Recently, Disney announced that their new Goofy-starring short How To Hook Up Your Home Theater would be released to theaters on December 21st in front of the new film National Treasure: Book of Secrets. This was a surprise to fans, as most everyone had assumed it would be released a month earlier attached to the more animation-appropriate Enchanted. Instead, Disney is choosing to premiere the first release from its new shorts program in front of a live-action adventure film, an act of counter-programming that shows their faith in the product and the desire to reach a larger market with these new shorts than the already animation-friendly family market.
How To Hook Up Your Home Theater is not the first animated short from Disney in recent years; Destino, Lorenzo, and The Little Match Girl were all produced as part of a failed Fantasia sequel and were released on the festival circuit. Still, they weren’t released to a wide audience – only Lorenzo played in theaters (inexplicably, in front of the film Raising Helen) and two of the three aren’t currently available to the public (trust me – I’ve tried to find a copy of Lorenzo to watch!). How To Hook Up Your Home Theater differs from these earlier efforts in that it is part of a program initiated when John Lasseter, Ed Catmull and their Pixar crew came to Disney a few years ago; a official shorts division is now set up and operating under the control of veteran story artist Chuck Williams.
Pixar is well known for its short films – Lasseter and company spent a decade working only on shorts before they released Toy Story in 1995, and nowadays every Pixar release is accompanied by a new short. Lasseter and Catmull had the clout to help revive a similar program at Walt Disney Feature Animation, and we’re now starting to enjoy the fruits of their labors. The benefits of a shorts program are manifold; they are a valuable training tool for new animators, they help to develop and discover new talent, they allow experimentation, and they push innovation. Shorts also provide an outlet for ideas that deserve realization, but aren’t hefty enough on their own to hold up an entire feature film.
The Disney Studios were built on the success of Mickey Mouse shorts in the 1920’s and 30’s, but after the war the profits on shorts began to dry up and they became a drain on resources. Despite several attempts to revive the animated short over the years, they never seemed to be a natural fit in the modern theater industry. Nowadays, however, with digital distribution and new media, there are more outlets for short films than ever. Studios are always looking for new and inexpensive content to add to DVD’s, and Pixar has successfully produced new shorts for their home video products as a value-added inducement to consumers. Shorts are easily shared online, and it’s much more likely that a person would download a few inexpensive shorts onto their ipod for a crosstown bus ride than an entire feature. Shorts are a rarity – an archaic form of media that might just fit perfectly into our attention-span-deprived modern world.
Taking all of this into account, and combining it with a sheer nostalgic love of the Disney animated short, Lasseter, Catmull and the new management at WDAS are setting out to create a steady stream of new shorts for the upcoming years (at the time of this writing, aside from the Goofy short, five more are said to have been approved with three in actual production). Lasseter has specifically indicated a desire to revive Disney’s classic stable of characters, and it’s worth noting that several of the films are in traditional 2-D animation. Let’s take a look at what they have in store:
How To Hook Up Your Home Theater
2007 – dir. Kevin Deters & Stevie Wermers-Skelton
When John Lasseter arrived and solicited pitches for shorts projects, Kevin Deters and Stevie Wermers-Skelton came up with this homage to the Disney classics. Deters, a story artist for Feature Animation, took some of his recent experiences from purchasing a widescreen TV for the Super Bowl as the basis for this continuation of the faux-instructional Goofy “How To…” shorts of the 1940’s and 50’s. Directed by Jack Kinney and animated by John Sibley, these original shorts are fondly remembered and would provide an easy way to segue classic characters into contemporary situations. After pitching the story to Wermers-Skelton (herself a story artist at Disney), the directors began to develop and board the story, which John Lasseter then signed off on.
When production began, the directors were fortunate to have some of Disney’s top animation talent come on board to contribute. Animator Dale Baer, who began at Disney with Robin Hood in 1973 and has animated on many major projects since, signed on as lead animator for Goofy. Big-name animators such as Eric Goldberg, Andreas Deja and Mark Henn also contributed to sequences. Mellifluous marvel Corey Burton provides an uncanny recreation of the trademark narrator’s voice, and Bill Farmer voices Goofy.
The project, though striving to achieve a traditional air, is unique in many respects. Despite being hand-drawn, the short is an experiment in the “paperless studio” concept; many animators eschewed paper altogether in favor of digital Cintiq tablets. This was done for expedience as well as an experiment and test for future hand-drawn projects such as The Princess and the Frog. Roughly half of the film was done hand-drawn but paperless; certain animators such as Deja still prefer to work in the more traditional style. Aside from the technical innovations, the short breaks ground in that co-director Stevie Wermers-Skelton is, somewhat shockingly, the very first woman to direct a film or short in the near eighty year history of Walt Disney Animation Studios.
