Ep 29 | Kirk Wise - Director: Beauty & The Beast (1991), The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Atlantis: The Lost Empire

Credit: Disney


Note: Please be aware this transcript is generated by AI, there will be small inconsistencies with the published podcast.

Mike  00:00

Hi everyone, Mike here had a brilliant time in this episode laughing and chatting with the lovely Kirk Wise. In the interview we discussed beginning as a caricature artists that Universal Studios advice for those applying to the legendary Cal Arts film school, being scared green directing Beauty and the Beast managing the dark tone of the Hunchback of Notre DOM being pulled into a Lion King story writing room where he heard the phrase Circle of Life bandied about for the first time being responsible for the US dubbed version of spirited away and much, much more. That's enough for me. Here we go.

Kirk  00:34

Howard and Alan played for us. Their first version of the Beauty the Beast ballad, and we all gotten goosebumps. It just you know, we knew Mrs. Potts was gonna sing it. We all had Angela Lansbury in mind, even though she had a cast yet. I and I remember thinking, you know, even in that early rough state that this was going to be, you know, a classic for the ages. This was going to be another one you wish upon a star. You just felt it. Everyone in the room felt it.

Mike  01:05

Hello, and welcome to Red Carpet rookies. My name is Mike battle, a film crew member turned screenwriter working in London. Each episode I bring you life lessons and stories from the people behind your favourite movies and shows to help demystify the business for aspiring filmmakers and fans alike. Thanks for joining me. Let's get started. Today's guest is a multi hyphenate, animator, director, writer and storyboard wizard. Gaining an early directing credit working on Disneyland's cranium command. He was soon thrust into feature direction on historic classics, such as the Hunchback of Notre Dom, Atlantis, The Lost Empire, and of course, Beauty and the Beast, the first animated movie to ever be nominated for Best Picture. My guest is Mr. Kirk Wise, how're you doing today?

Kirk  01:55

Good. Great to be here.

Mike  01:57

Thank you very much for being here. Okay. Now you've listened to the interviews, you know that I always ask the same first question. That question is, what did your parents do Kirk? And did it affect your career choices moving forward?

Kirk  02:08

It actually did. Interestingly. Although my father eventually became a minister, very early on, when he was younger, he had gone to art school, and he had studied drawing and painting. And he was also a cartoonist, you know, from from the moment he could hold a pencil. He drew cartoons for his high school paper and his yearbook and such. And so I remember being very young, and my dad would do drawings for me just to entertain me. And I was absolutely fascinated by it. To me, it was like this wonderful magic trick, but I really wanted to learn. So my first art instruction came from my dad. He showed me kind of how to draw simple cartoon characters. And he he kind of guided me along in my earliest attempts of drawing. And that kind of morphed into, you know, not only a lifelong interest in drawing and cartooning, but eventually I became interested in animation.

Mike  03:11

Was there ever any thought of going into live action? Or was it always drawing an animation? That was the way?

Kirk  03:16

Um, for me, it was always about animation. I remember, gosh, you know, initially, when I was very young, I wanted to be a cartoonist, I wanted to have my own comic strip. So that's what I aspired to, like my early heroes were Charles Schultz, and, and Walt Kelly, and Johnny Hart and Mort Walker. And I obsessed over the comic strips. And that's really what I wanted to do. But I remember a visit to Disneyland when I was a young, probably about seven or eight years old Disneyland in California. And in one of the gift shops, I picked up a flipbook. And it was a Mickey Mouse. It was an old piece of animation and Mickey Mouse, in a cowboy hat with a Lariat, spinning a Lariat. And I remember flipping through it and just being absolutely amazed in and it really opened up my eyes because up until that point, I hadn't quite made the connection between Brian you know, static cartoon images and making the move making them come to life. So So seeing that Mickey Mouse flipbook really opened my eyes and then then then I really became interested in animation. That's when I started doing my own flipbooks. Again, because I realised that Oh, it's just a bunch of drawings, each one is just a little bit different. And when you look at them really fast, one after the other, they they appear to move. And so that that really captured my imagination.

Mike  04:52

Yeah, reminds me of that Illusion of Life Book. That's the title of that famous book, isn't it?

Kirk  04:57

Yes. Yes. That the illusion of life as a I'm sure you've heard from some of your other guests, Joe included. It really became like the go to textbook for all of us budding animators in the early 1980s. That came out there my first year at CalArts. And we, I think it came out like between my first and second year in Cal Arts, and we all just obsessed over that. So yeah, back to your earlier question. I started making my own little animated movies on Super Eight film. When I was about, yeah, when I was nine years old, it was it was the summer between the fourth and fifth grade in elementary school in California. And back then, you know, my efforts were extremely primitive. I was literally it was just cut out bits of paper or bits of clay, you know, very silly, simple stories about things exploding or monsters eating each other. But yeah, those were my first attempts at animation. And I sort of stuck with that hobby, making short animated films, along with drawing cartoons, all the way through high school. And that that eventually led me to to learning more to learning about Cal Arts and putting together a portfolio and deciding I wanted to go into animation as a profession.

Mike  06:18

Amazing to pick up that flipbook and to see where you would ultimately be at Disney. But before we get to Cal Arts, am I right that you did caricatures at Universal Studios?

