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Talking with Disney’s David Bossert About Pooh and Platinum Editions

by on February 16, 2007

David Bossert is a man who has worn many hats at the Walt Disney Company over his 22-year career with the company. After receiving a B.F.A. from the renowned California Institute of the Arts in 1983, Bossert began his career at Disney as an effects animator, working on films such as The Black Cauldron, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, The Nightmare Before Christmas, and The Lion King. He was also the driving force behind Walt Disney Treasures: On the Front Lines, a collection of Disney’s World War II cartoons, and also the producer for the True Life Adventure DVD releases.

David BossertCurrently the Creative Director of the Special Projects unit at Disney Feature Animation, Bossert oversees a variety of animated projects for Disney. He is also the Artistic Supervisor of the Disney Restoration Team and has overseen the Platinum Edition restorations of Bambi, Lady and the Tramp, Cinderella, and The Little Mermaid. This year, Bossert added “feature director” to his list of accomplishments with Winnie the Pooh: Shapes & Sizes, a direct-to-DVD educational film for 3-5 year olds from Disney Learning Adventures. The DVD was nominated for a 2007 Annie Award. Toon Zone News recently had the chance to speak with Mr. Bossert over the phone about the Winnie the Pooh DVD and on restoring and preserving some of Disney’s classics.

TOON ZONE NEWS: For the record, you are not the David Bossert who is currently the commanding officer of the U.S.S. Harper’s Ferry, right?

DAVID BOSSERT: That’s correct. We’re often confused (laughs). We both do battle very day.

TZN: You are the David Bossert who does the West Branch Beacon weblog, though?

DB: Oh yes! Thank you!

TZN: If I understand that weblog correctly, you’re basically a community volunteer, using the weblog to distribute community news and things like that?

DB: Yes.

TZN: Have the sensibilities that you’ve picked up doing that carried over at all into your career at Disney, or has your career at Disney affected that kind of work?

DB: You know, I hadn’t really given much thought to it. Outside of Disney, I volunteer my time for community events and just for the betterment of my community. One of the strong things that they do here at the Walt Disney Company is have a thing called Volunt-Ears — that’s what they call it — and they encourage people to volunteer in the community. There’s colleagues of mine that go off and help build homes for Habitat for Humanity and there’s other people that work with mentally disabled children, and there’s folks in the studio that go out on a monthly basis to elementary schools to help with reading programs and to read stories to children and do things like that. So I guess in a sense, there’s a sense of community in the company that sort of filters through your life.

TZN: I was wondering because community values figure very prominently in Disney films and Disney stories.

DB: Well, you know, you look at the Walt Disney Company and it’s probably the greatest family entertainment company in the world. I mean, it’s all about family and it’s all about community.

TZN: Which kind of segues into the next question, which is about the Winnie the Pooh: Shapes and Sizes film, which contains moral lessons along with the geometry. How did you get the assignment to direct the DVD?

Pooh in Shapes and SizesDB: Our home entertainment division wanted to do a line of educational DVDs, and…you know, basically, they came to me and asked (laughs), I guess is the way to put it. I am Creative Director of the Special Projects unit at Walt Disney Feature Animation. Essentially, we get…we oversee, I should say…ancillary animation projects across the entire company. So, I’m maybe the artistic supervisor on a restoration project, or maybe the DVD producer on another project, or maybe the artistic coordinator on a film for one of the theme parks. Or I may be supervising some commercials that are using our characters. So I wear a lot of different hats throughout the year, and those particular projects that came in were Winnie the Pooh. I love those characters, and I just really gravitated to the whole thing. I also have a real soft spot with using animation to convey complex concepts or, in the case of this, learning concepts.

TZN: So it sounds like your division is really responsible for anything animated that’s not a feature film or a TV show, then.

DB: Yeah, when I say ancillary animation, it’s anything other than a theatrical feature or a direct-to-DVD feature or a TV show. So that includes, like I said, theme park films, stage productions, anything along those lines. Commercials, too — I’m just starting to direct a 10-minute safety DVD that we’re doing in conjunction with the Underwriter’s Lab.

TZN: The Shapes and Sizes DVD was the first thing you’ve directed that’s longer than a short film, is that right?

DB: That’s correct.

TZN: How did you find that the experience differed between directing a short film?

DB: I didn’t really find any differences to it, except that with these educational films you’re starting with some parameters. In this case, it’s the learning concept for the title. This was sizes and shapes, and the other was word opposites. We were working with a Harvard educator on the project, so it was a very collaborative thing. As we developed the story, we were integrating the learning concepts, and at the same time working closely with our educator to make sure that there was a proper balance between the story and the learning concepts. I think what was great about the Winnie the Pooh characters is that they’re kind of like a bunch of kids, you know? And these programs were targeted at 3 to 5 year olds, so it was really fun to be able to craft a story that helped engage the children who are going to watch it and really get them involved with learning the concepts along with some of the characters on screen.

