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Interview: Disney’s Clay Kaytis, John Kahrs & Paul Briggs

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The Walt Disney Company has certainly come a long way since the days of the ‘Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio’.  However, one key strength within the company has continued to remain strong throughout; the company’s ability to recognise and promote great talent.  Disney himself, a slightly above average artist but an excellent businessman took it upon himself to work with his collaborator, the talented Ub Iwerks, to fill the screens with the animated antics of many of Disney’s early characters; including studio mascot ‘Mickey Mouse’.  Throughout the years, the talent within the studios has been regarded as the best in the business with the ‘Nine Old Men’ working right the way through the animation studios more famous periods and shaping commercial animation history with every film released. Talent was not only reserved for animators.  Story artists such as Joe Grant, concept artists like Mary Blair and a host of others ensured that every level of production was loaded with the right people for the job.

When Walt Disney died in 1966 his legacy continued when his fellow artists continued to work and pass on their talent through the generations, with every subsequent generation benefiting from the one before it.  The fascinating thing about meeting today’s talented Disney creatives, is that they recognise the benefit of working for a studio with such a rich history and background.  They themselves seem happy to both learn from those that came before them and pass on their knowledge to those that will populate the studio tomorrow.

Disney’s relatively recent rocky past is no secret but the appointment of John Lasseter has given people the opportunity to breathe a sigh of relief.  The incredibly successful Pixar Animation Studio seems to have borrowed a lot of fundamental working practices from Walt Disney’s heyday.  You could almost attribute Pixar’s success to these fundamentals and as Disney saw a minor wobble in its position as a solid animated feature hit maker, Pixar filled the gap with hit after hit. Since Lasseter took the reins at Disney and re-installed Walt’s working model, the studio appears to have been given a new lease of life with filmmaking and storytelling taking center stage once again, without the need for business executives making artistic decisions.  Disney’s new work is cause for much excitement; the new ‘Prep and Landing’ and ‘The Ballad of Nessie’ are just two short films due to wow audiences with the familiar Disney charm.  There are also promises of features such as ‘Wreck-It Ralph and ‘King of the Elves’ aiming to continue the recent success of ‘Winnie the Pooh’, ‘Tangled’ and ‘Princess and the Frog’.

At this year’s Annecy animation festival Skwigly were given a glimpse of what it would be like to work for the world famous studio, in an interview with Disney’s Clay Kaytis (who runs the Animation Podcast), Pixar Veteran John Kahrs and Paul Briggs who leads the story department, as it enters an era that Paul Briggs reassuringly summed up in this one sentence: ‘We are about to enter a whole new time here for Disney it’s an exciting time’.

Paul, Clay and John

Clay Kaytis began working for Disney during Pocahontas and has worked in both 2D and 3D for the company recently supervising animation on the characters of Rhino in Bolt before stepping up to Supervise the whole animation of Tangled alongside John Kahrs and Glen Keane. He is also well known for hosting the animation podcast.

John Kahrs began his career at Pixar animating on Bugs Life through to Ratatouille working as an animator and animation character developer. He joined Disney to work on Bolt before joining Clay and Glen Keane to supervise animation on Tangled.

Paul Briggs worked his way through Disney as a visual effects animator on The Hunchback of Notre Dame before becoming a story artist. He has also loaned his voice as the mumbling ‘two fingers’ the frog hunter in the princess and the frog.


Clay, you were a 2D animator and then you became a 3D animator, how quick was the transition and how much of your 2D experience was relevant?

Clay Kaytis: I would say all of my 2D experience was relevant. I went into animation thinking I didn’t draw very well so I knew I wanted to be a CG animator and in my mind that’s what I was going to do. However, when I got into it there wasn’t any CG where I was … so I basically learned 2D animation. I did that for nine years and I loved the fact that I went that way, it was my foundation and now I think about animation differently.  I always think of animation as ‘would I draw this way? Would this look good if this was a 2D animation?’ It just influences everything I do.  I am really happy it happened that way.

Even though it is often said that story is king, do you have a particular favorite medium of animation? Does one offer more freedom perhaps?

John Kahrs: I think for Clay and I we have a lot of admiration for the great Disney classics from the 1940’s to 1960’s, there is such an amazing craftsmanship and artistry there that we are trying to bring to CG.  I would say I am a huge fan of [Hayao] Miyazaki and what is going on with the likes of the Illusionist or Triplets of Belleville.

There is a shift in the way of seeing 2D hand drawn animation and it is becoming a little more mature, a little more grown up and the style is shifting, it’s not Disney animation at all, it’s just something different which is really refreshing.  We respect all of that.

