How 101 Dalmatians Saved Disney Animation

Image credit Disney Studios.

Image credit Disney Studios.

Editor’s note: This post is written by guest-poster Rebecca Moore, Kathy Kay Moore’s daughter.

I would be lying if I said that growing up saturated in Disney animated VHS video did not influence me to eventually become an animator. Of all our VHS videos, however, 101 Dalmatians was one of my absolute favorites, thanks in part to the sheer density of animals (specifically, puppies) that appeared in it. I even still have the VHS around here somewhere, despite no longer having a way to play it.

Of course, when offered the opportunity to visit the Disney Studio Lot to cover the 50th anniversary Blu-ray release of 101 Dalmatians, I answered the call of the puppies.

I was most excited to meet Floyd Norman, a Disney master animator who worked on the film, but as we settled into the dark viewing room, first we met David Daniels, the producer of the Blu-ray extras (which were described earlier by GeekMom Patricia). A little-known fact shaped the bonus features and dominated the talk at the junket:

101 Dalmatians saved Disney animation.

When the movie went into production, it carried the studio’s hopes; if this movie didn’t make money, the animation department would be axed. Sleeping Beauty, the predecessor to 101 Dalmatians, had taken five years to complete and had been a very expensive production. It also flopped, and word was if the studio did not find a way to make animation cheaper, faster, and… profitable, then no more Disney animated feature films. Dalmatians’ animation crew was cut down by more than half.

Nothing was wasted on this film. In fact, 101 Dalmatians lacked the contributions of an entire department of the Disney studios. Ultimately, animation at  Disney was saved by the invention of a new Xerox copying method. It allowed direct transfer of an animator’s drawings onto cellophane sheets that would be painted and photographed for the film.

Previously, inkers had to painstakingly trace lines onto the cels, adding up to extra time, talent, and money. This new method of transferring lines is what gives them the distinctive “fuzzy” look Disney’s lines had from 1961 onward. Walt supposedly hated the look, but it saved so much time and money that it became a necessity. The entire inking department became extinct.

David Daniels, producer of the Blu-ray extras, and his team delved deep into the archives to find new material for the Blu-ray extras. Because of the extreme economies of the 1961 film, finding any material that hadn’t already been seen in previous DVD extras was difficult. Then Daniels found inspiration from the most vibrant and lively resource from the archives. For the extra, “Lucky Dogs,” the team shot their own short documentary, interviewing living contributors to the original film. Hearing their stories, whether in the extras or at a press event, is a treat. For me, this is where the story and historic role of 101 Dalmatians truly came alive.

Finally we were introduced to our panel speakers: animator Floyd Norman, and voice actresses Lisa Davis and Mimi Gibson. As the panel and roundtable interviews concluded, it became clear what had made 101 Dalmatians so successful. Although the miracle of the Xerox machine is what made it profitable, there’s no doubt about the Disney Magic that made 101 Dalmatians a classic that lasted over fifty years: the passionate people who crafted the picture.

Panel speakers Floyd Norman, Mimi Gilman, and Lisa Davis. (Photo Disney Studios)

Panel speakers (l-r) Floyd Norman, Mimi Gibson, and Lisa Davis. (Photo: Disney Studios)

Floyd Norman only spoke highly of Walt Disney himself:

In my ten years at the studio before we lost him (I started here in 1956; Walt passed away in 1966), I don’t have a bad word to say about him. He was just a great man, great boss. And what I learned from him was to do your best. He was all about quality. He was all about not taking shortcuts, not about being good enough. For Walt it was excellence and quality, top quality.

Lisa described how, at age 25, she was cast as Cruella de Vil, but soft-spoken Anita resonated so strongly with her that she told Walt himself that he had been wrong to cast her as Cruella, and asked for the role of Anita instead. Mimi had never met Walt Disney herself, but adored her time at Disney and described the joy she had as a child getting the chance to voice a puppy. The Disney studio was “the Rolls Royce of film studios,” according to Lisa.

This studio where we are today was producing beautiful, beautiful movies at that time. And the rest of the studios weren’t. They really weren’t because they were in a great decline. But to come here, it was magic. And yes, I remember it well.

Truly, these people loved every moment of what they did, and such passion and creativity can be felt in the movie. Their faith and dedication made it possible to complete such a risky film, but that same passion makes the film heartfelt and brings the Disney “magic” to full force.

