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Comedy and color take center stage in Disney’s new short film Lorenzo.
Directed by Mike Gabriel, who also served as the film’s production designer, Lorenzo tells the story of a fat cat whose haughty manners become the cause of his own undoing. This animated short was based upon pencil sketches and a story idea created by Disney veteran Joe Grant 60 years ago. Shepherded by executive producers Roy E. Disney and Don Hahn, Lorenzo was given to Mike Gabriel who embellished Grant’s idea with his own paintings and storytelling to create a cinematic tango of brisk color, music and timing.
The look and feel of Lorenzo, is very different for a current day Disney film. Some of that is owed to Don Hahn, who first suggested that Gabriel consider using tango music as inspiration when conceptualizing the picture. Letting the accentuating rhythms of the tango be his muse, Gabriel went on to create conceptual paintings and produced hundreds of story sketches. He also designed the characters and painted production backgrounds -- ultimately tailoring every aspect of the film’s visual identity.
The poster for the Disney short Lorenzo.
A series of five story sketches by Mike Gabriel from Scene 33 of Lorenzo.
As the concept phase of the film neared completion, Gabriel’s art, like the tango that inspired it, ended up having a transplanted European flair. This was communicated in his design choices and in the spontaneity of his paintings. Despite the fact that conceptual art at Disney is never anything more than a springboard for later design choices, the qualities in found Gabriel’s paintings were what the filmmakers most wanted to keep.
Producer Baker Bloodworth explains, “As Mike explored the look of the film, he painted tempera paints on black construction paper. He kept saying ‘I want the movie to look like this.’ Usually our visual development art is not what the finished film looks like, but we were so excited by Mike’s style that we wondered if it was possible to find a way to translate that to screen.”
The task of getting computer software to emulate the organic feel of quickly brushed paint as it seeps into black paper fell upon to a team of craftspeople - including Dan Teece, the team’s software expert, who came up with a new CG application called Sable.
Dan Teece elaborated upon the process, “With the characters in Lorenzo, there is a dry brush feeling, as if each drawing was hand painted. Mike wanted the viewers to feel like they were watching a painting move; as if the characters were painted frame by frame.”
To this end, Gabriel painted a series of brushstrokes in about 18 different styles that were then scanned into the computer. Once this was done, the digital team put curves -- 3D placeholders or indicators -- on all the key drawings. When combined through Sable, this led to a more articulate way to simulate the manner paint brushes onto paper. As digital effects supervisor John Murrah explains: “The only other alternative would have been to paint every frame individually, which would have given the film a very distracting and chattery look. This is a great example of adapting technology for a particular artistic purpose.”
Not only was Sable used to keep the spirit of Mike Gabriel’s paintings alive in the moving characters, but, as Murrah concluded, “His actual background paintings are in the film. He would paint the backgrounds and we’d either put them on cards or composite them in directly. You could go into his office and look at all the background paintings on the walls, and then go into the theater and see a lot of the exact material up on the screen, but with moving animation in front rendered to look like his paintings.”
Production still of Molly from Lorenzo.
Chords from a piano gingerly roll past a streetlight as a silent flash of lightning momentarily robs the landscape of color. This gesture not only marks the beginning of the Academy Award® nominated Disney short Lorenzo, but as reds, purples and greens return to the screen, also announces the key roles that color and timing will have throughout the film.
In many ways the visuals for Lorenzo seem effortless. Comedy. Music. Timing. Color. Character animation. Lorenzo has it all. To have these moving paintings appear on the screen the film’s director Mike Gabriel started drafting the project with pencil and marker. Later he used paint on paper to lend color and mood to the world of the blue colored Lorenzo and his black cat nemesis Malo. The hand drawn and hand painted images seen below are unedited and in the sequence they were created. All the art comes from the hand of Mike Gabriel and were used in the production of the film.
To accompany the art, Gabriel elaborates on the creative process behind the making Lorenzo -- from his storyboard direction on through creating the concept paintings for the film.
In doing my research for Lorenzo, I learned that the classic setting for professional tango dancers was under a single spotlight. With that in mind, I used city streetlights throughout Lorenzo to give the same effect.
Earlier in the film, with Malo’s introduction, I wanted to hint at his magical powers by having the streetlights blow out as he walked under them, an idea I got from Chris Buck. In Malo’s reappearance in the climax, we blew out the streetlight above Lorenzo to signal Malo’s return.
The knife idea is actually another classic melodramatic tango image, one of the revengeful woman tango dancer dancing with her unfaithful lover. Often she is depicted with a knife behind her back that she uses to kill him during the dance's final steps.
I had a little trouble pushing the envelope visually at this point. The music was really taking off, so I finally went a little nuts with Malo's neck, elongating and twisting it, tightening the narrative by having the knife come close and closer and closer, right at us.
Originally I was planning on just leaving this sequence's background black with a single streetlight, but with a black character against a black background I would have lost too much of Malo’s image by the time he came close to screen. I didn’t want a floating knife.
I never used music during Lorenzo as just beats to match the animated action. My attempt was to use the music as a film composer does, by letting the music reflect internal emotions not just physical syncopation. So when the music hits the strong punch, I don’t match it with a zoom in. I match it to the emotional punch reaction of Lorenzo and his tail to the sight of the knife in Malo’s teeth. I am matching emotion to the music -- not action to the beat, as if it is being scored post animation.
© 2004 Ron Barbagallo
Three conceptual character poses for Scene 33 - 3, 4 and 7 as painted by Mike Gabriel in preparation for Lorenzo.
Media: tempera on black construction paper. Size: 13 1/2 inches by 18 inches.
A still production frame from Lorenzo where the computer program called Sable combined brushstrokes
created by Gabriel with key animation drawings to duplicate the look of his original tempera paintings.
Once pre-production was completed, many of the artists and technical teams at Disney Paris, who worked on the Salvador Dalí inspired, Oscar® nominated short Destino, helped to bring a genuine European sensitivity to Lorenzo’s final animation. When the time came time to score the film, the creators went back to the music that inspired Gabriel when he was creating the look of the film and commissioned Juan Jose Mosalini and his Big Tango Orchestra to record a brand new version of Bordoneo y 900.
Executive Producer Roy E. Disney recently said of Lorenzo, “Animated shorts are a wonderful medium for exploring stories, styles and creative visions that might not work in a feature format. It provides the filmmakers and animators with opportunities to be bold and experiment. And it allows us to try different approaches to our storytelling.”
As a completed work, Lorenzo, with its dancing hues of bright wet paint, never appears to the audience as a conventional CGI or 2D film. Instead Lorenzo feels like a back alley soiree painted right before your eyes. The short has its nationwide theatrical release on May 28, 2004, playing in front of Raising Helen, starring Kate Hudson and directed by Garry Marshall. Lorenzo will make his European premiere at Annecy on June 7, 2004.
A CLOSER LOOK -
Mike Gabriel on the Creative Process for LORENZO
© 2005 Ron Barbagallo
All storyboards were drawn by Mike Gabriel.
Media: graphite pencil and marker on paper. Size: 5 1/2 inches by 8 1/2 inches.
© Walt Disney Company.