We had some of our most avid fans ask their burning questions for Swan Princess Director, Richard Rich.
His long-awaited interview is here:
Don't miss hearing Rick's voice answer the last question!
What got you in to animation?
When I graduated from college, I wanted to work at Disney. That had been my life desire. I had graduated in Music and I wanted to work in the music department. Of course, there were no openings for a young guy like me. Disney had a traffic department with about 30 people that would pick up and deliver the mail all day through out the studio. The idea was that the talent would be able to go around and meet people on the lot and if they found an opening they could move out of traffic into some area that suited them in studio. For 3 months I would write a letter to Disney and the next week I would call and the next week I would write another letter and so on. Finally they said “ok ok enough, come in and we will give you a job in traffic”. The traffic department did not pay very much and I was married and had a little boy. I decided I would teach piano lessons at the studio for extra income. So on my lunch hour I taught a couple of animators and a couple secretaries. The only piano I could find was right next to the head of the animation department. Interestingly enough, the head of the animation department at that time was named Donald Duckwall. I always found that funny. An Assistant Director was retiring from the animation department and in discussions of who to hire for that position they thought it would be nice to have someone who knew something about music so they didn’t always have to go through the music department. Donald Duckwall spoke up and said “well there is this young guy in traffic who teaches piano lessons everyday next to my office on his lunch hour”. They interviewed me and 25 other people applying for that job. The job was an Assistant Director to John Lounsbery who was one of the 9 old men, original animators; he was now going to direct Winnie the Pooh and Tigger Too. I got the job! Really just a typical Hollywood story of going from nowhere to somewhere.
What was your inspiration to make The Swan Princess?
We wanted to make a fairy tale, a classic fairy tale, like Cinderella. Swan Lake had never been done and was very much an animation type project since the main character changes to a Swan. The only way to move forward on an idea like that is to have a great story. Brian Nissen and I started researching. We read different versions of Swan Lake, listened to the ballet, whatever we could think of. We were able to come up with a story concept that was really quite intriguing. We got more and more excited as we worked on it. The big breakthrough for us was the moon and how the moon worked into the story. She would only be a human when there was a moon. Every night she would change from a swan into a human as the moonlight touched the lake. That was a very exciting, beautiful kind of transition that could happen. What really made the story come together was that there are nights with no moon in the sky. It was a night with no moon when Odette was supposed to come to the castle so Derek could vow his everlasting love. But, of course, she couldn’t turn into Odette. She stayed as a swan. Odette had to fly to the castle and that gave us a really exciting and dramatic moment. Once we came up with that we knew we had a really great story.
How long did the art take for the first film?
The original Swan Princess was in production for 3 years. The first 6 to 8 months was a development period. It includes writing the script and doing character designs to develop what each character will look like. The actual production period was 2 years. That is when we would do the storyboards, which all have to be hand drawn. Then we would do the layouts, which were also hand drawn, at that time. Then painting the backgrounds, completing the pencil art and painting all the cels. The art process took that entire two year period.
How long did the first film take to make without cutting anything out (in total)?
In animation we pre-edit the film. It’s not like live action where we shoot lots of footage and then we cut it all together. The entire animated film is put together in story reels using story sketches. The reason we do that is because animation requires so many people and so much money to get it all right that we don’t want to animate a scene that isn’t in the picture. We spend a lot of time in developing these story reels or anamatics we call them. They’re just still shots going from one scene to another. But we know how long each scene is and we know what the actions with be in that scene. Once we like what we see, we like the pacing of it, we like the dialogue that we’ve recorded then we move into animation. So there are very few out takes in animation. That doesn’t mean we don’t trim and tighten things up but its pretty much done in the storyboard phase of the production. So that is a big part of the 3 year production period that was required for The Swan Princess.
Are there any more productions that you are going to direct that will be in traditional animation?
Traditional animation is pretty much a thing of the past. The reason is that all of the major studios have moved into CGI. The great artists that it takes to draw a hand drawn animation feature just aren’t out there anymore. There is not eough of a demand. Back when Disney and Dreamworks and Warner Brothers were all competing for the artists there was a real boom in the need for the hand drawn artists. All that went out the window when the computer animation took over with Toy Story and slowly moved away from 2D animation. So the problem in doing more hand drawn animated film is not a desire but it’s finding the skilled and high-end talent that it requires to make a beautiful hand drawn picture.