Kirk  06:28

That is correct. Yes. When I was that that was actually the summer after my second year at CalArts. I had a friend, fellow classmate, his name was Dan Hofstede. And he and his dad and his brother drew caricatures at at the local theme parks. He was a local he grew up in Orange County, I was I was from Northern California. But he drew caricatures on weekends, at Magic Mountain at Universal Studios at Knott's Berry Farm, all like the Southern California theme parks. And through him, I got a job I got the opportunity to draw caricatures for one summer. And he kind of coached me and a couple other my friends along and kind of the techniques involved. They were very quick, super quick sketches always in profile in black and white. And you had to really kind of develop your muscle memory, in kind of carving out this very slick style with a lot of sort of thick and thin lines. And you know, we didn't do any underdrawing It was literally, you know, pen to paper go. It took a lot of practice, not only to achieve a reasonable likeness of your subject, but also to make sure that it was always cute. It was always kind of cute and funny. It's interesting, it's like they weren't caricatures in the sense that that that their features were so exaggerated, that that they were like grotesque, they were always flattering. Even if the even if you even if you exaggerated the feature here at their forehead, and nose and chin, facial hair, there always had to be kind of a twinkle of Spark, something that would make you smile. Another thing that we always had to keep in mind is that really had an audience, we had a down shooting video camera, above our drawing board. And behind us on a shelf was a television monitor, and just a black and white television monitors. So the crowd would gather around the caricature stand, could see us doing the drawing. And so it became kind of a bit of performance art, that people would be intrigued one by the speed that you could do it. So the faster you could draw, the more the more interesting it was for the audience. And the more profitable it was for you as an artist because we literally were paid per drawing, we didn't get an hourly wage, and it also encouraged you to come up with with details in the drawing that would make the audience laugh. And a lot of a lot of these little tricks I learned from my friend Dan had been doing it for years. For instance, you would draw the head first you try to get the likeness first. And then you would ask the subject if they had a favourite hobby or activity, something they like to do. You know, it could be water skiing, it could be surfing, it could be dancin, so you would draw, you know, a tiny little body above the great big ahead, cute little, you know, sort of chubby cartoon body engaged in some activity, but you would always find, you know, some little joke or gag you try to incorporate into the picture. And the more you could kind of say it was all about timing. You could save a little punch line to the gag that you were drawing till the very end, you would get a laugh and that would encourage more people to come up and get a drawing done. So it really was kind of a perfect events?

Mike  10:01

Interesting. Yeah, you probably you've got a lot of reps in there both for drawing and also learning comic timing, which have helped you in your direction a lot later.

Kirk  10:08

Yeah, absolutely. You know, it was it was pretty simple stuff. It's like, if you drew a guy surfing, the last thing you would draw is like a little sharp fan following him, you know, then that would get a laugh.

Mike  10:20

Good, clean fun. You mentioned CalArts there, which is the famous film school, which is, you know, had basically everyone go to it from Disney and Pixar. What's the process like when you go to a school like that, and also, kind of the application process? Because I'll be some people listening to this that wants to know, we probably want to go to CalArts. Do you present a portfolio what sort of thing had to go?

Kirk  10:42

Well, back then. And this was a long time ago. This is I applied to the school in 1981. And it was really all about drawing. I had spent the better part of a year putting together a portfolio that contained what I thought might work my very best drawings. And I really concentrated on my strengths I was I was more skilled in in cartoony drawing and character design than I was in drawing from life, even though you're encouraged to draw from life. There's nothing wrong with that. It was never my strong suit. So I leaned into what I could do. Well, I had a friend. Fortunately, Rob Minkoff. He was a high school friend, he went on to direct Lion King and Stuart Little, but he was a year ahead of me, and he actually went to Cal Arts a year, a year before I did, so he was able to take a look at my portfolio, make suggestions as to what to include and what to not include. So So I actually had a bit of a leg up, thanks to rob me, literally, my portfolio, I was accepted into the programme based on the quality of my drawing. And that's it at least at the time, that's what it really boiled down to because we were learning traditional hand drawn animation in the in the Disney mould, you know, that was it. It was well, before anybody was really doing any serious experiments with with with computer graphics, that would change you know, just just a couple years into my experience at school was when was when John Lasseter began experimenting with with computer animation, not only at Disney, but then But then for George Lucas.

Mike  12:27

Well, you worked on the Brave Little Toaster, didn't you? Which actually, I think was like a precursor for Toy Story. Funnily enough, I could he pitched that, didn't he originally? Yeah.

Kirk  12:34

It's so funny. Yeah. I remember brandable toaster I was still a student were able to toaster was a project that was set up at Disney. It was being produced by an executive there and then Tom Wilhite and all the kind of young, you know, CalArts grads, were attached to it creatively these These were guys were a few years ahead of me in school and had already graduated and moved on to Disney. And that included Joe Ranft. And, and John Lasseter and Jerry Reese, and you know, I was really admired these guys because obviously, you know, they were making it they were doing exciting things and visited the studio one day I think I had lunch with it with it might have even been Rob, who was accepted into the training programme there. And I remember seeing the storyboard pitch materials, some beautiful colour drawings by Brian McEntee and I remember thinking oh, these are so cool. These are so wonderful. This would be such a fun project to work on. So a couple years later, after I graduated, the project had left Disney along with Tom Wilhite Tom Wilhite got let go and took the project with him and got that set up as a little independent, low budget animated feature with Jerry Reese hired to write and direct. And he he signed up Joe Ranft and Brian McEntee and my buddy Rob doing character design and a bunch of other people that I knew from CalArts and I got the opportunity to that was actually one of my first animation jobs, getting out of school. And it is funny the bare bones of the story have some real kind of surface similarities to what eventually became Toy Story. You know, the this this group of inanimate objects that come to life and have this really strong attachment to their owner. And you know, this kind of whole whole kind of quest journey, road picture, where they're where they seek to be reunited with their owner. There are definitely a few similarities to to what became Toy Story but a lot of the same creative people worked on it so it's not too much of a surprise.