Clay, The animation Podcast is very popular, will you be making anymore?

Clay Kaytis: Yes, especially after I went to Stuttgart, FMX and here at Annecy I have met hundreds and hundreds of people and that’s usually the first question for me.  It makes me realise how important it is for students to get access to information like that.  I originally did it for myself but now I see how people like it and enjoy it and it influences them when they work so I have an obligation, I think, to keep making more.

Paul Briggs: Don’t people keep asking when is the ‘Paul Briggs animation podcast’?!

Clay Kaytis: (Laughs) I think that’s the next one! My first story artist! In fact no Burny (Mattinson) was on one.

Paul Briggs: That was a good one! You can’t top that.

As demonstrated in your podcasts Disney seems to be a conveyor belt of animated legends, how much inspiration do you draw from the other guys at each level working at Disney?

Paul Briggs:  Well one of the great things is that Burny is still coming into the studio, he is like the old man on the hill and you go talk to him, you go complain about things to him, you seek his advice, he is this wise sage that gives up his information.  It’s great to hear the old stories about back in the days when they were experiencing the same struggles and triumphs.

You guys have Glen [Keane] too right…?

John Kahrs: Glen really is one of the great animators of our time and of the 80’s and 90’s.  I grew up looking at his animation and now working with him and trying to come up to his level in CG has been this huge journey for Clay and I on Tangled and we just want to keep pushing that for the next films that we do.

Clay Kaytis: That’s the nice thing about what you are asking, definitely everyone has heroes, some of them have passed on and we have never met them but we actually get to work alongside people that have done this for decades and decades. They are passing on the same knowledge to us and hopefully we can pass it onto the trainees that we bring in every year.  It’s a neat obligation, the whole apprentice thing which kind of reminds me of medieval times, passing on a certain craft.

Paul Briggs: We have this great thing in the story department when we have been celebrating the giants that have come before us, I always say ‘look to the past as we continue to move towards the future’ and it’s just an understanding as to how those guys worked and picking up what they learned is really important.

Clay Kaytis: I think definitely for Disney it’s a unique situation where we have been in business for seventy plus years doing this and it’s a pretty direct line all the way back to the beginning, it’s exciting to be part of that.

Like a family tree!

Paul Briggs: Yeah and that’s one of the big things we can draw from; the legacy and a lot of other studios cannot.

Clay Kaytis: It’s actually a lecture I want to put together; the Disney family tree of all the connections that you can follow back … like genealogy.

Walt Disney animation is now more recognisable as a separate brand.  How much difference did the appointment of John Lasseter make to the studios?

John Kahrs: Paul you should really start on that first because out of all the departments he has really focused the most on yours.

Paul Briggs: There has definitely been an incredible shift in focus where he demands a lot from the story from the directors and the story crew; he encourages you into taking ownership of that film and being the gods of the world in the film.  When he puts that much pressure on you to work at such a high level, it starts to translate to every department. Every department comes in and starts to focus.  He puts so much emphasis on story so you can never come in to any story meeting with John Lasseter and not have things really thought out. To have a discussion with John you really have to bring something to it, but once you get a discussion with John he loves it, he loves to talk story, and you really have to be smart in the way you are making a movie.

John Kahrs:  I think one of the things he really transformed is the idea that the films are created and the oversight isn’t by executives anymore, it’s by a group of peers at the director creative level and the films are being collaborated on by film makers.  It’s John as a filmmaker, and it’s not like guys with business and management degrees, it’s more like people who understand the language of film, storytelling and pushing the idea of storytelling that’s become the new center of the studio. It’s kind of radiating out from there.  All the other departments have really transformed themselves in the past 4-5 years, just in the time since I arrived there, you look at ‘Meet the Robinsons’ to ‘Bolt’ and then to ‘Tangled’ the quality of everything, visuals, animation, character designs and storytelling has just got so much more sophisticated and elegant to me.

Paul Briggs:  He has brought this great level of honesty and trust within our studio. Even John, before he is a head of a studio he is first and foremost a filmmaker but even before that he is a storyteller. He even comes to the table with everyone else at this level.  There is a very safe feeling of being in a room with the story trust and knowing that you’re getting the feedback to make the best movie you possibly can make.  It is a great experience right now.

Paul, how does you’re job role of head of story differ from any other role in story department?

PB: Well a story supervisor is more about managing this team. I am working directly with Chris Williams and a writer on a project now, trying to craft the beats of the story. I feel like I am managing a construction crew and we are laying the foundation now and the construction crew is going to get bigger and bigger and eventually animation will come in and then effects will come in.