Does the magic still hold up? Is it still relevant? I say yes, and the relevance is summed up by what Lisa Davis said about her connection to 101 Dalmatians. Lisa was pregnant when she voiced Anita for the film. She couldn’t imagine that her child would grow up adoring 101 Dalmatians, but her grandchildren, and now, with the new Blu-ray release, her great-grandchildren, will get to fall in love with it as well. As Floyd Norman said:

I look back on this film made in 1959 and I see a lot of kids, a lot of people weren’t even born yet when we started on this film. And yet it lives on today. It’s like a brand-new Disney motion picture for those who haven’t seen it. And for those who did see it as kids, they love to revisit this film because it has so many good memories. So I’m just grateful that I was a part of it and could do my part in adding to the Disney Magic.

Lisa Davis gets into characterplaying with puppies before production. (Photo: Disney Studios)

Lisa Davis got into character playing with puppies before production. (Photo: Disney Studios)

Mimi’s life has been shaped by 101 Dalmatians, and she says (wearing her dalmatian-spotty sweater) that she’s probably spent more money on Dalmatians paraphernalia to this day than she was ever paid to help make it. She points out it was the first Disney movie showing humans and animals interacting together so heavily, and at the time was truly a statement on animal emotion and empathy.

Learning that animals, like people, suffer and worry about their children, is still an important step for any child’s development. Not only is 101 Dalmatians still relevant, but its age is an important factor as it bridges the gap of many generations, a gift passed down and shared within families.

The Diamond Edition combo pack (DVD, Blu-ray and Digital HD) has a retail price of $36.99 and a rating of G.

GeekMom received this item for review purposes.

Sequenced Caffeine Genome Reveals Evolutionary Advantages

Green coffee beans. (Photo CC-by-SA2.0, Mike Gifford)

Coffee beans on a coffee plant. (Photo CC-by-SA2.0, Mike Gifford)

Monday was National Coffee Day, but I clearly have been under-caffeinated, because I was late jumping into this 24-hour java immersion. Poking around to learn about Coffee Day, I found this great news: Researchers have sequenced the entire genome for the robusta coffee plant, answering some questions and raising others about our favorite buzz bringer.

One of the fascinating discoveries emphasizes the importance of caffeine throughout the plant kingdom. The fact that caffeine occurs in tea, cacao, and coffee suggests that it offers benefits across a wide spectrum of plant diversity. Now,  analysis of the robusta (Coffea canephora) genome revealed that it evolved via a different route than in tea or cacao. (These two plants may or may not have common evolutionary roots for their caffeine. ) This kind of parallel or duplicated evolutionary path to the same destination is called convergent evolution, and is commonly taken to mean that the convergent trait (caffeine!) is highly beneficial.

Another neat detail is that caffeine has been helping plants for a long time; longer than humans have been baristas. It appears that the leaf litter from caffeine-bearing plants discourages other plants from growing, giving the coffee/cacao/tea plants an advantage. Caffeine also protects the plants from some insects, which have evolved the ability to taste caffeine, a compound they cannot tolerate in high doses.

In another neat twist, the caffeine helps the plants because, in low doses, the caffeinated floral nectar offers pollinators a buzz. The insects are much more likely to remember the scent of the flower where they sipped caffeinated nectar and to return to it, making it more likely that  pollen will be dispersed from a caffeine-bearing plant. More coffee! (And tea.) (And chocolate!)

Co-author of this study Victor A. Albert, an evolutionary biologist at the University at Buffalo, describes their research in the video below.

Read more about the caffeine study at these publications:

— Science Magazine: The coffee genome provides insight into the convergent evolution of caffeine biosynthesis (the research report)

— Evolution News: Another Example of Convergent Biochemical Evolution: Caffeine

— Nature: Coffee got its buzz by a different route than tea

Pirate Day Book Review: Scott Chantler’s Pirates of the Silver Coast

Image courtesy of Scott Chantler.

Abandon yer landlubber ways and set sail with the Cutlass: Read Pirates of the Silver Coast, an all-ages fantasy adventure graphic novel by Canadian cartoonist Scott Chantler. It features a feisty, adventurous girl seeking her lost brother in a fantasy medieval setting. In this fifth story in the Three Thieves series, former circus acrobat Dessa is seeking her kidnapped twin brother Jared, along with her two companions, Fisk and Topper.

At the opening of the book, Dessa is waiting for a broken leg to heal and hiding with her two companions. Topper is a small blue being, who is quick-thinking and loves a good risk. Fisk, on the other hand, is a quiet, huge and gentle creature, who has been outcast from his tribe. To proceed with their mission, the three need funds. Raising funds and seeking Dessa’s brother while under pursuit by the evil queen’s guard, using the highly sought-after map to a mysterious island that Dessa acquired in the previous issue, gets this tale off to an in-your-face start.

