured the studio’s Animation Building last week, going for a behind the scenes peek at Bolt, the first Disney CG feature completed under the regime of John Lasseter, and the first that began life as a 3D feature and won’t just be turned 3D as an afterthought.

The thing about about Disney employees is that they’re relentlessly cheerful. If you’ve been to one of the theme parks and interacted with the preternaturally happy staff there you’ll understand what it was like to be behind closed doors at the Animation Building (which has Mickey’s Apprentice hat rising above the roof). Everybody’s smiley, everybody’s happy and most of all everbody seems to really love their jobs. I felt like the Grinchiest motherfucker to ever trod those steps.

I know that the Grinch isn’t a Disney character, but I’m not really a cartoon guy, so I don’t know who the Disney equivalent would be. Maybe a character from Darkwing Duck. I rode to the Disney lot in Burbank with Latino Review’s George Roush, and this guy is such a Disneyana devotee that he had a ticket stub from Disneyland in his car when he picked me up. From that week. George was psyched to get inside the Animation Building. ‘There are people who would kill to be walking where we’re going to be walking,’ he told me. I understood the concept – I had recently walked the halls of ILM and the Stan Winston Studio, so I was no stranger to the geekgasm. But cartoons… they’re not my bag.

Still, the old mind was open upon getting to the Disney lot, and George and I (late!) joined the other journalists in a screening room where we were treated to some clips from Bolt in 3D.

Oh, this is when I should mention that not only are cartoons not my bag, I’m kind of a 3D skeptic. I like the gee-whiz aspect of it, but I going to the lot I still hadn’t been sold on it as anything but a gimmick. A neat, fun gimmick that could be useful for getting butts in seats and supporting a sagging theatrical business, but a gimmick nonetheless. Since Bolt was being made from a 3D point of view I wanted to ask what the point of it was after all.

Luckily, I got to ask that question right away and I got an answer that, while it didn’t fully sway me, made me think it was possible that 3D was an innovation more on par with color than Odorama. But nowhere near the level of importance of sound. First, though, the footage.

The premise of the movie is that Bolt is the canine star of an action TV show who doesn’t know he’s on a TV show. He thinks that the weekly adventures he has are real, and that he has a superbark and superspeed and laser eyes*. When he is accidentally Fed Exed to New York City he has to make his way across country with a cat he has kidnapped (he thinks all cats serve his TV archnemesis Professor Calico) and a hamster who only knows what he sees on TV and also thinks Bolt is a superdog.

The first bit they showed us was the footage from Comic Con, which is the Bolt TV show. It’s all gunships and motorcycles and derring do and explosions, and it’s a helluva lotta fun. Everybody went out of their way to explain to us that the scenes were envisioned as Michael Bay homage, with his stylized lighting and all that (everybody is super on-message at Disney, by the way. Utterances of the word ‘painterly’ in regards to the film’s art design: too many to count, and from every department). That was pretty obvious. Also pretty obvious: the 3D was sweet. People would also be going out of their way all day to tell us how they didn’t want the 3D to be gimmicky or to draw attention, and this – what is probably the movie’s biggest action piece – proves that to be more than lip service. The 3D offered depth and vitality to the proceedings without becoming the point of the proceedings. Still, besides the ‘cool’ factor I didn’t quite see what they added beyond what CGI might add to a scene – you can make it more whiz bang, but are you telling the story better because of it?

Next up was a ‘quieter’ scene. Bolt is already teamed up with his two buddies and coming to understand that he doesn’t actually have superpowers. But the cat, Mittens, has been captured by animal control, so Bolt and the hamster, Rhino, have to team up and save her. While not as flashy as the big action sequence earlier, the scene did offer something that all the behind the scenes people were psyched to talk about: excellent lighting. More on that in a minute.

After the presentation of footage, stereoscopic guru Mike Harris talked to us about the formulas and equations and codes that go into making 3D that doesn’t hurt your brain. There was a lot of interesting talk about 3D imagery violating ‘the window’ and how it can disorient you, and how they work on creating a ‘floating window’ that allows the 3D folks to create different levels of depth and… well, it was technical, but it’s interesting. It’ll make a killer feature on disc 2 of the Bolt DVD. All I cared about was the storytelling aspect of 3D. What’s the point, guy?