Paul you where the voice of two fingers in Princess and the Frog as well as the story artist, that was a wonderful piece of slapstick in the film, do you have more fun being the story artist on slapstick material, more serious moments or does it not matter?

PB: (Impersonating Two FingersOUI!  It really does not matter, I personally get the most out of the more heartfelt moments.  Although, I am usually cast doing action stuff because that’s really difficult to do. It can be funny and its can be action based but if it doesn’t have the character wrapped into it then it doesn’t mean that much to me, I always start with character.

How easy is it to get a job in Disney?  Is there a set path such as the cal-arts program or can anyone with the right amount of luck and skill get in?

Clay Kaytis: It’s all about skill, it doesn’t matter where you came from or how much education you had.  I would say though; for international students I have learned that a degree helps get a visa but that’s the only consideration as far as schooling goes. It’s all about talent and we always hire the best talent in animation and I am sure in the story department we have a policy that even if we don’t need someone … if they are so good that we can’t resist we will hire them to bring them into the story.

John, you made the transition from Disney to Pixar; is there any difference between the working practices of Disney and Pixar?

John Kahrs: Well I guess what John [Lasseter] was trying to do at Pixar was take the best things that Walt Disney had developed such as the idea for dailies for animation. He evolved that further at Pixar and I think when he came to be in charge of the Disney studio he really pushed to bring those ideas back to the studio.

I think Glen had this great line that the idea of a Pixar movie is that the premise is “wouldn’t it be cool if…” that’s what drives the conceptualisation of a film and at Walt Disney the idea is “once upon a time…”.

Right now they both feel like they are both really vibrant places where great films are being created.

Paul Briggs:  We are about to enter a whole new time here for Disney it’s an exciting time.

Is there any particular work that you have done in your career that you are particularly proud of that you can point out?

Paul Briggs:  The work I am doing right now.  I have two sons; one and a half and six months old, and so I know this film coming up will be the first one they will associate me with and that has a huge impact on what I am doing and I am very proud of the amount of work and dedication I am putting into the film. I am excited to be under the leadership of Chris Williams.

John Kahrs:  For me it’s all been downhill since A Bugs Life!

[They all laugh]

I guess as an animator ‘The Incredibles’ was the most fun I have had, just digging in and animating and just been able to do some of the key scenes on that movie.  But now I am not so much working as an animator, but in leadership; Tangled is for Clay and I the first time really doing that. Building that character of Rapunzel , the physical rig that the animators had to use and building the support system and all the tools that the animators had to rely on to settle down and do their work that’s something we are both really proud of.  It must have been the most difficult thing in my whole career just trying to get that 19 year old girl to look as good as Glenn envisioned her and to do it with this new technology it’s very difficult very elusive goal that we were trying to aim towards and I think we got there.

Clay Kaytis: It’s funny because going into Tangled was the first time I supervised a whole crew and up to that point I had done scenes on Rhino from Bolt and at the time I thought – this is my proudest moment, this is what it’s all about. Going into Tangled I did not know if I would be satisfied running a crew of people. However I found that was actually my most satisfying film because taking on that role and taking on a team and giving them the tools to do their job, making sure they do it well and better than they have ever done it in their careers was so satisfying to know that the team is one of the best animation crews in the world and I was a part of that. So I feel a responsibility for the whole movie and not just one character or individual scenes. I think my job is done because the movie turned out so well. So that’s definitely my proudest moment and the nice thing about that too is 16-17 years into this it can still get better and more satisfying which was very reassuring you don’t want your peak to be back on Bugs Life!

[They laugh]

John Kahrs: Those were great times though!

Clay Kaytis: It’s nice to know it can get better.

What are you all working on at the moment?

JK: Right now I am directing a short film … that… is all I can say at the moment!

PB: This is the toughest question for everyone!

JK: It hasn’t been announced … it’s going to be amazing, since it hasn’t been announced at all … the fact that I said I am doing it is kind of enough.

CK: I have been focusing on the film that comes out after Pauls film, so if his is unannounced then mine is certainly unannounced!!

These are all shorts?

CK: No, features but the good underlying message is that there is a lot going on in the studio!

JB: Yeah I am extremely excited about the future because of the leadership in place, I am excited about our directors and there amazing filmic sense and there ability, I am working with Chris Williams on a film that Chris is directing he just has one of those great story minds. I am excited about the future.

Clay Kaytis, Paul Briggs, John Kahrs, Thank you very much for talking to Skwigly today!

I would like to take this chance to thank Julia Orr and Dawn Rivera-Ernster for their assistance in organizing this interview

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