I went back and forth on if I should start a separate thread for this, but since there was a mix of straight "movie news" as well as issues pertaining to the DVD release, I put up a new topic. Whoever wields supreme power around here, feel free to fold this in with the appropriate topic if I've gone too far.
So I went to the opening night of "Sleeping Beauty" at the El Capitan Theater last Thursday (8/28 ) - there's a thread discussing the El Cap experience elsewhere on the board, and I'd join those in saying that it really is something unique, even at $13 for a movie you've already seen (Tinker Bell, the film which follows 'SB', maybe not so much). But the El Cap is truly an effort to maintain that quasi-magical "night at the picture palace" which has faded in the megaplex era. But no matter...
As has been tradition, Disney rolls out its animated classics shortly before a new DVD release. House organist Rob Richards was already cranking out Disney tunes, pretty much in chronological order from "Snow White" on down the line, by the time I took my seat at 6:45. Probably the most impressive thing is that he needed no obvious breaks in order to re-route himself; he segued beautifully for a solid 40 minutes before wrapping up with "Once Upon a Dream" - music with a tie to that night's feature is always the sign that his time is up as the organ descends below stage.
Now, as also become custom, the film was preceded by a filmmaker's panel hosted by a current Disney name (Don Hahn in this case). Don introduced everybody one-by-one on stage, taking time at the beginning to note, "We're in the presence of royalty tonight". Gee, who could he be talking about?
Blaine Gibson (better known for his Imagineering work but who made his bones animating at Disney in the '50s), Tony Baxter (Senior Imagineer at WDI), Frank Armitage (one of the key background painters on the film under Eyvind Earle), & Bob Thomas, author of "The Art of Animation" coffee-table book which extensively features "SB" all came out, followed of course by Mary Costa herself to a standing ovation.
Don pivoted to Armitage, seated in the middle of the panel, to talk about how he joined the Disney studio - Frank started what became a recurring theme of the night with a little vignette that included a slight "wink, wink" innuendo to things that, if explained, might run contrary to the Disney image of nothing but wholesome family fun. Armitage recalled that it was after meeting a woman in Mexico and happening to reunite with her in LA, she mentioned a friend of hers that he should meet who turns out to be Milt Kahl. The two immediately hit it off and Kahl invited him for a tour of the studio, at the end of which he postured to Frank, "So, what do you think?" Frank wasn't quite sure what he was asking about, but turns out Milt was wondering if Frank wanted a job. On a whim, Armitage said "Sure", picked up the phone in Kahl's office and got one. Don Hahn then got the evening's first big laugh as he noted, "All of you out there of course can relate, since that's how easy it is to get a job at Disney."
Discussion transitioned to the influence of Eyvind Earle and included a clip from the DVD, one I think can safely be assumed is part of the "The Man and His Art" featurette and features some audio of Earle culled out of the 2003 DVD features, as well as recollections from Don Bluth and comments by Pete Doctor and Michael Giamo. Another clip from this same piece is currently up on IMDB - http://www.imdb.com/video/screenplay/vi559743257/
The conversation than turned over to Bob Thomas, who Hahn praised effusively for "The Art of Animation", citing how influential the book was for the current generations of animators ("On me, too", Tony Baxter chimed in) and asked about how the idea was hatched. Thomas got the biggest laugh of the evening by relating how he'd gone up to Walt's office at 11:30 AM, where the first order of business between the two of them was a round of vegetable juice. "I don't know if he had a little something extra in his, to help get him through the day", Bob recalled. The primary motivation for "TAOA" was, as Thomas remembered, Walt's desire to get the artists who are truly responsible for an animated film some time in the spotlight. "Since we don't have stars, it's always fallen to me to get the credit for the films", he told Bob, but a book like the one Thomas ended up writing would finally shed some light over how many talented people are needed to create an animated movie. Showing a kind of "aw-shucks, it was so much simpler back then" quality like Frank Armitage, Thomas remembered the actual offer as being along the lines of "Walt said, 'You wanna do it?', and I said....'Sure'."
Mary Costa took a turn explaining how she got to audition for the part, apparently being "discovered" by a Disney studio employee while singing near the piano of the home of a friend. She went to the audition "never expecting to get the part, but hoping to meet Walt Disney." She felt totally at ease signing, but became worried when several men approached her in the recording studio. One of them was Marc Davis, who asked what might be done about her accent (Mary apparently tipped her Tennessee roots much stronger then), and she replicated her Southern-twang response of "What aaack-cennt?" Davis helped coach her through it by doing a sort of "droll English gentleman" routine which she instantly responded to, since she and her father had often entertained each other back home by speaking in faux British accents. By the end of the day, Davis had her feeling confident, saying that if Vivien Leigh could convincingly play a Southern belle, "we think a Southern belle could surely play an English princess."
Going home that afternoon, she felt disappointed at not having met Walt, until the phone rings at her house - she lived with 3 cousins at the time, all of whom got phone calls, so there was mad dash to the telephone that was won by Mrs. Costa (Now that's a scene straight from a Howard Hawks movie, or perhaps The Rocketeer). Mrs. Costa didn't tip off who was on the other end of the line at first, before chuckling and whispering, "It's Walt Disney!" Apparently Walt broke the ice by saying, "Mrs. Costa, I think you've been hiding the Princess Aurora in your house!"
