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How Tonic DNA Cast An Animated Spell Over Disney’s Disenchanted


Todd Shaffer, Justine Desmarais, Laura Montero Plata, and Magdaléna Delmas talk to LBB’s Adam Bennett about their work on the movie, as well as reflecting on a modern renaissance for 2D animation

How Tonic DNA Cast An Animated Spell Over Disney’s Disenchanted

It’s easy to forget how different the world was in 2007, when Enchanted was first released. George Bush was president, Instagram was three years away from being born, and the idea of a film featuring 2D animation being one of the year’s biggest blockbusters was utterly unremarkable. Jump forward to today, however, and that’s changed somewhat.

All of which makes the nostalgic, comforting appeal of Disenchanted more necessary. Released on November 18th, the film takes us back into the world of Andalasia, back to the story of the beautiful Disney Princess Giselle and, perhaps most excitingly of all, back to 2D animation in some of the film’s most memorable moments. 

Bringing those scenes to life was the team at TONIC DNA, the animation powerhouse nestled in Montreal, Canada. To find out more about how the film came together - and dig into precisely what is driving what appears to be a modern renaissance for 2D animation - LBB’s Adam Bennett spoke to TONIC DNA’s animation director Todd Shaffer, head of production Laura Montero Plata, 2D animator Justine Desmarais, and project manager Magdaléna Delmas… 

Above: TONIC's charming animation was instrumental in bringing adorable and memorable characters to life throughout the movie's runtime. 

LBB> From the first moment, what were your initial reactions when the brief came through to be a part of Disenchanted?

Todd> Excitement! We knew it would be a challenge given the demand of the production, and the high visibility of the project. So we were prepared to bring our best game and rise to the collective level of the previous film - which was extremely high. 

Justine> It’s inspiring to be connected to something with so much legacy. The idea of a Disney Princess is so culturally enormous that you couldn’t help but be thrilled at the idea of participating in a project like this. 

Magdaléna> That legacy Justine mentions is so real - and it meant that the whole team brought a huge amount of enthusiasm into their work. Even before going in we knew it would be a roller coaster of emotions where you felt a sense of responsibility, combined with sheer excitement at the thought that we were contributing to this world we love so much. 

LBB> We’re speaking at a time where Disney is about to celebrate ‘100 Years of Wonder’, marking a full centenary of creative history. To what extent were you all inspired by classic 2D animated Disney films - and, in that context, what does it mean to be a part of one now? 

Todd> We actually had to draw a lot from those films - starting of course with the original Enchanted which was put together by James Baxter’s legendary team. It was such a high benchmark for us to meet, but an exciting one. 

However, in this film much of the animation needed to be integrated with live action as the director - Adam Shankman - wanted to achieve as little contrast as possible between the live action world and the animated world. This was such an interesting challenge because it meant we needed to stay recognisably rooted in that classic tradition of 2D Disney animation, whilst incorporating it into live-action sequences as seamlessly as possible. 

Justine> From the point of view of environment and character design, it was fascinating to consider what the original creators of these films were looking at and inspired by at the time. For example, so many of the Disney films in the previous century were heavily influenced by Art Nouveau and the painter Alphonse Mucha - which is related to the beauty of the natural world and particularly flowers and plants. This is something you see shine through a lot throughout Disney’s 2D animated work. 

Breaking it down further, you then see each film drawing on its own variation on that style - the Gothic architecture in the Hunchback of Notre Dame, for example. 

Above: An official trailer promoting the film's launch on Disney+. 

LBB> Does it become a bit creatively overwhelming, to be drawing on so many different influences?!

Justine> Well thankfully, our main source of inspiration for this particular project was distilled into the previous enchanted film! So, as Todd mentioned, James Baxter and his team were a constant reference for us. On top of that, we wanted to also adapt to our characters and actresses. I love the design for modern princesses like Elsa and Moana - although they ended up as 3D in the end, they were inspiring for me because they more reflected the idea of a modern Disney Princess which felt right in tone for our aims with this film. I wanted to keep in mind that Disney characters are consistently role models for various generations, so ensuring that they felt relevant was a huge priority for us. 

Laura> To add to that, I also think it’s a beautiful opportunity for us to pay tribute to the work and legacy, especially in the animation world, of these previous films. But yes, our challenge was not just to mirror that work but also to modernise it to our taste and our time. It is something which has always evolved - and our responsibility was to carry on that tradition by helping it to evolve again. I believe that what we landed on is something truly great, and I hope audiences will enjoy it. 

LBB> In what ways did you set out to ‘modernise’ the feel and tone of your animation or character design? 

Justine> Morgan, our protagonist, is a bit of a tomboy. She’s not a classic Disney princess by any means, and she doesn’t wish for that life or to be stuck in that world. 

Magdaléna> What does it mean to be a princess in 2022? This is actually a question we asked ourselves a lot. Morgan becomes her own kind of princess in the movie - she is graceful and strong, co-operative and powerful. We had to convey those personality traits, all within the context of being a princess now versus being a princess in the classic heyday of 2D animated Disney movies. 