Mike  14:56

And you got your first few animation gigs on your CV And your first kind of directing gig really, I guess was cranium command with Gary, which was a Disneyland attraction. Yes. What was that? Like?

Kirk  15:08

Yes, it was. It was actually an attraction down in in Epcot in Florida. And Gary and I, this was, I had transitioned from doing animation at Disney into the story department, which at that time was called the visual development department. And Gary and I had been teamed up on a couple of different projects that didn't get made we there was some Roger Rabbit short subject ideas that were that were percolating, because the movie had become so popular in the care and the studio when we keep the Roger Rabbit character alive. So Gary and I did a presentation for for a proposed Roger Rabbit film, and that that didn't get made. But they sort of thought Gary and I were a good team. So that kind of kept kept us together. I knew Gary from CalArts that so we already knew each other. And you know, we were very similar very simpatico, in terms of our sensibilities and our stuff we thought we thought was funny. You know, even though our drawing styles were quite different, we could really make each other laugh that that was that was, I think the key to Gary ISEB relationship is that we cracked each other up. So we laughed a great deal. So along comes this project that's kind of in trouble. Our boss at the time was running development again in Charlie think. Paul pulls us in to his office. And we get kind of roped into helping fix this short kind of introductory film that's going to be played before this Disney this attraction down in that cut called cranium command. All the animation had been completed by an outfit in Northern California. And the studio wasn't happy with it. They weren't happy with any of it. They didn't like the writing. They didn't like the design that didn't like the animation. And they basically wanted to pull the plug on it and start over. And so Gary and I were essentially given carte blanche to reconceive this pre show, we had to use some kind of very fundamental ideas, which was, you know, the show was about a typical day of a 13 or 13 year old boy's life, except that we, the audience, we're going to experience it as though we were inside his brain, which was envisioned as this kind of kind of crazy high tech cockpit, where all these different characters were controlling all of Bobby, the kid's name was all of Bobby's emotions, emotional responses, and physical responses to things that we would see it experience literally through his, through his eyes here with these big eyes shaped screens in the theatre. So our pre show film, had to set all of that up, had to set that whole concept up for your audience. So it was about the first day of this young recruits named buzzy going on his first training mission in a 13 year old boy's head. And he's been coached by this by this raging, impatient drill sergeant type of character that we called general knowledge. And our model for him was that was still our Lee Ermey character and Full Metal Jacket. What was kind of funny about this project was that it was being sponsored by the life insurance company Metropolitan Life. And they wanted it to have this whole stress management theme. Because it was part of the wonders of life pavilion was all about life and health. We just kind of barely touched on the stress management theme. And of course, to us, we thought it would be very funny if a character was supposed to be teaching you about stress management was just hollering at you all the time and screaming at you. So so the storyboards that we that we developed for creating command were very well received. And they put it into into production right away because it had to be turned around in like three months. And through a series of circumstances. It fell to me and Gary to actually direct it, the original director that they had for it, which I believe may have been my buddy Rob, he got the opportunity to direct a Roger Rabbit short, again, not the one me and Gary developed another one. And so he fell out of that project, and we kind of got promoted from being the board artists on to the directors of it. So that's how gearing I got our first directing gig at Disney.

Mike  19:49

It's great to hear about your first directing gig. And it's amazing therefore to me that I know there was a brief stint where you were on Rescuers Down lender before getting fired but We can decipher that one. And you obviously got on to Beauty and the Beast next. And you basically don't have much directing experience. No. How did that feel? Were you nervous? What was that? Like?

