Making Waves

The Little Mermaid

Ariel’s flowing red hair is as familiar to Disney fans as Mickey Mouse’s ears, but did you know she was nearly a blonde?

When writer/directors Ron Clements and John Musker told the boss of Disney Animation about their idea for the movie in the mid 1980s, there weren’t too many movies about mermaids except one – a 1984 hit starring Tom Hanks called Splash. It was also made by Disney and starred blonde actress Daryl Hannah as Madison the mermaid.

Tow blonde mermaids from one studio wouldn’t do, so artists quickly gave Ariel a flame-haired makeover.

Animation’s dark history

Ariel, Sebastian and their friends were responsible for making animation big business again. Disney hadn’t been doing well since Walt Disney died – The Jungle Book, released in 1967, was the last movie he worked on.

The classic animated Disney movies like Lady and the Tramp, Dumbo, Cinderella, Snow White and Peter Pan had all come out in the 1940s, 50s and 60s, and the movies the studio made in the 1970s and 1980s like Oliver and Company, The Fox and The Hound, The Great Mouse Detective and The Rescuers weren’t nearly as popular. There was even talk of Disney going broke!

Ron Clements, who started with Disney in 1974 when he was 20, says “It was kind of a dark period at Disney.” He describes himself and creative partner John Musker as the new generation starting there when the older animators who’d worked with Walt were retiring.

“We tried to absorb the lessons from those older guys,” John Musker says. “We tried to learn about sincerity and believability, but the stories had become weaker in the 60s and 70s. We were really trying to get back to the strong stories of those classic films.”

When The Little Mermaid was released in 1989, it was the beginning of a huge turnaround. It cost $40 million (a lot for an animated movie) and made over $220 million worldwide! From there every animated movie Disney released was a hit, from Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin to The Lion King, which made almost a billion dollars!

The real world

Nowadays, computer artists create clips of footage called animatics – really simple shots that will appear in the final movie, but without most of the detail like backgrounds, hair or skin, facial expressions or sound.

When the directors decide what looks the best, the animation teams responsible for the surfaces, colours, movement, lighting and shadow and a hundred other details add everything that brings the scene to life.

But computer generated imagery (CGI) wasn’t so widely used in 1989, and The Little Mermaid was all hand-drawn. So to plan out the angle and movement in the shots, Ron Clements, John Musker and the animators had real performers act out the scenes, even speaking the dialogue.

Actress Sherri Stoner was the live action reference for Ariel, performing the scenes and dialogue on video for the animators to copy later.

There was even ad-libbing. Ariel’s famous frustrated sigh – where she blows her hair out of her face – was inspired by Sherri when Supervising Animator Glean Keane saw her do it between takes. You can see some of the footage of Sherri acting out Ariel’s scenes on the DVD extras.

The Little Mermaid was the last time a live action reference was used in so much detail for an animated Disney movie.

Finding the human in Ariel

Usually when animators create a character they might have a Hollywood star’s voice to inspire the personality, but when actors do a live action reference like they did for The Little Mermaid, a little of the real person usually finds its way into the character.

“My friends saw me in Ariel more than I saw myself,” says Sherri Stoner. “Little things like a hair or hand movement.”

Mark Henn, the supervising animator who worked on Ariel’s character, says she was already drawn and designed when Sherri joined the movie, but because the animation artists made some of the drawings over pictures of Sherri’s face to sketch out scenes, some of her is bound to creep in.

Making it in animation

Every big studio in Hollywood makes animated movies these days, and they’ve given us hits like The Smurfs, Ice Age, Despicable Me, Toy Story and Shrek. Animated family movies are seen as the surest bet at the box office, so if you wanted to be an animator for a career, there’s never been a better time.

Most animated movies nowadays are made on computers rather than drawn on paper the way they used to be, but everything starts with an idea by a visual artist, so John Musker thinks drawing is one of the most important skills you can have.

“Even if it’s a CG movie you have to be able to communicate your ideas,” he says. “You need to be able to express what’s in your head on paper in some way, regardless of the technique you use to make the film.”

John also says that if you can draw what you mean on paper clearly, it makes what you’re going for plain to other people so you don’t have to ‘pitch’ them on it by describing it – describing something is never as good when you’re talking about animation!

Ron Clements says there’s one other thing you need to remember – characters are all about the emotions they’re feeling. “It’s not just about making things move but about making them move the audience,” he says. “You can get caught up in making animals and objects behave realistically, but really it’s all about the sincerity and believability of the characters.

He says good acting has always been the emphasis at Disney, even for animated characters. “The most important thing isn’t what the character’s doing but what they’re thinking, how their thoughts are motivating their actions, how they’re all unique personalities and that every personality is different.”

Trickiest scene

Supervising animator Mark Henn worked closely with live action actress Sherri Stoner in creating the movements and performance that would become Ariel in the movie, and the hardest scene they worked on was where Ursula, in disguise as Vanessa, is enchanting Prince Eric using Ariel’s voice.

“The balcony shot was definitely challenging,” Mark says. “Ariel’s hiding behind a column and unable to say anything as her world crumbles around her. All we could have her use was her body language and facial expressions.”

Working for Disney

So working at Disney must be like going to Disneyland every day, right? Do fairies fly through the halls while animators and studio executives send talking animals for coffee?

Sherri Stoner loved everything that went along with the name. “It’s all about magical storytelling,” she says, “to be part of that in any way was an enormous thrill.

Mark Henn has worked there for 33 years so far, and he says it’s all he ever wanted to do, even as a boy growing up. “When the other animators I joined with and I started here we were young and hoping to make a difference and change things. I was trained by one of the animators hired by Walt and got to know most of the others. Just physically being here and walking the halls that Walt walked, having an office that someone you idolised might have occupied was magical.”

Mark also says that because he started around the same time as Ron Clements and John Musker when things weren’t going so well for Disney animation, he felt a lot of responsibility. “We wanted to keep those old storytelling traditions going. I still look up to those animators and realise I’m not as good as them yet.”

That all sounds great but what about the most important thing – free Disneyland tickets??

“After you work at the studio for a certain period they give you a silver pass,” Mark says, talking about the hard-to-get free pass the companies gives to employees and VIPs. “Before I had one I was with John Musker outside the front entrance to the park talking about something. Someone recognised John, they came forward and called us through.”

But Sherri has the best story about the day she was at Disneyland with her daughter, lined up for none other than The Little Mermaid ride. “We’d been in the line for two hours and just as we got to the door they closed it down because a kid had thrown up on the ride,” she laughs. “I literally had the door in my hand to go in and a guy forcefully says ‘I’m sorry Miss, the ride is closed’. I was so tempted to say ‘but don’t you know who I am? I WAS The Little Mermaid!'”

Thankfully, because Sherri is writing on a couple of Disney projects at the moment she has a new free pass of her own.