UltimateDisney.com > Interviews > Nathan Greno (story supervisor, director) and Mark Walton (artist, voice actor), Bolt

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Bolt Virtual Roundtable:
Super Rhino director Nathan Greno and Rhino voice Mark Walton

When Bolt began production (under the title American Dog), Nathan Greno and Mark Walton were two of many crew members. A veteran story man, Greno was named story supervisor, overseeing storyboarding and writer assignments. A story artist on prior Disney animated productions, Walton was doing temp track readings for a character. By the time the film was released, Walton had been cast to officially voice the enthusiastic hamster Rhino. Greno was chosen to direct the original short Super Rhino, created for the film's home video release. He's since taken the reins on Rapunzel, helming the studio's much-anticipated, Glen Keane-developed holiday 2010 release with Bolt co-director Byron Howard. Walton will next serve as visual development artist on Disney's 2012 fantasy King of the Elves.

With Bolt out on DVD and Blu-ray this week, Greno and Walton recently discussed the film, their joint supplement Super Rhino, and their exciting future projects at Disney in a virtual roundtable online.

Rhino looks unusually tough against a fiery background in the made-for-DVD short "Super Rhino."


1. Influences and The Road to Here

Q: How did you guys jump into the world of animation? How did you get your careers started?

Nathan Greno: As a kid, I was always drawing my own cartoons. I grew up in a small town in Wisconsin and the idea of working for Disney Animation was a big dream to have. I went to art school in Columbus, Ohio, spending every free second working on my portfolio for Disney.
In 1996, I started with the Mouse as a "clean-up" artist on Mulan. A year later, I was working on a portfolio to get into the Disney Story Department. You have to do a "test" if you want to jump departments at Disney. Needless to say, things worked out!

Q: What was your favorite animated movie when you were kids?

Nathan Greno: Dumbo is my favorite animated film of all time. It has the perfect balance of everything. Humor, emotion -- it's really a fun, entertaining, heartbreaking film. I love it.

Mark Walton: Hard question, lots of contenders (mostly Disney classics, of course!) - I'd say something between Fantasia (Animation! Demons! Dinosaurs! All together!), The Rescuers, and Secret of NIMH (of course , it was limited to what was re-released in theaters or available on tape, which wasn't much when I was a kid! I'm ollllld.)

Q: Who were some of your animation influences?

Mark Walton: Well, all of the Disney classics are films I've watched over and over - Snow White, Pinocchio, Fantasia, 101 Dalmatians (Milt Kahl and Marc Davis are geniuses!), and so many of the Pixar movies - Toy Story, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Nightmare Before Christmas...heh, maybe I should email you a complete list later - this could take all morning!

My favorite stories create characters that you really enjoy spending time with and care what happens to them. I like big epics like Happy Feet as well as small character stories like Dumbo and The Iron Giant. I also love it when they create a world that I believe in and want to explore, like in Finding Nemo and The Nightmare Before Christmas.

Q: Mark, could you describe your work as visual development artist?

Mark Walton: Sure - basically, I work with the director(s) figuring out the characters and the world of the story. Like, what do the characters look like? What are their personalities like? How do they relate to each other? Where does the movie take place - what country, what time of year, what are some cool places the sequences could happen in? What kinds of things could happen that would showcase the characters' personalities and be fun to watch? What is the movie really trying to say, if anything - what are the themes? These are all things that can be explored by writing, doodling, discussing, before the storyboarding begins (or while it's happening). I love it - it's at the stage where we can try anything and everything.

2. Animation and Writing

Q: To Mark Walton: Disney animation movies have always dealt with the animal world. What is its power? And what, in relation to faster growth of the children because of the media, is still its meaning?

Mark Walton: Well, if I understand your question correctly, I think that people in all cultures have enjoyed watching stories about animals - superimposing our weaknesses and strengths, dealing with some of the same problems and issues in the human world. And animals are generally just more fun and appealing to watch! I think that even media-savvy kids today enjoy seeing entertaining stories about animals - I think the idea of being able to communicate with animals, or knowing what they're thinking, is something that kids enjoy imagining.