Kirk  20:12

Oh my god. Yes, Gary, I would were absolutely scared green. I think we had finished cranium command. You know, it was a it was a fun experience, it was stressful, because we had to finish it very quickly. But, you know, at the time, Rescuers Down Under which was being made, and another building was going through a period of extreme story revisions. So all of our animators were sitting around with nothing to do. So we got a team of amazing, you know, feature quality animators to come and work on the silly little short for Epcot centre. So the we knew the quality of animation was going to be, you know, light years beyond what they already had. So that was terrific. And that was a great experience. And it allowed us to kind of form relationships with with some of the best animators at the studio, Andreas Deja de Proxima Nick granary, that Chris wall. Boy, the list goes on and on. So some of those guys, including the guys I mentioned, ended up becoming Eolo are supervising animators on beating the beast because of our experience with them on training command. So after cranium command was done, Gary and I basically, were kind of booted back into the development department. And we were storyboard artists again. And we were like, wow, that was fun. You know, back back to storyboarding. So we were literally both on an assignment, trying to developing a goofy short, again, something that never got made. It was called goofy Of The Apes. And it was, it was a take on the Tarzan legend, but starting goofy as Tarzan. So it was a lot of fun, you know, we drew goofy crashed into a lot of trees and smashed coconuts on his head that a lion did a lot of goofy things. But once again, you know, even though we kind of knew that down the hall, and and, you know, across the pond, buting, the beast was being developed. We didn't really have any connection to it. We didn't really know what was going on behind the scenes. But we got called into, again, Charlie's office, it seemed like just a few months after we finished greening command. And he said, You know, there's a big shake up on beauty, the beast. They're bringing everything back to California. The original directors are leading the project, they're pulling, Howard Ashman and Alan Menken onto it, to turn it into a musical it wasn't being developed as a musical prior to this, and they're going to need new directors. And, you know, the spotlight kind of shone on me and Gary, because of the success of cranium command. And even though we weren't necessarily their first choice, I don't think, you know, we were available, we had proven ourselves and we were kind of on, I think we were, we had managed to distinguish ourselves in their very recent memories. So they put us on a plane. And before we knew it, we were in New York, in a conference room on Park Avenue in Manhattan, having our first meeting on Beauty and the Beast with with with Howard Ashman. And so, it all happened so fast, that, you know, there, there really wasn't time to be too scared. I remember being very nervous about it. And I remember I think I think I even expressed to to the head of animation at that time, gentleman in Peter Schneider, you know, my nervousness about it. He said, Well, what are you nervous about? I said, I basically said, I'm afraid of failing. And Peter said, God bless him for saying this. He said, We won't let you fail. What he meant by that was he was going to surround us with, you know, the absolute top talent that the animation studio had at the time, to help make sure that we succeeded, and he was good on his word. And we ended up with a absolutely amazing crew of story artists and animators to help us you know, reconceived beauty in the beast.

Mike  24:25

That's amazing. Did you ever see what it was going to be like, before it was the musical? Was there anything there

Kirk  24:30

only peripheral only kind of in a peripheral way. I remember seeing some of the artwork in the halls. And I remember at the time, you know, it wasn't really to my taste. It just felt very, it just felt a little stodgy and a little cold, and it wasn't particularly warm and funny. And so I didn't have a great response to it. But you know, I also know that At least things take a long time to develop. And a lot of things can happen in the course of of movies pre production. So I'd have to say it. My impression of it was kind of neutral. I was like, Well, this is this is okay. It's not really my thing. You know, I kind of I kind of moved on. But when we were brought on board, because Gary and I weren't under any obligation to use anything that the previous creative team had done. We really followed our own instincts and made the best use of the talent that we have around us people like Roger Adler's and Sue Nichols and Brenda Chapman and Brian McEntee and their sensibility was was very Disney, they were always looking for ways to create warmth or funnier, more relatable characters. So I just think overall, our point of view, I think was was was different enough that we that what we ended up with really bore no resemblance to, you know, how the show was developed under the previous directorial team.

Mike  26:09

Well, I guess therefore, the songs I guess, in musical they set the tone, don't they? Yes. So where do they come in the process? They you know, you've got the visuals. You've got the music?

Kirk  26:20

Yeah. Yeah. Very early on, Howard and Alan were involved literally from day one. And they were very much Howard in particular, part of restructuring the story. And since it was going to be conceived as a musical, The songs were kind of going to be the 10 poles that that you kind of strung the story between. And so the ideas for the songs started to to come up. As early as our first meeting. I remember Linda Woolverton had a very sketchy outline of the news of what the basic building blocks of this new structure were going to be. Because, you know, this was a page one rewrite. So I remember that outline being handed out in our first meeting. And I remember little notations in pen by Howard in the margins of this document, you know, where we're just the kind of bullet point story ideas were. And at the time it was, Maurice finds the castle. He's taken in by the enchanted objects, they make him dinner. And then in the margins, there was just this note that said, song, question mark. we all we all know what that became. That was pretty much as extensive as it was when I when I came onto the project. But that meeting can served as a springboard for for further meetings, where we and kind of a skeleton crew of story artists and designers, we would go and meet with Howard and Allen, in upstate New York in a little town called FishKill at a hotel conference room on a fairly regular basis, and we would talk about story and we would bring storyboards that we had done and they would discuss with us some ideas that they had, or ways to musical eyes moments that they saw the storyboards and so it was very hand in glove, it was a very collaborative process. And I remember one meeting in particular, where, gosh, I think I think there was some rough storyboards that Roger and Brenda and and Bernie Madison had done Bell walking through the town, and, you know, with with her nose buried in her book, and I remember how Howard responding really well to the boards and both he and Alan getting very excited about how they could use musical eyes, this whole sequence and how this this morning walk a bell could be a great way to introduce all of the characters set up, you know, set up their wants, their desires, who's in conflict with who all in a very, you know, efficient and fun package. And that let I remember in the conversations that led Howard and LM to to talking about, you know, basically the kind of the style of music that would be in the movie, and one of the words that was thrown around was operetta. And I think that was a very strong influence on Howard and Ellen, particularly for that opening number where there's so much information packed into such a short period of time, and it's very light and the songs are full of wonderful wordplay. So it really has that feel.

Mike  29:41

Speaking of the songs, my favourite is obviously beating the beast ballad. Is it true though that Angela was actually Angela Lansbury of course was actually a bit hesitant because it was a rock ballad. I don't know where I heard that initially.

