This being Opening Day for the live-action re-do of the now-iconic 1991 classic, herewith some tales from the artists who worked on the original (from a book* on which I'm working in fits and starts):
In the late 1980s, with "The Little Mermaid" well into production, Disney Feature Animation dispatched producer Don Hahn to Great Britain to oversee work on a new animated feature based on the fairy tale “Beauty and the Beast”.
Richard and Jill Purdum, associates of Richard Williams, were helming “Beast”, but early on there were issues. Disney board artist and animator Tom Sito, in England with the Mouse’s development group, remembered:
“The boarding [on the project] was fun, but there were a lot of script issues, and the director wasn't clicking with the management team."
Sito, along with animators Glen Keane, Andreas Deja, and Disney veteran Mel Shaw, were working at the Purdums' studio putting “Beauty and the Beast” story reels together. Studio head Jeffrey Katzenberg was less than thrilled when he saw the results of their labors. Board artist Gary Trousdale, later a director on the picture, observed: “[The reels were] non-musical and kind of straight. Very beautiful, but dull.”
Katzenberg reached out to “Mermaid” composers Howard Ashman and Alan Menken to restructure “Beauty and the Beast” as a big, Broadway musical. At the time, the team was working on story and songs for another feature project, a brainchild of Ashman’s titled “Aladdin”. But the two were game to step up and renovate “Beauty”.
Brian McEntee, “Beauty and the Beast’s” art director, recalled:“They showed the original story reels to Jeffrey, and he said ‘What are you doing? I want to make a musical and it needs to be a Disney picture.” The Purdums were not at all happy with that.
“So right at that point they asked me, the bottom-of-the-list art director, if I wanted to be art director on it. And I immediately said yes because if it’s a musical and a Disney picture, I can do that.
“The Purdums left, and I was on a picture without a director. So I took that as an opportunity to go in and start redesigning … The first thing that struck me was, there’s that classic sidekick trio [in the movie]. The clock was a grandfather clock so he was very tall, and there was the teapot and the candelabra. And if we had a mantel clock then at least all three would be in the same size range, so you can stage them better.”
With the original directors gone, finding new directors became a priority. Studio management approached Ron Clements and John Musker, fresh off “The Little Mermaid”, about taking the assignment, but they wanted to take a break and passed. So Disney brass turned to a pair of board artists who had recently worked as replacement directors on a Disney World short called “Cranium Command”.
"Kirk Wise and I had gone back into development,” recalled Gary Trousdale, “and one Monday Morning Charlie Fink, the director of development, came running in. ‘Beauty and the Beast’ had been in production in London. The directors had left the project, and Jeffrey wanted to bring in Alan Menken and Howard Ashman because ‘The Little Mermaid’ had worked so well. Charlie said ‘There’s been a shakeup in London. Can you guys be on a plane Wednesday to New York?’
“Kirk and I looked at each other as if we were on ‘Candid Camera’. I had been screamed at [as a director] on ‘Cranium Command’, and I didn’t like it. So that wasn’t fun, and not what I saw my career as being. I saw myself as an artist and animator and storyboard artist. Doing a leadership thing wasn't something I had trained for. My first reaction was, ‘Can I say no?’ And Charlie said, ‘NO you can’t say NO!’
"So we were on a plane on Wednesday.”
Trousdale and Wise were dubbed “acting directors” by Disney management, and dispatched to the East Coast with a story crew that included Chris Sanders, Roger Allers, and Brenda Chapman Lima. They stayed in New York over a week, cobbling together a new story outline. Ashman and Menken already had songs written.
“It was a really tight schedule,” Trousdale said. “They’d had a tight schedule to begin with, and when they threw everything out, they didn’t redo the deadline. They just said “Still the same release date, you just gotta make it work’.”