Q: Nathan, do you think 3D is going to be the only way to do animation from now on?

Nathan Greno: Not at all! There are a number of 2D projects in development at Disney Animation. 3D is one (of many) tools used to produce great animated film and shorts.

Q: Is it more difficult to create a story from scratch or to transform an earlier treatment? Please, can you explain?

Mark Walton: Nathan probably has his own take, but I think that both are easy and hard in different ways. When you're adapting a book or a script, the good thing is you already have a structure to build upon. A lot of the questions about how the characters relate to each other, and what the story is really about, have hopefully already been answered. There's almost always still a lot of details that need to be resolved or changed to make the story work as a movie, but there's not as much to figure out from scratch - and, of course, there's the hope that if people liked the book or whatever, that we know the story works in some way, and that there's a built-in audience.
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Of course, the problem is, if there's characters or story elements that DON'T work at all, it's hard to know how much you can get away with changing without violating the spirit of the original, or alienating fans of the original. When you have to make everything up from scratch, it's obviously a lot of work, and you have to prove the story will work, and that people will show up to something new, but you don't have any of the baggage of a previous story or fans to please - you can do whatever you want.

Q: Mark, in a lot of foreign countries, the voices are dubbed. Do you think that dubbing is still necessary (subtitles are not enough)? And how important is it for you to choose the voices?

Mark Walton: Well, I guess it's necessary for the people who don't want to read subtitles! And I know many people in the US and abroad don't, so it's great that they can watch an accessible version of great movies. I really like to try to watch films in the original language, because I want to hear the original performance as it was directed, and I think there's a lot of people that feel that way. It's hard when people want to see the original language version but the only one that plays is the dubbed version, but there's always the DVD at least. Picking the right voice is really important, and the guys who do the dubbing have to be amazing, to match the lip-synch, and say things that have often been changed in intent (not just the language) to make more sense to the local culture, and still ACT. I have to say, the people that Disney International picks usually do a really good job.

Q: (For Nathan) CGI movies often still have to solve really hard technical problems to make a movie. Did you have to modify or adapt a story point because the animators said, "We don't know how to do that" or "We can't do that in time"?

Nathan Greno: The studio as a whole is always trying to make the best movies we can. John Lasseter expects the highest level of entertainment in our films and we are more than happy to deliver. It's amazing what you can accomplish when you think outside of the box.

Q: What was it like working with John Lasseter?

Nathan Greno: John is an amazing mentor -- the guy is a genius. I meet with him once a week and I learn something new every week. The great thing is, John makes the movies WITH us -- it's the best way to work.

Mark Walton: Well, I wasn't really working directly with John doing the recording, but it was really encouraging to hear that he liked Rhino and liked what I was doing! He is a real inspiration to the entire studio, being a successful filmmaker himself.

Q: Are you guys from Disney already thinking in 3D all the time?

Mark Walton: Yes, I think in color too! Seriously, I do think that we imagine what stuff we can do in 3D sometimes, but great storytelling is great storytelling in 2D and 3D, and not everyone can watch the movie in 3D (yet, anyway), so we have to make sure the movie and the story work either way.

3. Bolt

Q: For Nathan and Mark, What is your favorite Bolt scene, and why?

Nathan Greno: It's hard to pick a favorite! I love the "fake" TV ending -- it's really goofy and unexpected. It's also really heartbreaking to watch Bolt return to the set only to find Penny has "replaced" him. I'm really proud of what we did with that scene.

Mark Walton: For me, I really like the escape from the animal shelter - the writing, the designs of the guards, the animation, the voice performances, all came together in top form (plus, I got to sing!) I also love the bit where Bolt thinks that Penny has "moved on" and he drops the carrot - it chokes me up just writing about it!

