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Baer-ing Up in Tough Times – Interview with Disney Animator Dale Baer

// Featured, Interviews

Jim Hill talks with animation industry vet Dale Baer about how he transitioned from doing traditional animation on “Home on the Range” to doing CG on “Chicken Little” and “A Day with Wilbur Robinson.”

Disney animator Dale Baer remembers when he got the phone call that changed the course of his career.

He was seated at his desk, working on Alameda Slim – the comic villain for Walt Disney Feature Animation’s recent release, “Home on the Range” – when the phone rang. So Dale picks the receiver up … and who’s on the line but Baer’s old buddy, “The Emperor’s New Groove” producer Randy Fullmer.

These two industry vets shoot the breeze for a bit. Then Randy – in a very off-handed sort of way – tells Dale: “You should maybe start thinking about taking some computer animation classes.”

That was when Baer realized what Fullmer was actually up to. Randy was quietly putting out the word among his friends & associates that things were about to change at the Mouse House. And those that didn’t embrace this coming change might soon find themselves left behind.

So – following Randy’s advice — Baer immediately threw himself into computer animation classes. By day, Dale would continue to traditionally animate his HOTR character (FYI: “Home on the Range” just debuted on DVD in the U.S. today). By night (as well as early, early in the morning), Baer would sit down in front of a computer and – as he wrestled with a mouse – tried to teach himself how to master Maya.

Dale admits that making the transition from being a traditional animator to becoming someone who’s fluent in CG wasn’t all that easy for him. “At first, it was a real struggle. I had to take classes for a year and a half. Learn all this new tech stuff as well as hold up my end on ‘Home on the Range.’ “

But the end result was that Baer was still on Disney’s payroll after WDFA finally finished its all-too-painful downsizing. Where once over 2000 pushed pencils for Disney Feature Animation, now only 600 artists & technicians remained.

Obviously Dale considers himself lucky, both that he survived all of the Disney Feature Animation’s personnel cuts as well as that he now works with so many helpful people in the newly CG-ified WDFA.

“When I first got started on ‘Chicken Little,’ I was kind of in over my head,” admitted Baer. “But – whenever I said I was having trouble with any of the scenes that I was working on – my office was suddenly filled with all these people who were eager to help me get a handle on all the technological stuff.”

Clearly, Dale eventually got the hang of things. For – just recently – he transitioned from doing incidental scenes for “Chicken Little” to animating one of the featured characters in Walt Disney Feature Animation’s upcoming release, “A Day with Wilbur Robinson.”

“ ‘Wilbur’ ‘s going to be a great, great movie when it’s done,” Baer enthused. “The story just grabs you right off the bat. Plus it’s got this wacky ‘Back to the Future’ –like stuff in it. But – at the same time – it’s a pretty traditional Disney story with plenty of heart.”

But – for now – now that he seems to have a role in WDFA’s future, Dale’s willing to look back on Disney’s not-so-distant past. As in: The last year or so that Baer spent working on “Home on the Range.”

Dale seems somewhat mystified that “HOTR” didn’t do better during its initial theatrical release. “Based on what we’d been hearing about the movie’s test screening, we thought we had a hit on our hands,” he explained. “The picture was supposedly testing well with kids and adults. So we were really surprised when ‘Home’ didn’t do all that well when it hit theaters back in April.”

Still, Baer doesn’t have any regrets about working on that picture. “It was a delight to work with John (Sanford) and Will (Finn),” said Dale, when talking about “Home on the Range” ‘s team of directors. “You couldn’t find two nicer or more professional people in the industry.”

Plus Dale seems pleased that the character that he worked on – Alameda Slim – has been repeatedly singled out for praise by the film’s critics. “Slim was a lot of fun to work on,” Baer continued.

Dale particularly liked working with Randy Quaid, the Hollywood veteran who provided Alameda Slim’s voice. “I’d go to the recording session and watch Randy do his thing. He’s this really low-key guy as he walks on stage. But – once he gets behind the mic and gets into character – all hell would break loose.”

Of course, Slim wasn’t always a fun character to work on. In the early, early versions of “Home on the Ranch” ‘s story, Alameda was a ghost rider. As in: A spectral steer snatcher. A long dead cowboy who stole other people’s cattle because … Well … In this early incarnation of “HOTR,” Disney’s story people never really could get a handle on why Slim needed to steal all those cows.

“Plus the other problem with that early version of Alameda Slim was that the character was a ghost,” continued Baer. “And does a cow go about capturing a ghost?”

Disney’s story department continued to struggle with Alameda’s motivation. Eventually even changing “HOTR” ‘s villain from a ghost rider to this flesh-and-blood guy who wanted to use a huge herd of cattle to help him become President of the United States. (I know that sounds strange. But it’s true, folks. Check out the “Deleted Scenes” section of your “Home on the Range” DVD. Select the “Slim for President” sequence and you’ll see what I mean.)

Eventually, all that “Slim for President” stuff fell by the wayside. And all that remained was a much more simple explanation for this character’s behavior. Alameda was rustling all of these cattle because he was try to raise money to acquire all of the ranches in the territory.

“So how did Slim steal all those steers?,” you ask. In “Home on the Range” ‘s most memorable scene, Alameda reveals his secret. He uses his awesome yodeling ability to put those cows in a trance.

To hear Dale tell it, he had a really great time working on “HOTR” ‘s “Yodel-Adle-Eedle-Idle-Oo” number. “Myself, I don’t dance worth a hoot,” Baer explained. “So I studied Charles Durning’s performance in the movie version of ‘Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.’ It was really amazing to see that a guy of Durning’s size could be so light on his feet.”

So Dale used Charles for Slim’s inspiration. And the end result can be seen on the Disney DVD that’s currently on sale in the States.

With “Home on the Range” now behind him and having already wrapped up his role on WDFA’s June 2005 release, Baer’s eager to get to work on “A Day with Wilbur Robinson.” As well as learn what audiences think of “Chicken Little.”

“I think that people are really going to be surprised with this picture,” Dale explained. “Disney’s doing things with feathers & fur on ‘Chicken Little’ that’s miles ahead of what everyone else in the industry’s doing right now. That – and it really is a funny film.”


Author’s note: I gotta tell you, gang. I really enjoyed interviewing Dale Baer on the phone. To hear this guy – who’d done such memorable work in the past as a traditional animator (I.E. Yzma in WDFA’s December 2000 release, “The Emperor’s New Groove” as well as supervising the entire Toontown sequence in that 1988 Touchstone Pictures / Amblin Productions masterpiece, “Who Framed Roger Rabbit”) – talking with such enthusiasm about the future, how much he enjoyed working with CG … Well, it gave me hope that maybe the coming transition won’t really be so bad. That people like Dale will make sure that the traditions of great traditional animation (I.E. Good story telling, memorable characters, etc. ) will live on as CG becomes more & more prevalent in the industry.

Here’s hoping anyway. Your thoughts?

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