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A Chat with Disney's Burny Mattinson about "Sleeping Beauty"'s Maleficent

Burny Mattinson, courtesy of the Animation GuildOn Tuesday, August 19, 2008, Toon Zone News was able to sit in on an on-line chat with longtime Disney animator Burny Mattinson to chat about his work on Maleficent in the classic animated film Sleeping Beauty. He got his start in the studio mailroom, but moved into the animation department as an in-betweener for Lady and the Tramp. He worked under legendary Disney animator Marc Davis to animate Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty, and continued as Davis’ assistant in 101 Dalmatians. Mattinson also got to work on films like The Sword in the Stone, The Jungle Book, The Aristocats, Robin Hood, and Winnie the Pooh and Tigger Too. He is also the director of Mickey’s Christmas Carol, and wrote, produced, and directed The Great Mouse Detective. As a member of Disney Feature Animation’s story team, Mattinson also worked on Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, Pocahontas, Mulan, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and Tarzan. His most recent work is in the new Goofy short film “How to Hook Up Your Home Theater.”

The transcript of the chat with Mattinson follows, lightly edited for grammar and spelling.

BURNY MATTINSON: Hi Everyone – this is Burny…I’ve been seeing some great questions and looking forward to a great chat!

Q: How much of Maleficent’s onscreen personality comes from Eleanor Audley’s rich performance and how much is classic Marc Davis?

MATTINSON: I’d say 60% of it was Eleanor’s and Marc followed up with the rest of it! He was highly influenced by her – she set the tone for how the character should act.

Maleficent, looking evilQ: What design features make Maleficient a great villain?

MATTINSON: The head-dress certainly made a strong statement…her being tall and overpowering the frame and her bombastic acting where she kept everything controlled and would explode suddenly – that created a strong character.

Q: When you create a character, there are a lot of designs. Can you tell us about the “elimination” process of how do you get to the pick the final design, who has “the last word” etc…..?

MATTINSON: In this case, Walt had the last word on the design and as it passes between different designers and Marc Davis, it afforded them a chance to take a little bit of everybody’s design and mix it together, but Walt made the last decision on each character – and on every aspect of the picture. He wouldn’t let everything go unless he saw it and that’s why it took so long to make this picture as he wanted to pass on everything, since at the time he was so involved with Disneyland.

Q: When you were working on this film, did you have any sort of idea that it would be as timeless and remain so popular 50 years later?

MATTINSON: No! We were pleasantly surprised when everybody saw the final print and I think we all felt we made something classic. But at the time, we didn’t realize that this would become such a beloved classic – we were too close to the working problems of it…just getting the work done, but then, when it was all together and we saw it for the first time, we realized we had something!

Q: How has animation at Disney changed since you first worked on Sleeping Beauty?

MATTINSON: When we first worked on Sleeping Beauty we were trying to do a more classic approach to our animation. We were trying to be more exacting in the design aspects – that was strongly influenced. We were trying to learn our ‘straights’ against ‘curves’ to fit within Eyvind Earle’s stylized backgrounds. This was a slow process. Later on we went to a looser approach on 101 Dalmatians, where we could speed up the process but we were also trying to get back into the classic style of animation. Even today, we still try to keep a classic approach – perhaps not as designed as on Sleeping Beauty, but we still try to keep a classic approach to our contemporary titles.

Q: Why did Eyvind Earle chose purple for the flames of her dress – and what was his title?

MATTINSON: Eyvind Earle’s title was production designer. His choice of purple was a creative choice to fit his backgrounds.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you received from Walt?

MATTINSON: When I first met him, it was in the elevator (we only had one elevator on the lot) and I said, “Good Morning, Mr. Disney.” And he said, “No son, it’s Walt.” He later added another elevator because the first one was so slow!

Q: How was working with one of the legendary Nine Old Men of animation?

MATTINSON: It was wonderful! Marc was an absolute gentleman with total confidence in what he did. He took an interest in a very naive, young, aspiring artist (me). He took me under his wing and taught me practically everything I know in animation. In fact, he looked at my work early on and he said I should go down to Chouinard Art School and he’d let me sit in his classes. He taught me how to draw the human figure.

Q: What was the deciding factor on settling for the final look of the character?

MATTINSON: Again, it would be Walt. Walt had several designs put before him and he made the choice going through these designs and he chose the final design – with the horns and so forth. That’s why Marc made a variety of designs to show to Walt and to let him make the choices. Marc spent a lot of time with his designs and he spent a lot of time with Eyvind checking his designs – which is why he made her (Maleficent) such an elongated figure to work with the horizontal and vertical backgrounds that Eyvind designed.