Q: Are you more a dog person or a cat person? ... or a hamster person? :P

Nathan Greno: I have two cats, Cheese and Rhino (yep, that's where the name came from!) -- but I do love dogs too. At some point (when my schedule cools off) I want to adopt a puppy....not sure how the cats are going to handle that!

Q: Could you tell us about the success of the film Bolt? Were you pleased with its overall reception?

Mark Walton: The reception was really gratifying -
lots and lots of positive reviews (an unusually high "Rotten Tomatoes" rating), the Academy Award nomination, an Annie nomination for me - it was awesome. Hopefully even more people will watch the DVD.

Q: With Bolt coming simultaneously to DVD/Blu-ray, what are your thoughts on the quality of the direct-to-disc transfers? Does Blu-ray faithfully replicate the theatrical experience?

Mark Walton: I think that some transfers are better than others. Obviously, it also depends on how good/big your TV and player are, but it can be amazing, when you have a big, detailed picture with great sound. I've seen a few Blu-rays where they took an older film and had trouble cleaning it up - sometimes they lose some of the detail or pump the colors up too much. But the potential for a more cinematic experience is huge. I guess if you really wanted it to be complete, you'd bring annoying strangers in your house to talk loudly and text each other. ;)

Q: For Mark, the DVD has video of the animators rolling down the hallways of the studio in a giant inflatable hamster ball. Did you do it, and what did you learn from doing it that you brought into the movie?

Mark Walton: I did a commercial for the [Disney Channel] Movie Surfers, where I had to go through an obstacle course multiple times in the Zorb. I learned that I'm really glad that voice actors don't actually have to do all the things that the animators can make their characters do, or that a live actor does in a movie! It was hot and exhausting and I fell out of the ball a couple of times and messed up my back! But I'm fine now. ;)

4. Rhino

Q: Mark, Rhino is supposed to be a lot like you. Was there a portion of the movie that was unusually hard for you to do, or where you had the hardest time doing it "in character"?

Mark Walton: Actually, most of the time, it was pretty easy - the directors pretty much just wanted me to be myself as much as possible (well, if I happened to be a hamster). The hardest part for me, I think, was just enunciating, speaking clearly and not too slowly - I sound pretty mumbly and unintelligible in normal life, but I tried to step up my game for Rhino, and having the editors choose the best takes of every line reading (sometimes 60 for a single line) helped too!

Q: Did you work on building the character of Rhino?

Mark Walton: I think that Nathan, the directors, and the story crew pretty much had Rhino figured out before I ever started doing the voice. I think that they put more of Rhino into the movie as the story evolved, because people liked him - giving him these little speeches to inspire Mittens and Bolt, for example - but I think that was just because Rhino was a really funny idea for a character, and really well-written. I just showed up for the recording and had fun, but I'd like to think I brought a generous helping of "awesome" to the character ;) - or at least a funny voice and laugh. :)

Q: How did you manage to make Rhino that crazy (in the greatest sense)?

Mark Walton: Well, I just tried to imagine how I would feel if the character of my favorite book or movie showed up, in the flesh, at my door to take me on an adventure - how would I feel? How would I act? (Ecstatic and slightly crazy.) Luckily, the writing for Rhino was so good, I felt like it was easy to know how to act, and the directors helped coach me a lot. I guess there's something about my voice and my laugh that some people liked, but so many people - the writers, animators, modelers, etc. did so much to bring Rhino to life, I feel like I was just the cherry on top.

Q: Nathan, Rhino is the most charismatic character of Bolt. What challenges found the animators working with such a small and chubby character and that in addition moves in a ball?

Nathan Greno: Working on the short [Super Rhino], I found Rhino's shape (a round ball with tiny arms and legs) presented a number of limitations -- but the limitations are what makes him so incredibly funny. In the short, we have him doing aerobics in his ball and it's funny because of his shape. Sometimes the limitations work in your favor.