How To Hook Up Your Home Theater premiered to rave reviews at the Ottawa Animation Festival and has also been shown at the Chicago Children’s Festival. Consensus across the board is that they managed to pull off the feat of modernizing the classic style of these shorts in a modern setting, and hopefully this is a good sign for future productions.
2008 – dir. Chris Williams
Glago’s Guest is something of a departure for Disney; the short is a science fiction tale that depicts the meeting between a lonely Russian soldier at a distant Siberian outpost and an extraterrestrial. Set to employ 3-D animation, the film has been described by its director as “serious, suspenseful and arty.”
Set to debut at next year’s Annecy Animated Film Festival and to premiere in front of Disney’s 3D-animated feature Bolt on November 26, 2008, Glago’s Guest is directed by Chris Williams – the same Chris Williams who is directing Bolt itself. In an odd twist of fate, Williams won the job on Bolt when John Lasseter was impressed with the story reels for Glago’s Guest. Lasseter was looking for someone to take over production on the troubled American Dog project when its former director Chris Sanders left the studio. Williams, a former story artist at the studio, got the nod, and now both his debut films will premiere together.
Much like at Pixar, Disney looks to use its shorts as testbeds for new technological innovations. Glago’s Guest will push 3-D character design and textures; shorts producer Chuck Williams was quoted as saying “there’s human animation and a step toward what they’re doing on Rapunzel, but also the hair and cloth were a challenge beyond what has ever been done before at Disney. Shapes are stylized and pushed, and the proportions are exaggerated, but the environments and detail are photoreal.” Like its theatrical counterpart Bolt, Glago’s Guest will be released simultaneously in conventional and stereoscopic 3-D formats.
The Ballad of Nessie
2008? – dir. Kevin Deters & Stevie Wermers-Skelton
The second production from the directors of How To Hook Up Your Home Theater, The Ballad of Nessie eschews Goofy’s – goofiness – for a sweeter tale depicting the origin story of a female Loch Ness Monster. An elaboration of a project Wermers-Skelton began whilst a student at CalArts, the short is being produced in traditional 2-D animation and uses much of the same talent as their Goofy short including animators Dale Baer, Andreas Deja and Mark Henn. With an aesthetic inspired by the works of Disney legend Mary Blair, the short will sport a very stylized look akin to storybook illustrations.
Despite its traditional roots, Nessie will also innovate. The president of Disney Animation, Ed Catmull, told Businessweek that the kilts that characters wear in the short will provide an exercise in helping animators improve their skills at drawing fabric in a naturalistic way.
Rumors are that production is nearly complete on Nessie, although the eventual release date has yet to be announced. Looking at Disney’s upcoming release schedule for suitable release dates, Prince Caspian would seem like a good fit; it’s unknown if Nessie can meet that film’s May 2008 release deadline.
Prep and Landing
2009? – dir. Chris Williams
This Christmas-themed short claims to show how Santa’s elves help prepare for his annual Christmas Eve visit, only in this case the elves are slightly inept and wackiness ensues. I’ve read rumors that Lasseter likes this short so much that he considered expanding it into a Christmas television special. This short is also directed by Chris Williams, who will most probably be far too busy with Bolt to get this short out by next Christmas. Assuming Disney wants to stick to a holiday release date for this, one would think we’ll see this around Christmas 2009.
Untitled Mickey, Donald and Goofy Short
Release Date Unknown – dir. Eric Goldberg
Little is known of this project so far, but animator Eric Goldberg is said to be boarding a short involving Disney’s legendary trio that Goldberg compares to classic efforts such as Boat Builders. Goldberg took an interest in the shorts program upon his return to the studio in 2006, and has a desire to especially focus on the classic characters. Goldberg is currently working on animating for The Princess and the Frog, so it’s probable that this project is a few years off.
Untitled Goofy “How To” Short
Release Date Unknown – dir. Kevin Deters & Stevie Wermers-Skelton
The directors of How To Hook Up Your Home Theater have expressed a desire to return to the “How To” series in the future. Several different concepts were pitched at the time they decided on Home Theater, so there are already several existing ideas for this sequel.
Untitled Meet the Robinsons Spinoff
A short is said to be in production that will spin off a character from 2007’s Disney 3-D animated feature Meet the Robinsons. It is unknown what character will be featured, and whether the short would be a sequel or prequel to the film.