TZN: What kind of challenges did you face trying to create material for that specific target audience?

DB: I think that you want to make sure that you’re not being, you know, too sophisticated, because again – it’s 3 to 5 year olds. So you don’t want to do anything that’s going to be confusing, or is going to obscure the educational message in any way.

TZN: On the flip side, did you give much consideration to the parents or siblings who would be watching other than the target audience?

Piglet gets in on the act DB: Oh, yeah, absolutely. I think with every project I’ve worked on over the years here at Disney, I always want to make it entertaining to whoever’s going to watch it. In the case of these learning titles, clearly we were presenting concepts that most adults would understand, but I think we did some fun things throughout these films that would at least get a chuckle out of an adult. Most of the titles had two songs in them, so we were really conscious when we were working with our songwriters in New York. We were really, really conscious of trying to get some songs that would be catchy and something you could hum, that were fun, maybe explored some different musical genres, but wouldn’t drive a parent nuts (laughs). I think we were successful with that, because I think that the songs on these titles are really terrific. Very fresh, and I think they’re very catchy. On the two titles coming up this spring, Winnie the Pooh: Good Day, Good Night deals with days of the week and what makes up a day. There’s a terrific song on there that’s just really catchy, that’s going to help children understand the order of the days of the week. And I think that was really a fun aspect with the music, as it is with a lot of the Disney products. A lot of the Disney films have terrific music.

TZN: Can you think of anything memorable where you had an idea and the educator came back and said, “No, you can’t do that, because…” and gave you a really unexpected answer?

DB: You know, the one that really comes to mind was that we had a discussion about Tigger and “Tigger-isms.” Tigger has his own language, almost…sort of made-up words. The educator was a little hesitant when were in the script phase of the project on one of them having Tigger do some of his Tigger-isms, like, “Super-iffus” or some of those types of things that only Tigger would say.

TZN: Kind of like Cookie Monster, actually. I think that issue came up with him, too.

DB: Yeah, and so we actually had a good discussion about that. We pushed back a little bit because, you know, Tigger is Tigger. We totally understood where the educator was coming from, and I think the educator understood where we were coming from, so there was a little bit of give and take on that one. We were able to keep some of the Tigger-isms in, but we didn’t go overboard with the Tigger-isms, and I was fine with that. Clearly, these are educational titles, but we didn’t want to betray our characters at all if possible, and I think we were all happy with the way it turned out.

TZN: Changing gears kind of quickly here, how did you go from being an animator to being the “restoration guy” at Disney?

DB: You know, it’s really funny. I think it’s just because of the fact that I’ve been involved in a lot of sort of “out of the mainstream” projects at the company. For instance, I worked on Roger Rabbit back in the day. I helped them out on Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas. So I guess I got the reputation here at Feature Animation to be the guy that people came to when they were doing something out of the ordinary. I was on Fantasia/2000, which was sort of an oddball project, and I was doing some of the shorts that were being done throughout the years. I was getting pulled in to help out on a stage production, or to go over to our Imagineering group and work with them on some piece of animation they wanted to integrate into something they were doing at the parks.

It was just one of those things that evolved, and when I finished Fantasia/2000, Tom Schumacher started giving me a bunch of little projects to work on. Again, these were little oddball things that weren’t the norm, if you will, for Feature Animation, but stuff that needed to get done, so I started doing those and I started picking up more and more projects. It literally turned into a cottage industry. We ebb and flow people out throughout the year depending on the type of projects we’ve got going on. There could be 3 of us in the dept, or we could expand up to 20 people. We’ve had as many as 20 people working, depending on what’s going on. So that’s it in a nutshell. Our home entertainment group started coming to me to ask about some of the classic shorts. I was helping them out doing some restoration on those, trying to get original title cards back on to the front of some of those cartoons.

TZN: Was that for the Disney Treasures: On the Front Lines set?

A still frame from 'On the Front Lines'DB: Actually, on some of the Treasures DVDs prior to that. With the On the Front Lines volume, I actually pitched that project 8 years prior to it being released. I pitched it a number of times over that 8 year period and they kept slamming the door in my face, but I guess I was just a persistent individual because I finally pitched it again shortly after 9/11 and Roy Disney was on board with it. He really liked the idea because he felt it was a piece of company history, and needed to be documented. Dick Cook ended up agreeing with that, and Tom Schumacher was a huge supporter of me putting that collection together. When I started working on that, I wanted to make sure that we presented all of that material in the best way possible, so I was allowed to do a fair bit of restoration on those shorts and on some of the training material. Leonard Maltin did an absolutely fantastic job in putting all of those shows in the context in which they were made, and I think that’s why that volume was such a success.

