UltimateDisney.com > Interviews > Frank Nissen, Cinderella III: A Twist in Time

Interview with Frank Nissen, Director of "Cinderella III: A Twist in Time"

By Aaron Wallace

Frank Nissen knows his way around an animated motion picture. He's played the part of animator, designer, writer, story developer, storyboard artist, supervisor, and even director. Having been an artist all his life, he launched his career in animation while attending the Art Center College of Design. He spent three years in the Army, learning the art of war before graduating with a degree in the more traditional arts.

After graduating, Nissen moved from California to Canada, where he worked on numerous television and film projects, notably including George Lucas' "Ewoks" and "Droids" series,
1989's Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland, and 1997's animated Pippi Longstocking.

In 1996, Nissen returned to California to work the Walt Disney Company. There, he has made arguably his biggest impact on animation, working on some of the studio's most popular films. He contributed to story development on features such as Mulan, Tarzan, and Dinosaur and served as storyboard artist and production designer for Treasure Planet.

His most recent work has been on DisneyToon Studios' animated sequels and DVD-debuting feature films. He helped send the Mouse himself to retail shelves twice in 2004, first in Mickey, Donald, Goofy: The Three Musketeers and then Mickey's Twice Upon a Christmas. He followed those up by directing 2005's theatrical release, Pooh's Heffalump Movie. This year, he's in the director's chair once more, this time for the widely anticipated Cinderella III: A Twist in Time. Frank Nissen recently spoke with UltimateDisney.com about his career and took us behind the scenes of Cinderella III.

UltimateDisney.com: How did you come to be involved with Disney?

Frank Nissen: (Laughs). Well, what a question! I was part of what I call the Great Gold Rush back in 1996 when DreamWorks was starting and everybody was really eager to make a lot of animated films and all of the studios -- Sony and Disney and everybody -- scoured the world for people; they needed people. They came to Toronto, where I was living at the time. I had a friend who was actually working at the Florida studio, a man named Rick Slooter and he said "Hey, Disney is coming to town, you should go see them." I went to see them and they offered me a job, so I came to LA. That's how I got involved with Disney.

Frank Nissen appears in a featurette on the DVD for his first Disney directorial outing, "Pooh's Heffalump Movie." Lady Tremaine's possession of the wand sets forth the twist in time that forms the subtitle of "Cinderella III."

Had you grown up as a Disney fan?

Oh yeah, absolutely. My mother, many years ago, found a letter that I had received from the Disney corporation. Apparently, I had sent them some drawings when I was about 11 years old and they had sent me back a letter with some lobby cards -- you know those smaller images from the films -- a couple of beautiful lobby cards with Pecos Bill and a couple of the characters and they said, "Keep drawing and write us when you're older!" (laughs).
It was signed by a guy in the mail department. The company was still small enough that the guy in the mailroom was actually answering the fan mail.

So you've been in animation pretty much your whole life?

Not really. I was in art school, I was headed for an illustration career and I discovered animation just because of a fluke in the programming of the school.

So I guess I should say that you've been in art of some kind pretty much your whole life?

Oh yes, since before I could walk.

So what was it that eventually drew you in to animation?

Well, I'll try and make the story as short as possible. I was in art school and I was in an advertising course, interestingly enough. And the school that I was in, Art Center College of Design... put together films and the teacher of the film course said you could either do an animated film or a live-action film and I said "Well, I've got to do an animated film." And there was no question about it. I had never thought about it before. I didn't even really know what animation was comprised of, but when he said make an animated film, I never looked back.

With Cinderella III and Pooh's Heffalump Movie, you've spent a lot of time in the director's chair in recent years, but obviously you've been in animation for quite a long time as well. At this stage in your career, are you more interested in animating or directing?

Oh, I'm more interesting in directing. I've been directing for a lot longer -- I was directing projects up in Canada too. I was involved with a company called Nelvana Productions, you may have heard of it, and we did a number of half-hours and stuff and I co-directed on those. But yeah, I would rather direct; it's like being the conductor of the orchestra instead of playing one instrument, which is not to take anything away from the animation. I love animating, I loved animating for all the years that I did it and it's a really, really wonderful craft and experience to do, but again, the analogy of playing one instrument to conducting the orchestra is pretty apt, I think.

On the title princess, Nissen states "We wanted Cinderella to appeal to a modern audience while keeping the qualities that everybody loves about her." Lady Tremaine is as wicked as ever in "Cinderella III: A Twist in Time."

Were you involved with any of the actual animation in Cinderella III?

How do you mean involved? As a director, I was constantly making little tweaks and asking for somebody to draw an eyebrow a little differently and stuff like that. Is that what you mean?

I guess I should ask were you doing any of the actual drawing yourself?

Uh, no. I would draw storyboard panels. Occasionally when we were having a particularly tricky scene, they would send me the drawings that they had done and I would go over them and adjust things, but I never really animated. All those guys in Australia are ten times better an animator than I ever was (laughs).

I think that when a lot of people think of directors, they imagine a live-action set and a guy with a megaphone pointing to actors and telling them where to stand in front of the camera. And I think some people maybe aren't able to envision that role with animation. So could you maybe say a little bit about exactly what the role of a director in an animated feature is and how it would differ from live-action?

