Scene from "Tarzan"
Kevin Lima & Glen Keane
SPLICEDwire interviewed Kevin Lima, Glen Keane & Thomas Schumacher on May 27, 1999 in San Francisco
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"Tarzan" review
'Tarzan' filmmakers put on a 'dog and pony show,' then hunker down to talk details

By Rob Blackwelder

Spontaneity does not come naturally to employees of the Walt Disney Company.

Often under attack by conservative groups for offering domestic partners benefits and for the occasional controversial movie from the company's subsidiaries, the mouse house has become so deeply entrenched in carefully contrived and politically correct rhetoric that even a friendly interview about something as innocuous and universally likable as the studio's latest instant animated classic, "Tarzan," is peppered with replies that blatantly tow the company line.

To promote this delightful and technically ground-breaking feature, Disney flew some of the movie's key behind-the-camera personnel to several major cities in early June to talk about the wondrous and complex process of creating the studio's trademark cartoons. The hottest topic was a new computer-based animation technique called Deep Canvas that ads an incredible realism to the look and movement of the jungle in this lush movie.

But while most press tours involve being lead into a hotel suite or conference room for 30 minutes with "the talent" (which eventually did happen, as you'll see below) each of the "Tarzan" junkets was turned into an event -- it's not every day they interviewee brings his own A/V guy to orchestrate a multimedia presentation before the Q&A begins.

But at the Pan Pacific Hotel in San Francisco on May 27, a room full of reporters was treated to what Thomas Schumacher, president of Walt Disney Feature Animation and Walt Disney Theatrical Production, admitted was "a dog and pony show."

Schumacher introduced clips from the film, video of recording sessions with the voice talent, and a promotional short about the recording of Phil Collins' soundtrack songs before turning the floor over to the next motivational speaker...oops, I mean one of the movie's directors, Kevin Lima, who read from a letter "Tarzan" novelist Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote some 60 years ago about wanting to make an animated "Tarzan" movie that would "approximate Disney excellence."

Some months ago the story of this Burroughs directive had already been fed to several entertainment magazines by publicists to defuse any "Tarzan" purists out there who might object too loudly about 'tooning the king of the apes.

"I went back to the book," Lima said, tapping the cover of a dusty, old hardback of the Burroughs' novel. "I re-read the book, and I'm glad I did because there's a great animated movie in this book."

It was, no doubt, the same speech he had given to several other rooms of journalists already, and after all the practice he had it honed to whistle-stop perfection, complete with legislated sound bites like "We feel really lucky at Disney to work with a great stable of artists."

Meanwhile, we reporters are getting a little antsy for our face-to-face interviews, which will come only after lead animator Glen Keane, perched on a barstool next to the screen, reads from the journal of his research safari to Africa while clips of monkeys and slides of his sketches cut through the darkened room at predetermined intervals.

Keane kicks the presentation into finale mode by introducing a clip that demonstrates the Deep Canvas technology used in creating the fantastically fluid, nearly three-dimensional images of Tarzan swinging and surfing through the jungle. Then he sketches Tarzan for us on an overhead display while recounting what will no doubt become a famous story about how he hit on the idea of having Tarzan "surf" the digitally-enhanced jungle tree trunks by watching his teenage son skateboard.

Finally, we all get our turns to see if we can inspire a little impromptu spirit and get these filmmakers off their script.

No such luck with Schumacher, whose genuine excitement about the project is overshadowed by his pure Hollywood speech habits ("We at Feature Animation had been looking at the property..."). He speaks passionately and eloquently about the conscious effort Disney makes to give its films depth and broad appeal, recounting how the removal of Jane's white Victorian gloves is used as a metaphor that adults might get, but would pass over the heads of kids just enjoying the cartoon. But when asked a pointed question about the way the villain meets his doom, the executive brings out the public relations firehose.

"You don't actually see (it) happen," Schumacher says before launching in to comparisons to other kids movies -- like the "seven-time Academy Award-winning film 'Oliver'" -- in which villains are done in. "I think we handled it with grace, I think we handled it with taste, and I don't think it crosses a line."

Finally off of auto-pilot and into face-making, wild-gesturing cartoon-maker mode, director Lima and animator Keane are a less calculating when I get them alone for an interview. They fondly recall their safari, during which they studied the jungle and a family of gorillas, and reveal some surprises, like the fact that Keane, who was lead designer of the Tarzan character, met Tony Goldwyn, the actor who supplied his voice, only once.

Lima, 38 or so, is the sportcoat and ponytail type, minus the greasy arrogance and plus a vivacious grin that looks like he borrowed it from a very happy 4-year-old.

Keane, maybe 10 year older, has a trusting, doughy face that looks like it's also quite accustom to smiles and laughter.

After years of making a living in the 'toons, they're are playful and a bit more unpredictable -- kind of like their target audience. But they still regurgitate studio propaganda when asked any obvious question, giving almost word-for-word the same answers as Schumacher.

SPLICEDwire: Mr. Keane, you worked on this movie in Disney's Paris animation house, while you, Mr. Lima, and many of the other animators where in Burbank. How on Earth did you coordinate?