However, it is important to understand that even in the CGI world of animation it isn’t all computer and there is still the requirement for artists. We still use hand drawn art character design and storyboards. They are first designed with the pencil before we take them to CGI. Storyboard artists are very much in demand and those are the artists that visualize the written word from the script and make it come alive with drawings. Anyone who is interested in getting into animated film making does not need to specialize in animation, because that is not a step that is done anymore, but in the pre-production steps of layout, character design, storyboard, painting backgrounds and working with color. Those are still skills that every CGI production house requires. That’s where your emphasis should be put.
Can you tell us something more about the series revival in 2012?
Back in the 90’s we made 3 full-length Swan Princess films and then stopped. When 2010 came around DVD sales were declining all over the industry but the Swan Princess DVD sales remained kind of steady. Sony Pictures approached The Swan Princess Producer and said “There seems to be a demand for this brand and fans out there that really like the films and the story. Would you be interested in making more of them”. We had originally thought they would need to be 2D animation, but it was really difficult to find the artists to do that. So we built all of the original characters in CGI and showed Sony that we could make them look pretty close to what they look like in 2D. They got very excited and we made the transition into the 3D world, into the CGI world. It has been so exciting because it opens up so many more possibilities of making the shows with many more visual effects.
How much different it is to make CGI movie than hand-drawn animated?
The difficult step in a hand drawn film is the artistry, especially finding the artists that can draw the characters so that they always look the same. Numerous skilled artists are needed because one artist can’t draw all the images of a character. Getting the characters to look the same through out the entire film is one of the biggest struggles and where we spend a lot of time and money. In CGI we build a model that is just like having a human actor. We don’t have to draw the character from every angle, which is very difficult in 2D. We can just shoot the model from a down shot, an up shot, any angle we need. That process has made the consistent look much better in CGI. No matter where we place the camera or what action the character does, it always looks like that character.
The other thing that CGI adds to the process is that we get to use the live action camera. In 2D animation you pretty much can truck in, you can pan sideways but you can’t move the camera around a character. In CGI we can swish the camera around and do all of the dramatic things that you see in a live action movie. You can see this in all of the new Swan Princess films we have created, we are starting on Swan Princess 9 now and it is just thrilling to see what the camera can do in this show.
Interestingly enough a CGI film is not much faster to make because some processes take longer in CGI that were shorter in 2D. A live action feature takes two or three years just like it did in the 2D drawing. It doesn’t save time and it is not cheaper. It just gives us capabilities that we didn’t ever have in 2D.
For instance, when I was at Disney I was one of the Directors on The Black Cauldron. In that film Taran had a little bauble that could fly around, it was a little glowing orb. I can remember we spent 6 months on a scene where this little glowing bauble went into a cave. I wanted to make sure that the light from the bauble lit the walls of the cave. We had to make all the moving mats on the side of the wall to make it look like the light was moving across this cave, which was very time consuming. With CGI we just light it like a live action set and the bauble and the light move together. This could be created in a couple of weeks at the most.
How do you write a script for a Swan Princess movie? Where do you get ideas? Do you have plans where you are going with the story and the characters?
The stories come from a variety of ideas and requirements. Some are marketing driven. Some are fan driven. Some are just to fun ideas to experience with the characters. For instance, when we got into doing the CGI films in the series, Sony felt it was really important that Derek and Odette have a child. We didn’t want to repeat the process of growing up that we had done with Derek and Odette in the first film so we came up with the solution of having Derek and Odette adopt Alise. She gave us an opportunity to give Derek and Odette a child who could already talk and have her own story.
We have had a lot of remarks from fans saying they want to see more of Odette and Derek and more of a fairy tale feeling. So in Swan 8 we have done a new story built around Derek and Odette, to capture the loving feelings that they had in the first film. Swan Princess 8 worked really well to give us a dramatic and rejuvenated love interest. In Swan 9 Alise and Lucas are now 16 and 17 involved in a love triagle with another Prince from China. Alise has to face difficult decisions about who she is going to love. It’s a very dramatic story and it captures all of the feeling that was in the original Swan film but with new characters.
We don’t have a thru storyline, like Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings because these are not books. We come up with ideas that feed off previous stories but take us into new territory to keep all of the fans interested and show them the characters changing, growing up and facing challenges.
I love the character of Alise, was it risky to change the main character in the middle of the series? And will Odette ever have main role again?
Alise is still a side character. There are films that have really focused on her but she will continue to be used in the series to display the love Derek and Odette have for one another and for children.
Can I have hope for many more movies to come in the future beyond 8 and 9?
