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Toon Zone Presents: A Virtual Roundtable with "Bolt"’s Mark Walton & Nathan Greno

by on March 23, 2009

To tie in with the DVD and Blu-ray release of Bolt, Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment invited journalists to participate in a virtual roundtable with Nathan Greno, story supervisor for Bolt and director of the new short “Super Rhino,” and Mark Walton, visual development artist and voice of Rhino (and yes, he typed all the emoticons our forum software is translating). The following is a combination of the two sessions held, edited to remove redundancy and to improve flow for print. Note that this interview contains some minor spoilers for the “Super Rhino” short.

Nathan Greno
Story Supervisor and Director Nathan Greno

Q: How did you guys jump into the animation world?

NATHAN GRENO: As a kid I was always drawing my own cartoons. I grew up in a small town in Wisconsin and the idea of working for Disney Animation was a big dream to have. I went to art school in Columbus, Ohio — spending every free second working on my portfolio for Disney. In 1996 I started with the mouse as a “clean-up” artist on Mulan. A year later I was working on a portfolio to get into the Disney Story Department. You have to do a “test” if you want to jump departments at Disney. Needless to say, things worked out!

Q: (To Mark Walton) Could you describe your work as visual development artist?

MARK WALTON: Sure – basically, I work with the director(s) figuring out the characters and the world of the story. Like, what do the characters look like? What are their personalities like? How do they relate to each other? Where does the movie take place – what country, what time of year, what are some cool places the sequences could happen in? What kinds of things could happen that would showcase the characters personalities, and be fun to watch? What is the movie really trying to say, if anything – what are the themes? These are all things that can be explored by writing, doodling, discussing, before the storyboarding begins (or while it’s happening). I love it – it’s at the stage where we can try anything and everything.

Q: (To Mark Walton) How much of an influence do you have on the way a character ultimately looks like?

WALTON: It depends on the film and the director, and how early I’m brought onto a show. Sometimes I’ve come on really early, when a lot of decisions haven’t even been thought of yet, so there’s the potential, if I come up with some great ideas, that they might make it into the final character design. Of course, even if the directors like my ideas or the designs I do, they may end up changing the story so much, that those characters have to change, or get cut out altogether, and that’s just the way it is. Sometimes the directors are designers themselves, or they want to work with a character designer who will do things in their own distinct way – sometimes the most important thing I do is figure out what they don’t want to do, by experimenting. Either way, whether they use my ideas or not, I get paid, so it’s all good.

Q: (To Nathan Greno) As a story supervisor, do you actually change the content at times and come with your own suggestions or do you mainly streamline what’s already there?

GRENO: Animation story boarding works differently than live-action story boarding. The story crew (along with a writer) really does shape and create the film — the world and it’s characters. We meet almost every day and brainstorm the plot of the film. It’s a highly collaborative process, and we continue to improve the story until we literally run out of time.

Q: When did you get the idea to do the “Super Rhino” short for the DVD? How long did it take to make it?

GRENO: When I was finishing up as story supervisor on Bolt, John Lasseter asked for short pitches for the DVD. I pitched the idea of Rhino getting Bolt’s powers. I wanted to do something different and unexpected — Rhino with Bolt’s powers fit the bill. John was onboard and asked me to start developing the idea. The schedule was very tight — I believe we finished the entire short in 3-4 months (the crew was still finishing Bolt at the time!).

Q: (To Nathan Greno) What was the biggest change for you moving to the director’s chair for the first time in “Super Rhino?” What do you think was the most valuable thing you learned and will use in “Rapunzel?”

GRENO: The biggest change was getting to know the other departments. I had been in the story department for over 10 years. I honestly learned something new every day. I went from working in my story boarding bubble to working with every department in the building. It was an amazing eye-opening experience for me.

Developing a full length feature is much longer process than developing a short. With features you’re typically dealing with more characters, plot, emotion, story arc, etc. — a short is the same only much… shorter! The advantage with the “Super Rhino” short was having the advantage of using pre-existing characters — the fun came from the unexpected story twists I put them through. When you develop an entire feature length film from scratch (as we did on Bolt) the challenge is developing an entire feature length film from scratch! The world and all of it’s characters need to be created. There is no story or plot — all you have is a blank sheet of paper.