Another clip from the DVD up next, this one looking back on the almost back-breaking level of work required to make the film. It's the last 30 seconds or so of this clip, also at IMDB - http://www.imdb.com/video/screenplay/vi576520473/
Don turns to Blaine Gibson next and wonders about the actual nuts and bolts his animation on the film. Blaine spoke glowingly of his old friends, remembering that on Sleeping Beauty he worked primarily under Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, mainly doing what today we'd probably call the in-between, clean-up work for the fairies, mostly while they were shrunken or in flight. Gibson recalled, "I wasn't strong enough with dialogue", but did proudly point out his one "line" in the film, recalling that he was tasked to animate King Stefan's line of "Seize that creature!" Blaine's thoroughly "in-character" performance on the stage got a big applause and Don promised that everybody would be watching for it in the film - where it once again got a huge response from the crowd (more on the film in a bit).
Finally the conversation turned over to Tony Baxter, who talked about the great influence of Sleeping Beauty in the parks, specifically how (in what would never happen today), a major theme park attraction - the Castle Walk-Through - opened nearly 2 years before the film's debut, in 1957. Tony noted that those of us who don't remember Disneyland before 1978 don't really remember the walk-through, since it was changed into a more linear, "windows on Main Street" attraction before closing post-9/11.
Clip from the DVD feature on the attraction's history got shown, Tony and several other WDI vets discussing several of the what now seem quaint but at the time were very effective tricks behind the scenes. For instance, there was a scene with several elaborate doors where, when one peeked through the keyhole, you saw Malefiecent's goons - but small mirrors were positioned where the eyes would be and angled to reflect the other side of the keyhole, meaning the eye of the goons were actually the guest's own eyes.
Tony then noted that, while in the midst of preparing this feature with the home video unit, he was able to alert the higher-ups at Disneyland (another short burst of applause greeted his comment, "Disneyland has gotten some new management") who were never aware that anything existed inside Sleeping Beauty Castle. Baxter commented, "Ed (Grier, the President of DL) was adamant, 'This has got to be reintroduced here'." And so as a by-product of virtually recreating the Sleeping Beauty walkthrough for Blu-Ray, the real deal as Eyvind Earle and Walt Disney intended it to be seen will re-open sometime this fall/winter at The Happiest Place on Earth. Corporate syngergy uses its power for good! Baxter slyly noted, "We'd love to have a firm date, love to have it done in time for this disc release, but we've committed that, 'Before the last leaf of autumn falls, Sleeping Beauty will once more grace the Castle walls'." He actually said that, I couldn't make that up. More chuckles as he noted, "In California, the leaves fall all the way through January!"
Don went back to Mary Costa one last time, who told a very moving story on Walt's advice to her before she went in to record her lines - he wanted her to meet Marc Davis, study the artwork of her character and the world they were creating, thinking in terms of colors - how would she see each thing developing, how would each emotion register - and as she went into the studio after all that, to "paint with her voice".
I wish I had a video/transcript of the whole panel, as it was very engaging yet appropriately laid-back enough - nobody was doing any hardcore shilling, just swapping stories. It was like all Don Hahn was doing was dropping a quarter into a machine and pulling the lever to hear another tale of the studio golden age. On the topic of video, I saw plenty of people out there with personal video cameras so maybe one of you's a poster on this forum? Hm?
Finally the show itself begins, but not without a few more comments from Don Hahn. First, he actually has the screen of the El Cap lifted up to show off the theatrical sound system, noting that the film's run at the EC will be featuring the new, digitally-remastered sound mix done by Terry Porter. The chorus signing of "Once Upon a Dream" begins to play in standard 2.0 audio, but about halfway through the remixed, digitally optimized version kicks in and the effect is startling. Every note and every voice is coming through in pitch-perfect clarity. Plenty of surround-sound owners are going to love using their system to show this movie off.
As for the film itself, and here's something I'm sure the purists will be interested to hear and then scrutinize:
Don touches on the restoration by showing a clip of an unrestored print, full of scratches and dots and actual fingerprints that show up on the edges of the backgrounds. Also, "notice the black bars on the edge" - the image we're watching doesn't quite fill the whole screen horizontally. This is because theaters at the time didn't project Sleeping Beauty's intended aspect ratio as the backgrounds had been drawn, so even as the film was drawn and then shot for Technirama, (with a theatrical AR of 2.20:1 on the 70mm prints), this ultimately cropped the picture differently than it existed in the Disney lot. What we're about to see, Don Hahn says in a way meant to drum up the "exclusive" angle, is what Walt Disney would've seen had he gone down to the camera department in 1958 - it's the film as it was meant to be seen and it is one that has never been shown on the big screen, or anywhere else, before tonight. "So, in many ways," Don wraps up, "we think of tonight as a world premiere."
Now, I'm not a hardliner when it comes to aspect ratio, and I certainly didn't have any screenshots of previous releases handy to reference in the middle of the exhibition, but the digital print that I saw on Thursday was absolutely flawless and spot-on true to the animator's vision. Sometimes it seemed like we weren't watching something that had been filmed but the actual cels of animation themselves move across the backgrounds - which occasionally seemed off from my memories, but that's natural. Having seen the film for so long with that slightly worn grain (often called the "filmic look"), seeing something so unbelievably clean and sharp was definitely like "seeing it" for the first time.
In five and a half weeks when the DVD/Blu-Ray hits shelves I'm sure the range of opinions will be out there, but if the version in your home matches the version shown at the theater, you'll probably come away thinking it was the most pristine presentation ever done for an animated film. People more knowledgeable about such things than me can judge if Disney once again "tinkered" with their animated classic, but it sure exceeded my expecations - and the bonus features looked pretty good too!