Interview with Beauty & the Beast Director
Kirk Wise
By Ross Anthony

Kirk Wise painted his way to a Disney director's chair. He even drew caricatures for park-goers at Universal Studios and Magic Mountain for a few extra bucks while attending art school. I interviewed him earlier this year regarding the re-release of "Beauty & the Beast" a special edition in IMAX/Large Format(LF).

RA: Tell me about the sequence that made the biggest impression, even in 1991 -- that wonderful ballroom scene.

KW: Well, [originally] when we were planning the big elaborate dance sequence that would include a moving camera craning up to the ceiling on the characters that would really have more of a live action feel to them -- there was always this nagging doubt in our minds that it wasn't going to work at all (laughs). We had sort of a back-up plan just in case, if none of this works we'll just turn off all the lights and Bella and the Beast will be dancing in a little spotlight in a darkened room like an ice skating show (laughs). Fortunately, when we got the first piece of test film back, it was amazingly breathtaking, made a big sigh of relief because we knew it was going to work.

RA: Where did the idea to integrate computer animation and hand-drawn come from?

KW: It all started with the story boarding. We had a really talented storyboard crew, Brenda Chapman and Roger Allers had this idea, "What if we built a portion of the ballroom in the computer" ... just the right people in the right positions at the time, we had an incredibly talented animator, James Baxter, who just had a knack for moving characters in 3-d space. He had this chip in his head that enabled him to perfectly match his drawings with a moving background.

RA: So you created the background first?

KW: We actually designed all the camera movement first and animated the characters to match that.

RA: So, first the animators watched the ballroom spin around and then ...

KW: We created computer generated stand-ins, the ballroom was sort of a chicken-wire kind of thing and Bella & the Beast were represented by these box and egg sort of things.

RA: What have Brenda and Roger been up to since then?

KW: Brenda directed "Prince of Egypt" over at DreamWorks and Roger directed "Lion King."

RA: Isn't that interesting? Speaking of directing, what exactly does the director of an animated feature do?

KW: You have to make all the same decisions that a live action director would have to make. Everything from where to put the camera to what the emotional tone of the scene is going to be, in addition to answering all the questions about costume design and weather and color and all the numerous elements that go into making the scene. We're there every step of the way from the very first crude character designs and early storyboards to how loud the footsteps of the Beast should be as he's walking across the marble floor. We shepherd the process from beginning to end.

RA: Were you also involved in the casting?

KW: Absolutely, we worked with a wonderful casting director, a guy named Albert Tavares ... he was the one that brought Robbie Benson to play the Beast and he was a complete surprise.

RA: Was Robbie's voice manipulated in anyway to make it a little deeper?

KW: In the final mix we combined his voice with animal sounds, growls and grunts and might have pushed the bass part just a little bit, a slight budge in the mix. But 99.7% of it is Robbie with the exception of the growls.

RA: Why was "Human Again" originally left out?

KW: Back when it was originally written and storyboarded it was initially 11 minutes long, which is a pretty heavy milieu for an animated feature that already had a lot of songs. Length was one problem and the structure of the song was also a problem at the time because it indicated the passage of time, months of time, leaves falling. That presented a couple story problems for us because we kept asking, 'Well what? Is Maurice wondering around in the woods all this time? Is Gaston just sitting around in a tavern drinking beer after beer growing a long white beard?' we couldn't quite figure out what to do with the other characters during this time that Bella's at the castle and keep the motor of the story running. Those were the reasons for cutting it at the time.

It wasn't until we saw the Broadway version where Alan had made a substantial edit in the music and had found a slightly different place for the song to sit, so we realized there was a way to make this work. The bridge which was all about time passing was removed... so that issue went away. And Alan did a couple of additional edits for us when we were tailoring it for the movie, and now it works. There's a great little suite of music now that starts with "Something There," the song that B&B sing while they're having a little snowball fight, which segues into "Human Again" which gives the object perspective on what they hope for when B&B fall in love and that transitions into "Beauty and the Beast" the ballad, which is the culmination of their relationship. So, it's a nice little story within a story now.

RA: When they re-animated that sequence, where you involved in that?

