Wednesday, December 19, 2012

My Dream Trip To DreamWorks: Part 5
(James Baxter -- The Pencil Behind Belle!)

Missed Parts 1, 2, 3 and 4? Then get out. Seriously, go. Everyone else had to start with Part 1. What makes you so special? Oh, don't give me those puppy dog eyes. You know I can't resist those. Ooh, alright. Here's a quick re-cap:

Me and my sister, Caroline, recently visited DreamWorks. We were given a guided tour by Kristen (DreamWorks' online marketing wunderkind) and Daniel (Chris Sanders and Kirk De Micco's assistant). I was inexplicably nervous for most of this, and barely talked. Then, just as I was finally beginning to master the 3 Cs (calm, cool and conversational), we met Chris Sanders and Kirk De Micco. Back to the nervousness! Sanders and De Micco showed us three clips from The Croods while my brain repeatedly exploded. We all took a group photo, then bid the directors adieu. That's when Croods' supervising animator, James Baxter, asked us if we'd like to go to his studio to see a character that got cut from the film. Of course we did! Dude's the pencil behind Belle!

An Irrefutable Introduction To James Baxter's Genius

Driving onto the DreamWorks lot that day, I sorta suspected that I'd be meeting Chris Sanders. Nothing was ever said (or even hinted at) by Kristen or Daniel, but I'm a dreamer, and dreamers dream. If I'm being totally honest here, I also kinda figured that I'd be meeting Kirk De Micco. I mean, if I was going to go ahead and unreasonably assume that I'd be meeting Chris Sanders, it was only reasonable that I'd double-down on that unreasonable assumption and include his Croods co-director, too. That said, I never -- NEVER -- not in my wildest, most elaborate imaginings of the day's events, thought that I would be meeting animation legend James Baxter.

Baxter, for those animation fans out there who somehow missed the Disney renaissance of the 1990s, is a master of the art form. This is not hyperbole, or even one fan's opinion. This is a fact that you can fact-check simply by going to YouTube and searching the words 'Beauty' and 'the Beast.' The proof is right there in the film's infectious opening number, Belle. In fact, the proof IS Belle. It's her singing, spinning, smiling and borrowing books from an unusually generous bookseller. It's Belle crossing the bridge into town, rebuffing Gaston's advances, and ducking a gutter full of water with a swinging shop sign. The proof is there when Belle swings out her arm, propelling herself across the bookstore on the rolling ladder, and again when she sits on the edge of fountain, contentedly flipping though the pages of her favorite book. From the film's first minute, clear to the closing credits, the proof is there virtually every time Belle appears onscreen. Remember that gorgeous dance sequence in the castle ballroom? A computer may have spun the chandelier, but it was James Baxter who drew Belle and the Beast waltzing around the room, eyes widening as they realized their love was mutual. Add to this Baxter's work on the weasels in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Rafiki in The Lion King and the animated intro to Enchanted, and the evidence is irrefutable. James Baxter is an animation maestro.

If a technical and critical appreciation were all that I had for James Baxter, it would STILL have been a thrill to follow him up to his studio that afternoon. But my admiration for the man goes much, MUCH deeper. Beauty and the Beast holds a special place in my heart, and Baxter's work as lead animator on Belle is one of the chief reasons why.


A Little Back-Story

Longtime readers of this blog have no doubt heard me mention my gal, Mishka, in previous posts. We've been together for almost twenty years, and I don't see an end in sight. The secret to our long-standing love? We're opposites in as many ways as we're the same. We're the same in our atypical approach to acting like an 'adult,' and the opposite in our view of swearing in front of kids. Quebec City during carnival? We're there. A trip to Prince Edward Isle to visit the Anne of Green Gables locales? She's taking her sister. I'm a comic book fiend. Mishka's in multiple book clubs. If I was more of an alpha male, I'd say that this delicate in-sync/out-of-sync dynamic made us a bit Beauty and the Beast. Alas, I am gentle jester and not a brooding prince.

Mishka, though? Mishka IS Belle. She's a dark-haired, strong-willed, book-loving beauty. She craves adventure, yet seeks it through fiction. She's selfless, sincere, romantic and loyal. Occasionally, she talks to tea cups. You know that line in Belle, 'With a dreamy far off look, and her nose stuck in a book'? That's Mishka. To a T.

The Mishka/Belle comparison has been floating around since I first met her. See that photo of the Belle statue being hugged by the Roger Rabbit doll? We posed 'em like that when we first moved in together -- a looong time ago. (Need proof? Look at all that dust. Yikes!) Wanna know another weird, pseudo-connection between me 'n' Mishka and James Baxter 'n' his career? Baxter first started working for Disney on...drum-roll, please...Roger Rabbit! Amazing, eh? Me and Mishka's animated alter-ego's are BOTH credits on James Baxter's resume!

And Now, Back To Our Story

James Baxter's studio looked just like I'd hoped it would. Posters, sketches and character model sheets were pinned to every available surface. There was a bookcase stuffed with art books and a well-worn couch that looked like it had hosted it fair share of overnights. There was not one, but TWO animation desks, one on either side of the room. The grey, metal desk was for CG, and looked to be pushing its recommended weight limit with the multiple monitors stacked on top of it. The other desk was a classic, wooden animation desk, complete with peg bar, light box and a plethora of pens and pencils.

Baxter invited us to sit down on the couch, and then fired up his computers. "I wanted to show you something special," he said. "It's a character that got cut from The Croods."