Art director McEntee continued to design the movie’s exteriors, interiors and sprawling cast. “I pushed the characters in a certain direction, and then we lucked out and Kevin Lima came on the picture and just plussed them to death. At that point he was designing characters and just totally made them sing. And then the key animators put in their two cents, so by the time we came out of it we had really strong characters.”
“Since it was so crazy schedule-wise, there were always meetings, and we had to recast,” Trousdale said. “The floating objects [from the first version] became characters, and we had to write for them, we had to design them, we had to cast them. A lot of the casting we had to fly back to New York for, because we used a lot of Broadway talent. Jerry Orbach had that Maurice Chevalier vibe and that real rich voice. We did end up speeding up his voice by 3% to him him sound just a little smaller.
“The beast was the hardest. We were looking for somebody with the gravity in his voice, and the gruffness, but also have some kind of charm. We listened to hundreds of people in L.A. and New York And finally, we’re on our studio rounds and our casting director comes running up the hallway: ‘Guys! We just heard Robbie Benson!’
“Kirk goes, ‘Robbie BENSON? “Ice Castle’s” Robbie Benson?’ And our casting guy goes ‘Yeah!” and runs off. And we say to each other, ‘Well, I guess we’ve heard everybody else.’ And then we hear [Benson] and say, “Damn, he’s good.’ Because he’s got the deep stuff, but he’s also funny. When he would really go ballistic, we would mis in a lion and a bear, maybe a Dodge Charger.”
From “Snow White” to “Princess and the Frog”, animated feature development always rolled down multiple tracks; as the story took shape, voices would be cast, and the looks of characters and the world they inhabited would get tied down. Supervising animators would take early storyboards and do test animation to explore how characters moved and reacted. Matching the right animator with the most appropriate character was as important as casting a live-action actor in a key screen role.
“They needed supervisors,” said animator Nik Ranieri. “Don Hahn knew me from ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit’, and Kirk and Gary knew me from ‘Cranium Command’, so they asked me if I would do Lumiere [the candelabra]. I actually wanted Cogsworth because of all the fidgeting. Lumiere is very suave, very slow, but for an animator there’s so much more to Cogsworth. But what I found out was that people really responded to Lumiere. So I’m glad they cast me for him because he was one of the more successful characters. … People hated Cogsworth because of his personality. The animation was brilliant, but audiences responded to the character. …”
“Jerry Orbach [as Lumiere] was great. There was only one time he couldn’t get a line. It was where Maurice picks him up and Lumiere goes, ‘Allo.’ Kirk had done a scratch track delivered like Señor Wences, low and guttural. But Jerry couldn't do it that way, and Kirk finally says ‘Fine, Jerry, let’s move on.’
“We get back to the studio and I say, “Kirk, that isn’t going to work. Why don’t you do it, nobody’s going to know.’ So that’s actually Kirk Wise in the movie. He did the final take on that [one line].”
For Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale, the work of directing a large movie on a cramped schedule was unrelenting and non-stop. But the studio finally decided it liked the way they were leading Disney’s thirtieth animated feature.
“We became the official directors about six months in,” Trousdale said. “Jeffrey called us to a conference room and said, ‘All right guys, you’re it. We’ve watched your progress, we like what you’re doing, we have confidence in you. You’re real boys now.’
“Kirk and I left and went ‘Great! What does that mean? It means we better get back to work!’
“For me, the biggest problem was I had to watch what I would say, because it was my habit to throw off funny jokes: ‘Wouldn’t it be funny if Gaston did this?’ And the story guy would write it down and I’d say, ‘No, no, no! Don’t do that, I was just kidding!’
“The most frustrating part was that I didn’t have time to draw at all. I did like one tiny section of boards where LeFou is waiting for Belle to come back home and he’s dressed as a snow man with his arms holding the sticks. That was the only drawing I did for the show.”
Disney Feature Animation had vacated the Burbank studio lot in 1985, moving to a nondescript office building in the Grand Central industrial area of Glendale. The neighborhood was not high-rent. Asphalt parking lots and low-slung brick and cinderblock structures predominated, along with a couple of ancient buildings that had survived the demolition of the municipal airport, back during the Eisenhower Administration.