KW: Oh absolutely, I directed that along with Gary Trousdale who co-directed [the 1991 version], we had many of the same animators, same background painters, same artists that worked on the sequence.

RA: What kind of adjustments were needed for the film to be converted to Large Format?

KW: All the elements of the film existed in the digital realm because we scanned all of the artwork digitally even though the bulk of the artwork is all hand drawn. We were able to go back to that data and re-shoot it onto the stock that they use for IMAX and the other LF theaters. So you're not seeing like a blown up 35 mm print. You're seeing a brand new print struck from the original pictorial information. So it looks great, the resolution and the saturation of the color are really really astoundingly good. The movie looks better than it ever has been.

RA: Did the larger image bring rise to any imperfections?

KW: Once we saw the image blown up to that size ... that presented a few problems that we had to fix. ... Certain scenes where the original drawing might have been only four inches ... was suddenly blown up to the size of a house (laughs) ... the width of the line started to look as wide as a telephone pole. So in certain shots we went back in and adjusted the artwork and made some new drawings so that the image would hold up on a screen of that size. We couldn't do it everywhere, we had to be very selective, we really only took shots where the whole illusion started to breakdown. There's one in particular I can think of where the objects are singing in the foreground and you look passed them in the window you can see B&B having a little snowball fight. Well, in the original movie, those drawings of B&B were so tiny that we didn't even bother to draw faces on them because when projected on your local multiplex you could never see that much detail. But when we blew them up to IMAX size, Oh my God, it was terrible. So we had to go back in and put little fingernails and eyeballs on these characters. Also, some of the background we went back in and made some digital fixes on... we could literally pull up some of the background on a computer screen and with a stylus go back in and adjust some of the painted areas so that you could no longer see the texture of the background board that it was painted on.

RA: Have you seen a host of LF films?

KW: I remember seeing my first IMAX film in, oh man, I think it was '77 or '78 back in San Jose at Great America. I grew in Southern California and I remember when they opened that Great America, they had an IMAX theater ... I think a movie called "To Fly." I remember just being blown away, I'd never seen anything like it. I think it was the same year "Star Wars" came out and I remember thinking ... they've got to show "Star Wars" on this screen (laughs). What's funny about that, cut ahead 25 years later, we're looking at "Star Wars: Special Edition" is out with some added footage and cut scenes worked into it. And we started to talk of B&B in that way, ask each other 'Gee, what if we could take some of these sequences like "Human Again" that we had cut and drag out the storyboards and animate them and work them into the movie and do a sort of special edition of B&B?' And lo and behold it ends up on an IMAX screen. ... So that's kind of an odd "Star Wars" connection.

RA: What's your favorite animated feature?

KW: That changes on an almost daily basis. I've always been a big fan of "Jungle Book" it's entertaining with great songs. "Pinocchio" is the most like a classic children's book illustration I've seen, I love "Peter Pan" because it's such a great boy's adventure movie. So different films I love for different reasons.

RA: And live action features?

KW: Oh Man. That's a list that goes on for day and days. "Star Wars" obviously, that's a pivotal movie for me. I also love "Wizard of OZ" and "It's a Wonderful Life" ... boy oh boy, let me look on my shelf here, "Yellow Submarine," "Citizen Kane," "Casablanca..."

RA: So what's your next project?

KW: Don't have a next project. I'm actually looking to make the transition from animation into live action film. In the last five years or so I've seen the line between live action and animation blur. Take a film like "Harry Potter" and "Lord of the Rings," ten years ago you only could have thought of those films in terms of traditional animation. Now all of that changed. I feel like a lot of these guys are encroaching on what used to be our turf. On one hand, I think it's really exciting it opens up the types of stories you can tell in live action that inspires me, I'd really love a chance to learn to work with those tools and tell different types of stories.

RA: So you're not looking to direct typical live action.

KW: Oh, I've got no desire to make "Taxi Driver."

[Beauty & the Beast] | [More interviews]

Copyright © 2000. Ross Anthony, currently based in Los Angeles, has scripted and shot documentaries, music videos, and shorts in 35 countries across North America, Europe, Africa and Asia. For more reviews visit:

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Last Modified: Wednesday, 17-Mar-2004 15:36:38 PST