Image courtesy of Scott Chantler.

Once the trio have purchased safe passage on the Cutlass, they get to mix it up with pirates—several times. Some people are surprisingly piratical, some pirates are surprisingly human, and our friends require bravery, trickery, feats of strength, or leaps of faith to continue the journey without piratical penalties. At the end of the book, I wanted to keep reading to find out the resolution to all of the dangling questions and intriguing situations. I would love to read this book with youngsters in my life.

Since I have not yet read the preceding volumes in the series, I did not have a strong sense of the characters’ history or personalities. Dessa and Topper tell us who they are quickly through their actions, but Fisk is so quiet that his other characteristics are hard to discern. There is a sense in this story of payoff from earlier story investments, as if the series is a big Jenga tower and this episode is the point where we start worrying about each move we make.

Chantler’s art and writing move the story along briskly and convey the plot clearly. I did not have to study panels to figure out what was happening, but sometimes I studied a panel just for the fun of it. The art style is uncluttered and direct with clean lines, a somewhat painterly style, and the pages vary between bright primary colors and more muted, neutral palettes, depending on the atmosphere. My favorite line was, “By the great mermaid’s clamshells!” and my favorite image was of Fisk gliding through the air with his head up and his arms wide. Not because it is particularly artsy or beautiful, but because it looks both fun and serene—and it’s effective, in story terms. Images like this make it easy to hope to see this story as an animated or live-action film.

Image (c) Scott Chantler Image (c) Scott Chantler

Q&A With Scott Chantler

GeekMom: Did you have any particular inspiration or goal in designing your main characters? We love strong female protagonists at GeekMom, but Dessa’s posse is interesting too.

Scott Chantler: Topper and Fisk are characters I’ve been kicking around since university. There’s an old drawing of them in one of my sketchbooks from probably 1993. So those are characters who have been with me a while, just waiting to pop up as sidekicks somewhere.

Dessa herself came much later. My original 2006 concept for Three Thieves had a boy lead. Before actually pitching it, I changed it to a girl. It just felt a little less cliché, and maybe made her seem a little bit more vulnerable out there in that pseudo-Medieval man’s world. You’re seeing a lot more female heroes in comics lately, especially in all-ages books. In fact, a lot of them are using “strong female characters!” as a sort of feminist marketing hook. Which is fine, but Kids Can has never publicized the Three Thieves books that way, which I’m happy about. That Dessa is a girl has never been a big deal (Pirates is the first book in the series to reference to it as a plot point.) Because it shouldn’t be. I certainly wasn’t trying to force some kind of social justice agenda. The themes of the series are more universal than that.

GM: Without serious spoilers, what was your favorite part of creating Pirates of the Silver Coast and/or the Three Thieves series?

SC: The entire series is just a blast to work on. But Book Four (The King’s Dragon) was pretty dark, so I purposefully wanted to make this one light and fun. Of the five books so far, it was the easiest to write. It’s a little shorter than the others, so that helped. But it also ends with a couple of big twists that I’ve been working toward for years now, so I always knew exactly where I was going. Finally arriving at those scenes was really satisfying.

GM: Who did you read as a child and who do you read now?

SC: When I was very young, I was all about superhero comics. When I hit my teens, it was more about fantasy comics and fantasy novels. Conan the Barbarian, DC’s Warlord, Terry Brooks’s Sword of Shannara, etc., Tolkien of course. A lot of that stuff ended up in forming the Three Thieves books.

As an adult, I’ll read pretty much anything. Fiction, non-fiction, genre stuff or “literary” stuff, comics, or prose… I just like to read. Prose-wise, I’m finishing up Robert M. Edsel and Bret Witter’s The Monuments Men. Comics-wise, I’m re-reading the ‘90s Vertigo classic Sandman Mystery Theatre.

GM: Do you prefer writing or art? Do you ever wish you were collaborating on the book creation?

SC: Cartoonists get this question a lot, and it’s always puzzling to us, because in comics the art is the writing. Most of us don’t think of them as two separate things. We’re people who “write” with pictures. That said, the script stage goes faster than the drawing does. But it’s also less satisfying than looking at the giant pile of art boards you’ve got when you’re finished. So it’s a toss-up.

And no, I don’t wish for a collaboration. We can all name some successful writer/artist teams who seem to share a vision, but that seems to be the exception rather than the rule. I think a true synthesis between word and image is best achieved when those two things are married inside a single creator.