Most of “Beauty and the Beast’s” production unit was housed in an office building on Air Way, a couple of blocks from the original location on Flower Street. “During the years we all worked in Glendale, recalled lead key assistant Stephan Zupkas, “work on animated features went on in seven different buildings. There was the first place at 1420 Flower Street, there was the Air Way building near the old Grand Central airport terminal, and then the Hart Dannon building just off of Flower. On ‘Beauty and the Beast’, the work was long and stressful. There was one month of production I worked without one day off.”
Overtime was extensive. Food was brought in for the animators and assistants bent over their desks, working to meet weekly drawing quotas. A female assistant complained to me: “I make lots of overtime money, but my wrist hurts all the time, and I never get home to see the kids, or clean the house, or do the laundry. I have to hire people to do all those things.”
When animation footage counts were met, boxes of donuts would be brought in as rewards. Some of the staff, led by supervising animator Glen Keane, would use a giant sling shot to catapult old donuts against the stucco tower of the airpot terminal building. Once in a while windows were broken.
“‘Beauty and the Beast’ was a tough picture because it went through a lot of changes,” Tom Sito said. [At one point] Belle had a cat and kid sister Clarice, and there was a foot stool and music box. On every picture, there always seems to be a confusion or problem, then somebody runs out and grabs the flag and yells ‘Follow me!’ And on ‘Beauty’, I think it was Howard Ashman and Glen Keane. … Glen started turning out this beautiful beast animation, and it was just ‘wow!’ And Glen was specific of wanting the beast to look like an animal so he gave him the back legs of a quadriped, and the back of a buffalo. He was experimenting with all these different shapes to that [the beast] could be sympathetic but not credibly human.”
“Before our first test screening,” Brian McEntee said,” the studio brass were like ‘Get the picture done, get the picture done!” There weren’t a lot of people thinking it was special. It was ‘We’ve spent a lot of money on this, we went down a bad path.’
“We had a very tight budget. They told me, ‘No tones, no highlights, no special this or that.’ I had to do a lot of art director’s tricks to elevate the look of the movie, because I was very limited in what I could do. An interesting, easy trick was we could cross dissolve between dark and light color models [on the characters]. There’s a scene where Belle is walking through the castle, light into dark. So I have her light against dark, then dark against light so it feels like she’s walking through shadows and pools of light. It gave a lot of depth, and a lot of production value, and it didn’t cost any more to do it that way.”
“While we were doing it,” director Trousdale recalled, “nobody knew what we had. Except for Brian McEntee. He said, ‘This thing is going to make a hundred million.’ And honestly? We laughed at him, because nothing had made a hundred million before that. The closest had been ‘The Little Mermaid’ that made eighty-six million. Before that, if you made fifty million you were doing good.
“But Brian saw it coming, and we were like ‘come on.’ We were just trying to get the picture done on time. And Brian kept going, ‘No, you guys have got something good here.’”
“As with “Mermaid”, it took a test screening for the studio to understand the blockbuster it held in its hands. “We had out first screening,” McEntee said, “and a lot of the picture was in pencil test but the audience was just eating it up. The cards were 98% high approval, something like that.”
“Beauty and the Beast”, despite the false start and struggle to “just get it done” was released on schedule in November 1991. Made for $25 million, it was greeted with rapturous reviews and went on to a worldwide gross of almost $352 million. (With reissues, that total has climbed to $425 million). Considered one of the Mouse’s major artistic achievements, it has spawned games and merchandise and a plethora of sequels and remakes, (the last of which appears to be earning north of $160 million during its opening weekend in 2017).
Disney Feature Animation, after years of climbing the mountain, had reached a new artistic pinnacle. ...
* The title of said book is "Mouse in Orbit", a sequel to "Mouse in Transition".