KEVIN LIMA: We actually spoke to each other on a CLI system, which is a video conferencing system. We would look at scenes over that system and act out scenes for each other. I would get up on the table and act things out (making ape face, and leaning into the table on underturned knuckles).

GLEN KEANE: I was concerned at first...because in California was the animator doing Jane and the gorillas, and in Paris we were doing Tarzan and the leopard. But what I found out was that we almost had a more personal relationship with them because we had them to ourselves in the CLI meetings (and) we had control of the camera and could zoom in on faces as they made faces, watching reactions to video to really see their spontaneous reactions.

SPLICED: It must have been difficult animating interacting characters from two continents.

KEANE: At times. When Tarzan approaches Jane and he kind of looks up her skirt and BOOM, gets kicked in the face, that part where he gets kicked in the face, well, the animator in California is doing the foot hitting the face and he doesn't know exactly where that face is going to be.

SPLICED: So all the scenes where Tarzan is swinging through the vines carrying Jane had to be done with him first and Jane being animated around him? That sounds so complex.

LIMA: Federal Express became rich during this movie!

KEANE: The only difference was instead of being in the room next to each other -- that's how we always done it -- you would send it through Federal Express. You would still get it the next day. The biggest difference to me was the language. There were translation issues. Kevin would send notes and I'd try to translate what they meant.

LIMA: (The translation problems were) abstract things, like "Tarzan needs to be more earnest in this scene," and then how does that get interpreted when we can't look at each other and just make the face that we want. (Sometimes) we had to just get on our CLI system and I just did it for them (making a kind, longing face).

SPLICED: Speaking of technology, I think its safe to say that this movie is the most integrated use of computer animation with hand animation that has been done to date. Are there any pitfalls?

LIMA: Well, from the beginning we always said we weren't going to do this Deep Canvas unless it looked exactly like a background painting. If it were ever noticeable (that they were using computers), we'd have abandon it. (But once we were committed) the first thing you do is build the jungle in 3D and figure out how your camera is going to move to follow the characters.

KEANE: And you have to choreograph the movement of the character in there, because once you get it done, it's very difficult to go back in and redo that camera move. Everything changes slightly and no longer is Tarzan matching that background. You'd have to go back and re-animate, which is what I had to do on one scene (of Tarzan surfing the twisting tree trunks).

SPLICED: What kind of changes are made to a character once the voice talent is cast?

KEANE: Not many. I met Tony only once, very early on, I think before I started doing the designs. I was struck with his eyes. They're intense. I always tell the animators, if you're going to make a mistake, do it on something other than the eyes, because that's where everybody is focusing and identifying with the character.

LIMA: What we do sometimes when we're in the sessions recording the dialogue is we'll set up a video camera and we'll video the whole session. So then the animator, if he wants, can draw upon those tapes to pull expressions, mouth shapes, maybe some gesturing that happens.

KEANE: I remember thinking with Tony what really struck me, more than his face, was the quality of his voice...He has this great sort of animal sense to his voice -- a great coarseness, (an) animal-like sound that comes from down here somewhere. (Grunting) Tarzan, Tar-zahn! And you have to animate that. His head drops down (lowers his chin to his chest) and you use the hands like gorilla hands (curls his knuckles under on the table top), and that's influenced by the voice. Voices create images in our minds. I wasn't so concerned about drawing Tony as I was about interpreting animal motions. That's why we spent a lot of time studying stop-frame videos, learning how a gorilla walks.

LIMA: We didn't ever want Tarzan to feel like he was just a man. We didn't want him to stand up straight or wave good-bye. We wanted to make sure he always had that piece of gorilla in him, that he always had an animal attitude about him.

SPLICED: Was that a freedom or a challenge?

KEANE: It was definitely a challenge. (For instance), Tarzan moving through the branches. I'd animated this scene and it didn't feel like Tarzan doing it. If felt like a human, like me hanging on vines and branches. So I studied the gibbon and realized they never look at the branches when the grab them. They look past. They look where they're going. And then we changed Tarzan so instead of looking at the vines and branches, he just moved right on through confidently, and it felt like Tarzan again. The instinct of an animal had to be there.

SPLICED: And you spent several days in Africa getting ideas as well. That must have been an adventure.

KEANE: You go there and you're prepared for what to do if and when a gorilla charges you. You don't look him in the eye, you put your butt up in the air. Everyone did that, I guess, except for Kevin when this gorilla kind of walked past. (Laughs.)

LIMA: I couldn't help myself. I just watched him. I mean, I sort of went down, but you only get an hour (with the gorillas)! An hour in your life. I wasn't gonna waste it. And if I got charged, wow! The story I'd have!

KEANE: I really sensed a fear of being in the jungle. I felt very vulnerable and naked being there. In the tent my son and I were in, at night you just heard all kinds of noises out there. I mean, I have no idea what the things I was hearing were, but they were running across the tent roof (makes rustling and whooping noises), and I was so thankful I was in there. I started thinking, how would I survive if I was out there? I'd be dead! I couldn't handle this. I started appreciating Tarzan in a way I never would have before. I think it was necessary to go there to sense the reality of that.

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