As if on cue, the little horse/dog hybrid from the second teaser poster appeared on the monitor closest to us. There was no background in place, just the fully rendered horse/dog sniffing around the screen, occasionally stopping to scratch himself or stretch his hind legs.

My sister, Caroline, loved it. "He looks like my puppy!" she cooed.

Baxter smiled. "This little fellow was originally intended to be Guy's pet. But as the sloth became more and more popular with everyone making the film, he was slowly cut out."

Five minutes had passed since my last stupid question, so I figured I was past due. "How many hours of animation went into that character before the decision was made to cut it?" I asked.

Baxter's smile faded. "You don't want to know." Dragging his mouse to the left, he brought up a screen full of multicolored wave patterns on one monitor, and a large, black silhouette of Grug on another.

"These are the different controls for Grug's facial features," Baxter said, pointing to the crayola-colored spaghetti. "Each one of these controls a small part of the character's face." He clicked his mouse a few times, but nothing happened. "The computer seems to have frozen," he said. He tried a few more things (don't ask -- when it comes to computers, I'm one step above the Amish and one step below your grandparents), then turned his chair to face us. "Have you ever tried animation?" he asked me.

"Some hand-drawn," I said, hoping he wouldn't ask me to demonstrate. "Flip-book level stuff."

"Computer animation is different," Baxter said. "It's a lot like puppetry. By moving these lines, we move the character." He turned back to his computer and tried to un-freeze it one last time, but it refused to cooperate.

"Hold on," Baxter said, getting up and crossing the room. Rifling around his 'classic' animation desk for a moment, he picked up a thick pile of papers held together with a black, metal, binder clip. "It's a scene I did of the [Kung-Fu] panda fighting. Sometimes we'll sketch out a scene first to see how we want to do on the computer."

No exaggeration: I literally got chills when Baxter handed me the telephone book-sized stack of his clean-lined, hand-drawn, pencil test. He motioned for me to flip the pages, but I couldn't.

"I can't do the fancy flip," I said, my voice cracking for the first time in 30 years. "My hands are shaking and I'm afraid I'll rip it."

I wasn't kidding, but Baxter still laughed. "Here, I'll do it," he said, taking the stack back. And then, like something out of darned near every animation nerd's ultimate fantasy, James Baxter began to flip the pages, bringing to life an entire sequence that he himself had drawn.

It was, to put it mildly, a moment that I will never forget.


What happened immediately thereafter, though, is a complete blur. I do not remember getting up from the couch. I do not remember shaking hands and saying goodbye to Maestro Baxter. I'm guessing that this happened. Heck, I'm PRAYING that it did. Because the other possibilities -- me running out of the room screaming in delight and/or me fainting and being carried away -- are a li'l too embarrassing to even consider. All I know is that to this day, I do NOT remember what occurred between James Baxter flipping that last page and Kristen, Daniel, Caroline and I walking out into the sun, preparing to part ways.

(Psst, Caroline. Call me. Tell me I didn't faint!)

"So what did you think?" Kristen asked as we headed towards the parking garage. "Did you guys have fun?"

Caroline started to answer, but I cut her off. "Today was the BEST!" I said. "Thank you so much, both of you. When I started this blog, I had a secret suspicion that something like this might happen, but I never thought that it would be this good. I thought -- at best -- that I might be part of some large, impersonal press junket that was shepherded en masse around DreamWorks for ten or fifteen minutes before being handed a small bag of old Shrek swag as security rushed us off the lot. But what you guys did for us...it's A MILLION TIMES BETTER than anything I ever could've imagined! Meeting Chris Sanders? Getting to see the three Croods scenes while he and Kirk narrated? Watching James Baxter animate his own pages? I owe you guys! I owe you guys FOREVER!"

"What he said," my sister said, laughing at my utter lack of calm or coolness.

In my defense, at least I'd finally mastered 'conversational.'

Well, sort of.

In The Next -- And Final -- Installment:
One Last Set of Goodbyes! One Looong List of Thank-Yous!

See you Friday!


Bonus: James Baxter's pencil tests from Beauty and the Beast



Yet Another Bonus: James Baxter's 'James Baxter'

6 comments:

  1. I'm going to reserve comment until the last installment is posted, but I already know what I'm going to say. :-)

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  2. ahh roger rabbit! ....rated *PG*. LOL.

    ..
    man i love how you describe things. you are an amazing writer!

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  3. Thank you both for the kind words. They do a lot to balance out the constantly resurfacing moments of self-doubt. I really do appreciate them!

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  4. Thanks for all of the updates Ju-osh. I really appreciate it:)

    I know it only happens in the movie's but I'd do almost anything to be you while you were at DreamWorks. I'm curious to know if Chris Sanders provided any insight on how HTTYD2 is coming along?

    BTW, I noticed the Living-One-Sheet was pulled but I found it here.

    http://www.traileraddict.com/trailer/the-croods/motion-poster

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    1. Chris Sanders didn't say anything about HTTYD2, but everyone else who mentioned it kept using the same phrase, "It's very different from the first one." They all said this excitedly, too.

      While wandering the studio with Kristen and Daniel, I got to see a lot of banner-sized print-outs of production art and character designs for HTTYD2. While I was asked not to reveal anything specific that I saw, I think it's safe to share this vague, one-word hint: BIGGER.

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  5. I remember that animation from James' website. For some reason, I always get a kick when after he does that jump, he does that spin with his arms stretched out in joy.

    "Why can't I ever feel that happy," I often wondered...and after seeing it again just now, the wondering thought returned.

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