Kirk  29:52

Well, it's funny it in the movie, it was never never conceived as a I don't think as a rock about I think the rock ballad idea came later. But now that I think of it, it's interesting, because I remember, again, one of those meetings in Fishkill, New York. Alan and Howard were noodling around on this rented electric piano, with with an idea for the song that would eventually become the Beauty and the Beast ballad. Because we've been talking about the sequence where the two of them fall in love and how that would be in the ballroom at the dance for the first time. Howard was talking a lot about that moment in the King and I where, where Anna and the King dance for the first time. And he he, he, he kept thinking, you know of the song, shall we dance. And interestingly, I don't remember how exactly we moved off of Shall We Dance and then started talking about the ballad, the rose from the movie, the rose that Midler sang years ago. But but somehow in the course of that meeting, that became the model for the song, that sort of beautiful, sweet rock ballad. So I think in a subsequent meeting, Howard and Ellen played on the electric piano allanon on the piano, how we're doing the Vogel play for us, their first version of the buting, the beast ballad, and we all gotten goosebumps. It just you know, we knew Mrs. Potts was gonna sing it. We all had Angela Lansbury in mind, even though she hadn't had cast yet. And Howard sang it. And all of us were just like, Oh, my God, this is this is magic. And I remember thinking, you know, even in that early, rough state that this was going to be, you know, a classic for the ages, this was going to be another When you wish upon a star. You just felt it. Everyone in the room felt it. I think, you know, flat flashforward, months later, when we're actually in the recording studio with Angela Lansbury. I vaguely recall she expressed some trepidation about about singing the ballad to Alan Howard. But I think Howard really put her at ease, and just really had her inhabit the character, you know, and practically, you know, it was more important for the emotion of it, and for the personality and the warmth of character to come through than it was for her to sing out. Like, like, like that meddler. So, so her performance feels so spot on. And this is so in character, and so warm and lovely. I can't imagine anyone else doing it. I mean, no disrespect to Celine Dion and Peabo Bryson, they recorded a wonderful pop version of it for the soundtrack. But Angela's version is is the classic.

Mike  32:48

Yeah, I think that's the word isn't it? It's warm. You can hear how kind She sounds in there. And that is very much the parts. I'm aware we've got a lot to chat about. So to segue from light songs to darker songs. I'm intrigued by hunchback because it's obviously famed as kind of the darker one of the Disney Renaissance. Oh, yes. And particularly, the Hellfire song is known for it. Generally, though, do you almost feel that punch back would be made today? It's there's kind of some of the themes in it are quite full on the last the Romani thing Oh, yeah. Do you think it would be different,

Kirk  33:23

you know, what really was our kind of guiding star at the time that we made the film was The was the novel itself, and and the previous film versions of the novel, and we knew that creatively, we could not, there were certain themes and certain ideas in the story that we couldn't shy away from. Otherwise it stopped being the Hunchback of Notre DOM with its like, we knew we had to adapt it so that it would be suitable for Disney's core audience. But we wanted to make sure that we honour the spirit of the original. And that's where Hellfire came from. And that's one of the obviously main themes of the story. Is this this? You know, it's with a source of furloughs. villainy Is that is that he's trying to destroy Esmerelda. But he secretly, you know, yearns for her lusts after her. So it was important for us to to dramatise that and obviously, it seemed like a, you know, absolutely ideal villain song moment. And Howard and Steven were really passionate about weaving in this kind of liturgical style of music into the score of Hunchback of Notre Dom Just because it seemed kind of kind of the right approach given the given the movies setting. So that's where kind of the concept of of Heavens like hellfire. It's really a sweet it's two songs played against each other. It's quasi motos, very pure light law. For it's more Elda and then furloughs very dark lust for it for Esmerelda played back to back. So we always thought of it as heavens light slash hellfire, even though Hellfire gets all the attention. The good thing was, we had a lot of support for that song. And for that sequence from the get go, everybody from Michael Eisner on down knew that it was essential to the storytelling. And everybody loved the song that that that Howard and Allen came up with, even though it was very intense. And we knew that that it was just going to be a matter of execution to figure out how we walk the line between, you know, expressing flip furloughs dark desires, and making it intense and scary, but not you know, so inappropriate or offensive that it would still feel feel at home in this movie. So yeah, we pushed it, you know, we definitely were licking the edge of the envelope in terms of content, but like I said, we have a lot of support from the studio. I don't recall ever at any time being told to tone it down. I remember we had to accommodate the Motion Picture Association, the people who decide on the ratings for the film's here in the US, we had to accommodate accommodate them on one thing during the final mix of hellfire. At one point, for low SES, this burning desire is turning me to sin. And on the on the syllable sin. There's this rush of fire in the fireplace and these red robes, judges sprang up out of nowhere and loom over Rollo and terrify him. You know, it's all happening from his head because he's, he's literally going mad. But to keep our G rating, amazingly, our general audience rating we had to we were asked, we didn't have to do anything the Motion Picture Association of America suggests but they don't insist. But they suggested that if we could perhaps raise the level of the sound effect of fireplace a skosh and lower the word sin in the mix that would make the overall song you know, it would lessen the impact of the overall song just enough that we could hold on to our G rating. So that's what we did. We accommodated them. So in the final mix, it's this burning desire is turning a to say

Mike  37:46

lovely voice Kerguelen No, thank you very much. On hunchback I, one of the things I haven't heard you talk about about is there was a trip to Paris wasn't there with you guys. much creativity. What's it like being embedded in the culture?

