Women In Animation Chicago Chapter

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Q&A with Stevie Wermers-Skelton, Co-Director of the "How to Hook Up Your Home Theatre" short

The following is a Q&A with Stevie Wermers-Skelton, hope you guys enjoy it. Thanks to everyone who submitted a question for this interview, there were some great questions. It'll be a nice topic for discussion at our meeting on Wednesday. I sent a thank you to Tamara Boutcher, producer of "How to Hook Up Your Home Theater" for helping me get our questions to Stevie.

And now on to the interview:

Did you always want to work in animation or did you start out on a different path?

I started on a different path. Even though I had always drawn when I was a kid, I wasn’t sure I could ever make a living at it. So I aimlessly went to junior college for a few years and worked several office jobs that were uninteresting to me—mostly accounting stuff.

What/Who inspired you to go into a career in animation?

It wasn’t until I saw “Beauty and the Beast” when I was 25 that I decided I wanted to do something else with my life. Obviously, toiling away in an “office space” type of environment had me stuck in a rut—so I then decided “what the heck” and applied at Cal Arts. And here I am. (Who knew??)

How did you find yourself working for Disney, what’s your background?

I went to Cal Arts for two years , but never completed the four year program, because it was the mid-90s – post – ‘Lion King’ era and Disney was aggressively pursuing new talent. So after only my sophomore year, I was thrilled to be offered an internship with them in the fall of ’94 in Florida. I then graduated to a position as an inbetweener on “Pocahontas” and shortly afterward I took a test to move myself to the story department, and have pretty much been at the Company ever since.

Did the idea to use Goofy or the idea for the Story come first?

The idea to use Goofy came first. Our Chief Creative Officer John Lasseter wanted to make new shorts starring Disney classic characters. Kevin Deters (co-director of the Goofy short) and I both thought Goofy would be the most fun. Then Kevin had the idea, and I thought it was intriguing. So we went with it.

When writing/directing the short were there any unexpected challenges, and how did using Goofy as a character influence the direction of the story?

Initially, some of our colleagues thought that using the classic characters might be a bit too old-fashioned and that the public wouldn’t find them interesting. We thought otherwise, obviously, feeling that if we could put Goofy back up on the big screen it would fill many people with the “warm and fuzzy” nostalgia of the old shorts as well as introduce a whole new generation to these characters.

Goofy influenced the story by his sheer good-natured attitude. Instead of getting angry or frustrated like Donald, Goofy just seems to take everything in stride. This made it easier to make the short a bit more modular, because the character doesn’t dwell on things that have happened to him…he just moves on to the next task.

What was the creative process that led to choosing to do a modernized version of a classically styled Goofy short?

Like I said, we wanted to recapture the feel of the classic shorts for nostalgia, but also update it with a new and more relevant subject matter, sort of for a “one-two “punch. Plus, we just really admired the look of those early shorts, and simultaneously thought, hey, why not re-use some of the original backgrounds from them? This way we had a template to follow to keep us on track artistically, and we could save labor by not having to paint new ones. It just made sense.

Were there any other looks to the design of the short you played with or was it automatically decided that it would be stylized after the classic shorts?

It was automatically decided.

Were other classic Disney characters considered for this renewed effort by Disney to do 2-d films?

Yes. There were several fun ideas that were considered.

I read that this was animated on a Cintique. Is this true?

Half of the animators drew on the Cintiq, while the others just kept it “old school” and used paper.

If so, why was this technique chosen and was all the animation done this way or just certain parts?

The Cintiqs were the obvious choice of tool to use (with the “Harmony” software by Toon Boom) because of its ability to recreate the feeling of paper drawing.

How did the animators adjust to using a computer rather than pencil and paper? Did they have to adjust or were they already used to working digitally?

The artists who had animated with the computer adjusted quite well. Dale Baer actually found that he prefers this technique to drawing on paper, simply because it is so much easier to make corrections, and you can see your work instantly. (Although to keep a bit of the old-school feel, he has taped a peg bar onto the bottom of his cintiq tablet! Very cute.)

How long did this short take to create?

The short took about 15 months total with 3-4 months story and editorial and the rest production.

How many animators worked on the Goofy short?

There were six extremely talented and well-known animators who helped us out: Dale Baer, Andreas Deja, Mark Henn, Alex Kupershmidt, Randy Haycock and Eric Goldberg. Like Kevin says, it was an embarrassment of riches, “kind of like calling the SWAT team to get a cat out of a tree.”

Did the animators have any particular challenges animating such an iconic character as Goofy?

Only that we wanted the animation to be as good as the John Sibley stuff from the 40’s. Before we started animation on the short, we had a meeting with all the guys and we watched our favorite animated Goofy scenes from that era—analyzing them in trying to figure out what made them so appealing. I think the guys ended up doing a great job, and I think they had a lot of fun doing it as well. They certainly weren’t limited to any realistic movements , (being that Goofy is so pliable) which I’m sure was a welcome change!

How did you feel being able to produce/direct a Disney short, especially with such a beloved classic character?

Quite honored, actually. Like I said, so many people, including myself, have a “warm and fuzzy” nostalgia for Goofy, so you really don’t want to mess it up. We had a certain responsibility to make sure that Goofy came across just right, and do him justice. We had no intention of “updating” him with trendy hip-hop clothes and putting him on a skateboard, if you know what I mean.

What was the best thing about directing/producing this short, and what was difficult?

The best thing was getting to know a whole new set of people, and learning about what exactly they all do in the pipeline. Working in the story department for so many years had given me a very limited and myopic view of the entire process. Not until you start heading up something do you fully realize just how much labor goes into these things. I’ve always known, I suppose, just didn’t appreciate it as much before.
As far as what was most difficult, I would have to say it was just trying to keep track of everything since Kevin and I were working on 2-3 different projects simultaneously. Again, I had been so used to being focused on ONE aspect of the process for so many years, that it was difficult to suddenly be pulled into several directions at once. (But I’m getting used to it.)

What are you working on now?

Right now Kevin and I are in the midst of our second short, entitled “the Ballad of Nessie,” which is a tall-tale Mary Blair-ish style of cartoon. It was my second year film at Cal Arts, so it is really a labor of love for me.
We are also working on some other things, most of which I can’t discuss right now... (sorry!)

What are the plans on future Disney 2-d shorts? Are we going to see more classic characters in their own shorts in the future?

I’m sure hoping there will be more. There hasn’t been any call specifically for 2D shorts, just shorts that are entertaining. We usually let the subject matter dictate in what medium it should be told. And I have a feeling that at some point there will be some new shorts that have other classic characters.

Did you go into the film knowing that you would be the first woman to direct a Disney short or did you find out later?

No, I didn’t know. And honestly, I don’t like to shine any kind of spotlight on it. I just think of myself as another employee, someone who was in the right place at the right time, and is just trying to do her best.


Sarah Satrun said...

Thanks for putting this together, Kristine! ^.^

Celina Barajas said...

This was AWESOME! Very inspiring and hopeful.
Thanks so much for putting this together Kristine! Much appreciated! :O)