Career Highlights - "Anastasia" 1995-1997

Theatrical Movie Poster of 20th Century Fox's "Anastasia" (1997)

 

Just last night, on the Canadian TV Cartoon Channel "Teletoon", they played the first film I ever worked on as a professional... "Anastasia".  It's been shown many times on television since being released on Dvd about 10 years ago, and during the production of the film I must have watched it nearly 300 times in various states of completion (no exaggeration!)... but for some reason, last night I found myself watching it again, as it triggered many memories. So, it seems fitting that I start this "Career Highlights" section of the blog now... where it all began...

In 1995, I started my career out of college working for 20th Century Fox at "Fox Animation Studios" in Phoenix, Arizona. It was quite a change in environment to live in the desert, compared to the 4-seasons of Canada... but Phoenix was a nice place to live for a while.
 

I started as a Character Animation "Inbetweener" on "Anastasia".  This is usually the job most hand-drawn "Classical Animators" had at the start of their career.  I explain this job title, and more about how a scene is animated in the traditional animation process, in one of the Tutorials I've written... describing in detail the creation of  "Hand-Drawn Animation: From Animator to Inbetweener."

 

Working on a feature film directed by two of my favourite Animation directors... and surrounded by some very talented people. ..This was an exciting time for me.

I remember on my first day at work, they took a few of us into the private company theater to watch the current "Leica Reel" (Storyboards put to audio), of the first animated song sequence we'd be working on. 

"Once Upon a December" was a beautiful melody based on the theme played in Anastasia's music box throughout the film.  This would be our big theatrical moment, as the main character "Anya" has memories triggered of her forgotten past, while walking through an abandoned Russian palace.  These memories are soon brought to life, as dancing couples and her lost family appear as ghostly images in her mind... as she dances around the Grand Ballroom. 

This sequence took a long time for all the departments in the studio.  We had many, many different dancing couples, all drawn one frame of film at a time for the smoothest movement possible.  The backgrounds were amazingly intricate and colourful...some taking several weeks per painting to complete.  Detailed hand-drawn special effects added visual magic to the scenes.  There were 3D environments 'textured' to look like watercolour paintings.  So many details, but the final song sequence is a real highlight of the film. 

I inbetweened many of the ghost couples, and various scenes of Anya dancing around, including the final moment animated by Len Simon, as she bows before the ghost of her father.  A scene which was later used as a limited edition animation Cel in some galleries.

 

About halfway through production, I was promoted to "Breakdown artist" which is someone who usually gets an Animator or Assistant Animator's "Key Drawings"... and puts at least one more drawing between each to smooth out the action... just before the final 'inbetween drawings' are added. 

This feature production took 3 years (including pre-production), and an estimated 250,000 drawings to complete. It was released in the extra-wide "cinemascope" format to theaters in November of 1997.

Directed by Animation Legends, Don Bluth and Gary Goldman. Featuring the voices of Meg Ryan, John Cusack, Kelsey Grammer, Bernadete Peters, Angela Lansbury, Christopher Lloyd... and Hank Azaria as "Bartok" the Bat. It was nominated for 2 Academy Awards for "Best Song"... but this was also the year that Titanic came out, and swept the awards.  At the time, the "Best Animated Feature" category was not a part of the Oscars.  There were only a few animated films released that year, so we would have likely been nominated in that category too.

 

It was a great experience to start my career on a feature film, and learn from some very talented people. Every day I had amazing animation drawings dropped on my desk...which improved my drawing skills even more, by matching the different styles and techniques of the Seasoned Animators at our studio. I also had the privilege of sitting in on occasional Drawing Classes given by Don Bluth, and Directing Animator, Len Simon.  Every Thursday, Gary Goldman would show the entire team the film with the most current animation... I always looked forward to seeing the updates.  Most days on my coffee break, I would browse the other departments to see what everyone was working on. So much inspirational work was on display.... concept designs, storyboards, layouts, and background paintings. At the end of production, we were all given the "Art of Anastasia" book, which contained a lot of this production artwork.  I then spent a couple weeks going around the different departments to get all 400 employees to sign my book as a keepsake. 

When the film was set to debut in theaters, we had an advance screening at a local theater, hosted by the Directors.  An elaborate Formal party followed... fully-catered and lavishly decorated... including a custom Anastasia Ice Sculpture.  Most of all, it was our moment to celebrate, with friends and family, after years of dedication to the film.

 

Surrounded by so much talent; learning and improving my skills more each day... and being a part of Film History.  I knew this is what I should be doing... and that I had made the right career choice in my life.

Mike Hogue