TZN: Related to that, putting the cartoons in their historical context was something that was clearly very important to you at the time. Has any thought been given to applying that same sort of thing to a re-release of Song of the South?

DB: (Laughs) You know, my pat answer on that right now, and it has to be, unfortunately, is that…my hope is that the company will eventually put that movie out in a similar vein. I’m a pretty persistent individual. With the On the Front Lines, it took me 8 years to get that out, so…I’ll just leave it at that. I’m pretty persistent.

TZN: Understood. Getting back to your remastering work, you’ve done a couple of the classic films, now. Of all the stuff that you’ve learned in that time since you started, what do you really wish you knew then that you know now?

DB: As far as restoration goes?

TZN: Yeah.

DB: Well, you know something…we started on the restoration on Bambi in mid 2004, I think. I have absolutely nothing I would turn around and say, “I wish we could go back and do.” I think that we took Bambi to such a level of restoration…we refer to it as “pristine.” I’ve said to several people that if you were to go back into Bambi and do any more to it, I think you would then fundamentally start to change the movie, and that’s not the intent of these restorations.

And by the way, it’s not just restorations, it’s preservation because on the earlier films, pre-1950’s, they’re all nitrate negatives, and they will deteriorate at some point. We’re starting to lose some. We’ve got damage to some of the very early 1930’s shorts that are on nitrate negative, but eventually, they’re all going to go away no matter what you do. There’s no way to stop the chemical breakdown. We are doing the utmost to preserve those original negatives, but we’re also doing high-resolution, 4K scans of every frame on these successive exposure black-and-white negatives. With the successive exposures, there’s 3 black-and-white “color records” for each frame. It’s similar to the 3-strip process, except it’s one negative, which is actually beneficial, and so is the fact that it’s black-and-white. The black and white nitrate negatives actually last longer than the color nitrate negatives. But anyway, we are doing high-resolution 4K scans of the original negative, and those are being archived, so we have an absolutely exact digital record of the original negative. And then we’re then taking a set of those scans and doing all of our digital restoration work on them.

TZN: Were the high-definition video standards a consideration at that point?

DB: Well, you know something, the way we’ve done these restorations, they will hold up and look just as good, I think, on HD television. There’s really no reason for us to go back into those movies for HD.

TZN: You just mentioned not wanting to tamper with the films too much because otherwise you’re going to alter it instead of preserve it. Looking in hindsight, do you think you ever crossed that line with anything you’ve done so far?

A still frame from BambiDB: Not at all, because our guiding principle on the restoration has always been, “What was the artistic intent?” Wherever possible, we bring in original filmmakers. So, in the case of Bambi, we were fortunate enough to have Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston come in early on and we showed them some of the tests we were doing. Unfortunately, Frank Thomas has just passed away, but we have shown most of these films to Ollie Johnston. He’s seen screenings of them and we’ve talked to him about it. I’ll tell you, I can remember we showed him Lady and the Tramp, and at the end of the screening I went up to him and I said, “What did you think, Ollie?” And he just had a grin, ear-to-ear, and basically said it was the way it was always supposed to look. Those were his exact words. And I’ll never forget it because here was a guy, he’s one of the Nine Old Men, worked on the movie, and for him to say that was just an incredible compliment to us as a team. And so that is the guiding principle, “What was the artistic intent?” And, you know, the artistic intent was not to photograph in dust and dirt and cel scratches and all those kinds of things. The artistic intent was to try and put up the best image possible on screen. And the process had inherent flaws in it, and all we’re doing is removing those flaws.

TZN: If you could pick any film out of the vault for a Platinum Edition remastering and re-release, which one would it be?

DB: Uh…..for me? Probably Song of the South. (Laughs)

TZN: So what’s next?

DB: It’s always a wild adventure, because the phone rings next week and it’ll be something completely new, but we’re finishing up a film with Donald, Jose, and Panchito from The Three Caballeros for the Mexico pavilion at Epcot, we’re starting on the safety video, we’ve got a couple of other restorations in the pipe that we’re going to start working on, or that we are working on…

TZN: Right, you mentioned Peter Pan

DB: And I believe Jungle Book will be out in the fall. We’ve already completed that. There’s others in the pipeline, some of them they haven’t announced yet so I probably shouldn’t say them. That’s an on-going program and I’m hopeful that we’re going to start doing restoration on some of the shorts as well. You know, it’s always exciting. And never ending.

Toon Zone News would like to thank Dave Bossert for his time, and to Disney PR for setting up this interview. Winnie the Pooh: Shapes and Sizes is available now, and Peter Pan will available in a Platinum Edition DVD on March 6, 2007.

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