GM: What is the hardest part of the process of creating your comics?

SC: The drawing stage takes a long time—longer than I’m sure most people would imagine. Drawing comics is more fun than digging ditches for sure, but sometimes when you’re several months (or years, in some artists’ cases) into the process, it’s hard to remember that. Many of us also work in isolation, which makes it tough, too. There’s no one around to give you a pep talk when you need one.

GM: Any tips for kids or adults interested in pursuing comics?

SC: Drawing skills are important, of course, but I would stress to them that comics aren’t simply heavily-illustrated books, but a unique storytelling language. And mastering that language involves so much more than drawing. You need to think about what to draw, not just how to draw, and that means studying drama, studying film, studying movement, studying iconography, studying anything that helps get ideas across to readers, visually. Creating comics isn’t about picture-making; it’s about communication. The best cartoonists aren’t the ones who draw the coolest-looking stuff. They’re the ones who can translate their ideas most effectively into simple, clear, dramatic imagery.

(GM: Amen, brother!)

Thanks to Scott for that insight into the life of an artist and writer. You can see the trailer for Pirates of the Silver Coast and buy the book at Scott’s website. Pirates of the Silver Coast is 96 pages from Kids Can Press. It sells for $8.06 and is suggested for ages 8-10.

The World of Cartoons Explored in Stripped; Save 39%

My family loves comics and animation. When we discovered a Kickstarter project to fund development of a documentary about the the past and future of cartooning, a documentary that features our best cartoonists, we started kicking.

Once we pledged to the Kickstarter project for Stripped, the fun jumped off our computer screens, as we got frequent updates about the progress of the documentary. We felt like we had a window looking in on a working studio and production office. This just added to our excitement as the film neared completion and the premiere drew near. In April, my daughter and I drove to Hollywood to join cartoon fanatics in attending the premiere, where several of the cartoonists who were interviewed for the film also appeared in a special post-screening Q&A session with the filmmakers. We were thrilled with the quality and entertaining content of the film. More than 80 cartoonists speak during the film and many segments appear of cartoons being constructed, conceived, or analyzed.

Rebecca and Kay at the Stripped premiere. Photo courtesy Stripped Film.

Since then, Stripped has toured to many film festivals and pop-culture cons. You can see the upcoming appearance dates at the Stripped website or Twitter feed.

Until September 19, you can get the Stripped Deluxe Edition for $39.99, a 39 percent discount. This includes the movie (clean and adult-language versions), the extras reel (30 minutes), directors’ commentary, and 15 full interviews. This totals over 26 hours of additional unmatched content. (There are also other editions available for lower prices.)

Halloween ComicFest Brings Free, Fun Comics to Halloween

Halloween ComicFest offers mini-comic book bundles for Halloween. Image: HCF Facebook page.

What’s better than Free Comic Book Day? Two Free Comic Book Days each year!

Good news for all of our comic book lovers: Another fun day offering free comic books is heading your way: Halloween ComicFest, featuring Halloween-themed comics. While most shops will celebrate on the designated date of Saturday, October 25, some shops are planning to go all out on Halloween or accommodate other dates. Check with your local shop for their date.

Halloween ComicFest is a single-day event when local comic shops offer free comics with a Halloween theme. Many shops also plan fun activities such as costume contests, giveaways, sales, guest appearances by comic artists and celebrities, and more. Starting October 1, some shops will have packs of 20 mini-comics for sale for $4.99, so you can hand them out to trick-or-treaters or use them as party favors. Over 1,500 shops are participating in HCF, so remember to check in with your shop!

The 19 free comics come in two sizes: 12 full-size and 7 mini-comics.

  • Full-size comic examples include Rachel Rising #1, Scooby Doo Team Up #1 Featuring Batman, Marvel Super Heroes Secret Wars #1, My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, and Afterlife with Archie, which got tons of positive talk this past season. Additionally, who can resist Hero Cats/Princeless or Fathom: The Adventures of Ernie, featuring an adorable seahorse in a lovely aquatic world on the cover?
  • Mini-comics include Vamplets: The Undead Pet Society, Angry Birds, Betty and Veronica, Plants vs. Zombies: Timepocalypse, and more.

When you get one of the free comics, you are eligible for the “Greatest Halloween Contest Ever.” Just take a picture in costume while holding a HCF2014 comic and submit the photo to HCF at halloweencomicfest.com. Watch the HCF Facebook page or follow them on Twitter at @halloweencomic to avoid scary developments!

HCF mini comics. Screencap from HCF website.

HCF full-size comics. Screencap from HCF website.