The short program at Disney animation is fantastic because it gives you a chance to direct on a much smaller level before jumping into a full length feature. The knowledge I’ve gained has been incredibly helpful on Rapunzel!

Q: (To Nathan Greno) Do you consider “Super Rhino” as a prelude, a training as a director of Rapunzel, or the icing on the cake of Bolt?

GRENO: “Super Rhino” was my training to direct. The shorts program at Disney provides a chance for future directors to cut their teeth. The program allows John Lasseter to get to know you. It’s a fantastic system.

Mark Walton
Mark Walton, visual development artist and voice of Rhino the hamster

Q: (To Mark Walton) How did you come up with the voice for Rhino? Was it based on anyone?

WALTON: I’m pretty much just doing my voice, my personality. I mean, I hope I have a slightly stronger grip on reality than Rhino does, but we’re both pretty enthusiastic about the people and things we’re interested in, and un-self-conscious about how we come across to others. I tried doing what I thought was a hamster voice when I first auditioned, but the directors (who know me) told me to just be myself as much as possible. I do have other friends who are really into Star Trek, Star Wars, comic books, Disney, animation, etc, and I suppose I thought about them a little when Rhino was being really obsessive, but it’s mostly me.

Q: (To Mark Walton) Was there a portion of the movie that was unusually hard for you to do, or where you had the hardest time doing it “in character”?

WALTON: Actually, most of the time, it was pretty easy – the directors pretty much just wanted me to be myself as much as possible (well, if I happened to be a hamster). The hardest part for me, I think, was just enunciating, speaking clearly and not too slowly – I sound pretty mumbly and unintelligible in normal life, but I tried to step up my game for Rhino, and having the editors choose the best takes of every line reading (sometimes 60 for a single line) helped too!

Q: (To Mark Walton) What did you like the most about Rhino?

WALTON: I really like how Rhino is comfortable in his own skin. He’s enthusiastic and crazy, and he worships Bolt, and he doesn’t care if anyone else approves or understands or likes his crazy laugh. If he was an evil jerk, that could be a problem, but I think his love of Bolt and his enthusiasm are contagious. Plus, he doesn’t ever seem to let his physical limitations get in the way of doing what he needs to do – for a hamster in a ball, he does some pretty amazing things!

Q: (To Mark Walton) What did you bring to the character of Rhino? How did you manage to make him that crazy (in the greatest sense)?

WALTON: Well, I just tried to imagine how I would feel if the character of my favorite book or movie showed up, in the flesh, at my door to take me on an adventure – how would I feel? How would I act? (Ecstatic and slightly crazy.) Luckily, the writing for Rhino was so good, I felt like it was easy to know how to act, and the directors helped coach me a lot. I guess there’s something about my voice and my laugh that some people liked, but so many people – the writers, animators, modelers, etc. did so much to bring Rhino to life, I feel like I was just the cherry on top.

Q: On Rhino, when the voice was found, did that change your approach to the character? Then, did you want to change things in the story to fit Mark Walton’s performance?

WALTON: Well, I don’t know if they changed or adjusted anything for me – I pretty much just read the lines that were written, they were so funny! I think the character became more and more popular in screenings, so they found ways to give him more to say and do in the movie – I’d like to think I brought a generous helping of “awesome” to the character – or at least a funny voice and laugh.

Q: (To Mark Walton) You originally did the scratch track for Rhino. Was any of that track retained, or was it all re-recorded?

WALTON: A lot of the scratch track was kept untouched – they were really careful when they recorded it, and a lot of the lines (like where he first meets Bolt and Mittens) stayed the same. A lot of the lines changed, of course, and every once in a while, they’d come back to me and say, this line is a little unclear, or could I say the line faster, but most of the time, they had me do lots of takes the first time through, and got the take they wanted.

Q: (To Mark Walton) Have you played anyone’s voice before Rhino?

WALTON: I did do Barry and Bob, a couple of longhorn steers that hit on the cows in Home on the Range, as well as some honking and freaking out for Goosey Loosey in Chicken Little. Barry and Bob were fun because I got to come up with those characters and write most of their dialogue myself, so maybe that’s why they let me do the voice. Working on an animated movie is so much fun – you only have to pretend to do amazing things, and then the world’s best animators make your performance better and better every time you see it, and you know that if the movie is good, people all over the world are going to see and hear your character for a long time.