Aurora in the forestQ: What’s the one scene or sequence in Sleeping Beauty that you worked on that you are the most proud of?

MATTINSON: The first scene in sequence 8 which was in the forest and it was Aurora beginning to sing the song to the birds as she was picking the berries. That was actually the first scene that was animated in the film and I had to do it over 4 times. Once with her, once with the birds and then we had to clean it up twice and then Marc gave me a cake that said “Happy 31″ which was the number of the scene to celebrate that it finally went in to color and Walt bought off on it!

Q: Why did you decide to film Sleeping Beauty on 70mm?

MATTINSON: Cinemascope was the new wave at the time and we had just done Lady and the Tramp which was originally to be done in standard 35mm frame. Walt said, “Let’s capitalize on Cinemascope,” and we added the wider aspect into the designs. So, when it came to Sleeping Beauty he wanted to make it bigger and better and said, “Let’s go with 70mm” because he was trying to make a true classic. In fact he asked that we design this design as a moving tapestry.

Maleficent as a dragonQ: Am I right in thinking that the scene when Maleficient metamorphoses into the dragon is one of the earliest sequences to use the Xerox machine? What was your experience of the change in process?

MATTINSON: Actually, Woolie Reitherman was directing the sequence of the dragon fight and he used the Xerox process for the first time on the dragon. I think they went back over the Xerox line with the ink & paint, but he did use the Xerox process for enlarging and reducing her in the frame as an experiment. That actually was the start of Disney using the Xerox process in animation. It was a very crude process – we used an Omega 8×10 enlarger as our camera and we had these old aluminum inking boards. We coated those with the Xerox material. It was very crude, but by the next picture, we had a first class operation with Xerox.

Q: What made Maleficient so different from villains previously made by Disney?

MATTINSON: One thing that got me was the fact that her reaction at not being invited to the party was a bit over the top – which is pretty darn cruel for no reason…

Q: When you thought of Maleficient, who or what were you thinking about?

MATTINSON: I think we were very influenced by Eleanor Audley – she had done the voice and reference work for the stepmother in Cinderella. Everyone thought that was such a strong character – she was so controlled and evil in her acting and we wanted someone of that stature for this character, so Eleanor really set the style.

Kill the dwagon, kill the dwagon!Q: Sleeping Beauty is one of the only Disney animated films where the hero takes out the villain himself, while most other Disney villains meet their end indirectly. Did you have to fight at all to use that ending at the time?

MATTINSON: No, I don’t believe we did. We needed to resolve Maleficent in some manner – certainly she imprisoned Phillip and caused Sleeping Beauty and the castle to go to sleep and the only one that could really do it was the Prince. There was no one else except the other fairies who couldn’t use their magic against her, so it was up to the Prince. That was a strong story decision, so it was it up to the Prince to overcome Maleficent to get to his princess.

Q: Were there problems during the production of the movie or did everything happen according to the plan?

MATTINSON: No there were problems all the time through the picture. Namely, it was a very slow process because we were trying to make it such a classic and we were using more abstract design elements which created a lot of problems. The very fact that we had to animate every frame instead of shooting each frame twice. If we didn’t the animation would strobe against Eyvind’s backgrounds. We were working on 3 field paper and when you’re doing in-betweens and every drawing, you’re flipping back and forth with very wide paper which slowed the process down dramatically.

Q: The Blu-ray presentation of Sleeping Beauty is marvelous, showcasing more background detail than we’ve ever seen before. Is high definition worrisome to animators since even the smallest design flaws may now become much more apparent?

MATTINSON: No – I think quite the contrary – we want to see the image as beautiful as it was originally intended to be. Blu-ray — I love it!

Q: Can you see any elements of Maleficent in subsequent Disney villains?

MATTINSON: Cruella was again, Marc Davis and I believe the voice was Betty Lou Gerson and she was a classic radio actress. She had the same things that Eleanor had in her voice and Marc really had a lot of fun with that character. She was bombastic all the time. Every animator loves to have a character move – not be very stilted. Again, Marc wanted a more controlled character in Maleficent that was very close with very little movement. He wanted to save the shock value for when she suddenly exploded. Her movement was used for shock value.

Q: How many animated features did Walt have in development at any given time? Were there any that didn’t get made you would have loved to be a part of?

MATTINSON: About 1940, Walt was starting to do four features at one time (Pinocchio, Bambi, Fantasia and Dumbo) and they were all in work status. At the same time he had stories that were in development like Cinderella and Peter Pan, in which development hit a wall so they were put on the shelf and revisited later. Walt was disappointed in Pinocchio and Fantasia not doing as well as they should because of the overseas market disappearing during World War II, that he was going to go on a long vacation. Someone sent a little series of pictures of an elephant character and he gave it to Joe Grant and said, “See what you can do with it.” So, Joe and Dick Humor developed the story of Dumbo while Walt was away, which was done very fast because it was so simple and it was very successful.

