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PR Interviews with "Bolt" Co-Directors and Exec. Producer John Lasseter

by on March 25, 2009

In conjuction with the DVD and Blu-ray release of Bolt, Disney has released three interviews with Chris Williams and Byron Howard, co-directors of Bolt, and John Lasseter, executive producer of Bolt and Chief Creative Officer of Disney and Pixar.

Bolt is available now on DVD and Blu-ray disc. For more information on the releases, read Toon Zone News’ older coverage here, and don’t forget to also check out our roundtable interview with Bolt head of story Nathan Greno and visual development artist/voice of Rhino and Disney’s 10 Fun Facts about Bolt.

CHRIS WILLIAMS, Director of Bolt

Chris WilliamsQUESTION: How did you decide on the first big action sequence in Bolt?

CHRIS WILLIAMS: The first scene is a very quiet one to get people to connect with the characters and then there is a shock to the system with this really over the top action set piece. I am a big fan of action movies, so we wanted to have something that would really surprise people. So we drew from Casino Royale, The Bourne Identity and classics like The Road Warrior, Terminator and The Matrix – all those action films. And of course we looked at The Incredibles which shows what you can do with action in animation. We wanted to go as far as we could with it and we thought we had; then John Lasseter came along and said we could go further! So we did.

QUESTION: How did you achieve the emotion impact in Bolt?

CHRIS WILLIAMS: The fun has to be funny and entertaining but there has to be also an emotional truth; a core story that will affect people. That is something that John Lasseter always strives for. One of the things that you learn with John is not to be afraid of sincerity. If you are trying to find an emotional truth, then really go for it. With that in mind I think we were able to achieve some of those moments when big, burly men have admitted made them cry. I take that as the highest compliment when someone says it affected them emotionally. It is a great reward for us to hear a bit of sobbing going on when people watch Bolt.

QUESTION: Originally Bolt was a film called American Dog. When John Lasseter brought you on board, did you start again from scratch?

CHRIS WILLIAMS: Basically we kept the high concept of a dog that was raised on a TV action show and has become to believe all the fiction of it and believes he has certain powers. But beyond that John did not ask us to keep anything. So I had to ask myself what story I wanted to tell. So we started from scratch and re-invented the characters and the story. It would have been a mistake for me to see how I could reassemble things or keep certain things. It had to be a personal story.

To me the story was about a dog and there have been lots of dog movies but sometimes the mistake that people make is that they will treat it like it is a person in a dog suit. There had to be something true about this dog, I wanted it to be true to what dogs really are and dogs are loving and loyal, beyond all else. There really is not much else to them. That absolute love and trust they have with their owner is really special and that is why we love dogs so much. I wanted that to be a big part of the main character and for it to be central to the theme of the story. I talked with John Lasseter about how this was a movie about trust and the risks and rewards of trust. We demonstrate that opening yourself to somebody has its risks and you can be hurt. But ultimately the movie says that it is worth the risk and you have to give yourself over to achieve true happiness.

QUESTION: Was there a delicate handing over of the reins when it was felt that American Dog was not working?

CHRIS WILLIAMS: We needed a clean page. Everyone realised that it would not benefit anybody to take bits and pieces of things and try to salvage things. So it was a do-over. As soon as we changed direction we were creating new characters and building new personalities.

QUESTION: How did you get the dog’s characteristics so right?

CHRIS WILLIAMS: If you are going to make a movie about a dog, you are going to have to bring in dogs and draw dogs and film dogs and study them. We looked at classic Disney films and looked at the observations that the hand drawn animators made in animating dogs. Then you have a wealth of animation to draw from and you can find those tiny little mannerisms.

QUESTION: What extras might be on the DVD of Bolt?

CHRIS WILLIAMS: We were filmed doing some things on the movie. One thing that will be on it I think is the exact moment that Mark Walton received the news that he was to do the voice of Rhino. We sprung it on him and he went a little crazy, smashing things and jumping up and down. We captured that on video. They are also planning a game for the Blu-Ray.

QUESTION: What breed of dog is Bolt?

CHRIS WILLIAMS: We were inspired by the American White Shepherd but we borrowed elements from lots of many dogs.

QUESTION: How was the experience of working with Miley Cyrus?

CHRIS WILLIAMS: She is quite a phenomenon. We have had big voice talent in our movies, stars like John Travolta and Tom Hanks. But our producer was inundated with requests from people who wanted to bring their kids in to meet Miley Cyrus when she came to record. Of course he had to refuse. As far as working with her is concerned, I was really very pleasantly surprised. She is such a huge star but all that matters to us was that she could act the scenes. I was impressed, she came prepared, she delivered everything we asked for. There were some challenging emotional scenes that she had to pull off and she nailed them. I was impressed by how professional she was and a lot had to do with her parents. Her mother was there for most of the recording sessions. She is very connected with her family and that has kept her grounded.

BYRON HOWARD, Co-director of Bolt

Byron HowardQUESTION: Was there a delicate handing over of the reins when it was felt that American Dog was not working?