Q: (To Mark Walton) In what way was working on Rhino different from voicing Goosey Loosey in Chicken Little (if at all)?

WALTON: Well, Goosey Loosey was fun, but all I was doing was basically doing crazy goose-like sounds – basically she’s freaking out and going into some kind of berserker rage whenever I do her voice. Rhino actually has to act, and has a lot more range. Luckily, I got to do my normal speaking voice, so it was easier to focus on getting the acting right. Both were fun, but Rhino was a lot more involved. I had to be a lot more concerned with being clear and intelligible with Rhino, too – Goosey was covered up with a lot of music and loud sound effects, so it almost didn’t matter what I did.

Q: (To Mark Walton) Did you work with Nathan Greno on building the character of Rhino (from story artist to story artist)?

WALTON: I think that Nathan, the directors, and the story crew pretty much had Rhino figured out before I ever started doing the voice. I think that they put more of Rhino into the movie as the story evolved, because people liked him – giving him these little speeches to inspire Mittens and Bolt, for example – but I think that was just because Rhino was a really funny idea for a character, and really well – written. I just showed up for the recording and had fun.

Q: (To Mark Walton) Was there chemistry with the other actors? Or did you always work separately on the voice acting?

WALTON: Unfortunately, I never got to work with the other actors, but I got to spend a little time talking with some of them afterwards, like Susie Essman and Malcolm McDowell, who are both really cool. I’m friends with the woman (Kellie Hoover) who did Esther the security guard’s voice in the dog pound. She’s really cool, and is a school teacher! The good thing about recording everyone separately is it gives the directors more control – they can change one character’s lines in a scene without having to re-record everybody, and the story changes a lot before the movie comes out.

Q: (To Mark Walton) Will you be doing a lot more voice acting in the future? Do you think it is a lot of fun?

WALTON: It is a lot of fun – at least for me! Rhino was a really broad, silly, over-the-top character that got to be funny, dramatic, angry, serious, touching, and it was great having my voice attached to a well-animated, cute fuzzy character! I just think it’s a blast to come in in whatever clothes and pretend for the mic, and get paid for it! I haven’t been asked to do anything else yet, but I really hope I get to do more voice parts. There’s a lot of talented people I have to compete with, but I can hope!

Best of Both Worlds!Q: (To Mark Walton) Was it hard to do the singing part in the short? How familiar did you have to get with the collected works of Miley Cyrus to prepare for it?

WALTON: (laughs) Well, I had to listen to that “Best of Both Worlds” song over and over, but as it turned out, what was funnier was Rhino singing a really bad version of the song that wasn’t quite accurate. I actually did the song several times before they got me to sing it bad enough, so I guess that was a challenge. It was fun, though!

Q: (To Mark Walton) Have you met Miley Cyrus and did you get her autograph?

WALTON: I did meet Miley Cyrus! This young woman at the studio suddenly shouted at me from down the hall, and was complimenting my performance, and I thought she was sweet – and then someone asked if we wanted a picture together, and I didn’t realize until she came up right next to me it was her! She seemed really nice. I didn’t have time to get her autograph, but I got a nice picture with her!

Q: Was Miley Cyrus’s recording for the short built into the studio sessions for the feature?

WALTON: No, the recording sessions for the movie were all separate, and recording for the short happened after the movie was mostly wrapping up. It was hard, because people were pretty wiped out from finishing the movie (some were still working on it) but they had to whip up the short in time for the DVD release! But the two were separate.

Q: How did Miley Cyrus feel about Rhino doing “Best of Both Worlds”?

WALTON: Frankly, I’m afraid she was consumed by jealousy and a serious inferiority complex. I can’t blame her, it’s gotta be hard to see the writing on the wall. No, seriously, I’m not sure if she’s seen the finished film with my singing yet, but I’m sure my (purposely) bad version of the song makes her look even better by comparison.

GRENO: Miley was incredibly easy to work with — she’s very enthusiastic and professional. I haven’t heard her reaction to the finished short — but I’m sure she’ll laugh. She has a great sense of humor.