Harris didn’t quite win me over but he opened me to new ideas. The basic thing, he said, is that 2D filmmaking uses all kinds of tricks to create depth and then uses that depth to aid in visual storytelling – not just in terms of geography but also in terms of emotion. 3D allows that on a more textured scale. It’s like color not in that it makes things look more ‘real’ but that it gives the filmmaker another tool with which to get across ideas and emotions. The importance of color isn’t that people look right, it’s that a certain palette can evoke certain feelings. Depth can do the same. Albeit, I would argue, on a more limited scale. Still, this was the first time someone had presented an argument to me that went beyond ‘It’s more immersive!’ and ‘It’s cool!’**

After that we went down to the sound recording studio. There we met Mark Walton, a storyboard artist who had been recruited to be the voice of Rhino. During early production of an animated feature the artists are often called in to do ‘scratch’ voice tracks so that animators have something to work with and so there’s something to look at and listen to during these early stages. In Mark’s case they simply never got rid of him and kept him right to the end. Mark’s a wonderfully enthusiastic guy, and he said he still didn’t quite believe they were keeping his voice.

Mark took a trio of us into the recording booth to do some looping on a scene where Bolt and Mittens meet Rhino. I played Rhino (he had the most lines), while George got one line as Mittens (he could have been happier). Freelancer Silas Lesnick played Bolt, and I have to say that guy could have a new career in voice acting. Not only was his reading better than John Travolta’s (IMO), he synced his lines with the characters perfectly. I know that in animation the talent records the voices before the mouths are animated, but that level of syncmanship has to be a harbinger of serious skills. At the very least Silas should be voicing anime dubs.

After that it was a lot more behind the scenes stuff. We met with art designers and ‘look’ designers, and saw animation technology in action. There was a lot of talk, like I said, of the
‘painterly’ quality of the film, and Edward Hopper was the big touchstone for everybody. Another touchstone: Vilmos Zsigmond. His lighting was a big inspiration for the folks behind the scenes at Bolt, and they went to great pains to capture that sort of 70s film look. One of the art designers off-handedly called up a huge swath of stills from McCabe & Mrs. Miller on his desktop. The ‘painterly’ look is very nice, but I have to admit I had to wonder… why not paint? It seems like a lot of work is being spent on recreating reality for unreality. The results are impressive, but are they, in the end as impressive as just setting up a camera and doing lighting like Zsigmond did? I feel like some of this stuff is about the challenge, first and foremost.

Bolt wasn’t always Bolt, by the way. It used to be American Dog, a very different film. The hamster, for example, was once a rabbit. When John Lasseter came in that movie disappeared and a new one, under new directors – Byron Howard and Chris Williams – came into being. That was a year ago, and this film has hurtled to the finish line at a pace very unusual for an animated movie. And it sounded like it was refreshing for many of those involved. ‘This is as close to guerilla filmmaking as you’ll get with a movie like this,’ an animator told us, and he was excited by that. I get the impression that the very, very long development process for animated films can wear you down and make everything sort of become stodgy and well-worn and boring. For the folks working on Bolt – even the ones who carried over from American Dog – things never had a chance to get dull.

I have to admit that I was surprised to leave that lot with a different perspective*** on 3D than the one I had walking in. My stance on the computer animation process wasn’t as changed; the halls of the Animation Building were lined with all kinds of Bolt storyboards, some done up in different classical animation styles. Many of those styles were representative – three ragged hairs at Bolt’s neck stood in for him being furry. In CGI Bolt probably has 70,000 discrete hairs. In old animation you drew what the audience would identify as wood; in CGI the technicians endeavour to recreate wood on an almost molecular level. Mickey Mouse was a bunch of circles put together in a way that had nothing to do with a real mouse. Now the animals have realistic skeletons under their pixels.

I don’t want to make some grand statement about the film based on a few minutes of footage and talking to the very excited, still very hardworking people behind the scenes. I will say that what I saw was very impressive, and that I hope when the press screening happens at the El Capitan in a couple of months, it’s in 3D. And for the first time in years I’m actually interested in what might be coming out of Disney Animation in the future; everything I heard while touring the facility said that Lasseter had really shaken things up on the lot, made it operate in a more friendly, open and creative way. More akin to how Pixar works. Maybe that’s why everybody was smiling so much.

*Yeah, I’m thinking Buzz Lightyear as well, to be honest.

** Which is like the same argument, isn’t it?

*** This is stereoscopic humor at its finest. Which tells you something about stereoscopic humor.