Hope is eternal! We are hoping that there will be many more and it looks like everyone is working to make that happen.
I've always loved the sidekicks - Jean-Bob, Speed and Puffin. I also loved the addition of Number 9 to the group (is it okay to officially count him as part of the group now?). Is it possible the original fourth sidekick, Whizzer, will return?
Yes indeed you can count Number 9 as a sidekick. His character is so entertaining. Another character in the show that really fantastic is Scully. There is something about him that draws you into the story.
Whizzer was a fun, comic character in one of the earlier films. As we get farther and farther into the series there is always a chance that he could come back.
Is there a chance there will be at least one more movie with Odette turning into swan?
The idea of Odette of changing into a swan is a challenge. We get requests for that quite often but it is an issue that we face as storytellers.
If Odette is changed into a swan it has do be done through magic, one of 2 ways, either through good or through evil.
If we use evil, we will be repeating a plot that we have already used 3 times. There would be no suspense about Odette becoming trapped as a swan, rescued, probably by Derek, and will again becomes the human Princess Odette. It is not really good story telling.
We could use good to change Odette into a swan. Once we do that and use magic to do that then she can change back and forth at will. From a storytelling standpoint the transformation loses inspiration and is no longer a vehicle for suspense or for the battle between good and evil.
What inspired the Transformation/title sequence?
Towards the end of the original show it came time to introduce the title, The Swan Princess, on the screen without giving away too much about the story. One of the highlights of that first film was seeing Odette transform from a swan into a princess. We decided to do a really neat art version of those special effects swirling up and bringing the title on screen. It is a mirror of the transformation in the show reflected in the title.
Was Swan 3 originally meant to be the final film in the series?
The first 3 films were thought of as a trilogy so when we finished the 3rd one it was pretty much felt that it was the end. But what we didn’t forsee was that the fan base grew and wanted more. It was actually the fans that made all the new ones to happen because they clamored for more. Sony heard them and brought 6 more stories to life. It has been such an exciting opportunity to bring new stories and characters to the fans and to feel the love from the following that the original Swan Princess had.
When designing Zelda was she always intended to be as psychotic (and hilarious) as she is or was that a choice by the voice actress?
When we wrote the story for Swan 3 we wanted to have a comic villain and a female because we already had two serious, male villians with Rothbart and Clavuis. It gave us an opportunity to create a really amusing character. So the concept was in the script but the voice actor really brought Zelda’s maniacal personality to life.
Which Villain allied themselves with Rothbart first out of Clavius and Zelda?
The story Zelda tells Whizzer is only partly true. True – She found Rothbart languishing in despair after King William destroyed his power and she inspired him to work again. The part she doesn’t tell is that she and Rothbart were stuck. They needed help. Rothbart reached out to one of his younger rivals, Clavius. The three of them re-conjured the Forbidden Arts together. But after their success Rothbart turned on them both. They didn’t dare challenge his power at that time. After Clavius died in the mountain, Zelda never bothered to include Clavius in the story of the recreation of the Forbidden Arts because there was no one alive to challenge her account. She painted Clavius as an interloper who tried to steal what she and Rothbart developed together.
On the topic of the Forbidden Arts, have we truly seen the last of it in the series? Or is there a chance it might come back?
The Forbidden Arts was a power Rothbart had harnessed. There is a chance that the Forbidden Arts could come back if we discover a new and exciting way to give it additional powers so that it brings something original to the series.
Michelle Nicastro, sadly, passed away, but we were wondering if she were still alive today would you have kept her on as the voice of Odette?
The death of Michelle Nicastro was a real shock and it happened when we were just starting to do Swan 4 and rebooting up the series. It was every intention that we would use her. She was going to come in and we did not know at that time that she had been very ill and very sick. But when the time came in to record she called and said that she couldn’t do it. And she died 3 days later. And It was really a total heartbreak for us. Not because we lost her in the series because we lost an incredible actress and a sweet spirit. She, in her life, was as sweet as the character Odette. And I think that’s why she was able to portray Odette in such an incredible way, is because she actually was that kind of a person. And if she were alive today she would be the voice of Odette for as long as we could use her.
About The Swan Princess
The Swan Princess is based upon the folk tale and ballet, Swan Lake. The story is transformed into a playfully fun adventure with exciting music, lovable forest friends, and of course, the handsome Prince Derek. The Swan Princess, Odette, has stayed true to original fairy tale princess with her kindness, grace, and loyalty.
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