Bolt and RhinoQ: (To Nathan Greno) Rhino is the most charismatic character of Bolt. What challenges found the animators working with such a small and chubby character and that in addition moves in a ball?

GRENO: Working on the short, I found Rhino’s shape (a round ball with tiny arms and legs) presented a number of limitations, but the limitations are what makes him so incredibly funny. In the short, we have him doing aerobics in his ball and it’s funny because of his shape. Sometimes the limitations work in your favor.

Q: (To Nathan Greno) How important do you think “sidekick-characters”, such as Rhino, are in a feature film?

GRENO: Sidekicks should only be used when they support your story/plot. I don’t think you NEED to have sidekicks in a film. Rhino definitely added humor to Bolt, but he also helped to drive the film forward. He’s a simple, single-minded character — but he’s also one of the smartest characters in the film. His crazy rants to both Bolt and Mittens turn out to be surprisingly enlightening.

Q: (To Nathan Greno) Why do you think it’s so often the supporting characters from these animated films that people want to see star in their own shorts? (Mater, Jack Jack, etc.)

GRENO: The supporting characters typically carry less story/plot weight, so you can be more broad with them. Supporting characters also take up less of the film’s screen time. A short is a great opportunity for supporting characters to shine. Rhino is so pushed and single minded — the idea of him starring in his own film was really entertaining to me.

Q: Will “Super Rhino” be theatrically screened so that it can be considered for the Best Short Oscar?

WALTON: Sadly, no, but hey – if millions and millions and millions of people buy the DVD, that will be the best award of all.

Q: Is there going to be some kind of sequel/spinoff of Bolt?

WALTON: Well, there is the Rhino short on the DVD/ Blu-ray, which is cool, but I hope there’s more! Write a letter! I need the money! Seriously, I really love performing Rhino, and it would be great to do more.

Q: Is Rhino going to have his own movie?

GRENO: No plans right now — but you never know! When we were making the movie we had no idea there was going to be a short!

WALTON: Your mouth to Bob Iger’s ear! I don’t know of anything yet, but one can hope.

Q: For Nathan and Mark, What is your favorite Bolt scene, and why?

GRENO: It’s hard to pick a favorite! I love the “fake” TV ending — it’s really goofy and unexpected. It’s also really heartbreaking to watch Bolt return to the set only to find Penny has “replaced” him. I’m really proud of what we did with that scene.

WALTON: For me, I really like the escape from the animal shelter – the writing, the designs of the guards, the animation, the voice performances, all came together in top form. Plus, I got to sing! I also love the bit where Bolt thinks that Penny has “moved on” and he drops the carrot – it chokes me up just writing about it!

I did that with my EYEBALLS!!!!Q: The DVD has video of the animators rolling down the hallways of the studio in a giant inflatable hamster ball. Did either of you do it, and what did you learn from doing it that you brought into the movie?

WALTON: I did a commercial for the Movie Surfers, where I had to go through an obstacle course multiple times in the Zorb. I learned that I’m really glad that voice actors don’t actually have to do all the things that the animators can make their characters do, or that a live actor does in a movie! It was hot and exhausting and I fell out of the ball a couple of times and messed up my back! But I’m fine now.

Q: Is it more difficult to create a story from scratch or to transform an earlier treatment? Please, can you explain?

WALTON: Nathan probably has his own take, but I think that both are easy and hard in different ways. When you’re adapting a book or a script, the good thing is you already have a structure to build upon – a lot of the questions about how the characters relate to each other, and what the story is really about, have hopefully already been answered. There’s almost always still a lot of details that need to be resolved or changed to make the story work as a movie, but there’s not as much to figure out from scratch – and, of course, there’s the hope that if people liked the book or whatever, that we know the story works in some way, and that there’s a built-in audience.

Of course, the problem is, if there’s characters or story elements that DON’T work at all, it’s hard to know how much you can get away with changing without violating the spirit of the original, or alienating fans of the original. When you have to make everything up from scratch, it’s obviously a lot of work, and you have to prove the story will work, and that people will show up to something new, but you don’t have any of the baggage of a previous story or fans to please – you can do whatever you want.