Justine> That’s a really good point, and it’s not just about conveying this but also respecting it. Ultimately princesses are role models - that’s something which hasn’t changed throughout all this time! Therefore, we wanted to portray a character who we hope will be a source of inspiration to audiences watching this generation of Disney movies. We wanted to respect the audience, giving them something which is relevant to them and the time they’re living in. 

Above: Giselle, the returning protagonist from the original movie, is rendered in truly classical 90s Disney animation charm by the TONIC team. 

LBB> Not so long ago, we were talking with the Tonic DNA team about the reappearance of 2D animation in theatres with the Bob’s Burgers Movie. Now, we’re talking about a traditionally animated Disney princess returning to our screens. So, is traditional animation having a bit of a cultural moment? And, if so, does that surprise you at all? 

Todd> I think it’s very surprising. We had a long period in the 2000s and 2010s where 2D animation kind of died. We lost a lot of talent, which has been hugely difficult for the industry because we’ve not got access to as much expertise and experience in the talent pool as we might like. Having said that, there’s an amazing new generation coming through now which is truly rejuvenating the craft of 2D animation - and Justine is one of them - and helping it to enjoy this renaissance we’re currently seeing. 

Magdaléna> Although 3D was definitely the more sought-after medium for a few years, from an audience perspective I don’t feel the desire for great 2D animation ever left. When you talk with people who grew up with 2D animated movies, they’re just happy to see that it’s back - it’s been missed. 

Justine> Currently, we are having a cultural moment where we’re looking back to the 90s through a nostalgic lens. Combined with that, we’ve also hit a moment where 3D animation has lost its sense of novelty, or the idea that a film is necessarily ‘cutting edge’ simply because it is in 3D. So, because of those two factors, we now have the space to look at other ways of expressing stories. The beautiful thing about 2D is how direct it is - there’s an authenticity to it which, again, plays into the hands of a desire felt by so many to connect with something that feels real. There isn’t one single obvious reason why there is this current wave of great 2D animation but, as Magdaléna says, there’s a feeling of happiness and warmth towards the craft which is infectious.

LBB> I understand that your work in traditional animation is closely connected to the musical numbers in the movie. Can you tell us a bit more about that, and what makes animation such a key thing to get right for a successful musical scene?

Laura> That’s a tough question because all the reasons why animation is so important in a musical scene also apply to the live-action scenes more generally. What I can say is that my two passions in life are musicals and animation - so this was a fantastic challenge for me! 

Todd> Animating musical numbers is something that’s becoming quite a strength for us - whether it be here or in Animaniacs, Bob’s Burgers, or Central Park. You always hear that good songs are ‘showstoppers’ - but that’s totally wrong! Good songs need to keep the story moving. What’s great in Disenchanted is that musical numbers are really critical story moments. 

There’s a saying in musicals that ‘when words aren’t enough a character sings’. So musical numbers tend to help us get deeper into the interior of a character, and express things that are very difficult to express. That’s a key part of the song we animated was that it showed a character gaining confidence to complete a vitally important task. As animators we need to find a way to show that with, ultimately, something more than words. 

As it happened, one of the biggest requests from the original film was to have Idina Menzel perform a musical number. So we felt very privileged to handle that to the best of our abilities. 

Above: Todd Schafer (middle) and members of the TONIC DNA team at a Q&A following a screening of the film. Additionally, the studio hosted a Twitter Spaces discussion which, along with their own team, included Mulan director Tony Bancroft and Disney legend Craig Elliott. 

LBB> Another aspect of the production you guys were involved with was the storyboard process. I’m always curious - when you’re working on storyboards, how can you tell when you’re done? 

Todd> Short answer: When the director says ‘approved’. The longer answer is that this film was unique in the storyboard process because it was extremely collaborative. We would show Adam a weekly progress report and he would offer us feedback, so he was very involved and had a specific vision for where this was headed creatively. In truth, it wasn’t a ‘point A to point B’ kind of thing, but rather a constantly evolving process. 

LBB> Are there any particular moments which you’d especially love readers of this article to watch out for when they watch (or rewatch!) the film?

Todd> The first shot. That was the result of an intensely collaborative process and it’s very heavy up-front with animation. It’s one shot of the camera following a bird - and you might need to slow down and watch it a few times to catch all of the details. But that’s the beauty of the streaming era, I guess! 

Laura> It’s the perfect opening to dive into Andalasia, and it ends with this gorgeously cute moment. Plus, it’s a strong statement that animation opens this film. However, on a personal level, I’d pick out a scene with Pip and his kids where there are so many things going on in a very cheerful sequence. After this scene things get a bit darker, but this scene is so happy and goofy that it sets a great example for what can be achieved with animation. 

LBB> Finally, with the film having been released on the 18th, how did you guys watch it? Did you have any special screenings!? 

Magdaléna> I think all of us are going to be watching this film at least ten times! Of course, we all want to tell our families and friends that we were involved - and then they will want to watch it alongside us… kind of like their own private directors’ cut.

Justine> I completely agree. But the person I want to see it with most is my niece, who is seven years old and just loves princesses and animation. So it’s such a treat to be able to share that with her. When you’re in production you tend to ask yourself who you are working for - and my mind always turned to her on this project. 

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Genres: Animation

Categories: Media and Entertainment, Movies

TONIC DNA, Mon, 05 Dec 2022 08:55:10 GMT