(Note: This is the part 2 of the interview. To read part 1, click here.)
Stephen Anderson began his career at Disney as a storyboard artist on Tarzan. He then served as Head of Story on The Emperor’s New Groove and Brother Bear, before making the leap to director on Meet the Robinsons.
So how did
Stephen first hook up with Disney, and how many Meet the Robinsons-related anecdotes can I squeeze from his brain? Let’s find out in the second part of our EXCLUSIVE three-part interview…
Part 2: Working at Disney
The Disney Elite: You started your career at Disney as a storyboard artist on Tarzan. How did that come about?
Stephen Anderson: I got to Disney through a colleague at Hyperion. I became friends with Kevin Lima, who came to Hyperion to direct a feature adaptation of Thumbalina. His co-director was Chris Buck, who had been my animation teacher at CalArts. I helped out on that film as much I could because I loved the idea and I loved working with those two. Eventually the project got shelved and those guys left. Kevin went to Disney and directed A Goofy Movie and after that, Disney wanted him to direct Tarzan. He chose Chris Buck as his co-director and so, because of those connections, I was able to become a part of their story team on Tarzan. We’ve all heard that cliche about how so much of success is who you know? This was a perfect example of that.
The Disney Elite: After working in Story on Tarzan, The Emperor’s New Groove and Brother Bear, you made the leap to director on Meet the Robinsons. Would you explain how you made that huge transition?
Stephen Anderson: First off, the only thing I wanted to do more than be an animator was to be a director. In fact, directing (and screenwriting/filmmaking in general) really took over the older I got. As a teenager, I started seeing more diverse kinds of movies, learning about filmmakers, reading about how movies are made, about screenplay structure, about what a director is, and I grew to love the idea of moviemaking. It was really the films of Steven Spielberg that changed my path and made me want to be a director. First off, the level of emotion and audience reaction that I saw and felt when I watched his films was something I wanted to be able to give to an audience someday. Loving his films then made me want to learn more about him so through reading articles and interviews and watching ‘making of’ specials, I decided that that’s what I wanted to do. So this was always the goal beyond the goal.
After Tarzan, I became interested in pursuing the Head of Story role and was fortunate to be asked to fill that role on Groove and on Brother Bear. I had asked, before Brother Bear, if I could be considered for a directing position in the future so we were already having that conversation. Since I’d been performing leadership roles, they were open to the idea. I helped develop a project for the studio on the side, during the last year of Brother Bear, with the thought that if it continued, I’d be the director. It did NOT continue. I finished Brother Bear, moved back to California (because we had to relocate to Orlando for that project), and was then handed a script for A Day with Wilbur Robinson.
The Disney Elite:Meet the Robinsons was one of Disney’s early entries into CG animated features. While Pixar had already released such brilliant films as Toy Story, Toy Story 2 and The Incredibles, over at Disney there was just Dinosaur and Chicken Little. Was Meet the Robinsons always intended as a CG film, and were you at all nervous and/or hesitant about making it one?
Stephen Anderson: Boy, the memory is getting hazy but, as far as I can remember, MtR was always intended to be a CG feature. Yes, in fact I remember that while I was still on Brother Bear, the announcement was made that the studio was transitioning out of hand drawn. I was slightly anxious about doing CG just because it was something new I had to learn on top of already trying to learn how to be a good director. But to me, the creative stuff is always the biggest challenge and the thing that occupies my mind most of the time. Disney has the best people in the world so I’m always confident that the movie will look good, sound good, etc. And I was lucky to have such great artistic and technical leadership surrounding me. I trusted them to help me out if I was confused or uncertain about the technology. They all gave me a boot camp in computer animation at the beginning so I felt like I had a pretty good foundation starting out and I felt safe asking about anything I didn’t know.
The Disney Elite: Meet the Robinsons was the first of Disney’s CG films that made me think, “Now THIS is the perfect pairing of film and format!” The slick, shiny surfaces of the CG at that time really served to complement the futuristic, retro/moderne look of your film. Not only that, but while Pixar was aiming more and more for a photorealistic approach to their animation, your cartoon was, well, CARTOONY! And not just the backgrounds and characters, but also the animation itself. For a relatively early CG film, you got some gorgeously goofy character animation in there! If you wouldn’t mind, would you make a list of the films – animated or otherwise – that you used as inspiration for Meet the Robinsons?