Q: (To Mark Walton) Disney animation movies have always dealt with the animal world. What is its power? And what, in relation to faster growth of the children because of the media, is still its meaning?

WALTON: Well, if I understand your question correctly, I think that people in all cultures have enjoyed watching stories about animals – superimposing our weaknesses and strengths, dealing with some of the same problems and issues in the human world. And animals are generally just more fun and appealing to watch! I think that even media-savvy kids today enjoy seeing entertaining stories about animals – I think the idea of being able to communicate with animals, or knowing what they’re thinking, is something that kids enjoy imagining.

Q: Who were some of your animation influences?

WALTON: Well, all of the Disney classics are films I’ve watched over and over – Snow White, Pinocchio, Fantasia, 101 Dalmatians (Milt Kahl and Marc Davis are geniuses!), and so many of the Pixar movies – Toy Story, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles. I like big epics like Happy Feet as well as small character stories like Dumbo and The Iron Giant. I also love it when they create a world that I believe in and want to explore, like in The Nightmare Before Christmas. Maybe I should email you a complete list later – this could take all morning!

Q: What was your favorite animated movie when you were kids?

GRENO: Dumbo is my favorite animated film of all time. It has the perfect balance of everything. Humor, emotion — its really a fun, entertaining, heartbreaking film. I love it.

WALTON: Hard question, lots of contenders (mostly Disney classics, of course!) – I’d say something between Fantasia (Animation! Demons! Dinosaurs! All together!), The Rescuers, and The Secret of N.I.M.H. Of course, it was limited to what was re-released in theaters or available on tape, which wasn’t much when I was a kid! I’m ollllld.

Yeah, I don't know why people keep asking this, eitherQ: (To Nathan Greno) Do you think CGI is going to be the only way to do animation from now on?

GRENO: Not at all! There are a number of 2D projects in development at Disney Animation. 3D is one (of many) tools used to produce great animated film and shorts.

Q: Are you guys from Disney already thinking in 3D all the time?

WALTON: Yes, I think in color too! Seriously, I do think that we imagine what stuff we can do in 3D sometimes, but great storytelling is great storytelling in 2D and 3D, and not everyone can watch the movie in 3D (yet, anyway), so we have to make sure the movie and the story work either way.

Q: Usually a comedic approach is used for American animation. Why is that and do you think another, more dramatic approach is also feasible (like in Japan, for example)?

WALTON: Here’s my take, for what it’s worth: I think that a lot of people in the US, as well as other countries, have the idea that animation is primarily for children, and kids like to be entertained! And animated films here tend to have crazy fantastic situations that would be difficult to do in live action, like with talking animals or monsters or whatnot, and that lends itself well to comedy, I think. It’s hard, because American film studios have taken chances on making films that are more serious and/or dramatic, but everyone here seems to turn out for the comedies, so it’s hard to justify taking that kind of risk. However, if more people did, maybe American audiences would get more used to it. Just like I wish that some of my favorite anime directors that tell some amazing stories would experiment with different styles of design, or more sophisticated animation or lip-synching. Japanese audiences are used to the same-ol’ same ol’, for the most part. Maybe if audiences all over the world would check out animation from other countries, filmmakers would be more sophisticated and experimental.

Q: What was it like working with John Lasseter?

GRENO: John is an amazing mentor — the guy is a genius. I meet with him once a week and I learn something new every week. The great thing is, John makes the movies WITH us — it’s the best way to work.

WALTON: Well, I wasn’t really working directly with John doing the recording, but it was really encouraging to hear that he liked Rhino and liked what I was doing! He is a real inspiration to the entire studio, being a successful filmmaker himself.

The blobby thing is the SOURCE of my POWER!!Q: What is that blobby thing on Rhino’s side? Is it supposed to represent something like Bolt’s lightning bolt, or is it just a different colored patch of fur?

WALTON: I think it’s just a patch of darker fur, but Rhino, delusional as ever, equates it to Bolt’s lightning bolt mark, linking him (in his mind) even more closely to his hero.

Q: Is there a lot of overlap between video game animation and (animated) feature animation?