Q: What is that blobby thing on Rhino's side? Is it supposed to represent something like Bolt's lightning bolt, or is it just a different colored patch of fur?

Mark Walton: I think it's just a patch of darker fur, but Rhino, delusional as ever, equates it to Bolt's lightning bolt Mark, linking him (in his mind) even more closely to his hero.

5. Super Rhino

Q: When did you get the idea to do the Super Rhino short for the DVD? How long did it take to make it?

Nathan Greno: When I was finishing up as story supervisor on Bolt, John Lasseter asked for short pitches for the DVD. I pitched the idea of Rhino getting Bolt's powers. John was onboard and asked me to start developing the idea. The schedule was very tight. I believe we finished the entire short in 3-4 months (the crew was still finishing Bolt at the time!).

Q: Since the short was produced so quickly, had Rhino been popular with test audiences beforehand?

Nathan Greno: Rhino was extremely popular within the studio -- and a favorite character among the story dept. -- it seemed fitting to build a short around him.

Q: What made you decide to build a short around Rhino?

Nathan Greno: I wanted to do something different and unexpected -- Rhino with Bolt's powers fit the bill.

Q: (For Nathan) What was the biggest change for you moving to the director's chair for the first time in Super Rhino? What do you think was the most valuable thing you learned and will use in Rapunzel?

Nathan Greno: The biggest change was getting to know the other departments.
I had been in the story deptartment for over 10 years. The short program at Disney animation is fantastic because it gives you a chance to direct on a much smaller level before jumping into a full length feature. The knowledge I've gained has been incredibly helpful on Rapunzel!

Q: (For Mark) Was it hard to do the singing part in the short? How familiar did you have to get with the collected works of Miley Cyrus to prepare for it?

Mark Walton: (laughs) Well, I had to listen to that "Best of Both Worlds" song over and over, but as it turned out, what was funnier was Rhino singing a really bad version of the song that wasn't quite accurate. I actually did the song several times before they got me to sing it bad enough, so I guess that was a challenge. It was fun, though!

Q: Nathan, what did Miley Cyrus think of the Hannah Montana parody?

Nathan Greno: Miley was incredibly easy to work with -- she's very enthusiastic and professional. I haven't heard her reaction to the finished short -- but I'm sure she'll laugh. She has a great sense of humor.

Q: Will Super Rhino be theatrically screened so that it can be considered for the Best Short Oscar?

Mark Walton: Sadly, no, but hey - if millions and millions and millions of people buy the DVD, that will be the best award of all. :)

6. The Future

Q: Is there going to be some kind of sequel/spinoff of Bolt?

Mark Walton: Well, there is the Rhino short on the DVD and Blu-ray, which is cool, but I hope there's more! Write a letter! I need the money! ;)
Seriously, I really love performing Rhino, and it would be great to do more.

Q: Is Rhino going to get his own movie?

Mark Walton: Your mouth to Bob Iger's ear! I don't know of anything yet, but one can hope. :)

Nathan Greno: No plans right now -- but you never know! When we were making the movie, we had no idea there was going to be a short!

Q: Mark, are you going to 'be' any other character in animation?

Mark Walton: Well, I sure hope so! I'm hoping that if people make a really big fuss about the DVD (nudge, nudge) that directors everywhere will be fighting each other to cast me in their films! ;) If not, I always have my day job as a story artist for Disney, so that's not too shabby either.

Q: Nathan, do you consider Super Rhino as a prelude, a training as a director of Rapunzel, or the icing on the cake of Bolt? Please, can you explain?

Nathan Greno: Super Rhino was my training to direct. The shorts program at Disney provides a chance for future directors to cut their teeth. The program allows John Lasseter to get to know you -- it's a fantastic system.

Q: Nathan, how much can you speak about Rapunzel without putting our lives at risk?

Nathan Greno: I couldn't be happier with the direction Rapunzel is headed. It's a very smart, funny comedy. Stay tuned!

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Posted March 23, 2009.