The directors of “Tangled” had no idea they were working on the Disney Company's 50th animated feature.
“Six months into the production, someone did the math and figured it out,” says Byron Howard. “Great...more pressure.”
Howard and fellow director Nathan Greno, however, were big fans of the Disney classics and thought their film might be a fitting tribute to the ones that came before it.
Their installment – a retelling of the Rapunzel story – had references to “Sleeping Beauty,” “Cinderella” and “Pinocchio.” It featured music by “The Little Mermaid's” composer Alan Menkin. And it boasted animation design by Glen Keane, one of the key artists behind Disney's second “golden age.”
But “Tangled” wasn't just another princess story. Howard, in fact, says it was really a story about two characters – Rapunzel, the girl with the long hair, and Flynn Rider, the bandit who rescues her. “It can't work without one or the other. It's like calling 'Toy Story' 'Buzz Lightyear.' It's a duo movie. Both characters are changing and learning.”
The two directors looked at 300 titles (“some that were terrible,” Howard says) and came back to “Tangled” because it sounded “fresh and contemporary and it related to the plot...and the hair.”
The hair, Greno says, proved to be one of the film's biggest challenges. Because Rapunzel's mane is her ticket (it heals wounds, serves as transportation and makes the girl a prize to her captor), it had to look real on screen. To create it, the director says, animators created a series of tubes that looked like spaghetti. “It's about 1,000 tubes or 100,000 actual hairs. The artists were able to get a general movement from those tubes.”
An entire team, as a result, was charged with animating Rapunzel's hair.
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In January, Greno says, the directors admitted they didn't know if it was going to work. “Nothing like this had been done before in CG – either at Pixar or Dreamworks. Usually, characters have short hair or a ponytail.”
In March, he says, “things started clicking. But it was late in the process when we figured it out.”
And then? Then there was the 3D aspect to consider. “We wanted to make sure that it was used as a storytelling tool,” Howard says. “Too many films have no good reason to be in 3D.”
“Tangled,” however, has moments that pop thanks to the process. When Rapunzel and Flynn are floating amid a sea of paper lanterns, it looks like the lanterns are hanging in the theater. “We pulled back on the 3D when we needed to,” Howard says. “With emotional scenes, we didn't want to be distracted by it.”
For the directors, storytelling was paramount. They set up shots as if they were being done in 2D, then let the experts handle the extra dimension.
An end to hand-drawn animation? Not in the least, says Greno. “We're still making 2D, hand-drawn films. It's alive and well at Disney. What we were trying to do was take the best of both worlds. It's a real compliment when people say 'Tangled' feels like 2D.”
Both directors credit Keane – the man behind Ariel, the Beast and other classic Disney characters – with guiding the animation.
“He's the best animation teacher in the world,” Howard says. “He has trained more people at this studio and others than anyone else. He likes working with young, fresh animators.”
And Howard and Greno? They've already got a follow-up film in mind. First, though, they're going to travel the world as “Tangled” opens in foreign markets. They're proud of the achievement and admit it was weird to say the film was finished.
“We worked with the characters so long they were like our friends...and we weren't going to see them every day,” Greno explains. “To have it done, to hear from people who see it and then e-mail or call us is the best feeling. We're sharing it with the rest of the world...and, really, that's what this is all about.”