Kirk  38:00

Absolutely, no, we spent two weeks doing the research trip to to all of the mediaeval parts of Paris and mediaeval towns surrounding Paris, you know, with with a team of our of our key artists or had had a background or head of layout, or art director are some of our key animators. And it was wonderful, we got to crawl all over the cathedral and view it and take photographs of it and sketch it from every conceivable angle, we got to go into parts of it that the public typically isn't allowed to go and and it was a it was a tremendously valuable research trip. And one of the reasons what why we were encouraged to do this in the studio paid for it was because this was not going to be like a fantasy location. Mythical Paris was very real physical place. And a lot of it was still standing. So so to to really get the feel for it and and make the film really feel like it's actually taking place in that setting. To just give it a thority it was it was really important, important for us to experience the real thing. And to make our our version of the cathedral as as accurate as possible. We took some dramatic liberties, we scaled some things up. I think the size of the cathedral relative to the buildings around it is exaggerated in our version, you know, for dramas sake, just to make more more exciting pictures. But I think that's totally fine. You know, it's terrific. It's animation. It's a heightened reality, but our location, I think, was much more reality based. And then the other movie we worked on before, so that that's why we did it.

Mike  39:49

Yeah, I can imagine having that access to Nacho DOM must have been amazing for the creativity.

Kirk  39:53

Yeah. We went to the highest point in Notre DOM and we went to like the lowest point in the city. We went into into the catacombs beneath the city, you know, those amazing winding hallways lined with human skulls. And boy, that was unnerving to be, you know, 100 feet below below the sidewalk, surrounded by skeleton was a little bit scary, but it was also really cool and found its way into the movie with the court of miracles.

Mike  40:23

Think a bunch of callouts kids and stick them in the catacombs.

Kirk  40:28

Yeah, I never knew. I honestly, I didn't know at the time when I was considering we were an animation that, you know, it would be like joining the Navy, it was like going down a nation and see the world. I had no idea that read so much travel involved. It was wonderful.

Mike  40:45

Speaking of Notre Dom, I don't know if you know this, but there's actually a big theory that the cathedral is alive in the film, for example, when Frolo tries to drown Quasimodo and it's staring at him - is that true?

Kirk  40:57

Yeah, that's completely intentional. We literally talked of the cathedral as being a character in the film, and that it would have a personality, and that it would smile upon those that it loved, and would be extremely menacing, and glower at those that did not love. Like, Frolo! You can see how it welcomes Esmerelda and beckons Esmerelda into it, and responds to Esmeralda’s basic decency and her kindness and you can see how it responds to Frolo, you know, and his sin and his lust and his deceitfulness in a completely different way. So yeah, these were these two aspects of the cathedral that we wanted to show and yeah, we treated it like it's it had its own personality. And that personality was expressed through lighting, through the statuary, you know, where we literally would sometimes give the statuary, a disapproving expression. You know, from the perspective of somebody like Frodo.

Mike  42:09

That's pretty awesome. I think it really makes sense. It's interesting talking to you about the movies you've made. And obviously, you're on the Disney animation part of things. But you're also talking about how it's very, very collaborative, you're kind of ripping it up together, which is something that's kind of famed for the Pixar brain trust. But am I right, that you got pulled into a kind of similar thing on the Lion King, where you all got in there being like, right, Action stations, were ripping this apart?

Kirk  42:34

That's absolutely right. They were having they were having a lot of story trouble on Lion King. And they they convened Rob and Roger and Don Hahn, Ron Minkoff, Roger hours, and Don Hahn producer, and the directors of Lauren King held a weekend meeting. And they invited not only their key story artists like Brenda Chapman, and Chris Sanders. They also invited myself and Gary, and we spent the entire weekend basically ripping apart the story outline and starting from scratch, using the raw material and the characters. And it's like, we sort of knew where it had to go. But how we were going to get there was was what we were reconsidering. And we had a lot of conversations, and just scribbled ideas out on paper. I remember, I remember, you know, being part of the conversation, where we conceived the entire Simba sees his father's ghost sequence in that room. And I remember these thumbnail drawings that Chris Sanders did and just stuck on the boat stuck onto the board. Gosh, I remember that phrase, circle of life being bandied about in that room for the first time. Wow. And which is a became the basis obviously for the song that became this massive worldwide hit. But that came out of a conversation in that room where we're saying, Well, you know, this, this story isn't linear. It's more like Bambi it's a circle. It's a circle of life. Somebody else said, you know, you step back from and it's hard to to, to say, Oh, well, this was this person's idea. This was that person's idea. Because it was such a kind of kind of chaotic and collaborative and crazy process where people are just like shouting out ideas and throwing sketches and slapping them up on the wall and standing back and then attempting to stand up and pitch through them. But yeah, that the the outline that we came up with on that weekend was the outline that eventually was pitched to Jeffrey Katzenberg, who is the head of the entire Disney studio at the time. And and it was the outline that they stuck with for the remainder of the film. And we referenced a bunch of things in that meeting we referenced Hamlet And we referenced the biblical story of Joseph and his brothers. Those were kind of the two sort of pieces of classical storytelling that we kept going back to, and not Kimba the White Line, as some people have had suggested.

Mike  45:16

Interesting. Was there anything that you remember that was on the board? That was notable that didn't go in? In the end?