BYRON HOWARD: Instead of putting Band-Aids on stories that are not working, it is a smarter decision to take it down to the ground floor and figure what about this movie is going to work and where do we want it to go and then building the pieces from there.

QUESTION: How did you achieve the emotional impact in Bolt?

BYRON HOWARD: That doesn’t come easily. Chris Williams predominantly over-saw the story of the film and he and John Lasseter were all about creating believable characters. You have to believe that the little dog loves the little girl. If you go too silly with it and don’t treat it seriously people will not invest in it and won’t react emotionally. Nothing is real on the screen and it is a miracle of animation that your mind forgets that you are watching animated characters and you invest yourself in them. We knew that we needed a character to be the antithesis of Bolt, so that’s where Mittens came from. Even the color of the dog and the cat was important. We wanted this white, iconic dog and then to contrast the black, cynical cat. We completed the trio with this hamster who believes almost more in Bolt than Bolt does himself. Rhino was a great foil for the cat because you now have two crazy characters on the trip. At first – before Ratatouille came out – Rhino was going to be a rat. But it seemed that a domesticated animal in the trio would make sense. Someone suggested a hamster in a ball and we stopped for a second to wonder if anyone had done that before, because it was such a great idea.

QUESTION: What about the character of the showbiz agent in Bolt?

BYRON HOWARD: We do know people like that, they do exist. It is a kind of loving poke at Hollywood. We knew that if we were setting the movie in Hollywood we had to embrace some of the stereotypes. Bolt does not have a true villain – the TV show might be thought to be the villain because it keeps the dog and the girl apart – but the agent character, who has been swallowed by the system, is a kind of a villain. He is completely about his job. He is what could happen to Penny is she goes down the wrong path. She could lose her humanity.

QUESTION: How did you get the dog’s characteristics so right?

BYRON HOWARD: It is all research and John is very big on research. Whenever we dive into a new subject on a movie there is an expectation from John Lasseter that we will know our stuff. We had to do research on dogs and cats and hamsters and look at their fur and how they move and what makes each animal unique. John noticed the entertainment value of the pigeons early on and he said we should look at tons of footage of pigeons and try to capture something real about them and understand why they move they way they do.

QUESTION: What breed of dog is Bolt?

BYRON HOWARD: We wanted a white, heroic dog but then we looked at different breeds. We saw a puppy of a White American shepherd and thought it was cute, but we kept shrinking him down to a tiny dog that could do incredible things. We wanted it to be so flexible that people saw their own pets in Bolt.

QUESTION: How was the experience of working with Miley Cyrus?

BYRON HOWARD: She has some parallels to Penny, her character in the movie. Both of them are surrounded by Hollywood hype, glamour and glitz. When Miley came in to record the first time she was very tired but very excited and the next day she was starting her movie. Her schedule was very full but for someone who was 15 years old she kept it together and was very impressive.

QUESTION: Did you solely focus on Bolt during the two years or were you working on other stuff at the same time?

BYRON HOWARD: All we could think about was Bolt. You wake up, eat breakfast quickly and it was long days and late nights when we focused solely on Bolt.

JOHN LASSETER, Executive Producer of Bolt

John LasseterQUESTION: What is the history of Bolt?

JOHN LASSETER: Bolt was already in existence, but it was by the name of American Dog. We restarted the story and I brought on Chris Williams and Byron Howard, two amazing young talents, to direct it. I was by their side through every step of the production of this and it’s remarkable that the studio rallied around these two directors, great leaders, and they made this film in a record amount of time.

QUESTION: What were the changes between American Dog and Bolt?

JOHN LASSETER: What really is left is the basic concept that a dog has been raised on the set of a TV show and believes it is real. Chris Sanders [director of American Dog] is a good friend of mine and he’s a brilliant film maker, but he had a vision that was a little more out there than we felt the film should be. So it was one of those rare times when you have to make a change of director. We’ve had to do it with Toy Story 2, with Ratatouille and now with Bolt. Anyway, I brought in Chris Williams and Byron Howard and they restarted the film to the story that you now see. It’s completely different.

QUESTION: There is a lot going on within the story of Bolt, isn’t there?

JOHN LASSETER: There are so many layers to this movie. I think people have this expectation that it’s a kind of cute movie with talking animals and then the action stuff surprises them at the beginning and then they kind of get into it. When Rhino shows up his level of humor is something you haven’t seen before. And the scene that I love is when Mittens is teaching Bolt to be a dog. When they come out of it, there’s a certain feeling you have; like a level of emotion and connection that they have. I think that it’s, the emotion of this film that is really surprising audiences, but it’s something that we strive so much for in all the films.

The hardest thing to get is true emotion. I always believe you need to earn that with the audience. You can’t just tell them, “OK, be sad now.” Humor, you can add. Even to the last minute you can be adding little bits of humor. But the true earned emotion is something that you really have to craft and it’s a trial and error with our story reels. In animation what we do is so expensive to produce that we only have one chance to do every shot. So what we do is really use the storyboard process in creating a version of the movie using the storyboard drawings. We call it the story reel and this we will work and rework and rework and rework many, many times until we get it working just right. I’m the guy who green lights the movies and green lights even the individual sequences to go into production and I will never let a sequence go into production unless it’s working fantastically in story reel because then it gets a thousand times better when you animate it. But I believe strongly that no amount of good animation will save a bad story. That’s why we’ll devote ourselves to reworking the story until it’s just right. And that’s what we did with Bolt and working many of the sequences 20 or 30 times over until we got it just right before we let it go into production. I was adamant that they were not allowed to put something into production until we knew it was working really great.