WALTON: Well, more and more people have worked for animated features as well as doing work for video games – animators, visual development artists, modelers, matte painters, etc. Obviously there are differences – video games have to be designed to be explored randomly, and the characters have to be programmed to do a lot of different possible things, whereas in a movie, it’s just from one point of view, and you’re coming up with enough stuff to fill an hour or two instead of 10 or 20 hours. And video game engines can handle the kind of complexity and realism you can’t put into a movie – yet. But games are getting better and better. When I saw Jurassic Park on the screen, I predicted that games would be able to create a virtual experience that was just as real as the movies. We’re not quite there yet, but it’s getting better all the time.

Ironically, I must admit that I have an easier time (myself) playing games that are really simple and non-realistic (like the games I grew up with in the 80’s) – I tend to get lost and confused when the games get too complex! But I enjoy watching people who are good at playing games. I really enjoy playing games like Guitar Hero, where you feel like you’re a great musician even if you’re not.

Q: Are you more a dog person or a cat person? … or a hamster person?

GRENO: I have two cats Cheese and Rhino (yep, that’s where the name came from!) — but I do love dogs too. At some point (when my schedule cools off) I want to adopt a puppy. Not sure how the cats are going to handle that!

Q: (To Mark Walton) I’ve read that you once wanted to become a Muppet designer. What kind of Muppet would you have liked to design?

WALTON: I would have loved to make a Muppet version of this alien character I came up with as a little kid – he had one eye and big feet, kinda like Mickey Mouse’s shoes, and rubber-hosey arms and legs. My brother has actually designed, built, and performed puppets for a children’s theater in Colorado, as well as for “Die Hard: the Puppet Musical” in New York – it would be cool to do some puppet stuff with him sometime!

Q: With Bolt coming simultaneously to DVD/Blu-Ray, what are your thoughts on the quality of the direct-to-disc transfers? Does Blu-Ray faithfully replicate the theatrical experience?

WALTON: I think that some transfers are better than others. Obviously it also depends on how good/big your TV and player are, but it can be amazing, when you have a big, detailed picture with great sound. I’ve seen a few Blu-rays where they took an older film and had trouble cleaning it up – sometimes they lose some of the detail or pump the colors up too much. But the potential for a more cinematic experience is huge. I guess if you really wanted it to be complete, you’d bring annoying strangers in your house to talk loudly and text each other.

Go Rhino! Go Rhino! Go Rhino!Q: What scenes from Bolt do you think will look best on Blu-ray?

WALTON: The scenes that will look best in Blu-ray will have Rhino, in all his glory, on the screen. Actually, I haven’t seen the Blu-ray transfer yet, but I bet any scene with a lot of detail (there are some beautiful backgrounds in the movie!) will really sing in Blu-ray.

Q: (To Mark Walton) Could you tell us something about the upcoming King of the Elves? Are you excited about it? And, since it is based on a Phillip K. Dick-story, will it perhaps be more dramatic/philosophical in nature than previous work?

WALTON: King of the Elves is looking really cool right now. I really like the short story it’s based on, and I think the filmmakers want to bring a degree of realism and complexity that we haven’t seen before. I think it’ll be very dramatic and philosophical. Did you see The Iron Giant? I thought that had some really heavy, serious themes (in addition to a lot of great comedy) that were dealt with really well. There’s a lot of pretty heavy stuff in animation out there if you’re willing to look for it – check out Frederic Bach’s gorgeous films, or Waltz with Bashir, if you’re in a really good mood (it’s pretty dark!) Or maybe you already know about all this, huh?

Q: Nathan, how much can you speak about Rapunzel without putting our lives at risk? 🙂

GRENO: I couldn’t be happier with the direction Rapunzel is headed. It’s a very smart, funny comedy. Stay tuned!

Q: What are you two working on now?

WALTON: Actually, I’m really busy promoting the Bolt DVD/Blu-ray these days – Rhino is going to be doing TV interviews next, so that’s pretty fun! Nathan is directing Rapunzel for Disney, which takes up all of his time, I imagine.

Toon Zone News would like to thank Nathan Greno and Mark Walton for taking the time to chat with us, Marilyn Hsiung and Kevin McGuinness at Disney for supporting the chat, and Dre Birskovich at Click Communications for hooking us up. Bolt is available now on DVD and Blu-ray disc.

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