Kirk  45:22

Oh, in that meeting, not Not that I recall, because we were really talking broad beats in that, in that meeting. So so the the broad beat stayed the same. You know, like, in any, like, the development of any movie, there were, you know, things that dropped out. But interestingly, it was that meeting where we kind of, you know, shoved aside some of some older concepts. I think one or two characters got got kind of fell out. During the course of that meeting. I can't remember what they were.

Mike  45:52

When you run your own story rooms for your own films that you're directing? What's your approach to the collaborative process? Because it sounds like you're very non otter. I guess it's different in animation, though, isn't it?

Kirk  46:04

Oh, yeah, no, I it's, to me the strength of the best animated films is that they're so collaborative in nature, I always feel like the process of making animation, I think, is very much like another uniquely American art form jazz, it's like, as a director, I always feel like I'm working with a bunch of jazz musicians. And I'm trying to set the tempo, but I have to leave room for people to improvise and solo and do the thing that they do. So Well, I really enjoy it when it's collaborative. And it's a really free exchange of ideas. And I think that comes from from my years as a storyboard artist. I appreciate it. Appreciate that when I was on cruise, where the director was really listened. And there was a lot of feedback and collaboration and just kind of a, just a joyful and fun process rather than a really dictatorial, you know, purely director driven process. So that's what me and Gary liked. And it's what we tried to encourage our films. And to me, it makes movies better. I feel like you get the best of everybody. Well, I

Mike  47:15

think it definitely worked. I hope so. Library of Congress and all that sort of thing. I think it's I think it went fine. And I think it went okay. Now, I think the obvious thing to do as we move further into this interview, is to talk about Atlantis, but I'm going to talk about something which I don't think I've heard you talk about before, which is Spirited Away, I noticed that you were involved in the ADR of the English version of the famous Japanese animation. Yeah. And I wanted to hear about your experience on that, you know, getting a Japanese script in the mail. How does that work?

Kirk  47:46

Sure, sure. Yeah, believe it or not, I did that after Atlantis. And it was actually one of the last things I did at the studio before before I left. This was back in 2002. I heard through the grapevine that Disney is going to be distributing several of Miyazaki films and that the task of dubbing spirit of the way in which had been an international sensation. Prior to coming to the US, the task of dubbing that was was was had fallen to John Lasseter. And this was back in the early days when when there was there was a much kind of more collegial relationship between feature animation in Burbank and Pixar up in Northern California. There was a very free exchange of artists and ideas, and we would give notes on each other's movies and stuff all the time. Because I was on the side and I still had a few months left on my contract. Tom Schumacher, who had succeeded, Peter Schneider called me into his office and said, John Lasseter is producing this English dub of spirit of a way. I want you to have a look at the movie and consider directing the English dub of the of this and what that would involve would be working with the writers to adapt the screenplay, casting the actors who, who who would play the Americanized version of all the roles and then directing the recording sessions and then be part of the mix, you know, directing the mix when the voices were incorporated into the final soundtrack. So yeah, I thought I it sounded challenging. It sounded interesting. I hadn't seen the movie yet. But it was screened for me in our downstairs theatre. And of course, you know, I just fell in love with it. It was so transporting it's so amazing. It was it was one of the most beautiful and moving and just just visually stunning animated movies I'd seen ever, you know, from any director, and so so the chance to be a part of it, you know, I thought I thought would be would be exciting and fun. But after watching it I realised that that my job was real. about trying to stay as close to the spirit of the original film, no pun intended as I as I possibly could. I didn't want the American dub, I didn't want the quality of the voices to feel dubbed quoted in air quotes. There was something in the Japanese performances that to my ear, even though we didn't speak a word of Japanese film was very relaxed and naturalistic, nobody was putting on a cartoony voice. It just felt very emotionally real to me. And so I wanted to hold on to that feeling of emotional reality, when I went into the recording studio to record the American voices. So that guided our casting choices, and it guided the writers when they were adapting the dialogue. It was a very talented husband and wife, team, Don and Cindy Hewitt. And their job, which they did an absolutely amazing job was to not only retain the meaning of the original Japanese dialogue, but phrase it in a way that still felt like natural human speech and conveyed the personality of the character and and whatever plot points needed to be covered. So that was a tall order. And they did an amazing job with it, because my number one rule, which I kind of short handed down to a very short phrase, I hated Japanese I hated, in particular, a Japanese anime that sounded dumped, and I was the worst offender to me, it was a show that I grew up with Speed Racer. When it was adapted for American audience of audiences, it had absolutely horrendous American voices that were so grating to my ear, and the dialogue that they wrote with the characters. They seem to be only concerned with kind of making sure they had enough syllables to fit the number of open and closed mouths that were in the animation. So they were all full of unnecessary words and little guttural exclamations, and things that made it sound very weird and stilted and unnatural. I was like, I don't want any of that. No Speed Racer cannot sound like Speed Racer, so no Speed Racer was was my rule. So anytime, anytime, you know, we had a line of dialogue that did not to my ear sound like a way a human being would naturally phrase something, we would rewrite it until it did.

Mike  52:47

I think that's the right choice.