QUESTION: It’s the attention to detail in these films that is so important isn’t it?

JOHN LASSETER: I tell all the directors I work with that they have every chance to make a movie right. It takes four years to make one of these films and there are no excuses after the movie’s done. It’s going to be that way forever. Steve Jobs, who’s been my best friend and partner for 20 years at Pixar, always said no matter how amazing the computers they make at Apple are, the lifespan of that computer is three to five years and then it’s out of date because technology and people are moving on. But if you make these animated films right, they have the potential to last forever. Just try to think of another film from 1938 that is watched as much today as Snow White is or even go to 1995 and Toy Story. There’s longevity to animation and that’s what I talked to my directors about and that’s why we really sweat every single detail. We have five sons and like every family they get addicted to some movie or cartoon and they watch it again and again and again. My wife said, “John please don’t make your movie for the first time someone sees it, make it for the one hundredth time a parent has to suffer through it.” So we put a lot of detail into our films, a lot of layers, and a lot of things. What is so important in all the films we make is the heart….the emotion. And that emotion has to be earned, you can’t tell the audience to feel it. In Bolt there is a scene where Bolt finally makes it back and runs towards Penny and the last thing you expect is that another dog goes to her. When we were developing the story we kept saying that was the key moment in the film – the gut punch that the audience has got to feel. So every single thing from the beginning of the film is leading to that moment. It is all crafted for a reason. This is what happens in the development of our films we find these moments and work backwards from that.

QUESTION: How was animator Mark Walton cast as the English language voice of Rhino?

JOHN LASSETER: Mark Walton is a Disney story artist. When we create a film, often we’re creating the story and the characters even before we know who is going to do the voice. Once we cast an actor like John Travolta doing the voice, and we start working with him, he really adds a tremendous amount and makes the character that much better. Actors really do have a lot to do with how good these characters are. But early on, we’ll be doing the story reel and using scratch voices. These scratch voices are done by people at the studio. What’s interesting is that animators are actors with pencils or with a keyboard and many of them are very good actors. Chris and Byron were good friends with Mark Walton, who is exactly like Rhino. He is the nerdiest geek on the planet, and he goes to San Diego Comicon every year. He loves comic books, he’s just a classic nerd. So they were using him to do this voice, and it was hilarious. But you always say that’s a scratch voice and then you start looking for actors. Occasionally, you just can’t find anybody that can do as good a job as that scratch voice. And Rhino just steals the show. He’s so funny and Mark Walton was a great actor. Now the funny story is that Mark is quite emotional so they wanted to have fun telling him he got the part. So Chris and Byron brought him into the recording studio at Disney to do more lines. And so written in this little dialogue that he was doing was the line that said that he got the part of Rhino, and there was a pause, and then he just started screaming, because he realised what it meant. And so it was very exciting.

QUESTION: Is there anything now at this point in animation that you just can’t do?

JOHN LASSETER: Humans are still really hard. I always say that the closer you get to reality, the harder it is to make it look convincing to the audience. That’s why we tend to make things that are a little bit more caricatured. I think that it’s getting to the point with technology, that the limitation’s really in the mind of the film makers, in what they can do, and it’s kind of exciting that way

QUESTION: What’s your favorite Disney movie?

JOHN LASSETER: My favorite Disney movie? That’s a very easy question. I think the best movie ever made was Dumbo. Dumbo‘s my favourite movie. Dumbo is like a perfect movie. It’s just over 60 minutes long, so as a story, it’s really tight, and it’s incredibly emotional, especially for parents. There’s a scene where Timothy the Mouse takes Dumbo to see his mother, and there’s a song called “Baby Mine” going over it, and the Mother is considered a mad elephant and she’s locked away. And they can’t see each other, all they can do is touch trunks, and it’s so emotional. I also like it because Dumbo‘s the most cartoony of all the Disney films. Also it’s pretty remarkable because the main character doesn’t talk. There’s a lot of attention paid to WALL-E for the first 20 minutes being without dialogue but Dumbo never spoke one word through the whole film. When he needed dialogue, that’s when Timothy the Mouse came into the movie, which was part way through the film. I think my number two favorite is probably Bambi. Bambi is an amazing film and when you watch it today, it’s just as beautiful. It’s timeless. It’s just as beautiful today as it was back then.

QUESTION: Which is your favorite you made, and why?

JOHN LASSETER: I have five sons, and it’s like you ask me which is the favorite son of mine. But I’ve got to say that I’m very fond of Toy Story 2. I love Toy Story, Buzz and Woody as well. Toy Story 2, though, we’re very proud of because it’s a sequel that’s as good or better than the original.

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