Q: Did anything of Maleficent make it into Ratigan in The Great Mouse Detective? Or was Vincent Price enough of a lead there?

MATTINSON: Actually Vincent Price’s performance in Champagne for Caesar influenced us in getting Vincent Price to do it. We showed that to all the animators and they said, “that’s our Ratigan.” Actually, to begin with, Ratigan was a really small, very crotchety type of character. But, when we saw the performance of Vincent Price in that film, he was very broad shouldered and very eccentric in that character and we knew we had our character. When we went on the stage to record him for Ratigan he asked, “How should I do this?” and we said, “Like Champagne for Caesar!”

The Fairy Godmothers of Sleeping BeautyQ: Marc’s characters were always so dynamic and expressive, did that make it challenging for the other character leads to match his emotional intensity?

MATTINSON: I don’t believe so, Marc’s expertise was in drawing very pretty ladies, such as Tinker Bell. He always wound up doing the lady characters – the pretty women, like Cinderella, so when he got the chance to do Maleficent instead of the pretty girls, I think he had more latitude to have more fun – be more expressive.

Q: Who is a great modern day villain?

MATTINSON: The villain in The Dark Knight – the Joker, Heath Ledger! As for modern Disney villains, Scar from The Lion King was a good “stinker.” Jeremy Irons was great – I did a lot of storyboard work on that character and listening to his voice was so great! Medusa from The Rescuers – Milt Kahl did all the animation on her — Geraldine Page was so great! He had more fun drawing her since Milt always did all the princes — so he had a ball when he got hold of that character.

Q: What is your favorite Disney animation that you didn’t work on?

MATTINSON: Pinocchio – I wasn’t able to work on it since I was just a little kid, but it had the biggest impact on me because it’s why I wanted to work here at Disney.

Q: Is there a story or a fairy tale that you would really love to adopt or see adopted as an animated movie?

MATTINSON: Paul Gallico’s The Abandoned. In fact, the studio owns the book and many of the Nine Old Men went to Walt and said this is a story they really want to do. They were saying it was the one picture that got away from them and they all wanted to make.

Q: Maleficent is one of the most famous villains in the animation history. She became even more notorious with the successful game Kingdom Hearts. What do you think it made her so famous?

MATTINSON: She was in such a classic picture that she stood out probably more strongly than other characters. Her thinking process is very quiet and cunning and you’re anticipating the next moment and then suddenly she blows…she comes on so sweetly and then suddenly you have this evilness bursting out of her – it resulted in such a strong, memorable character. For me it was a joy working with Marc – he made everything so fun and easy – he was such a strong designer. I learned so much from him. Everything was so well worked out with Marc. He was such a calm fellow and really knew his craft and it was easily conveyed in his work. So no wonder she was such a memorable character.

Q: What’s your advice to a someone who dreams of becoming an animator?

MATTINSON: Do lots of quick sketching and watch people in restaurants or wherever, and just do quick drawings of their poses. Make them very expressive. I didn’t go to art school I came to Disney with desire to draw. I drew all my life and when I came to the studio I was lucky enough to work with Marc and he taught me so much, but I would encourage anyone to focus on getting as much art education as you possibly can get.

Aurora singing to the birdsQ: What’s the one thing you think nobody notices in Sleeping Beauty that they should pay attention to?

MATTINSON: Watch the beautiful backgrounds – the animation is so well done, especially the fairies when they’re little miniature fairies. The restored aspect ratio now includes so much more imagery that has never been seen before and the forest sequences are fantastic in Blu-ray.

Q: You’ve worked in many unforgettable movies. Which one is your favourite?

MATTINSON: I have a very strong feeling for The Great Mouse Detective. Beyond that Beauty and the Beast was one of my favorites to work on. Lady and the Tramp was my first film with the studio, and, of course, Sleeping Beauty has a very soft spot in my heart. Thanks everyone for such a great series of questions – I’ve really enjoyed this experience and hope you enjoy the new release of Sleeping Beauty – it’s a real treat! Burny!!

Toon Zone News would like to thank Burny Mattinson for taking the time to chat with us, and for Mac McLean at Click Communications and Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment for making the chat possible. Image of Burny Mattinson borrowed from The Animation Guild. All other images are © Disney; All Rights Reserved. Sleeping Beauty will be released in a 2-disc Platinum Edition DVD and Blu-ray disc on October 7, 2008.

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