Kirk  52:48

Yeah. And I think all that work paid off because I was really happy with the way spirit of the way turned out. We had a wonderful cast debate Chase was absolutely wonderful as Chihiro and she was just a natural I mean, she was still a little kid back then. And at the time, Dube was was was playing the evil ghost in the ring movies. She's the little girl crawls out of the well. I mean, in the American version of the of the ring movies. And she literally was shooting I think I think it was on the rink two, I think was on the sequel, she was like shooting in a water tank across town at 20th Century Fox. And then she'd be driven over to the Disney studio on the other side of town by her mother, her hair still wet from spinning the morning and the water tank. And and performing as a hero for us. And she just had no problem. I think it was the fact that she she she was was such a gifted kid and had such a wonderful imagination. She just just could slip into this character and into this world. And you know, become a part of it, even though she was concentrating on trying to because we have the video monitor in front of all of our actors as they were doing the dialogue so they could try to match the amount of action. Amazingly, she never got hung up by the the technical aspect of it, how she was able to because she's in every shot in that movie. I mean, my God, she had more dialogue than anybody else. Yet she would nail it, you know, on her first or second take, and it would feel real, it would feel sincere, and it would also match the the lip sync. So again, she was tremendously gifted and I think the fact that she was a kid and not an adult, pretending to be a kid enabled her to to step into the shoes of this imaginary character in an imaginary world, you know, without a second thought.

Mike  54:43

Wow. I mean, that's amazing insight. I'm glad I went down that that rabbit hole. Now, Kirk, I'd like to finish on red carpet rookies with a quick fire questionnaire as my own Ode to any actor studio. So just think of whatever comes into your head and answer if that if that's okay. The first question being what is one of the best pieces of advice you've ever been given?

Kirk  55:05

One of the best pieces of advice I've ever been given is surround yourself with talent. And then let the talent do their job. jobs.

Mike  55:19

Number two, do you have a favourite film?

Kirk  55:21

Boy oh boy, that changes on a day to day basis. Currently, it's the godfather.

Mike  55:27

Good choice. Number three, what gives you a reason to get out of bed every day for a day of animation or direction?

Kirk  55:34

Ever since I was a little kid, I've always loved living in my imagination. You know, even though I'm very good at distinct, distinguishing fantasy from reality. I love the fact that that I can actually earn a paycheck by living in my imagination, because it's my favourite place to be so so that's what what gets me up every morning is the chance to to go into this this infinite playground of my mind. And hopefully, you know, play around in there with with some friends

Mike  56:09

and have that answer and I'm glad we've been able to experience it to number four, which job normally I say which job for you is which job because you do so many would you do in the industry if you weren't doing yours, plural?

Kirk  56:20

Believe it or not. I like to act and I love acting. And and there was a time when I considered being an actor. I did a lot of theatre when I was in high school. And I even did a voice in cranium command. I was I was I was one of the characters in the main show. I had done the temporary voice for it when we were putting together the storyboards. And the director of the main show who again was Jerry Reese from Brave Little Toaster. He liked what I he liked the version of the hypothalamus character that I did. He liked it so much that he he kept it in capitalism, the attraction. So I was the voice of the hypothalamus and Ukrainian command for 14 years.

Mike  57:04

So real claim to fame Kirk forget about Beauty and the Beast. This is the hardest one I apologise to all my guests. If you could work with one person living or dead. Who would it be? Jim answer? Easy. Nice.

Kirk  57:16

Without question. Jim Hanson, Jim Henson was another childhood hero. His his imagination was so amazing. His sense of design was was so pure and joyous. And so I was so captivated by his characters. I remember the very first time I saw the Muppets on a colour television, this was probably in the late 60s, I was completely blown away by how vibrant and colourful they were, you know, they weren't just Shades of Grey, you know, they were blue or bright green or bright yellow, they was so amazing. And the characters were so warm and had so much personality, and his voice in particular, when he voiced Kermit or Ernie, it just had such a soothing effect to my ear. He just seemed like like, like an adult that you would really want to have as an uncle or, or a best friend. And so so I always really admired him and I'm sorry, I never got to meet him. And I'm sorry, I never got to work with him.

Mike  58:19

I love answer. Number six, ideally for filmmaking, but doesn't matter can be your choice. What is a book that everyone should read?

Kirk  58:26

Um, I would say if anybody is interested in storyboarding one of the best books you can read is called the five C's of cinematography. Mmm, interesting.

Mike  58:37

We'll check that one out. Yes. And then finally, if you want an Oscar, who would you think?

Kirk  58:42

I would think my parents I would think my mom and dad for always making sure that there was drawing paper and art supplies in my house. In my in my house growing up, there was no such thing as wasting paper. And I remember my father said, you know, to say you're wasting paper is the same thing as saying you're wasting thoughts.

Mike  59:03

Wow, fantastic. I know Matt. No. Sadly, our time has come to a close. Thank you so much for your advice, and frankly, a masterclass in stories and storytelling. Thank you so much. You're very

Kirk  59:11

Welcome. This was a lot of fun.

Mike  59:15

Thank you for listening to another episode of red carpet rookies. To help us grow and be able to interview more amazing film and TV professionals. Please do subscribe and drop us a rating on the Apple podcast store on your iPhone or online if you're an Android user. If you're interested in regular updates, the best thing you can do is to join our mailing list at red carpet rookies.com. Or alternatively, find us on Instagram at Red Carpet rookies or Twitter at RC rookies pod. I also tweet regularly about my own learnings in the business, Mike, battle on Twitter. So please do come and say hi, thank you again for listening. We'll see you next time.