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Told with emotion reverent to Danish author Hans Christian Andersen’s writing, Disney’s adaptation of The Little Matchgirl follows on the heels of the studio’s recent Academy Award® nominated shorts Destino and Lorenzo. Offering a glimpse of what may be coming from Disney’s newly expanded shorts program, The Little Matchgirl marks Disney’s 5th adaptation of Andersen and was directed by Roger Allers.
“Matchgirl got its start in 2002.” co-producer Baker Bloodworth recalls, “Roy Disney was intent on creating this Fantasia sequel which we were calling The Music Project. It was intended to be a compilation of shorts that featured music and was to be representative of different sounds and cultures.”
“We were looking for international stories” producer Don Hahn continues “and Matchgirl made sense for this. It is something that could be done in pantomime and to music. Hans Christian Andersen is a well we’ve gone back to many times and was always good. He’s solid and always timeless.”
As dusk comes on New Years Eve, The Little Matchgirl watches as a street lamp is illuminated.
The placement of values and color were key to setting the right emotional tone for The Little Matchgirl.
Visual development by Ed Ghertner (left) illustrates how soft, almost dream-like tones blur and blend into each other as they lead the viewer's eye down a long lonely street. The finished screen shot (right) shows how yellow or orange tones were used as a visual metaphor for warmth and hope, the feelings which overwhelm the little match girl as she mourns her Grandmother who passed away a week earlier on Christmas Eve.
SHEDDING LIGHT ON THE LITTLE MATCHGIRL
Originally published as part of Andersen’s fifth volume of Fairy Tales in 1848, The Little Girl with the Matches is an original Andersen story inspired by a Johan Thomas Lundbye drawing and loosely based on an incident that happened to Andersen’s mother when she was a child. Written nine years after Andersen’s friend and colleague Charles Dickens finished Oliver Twist, The Little Match Girl shed a light on a very oppressed and silent group in Europe -- its children. Andersen’s essay spoke out for exploited children sent by their parents to beg in the streets and for children of all economic brackets living at the time when one out of every two children routinely died before the age of five.
The task of translating Andersen’s somber, poetic prose went to Lion King co-director Roger Allers, who continued on with the project as it went from the music feature to short. The veteran director led a team of artists and painters during downtime from other projects at Disney’s Burbank and Paris Studios to create a seven-minute short and turn Andersen’s poignant words into meaningful animation.
This was a challenge, in many ways, because the story of the match girl is also a study in contrasts: life vs. death; rich and poor; cold and warm, not just in temperature but also in temperament. “Our lead character goes through a lot of emotional changes;” Allers observes “We see her plight with the bitter cold, and we see her shift in and out of visions of comfort and escape. Aesthetically it was a big challenge to make the shifts from dream back to reality.”
Finding music with the right sort of feeling was important, which Don Hahn did with Alexander Borodin’s dreamlike String Quartet No. 2 in D Major: Third Movement: Notturno (Andante). It also became the inspiration to move the Christmastime story to the isolated streets of pre-revolutionary Russia. “The Borodin piece has so much pathos in it, and seemed to fit the construction of the story so well. Once Roger put the storyboards to music,” executive producer Roy E. Disney noted “you couldn’t help look at it and go ‘Oh, that really works!’”
A line drawing by Mac George (right) and a black and white value study by Ralph Zondag (left).
Visual development by Hans Bacher (left) and a pencil drawing by an un-attributed production artist (right).
The production went on over a four year period where Allers was asked to come back from projects outside Disney to attempt several alternate, more upbeat endings. Ultimately the executives let Allers restore his original ending, which was faithful to Andersen’s original intent and is as much a mirror for our indifference today as it was in the 1850s. “We’re not in the business of sending political messages.” Don Hahn explains. “But it is a story of hope and Roger wanted to be genuine to the original story and to his credit he persevered to tell that story. In a way the ending is almost prayerful, too, without being religious. It was a way to show hope and that all children have a right to exist, and that’s a really poetic notion.”
The Little Matchgirl made its world debut at Annecy in France on June 5, 2006. It went on to win Best Film For Children at the 17th Festival of Animated Films 2006 Animafest World Festival of Animated Films Zagreb and will be available as part of the extras on the The Little Mermaid special edition DVD, available for sale starting Oct. 3, 2006.
© 2006 Ron Barbagallo
Art Director MIke Humphries skillfully employs the use of complementary colors — blues and oranges to display the contrast of feelings that sweep over The Little Matchgirl. Humphries' concept art depicts a horse-drawn sled (top left), which whisks the match girl from the cold wintry blues to the warm glowing Christmastime embrace she received from her Grandmother just a week before (top right). Similarly, Humphries uses blues and grays to illustrate the cold cruel reality of the match girl's day-to-day existence (bottom row).
Early during production Allers decided the film should be done using 2D pencil animation and have a hand painted look to it. Some of that inspiration is owed to the character designs of Randy Haycock and the thoughtful watercolors of Hans Bacher, which became the springboard for some elaborate computer coloring.
“Roger was adamant that we pursue a watercolor look for the film,” explains art director Mike Humphries. “We spent several months experimenting with paints, pigments, and just trying to find the right paper. We didn’t want the texture to be terribly obvious, but we also didn’t want it to be so subtle that you didn’t notice it was art.”
One of the film's big challenges was figuring out how to integrate the characters into the hand painted watercolor backgrounds. They were able to do this in the CAPS system by processing the line drawings to give it the appearance that pigment pooled towards the edges of the paint shapes as it does in real watercolor paintings. They were also able to create a mottled grain within the painted character.
Watercolors using brisk washes of very diluted translucent paint were created by Hans Bacher (all the art above). The way the paint fell on the textured paper was the springboard for the look of the film.
A screen shot from the finished short showing the color influence and visual development style of the film's pre-production art on the finished look of the film.
That watercolor look made its way into the background paintings and can be felt here in these three conceptual paintings by George Taylor. These three pieces illustrate how much care was taken in developing the look of the film. The painting to the left is the same image but with a more aqua blue hue to it, while the painting to the far right has more of an indigo blue hue. The painting in the center, the one with the cold, gray-black hues is the one whose color palette appears in the film.