Well story-wise, we looked at the movie You Can’t Take It With You. It’s also about an eccentric family with quirky personalities and passions. Bill Joyce, the author/illustrator of the book that MtR is based on, told me that
You Can’t Take It With You
was a huge influence on him when he was creating the Robinson family. With our art director, Robh Ruppel, we talked a lot about The Wizard of Oz and how that movie goes from a sepia palette to a Technicolor palette and that influenced the look of the distant past (when we see Lewis’ mother giving him up it’s sepia) and the future (bright, bold and Technicolor). With the animators, we looked at scenes of Jim Carrey as inspiration for both Wilbur and Bowler Hat Guy. Also a lot of Looney Tunes. We used to say that Lewis is a Disney character and Wilbur and the Robinsons are Warner Looney Tunes characters. Lewis moves in more of a solid, natural, Disney-type of animation and the Robinsons are zippier and invade your personal space more like Looney Tunes characters. Those are some of the main influences I can think of.
The Disney Elite: Another wonderfully cartoony element of the film is your choice of voice-actors. The voice-work often reminds me more of 1960s Hanna-Barbera cartoons than anything Disney was doing at the time. I mean, there are some really unexpected picks in there (Batman’s Adam West, Roseanne’s Laurie Metcalf, There’s Something About Mary’s Harland Williams), all of whom do an AMAZING job. Oh, and then there’s YOU – voicing not one, not two, but THREE characters, including the mustache-twirling Bowler Hat Guy! Care to share the story behind that bit of kismet casting?
Stephen Anderson: Thank you for saying that about our voice actor choices. I’ve always been such a fan of those classic voice actors and I liked approaching our casting that way. We thought it best to not go with big names, but just solid character performers. To me, actors who have experience in theater, sketch comedy and improv are really best for animation because they know how to create strong and clear characters.
As far as my involvement goes, it’s pretty simple. I’m sure you know about the work-in-progress reels that we create, where we take our story boards and cut them to temp vocals, music and sound fx. Well, I did the temp voices for those characters and, after several screenings with my voice in there, folks just got used to it and eventually I became the voice of those characters. It was the same with other members of the team. Frankie the Frog, Uncle Gaston and Lewis’ coach, Lefty the butler, the t-rex that BHG unleashes - those were all voiced by members of the story crew.
The Disney Elite: Meet the Robinsons is one of those rare movies that makes me tear up every time I watch it. This is all the more rare seeing as how for most of the film, it’s funny, funny, FUNNY. It seems to me like this kind of emotional punch can only be created when a writer/director is willing to put their own emotions and experiences into their work. Was this true for you? And if so, would you mind sharing a bit of your personal story that effected the story being told in Meet the Robinsons?
Stephen Anderson: The adoption part of the story was not in Bill Joyce’s original book. That was something that two development executives and a writer had built in to the first draft of the script, long before I’d come on to the project. When the studio handed me that script, I couldn’t believe what I was reading. While my story differs from Lewis’, I still totally identified with his quest to know who his mother is and to find out why she gave him up. And the studio had no idea that I was adopted so it was a complete coincidence. Because I understood Lewis so well, I was able to bring out that emotional side much more. It was there in the original draft, but I felt we could strengthen it.
The theme of 'Keep Moving Forward’ evolved out of early discussions about adoption and my personal feelings about it. My parents were very open with me about it and told me I was adopted at a very early age. They used to tell me that when I became 18, I could access my records and find out who my birth parents were and that they would support me in that. So for many years, I looked towards that age as a big milestone and I was determined to find out where I came from. Then one day, I realized my 18th birthday had come and gone and I’d totally forgotten about starting this search. I’d gotten distracted by life, CalArts, starting a career, getting married, etc. And I was so lucky to have been adopted by such a loving family. What would finding my birth parents change? Nothing really. In fact, I’ve heard stories about people having very negative experiences reconnecting with birth parents and that sometimes it makes things worse for them. So the important thing was to not focus on the past but on the positive present and the promising future. And that helped us all realize that that’s exactly what Lewis is going through too.
The Disney Elite. Wow. I’m damned near speechless. That right there made my day, my week, my YEAR. That was incredibly moving and inspiring, Stephen. Thanks so much for sharing that.
Thursday: In Part 3 of our interview, Stephen Anderson tells us about his life at Disney post-Meet the Robinsons. There’s his work as director on Winnie the Pooh, his place in Disney’s famed ‘Story Trust’…oh, and his upcoming, TOP SECRET animated feature film project! He’ll also offer some GREAT advice for folks hoping to make art their life. If this sounds like YOU, make sure to come back and check it out. I hope you’ll join us!
All art via Stephen Anderson’s Instagram
NOTE: This interview would not have been possible without the kindness and assistance of tumblr user Morgan – a.k.a. that-guy-in-the-bowler-hat. Morgan runs the internet’s PREMIER Meet the Robinsons archive and fansite. If you are a fan of MtR, you MUST check out his tumblr a.s.a.p.!