Well, I would say that in principle, the director has to be concerned with all the same things except that all those things are translated to the drawings. For instance, the director has to be concerned about lighting in the scene -- what that translates into, how the background painter paints the background. The director has to be concerned about where the character is in the scene... and how they move about the scene. That falls into the area of layouts and composition in animation. They have to be concerned with the color scheme of the costumes... how does it fit into the scene that it's in?

The main difference is that in animation, it all starts with a drawing. Everything starts with a drawing. Somebody says okay, let's have a down-shot of the castle here and you know, the road's going to go off this way, and the character's going to ride in, and whatever. [In a] live-action movie, they go out and find a castle in France or some place, you know, and they put the camera on the crane and they go up and they get the angle they want and they have the guy ride the horse into the castle. In animation, all that stuff is done with drawings. You have to draw the castle, you have to draw the castle at the angle you want the camera at, the background painter has to paint the castle so that it's, you know, depending on what the story calls for -- if it's an old, beat-up, weather-beaten castle in the rain, if that's what the story calls for, or if it's Camelot full of sunshine and flowers, that's a whole different thing. So the director still has to sort of guide and shape all that, it's just that he does it at a much slower pace because it all translates -- it all has to be articulated through somebody doing a series of drawings.

When were you first approached for Cinderella III?

As Heffalump was winding down, generally.

How long did it take to make?

Cinderella III took about two and a bit -- two years and a bit, I think. We started in early 2004 and we finished it in the fall of 2006.

And would you say that's pretty standard, or less or more?

That's faster. We did it a lot faster. Heffalump took, I think, close to four years and we did Cinderella III in two years and three months.

Was that because it just actually flowed that much more quickly, or were you on a strict deadline?

Oh, we had a different budget and a different deadline.

"Cinderella III" finds its heroine replaced by Anastasia in her memorable ballroom dance with the Prince. Nissen on the cat: "You can't get better than Lucifer as a fun animated character."

Were you at all intimidated by the prospect of following up a film that is as revered and beloved as Cinderella?

I don't think I would say intimidated. I was daunted but I was also very excited and very challenged. I have always had the philosophy of wanting to rise to a challenge (laughs), particularly an art challenge. I mean, I've been studying and admiring great artists for a long time and you know, rather than get intimidated and discouraged, I've always said to myself, "I've got to do that, I've got to learn how to do that; I want to be as good as that."
So that's the attitude I took toward this. I mean, I just absolutely jumped at the chance of working with such fabulous characters. I mean, you can't get better than Lucifer (laughs) as a fun, animated character.

The thing that's beautiful about that movie is that all of the artists involved -- and again, it's in that same era as Pecos Bill and all that stuff -- in the sort of life of the studio, the artists were in such a peak of their craft and their capabilities, but they were still having fun with it. It was still cartoons, so you could have wonderful characters like Gus and Jaq and Lucifer and the horse and the dog. But you also had the sophistication and the subtlety that they brought to characters like the stepmother in Cinderella. So you had sort of both parts, both ends of the studio, and they were at their peak, and it was just an absolute -- it's like being able to sit at the feet of a great master. You just revel in the chance to work with such great characters and try and recreate the richness and the subtlety and the fun that they had in that first movie.

I'm sure you've heard some of the debate amongst Disney fans and film fans in general over the issue of sequels. Some people love the idea and some people hate it. You're a fan yourself of these movies you grew up with and now you've made a few sequels of sorts. How do you feel about it? Do you think there is always room for a sequel, or do some movies leave more potential than others?

I think there's room for sequels but I think the biggest problem with them or the biggest challenge with them, so to speak, is that usually, in the first movie, the real core emotional drama has been dealt with. You know, in the case of Cinderella, she gets the prince, so what else is there to talk about? In the case of all the great movies, the great emotional core of the story is resolved by the end of the movie. So the challenge is how do you make an equally interesting and equally strong story, an equally satisfying story, when everybody kind of knows who the characters are and what's supposed to happen. So I don't think there's anything inherently wrong with sequels. There have been a lot of great sequels, you know, movies have been done in the past and it's just -- I don't think there's anything wrong intrinsically with the idea of sequels, it's just a matter of coming up with good stories. And that's a big challenge.

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Cinderella III is, of course, the third movie. How much attention was paid to Cinderella II in making this one? Did you see this as the third installment of a trilogy or just a new follow-up to the original?

No, no... I think the main sort of motif, if you will, that we built off of Cinderella II is that Anastasia is the stepsister who makes the biggest turn. That's hinted at in one of the small stories that makes up Cinderella II. So we decided that when we were building this story that, rather than do the basic spade work of turning Drizella, that we already had started that process with Anastasia, so why not continue with it?

Sadly, many of those involved with the original Cinderella have since passed away. Were you able to consult with any of the living cast or crew in producing this film?

Not really... Our basic sort of touch with the past was the library here, the research library that Disney has. We were able to get ahold of a lot of the drawings... The Disney company has a stable of actors who do all of the -- anytime they need a Snow White voice or a Cinderella voice -- there's a whole group of actors who Disney has on tap who know that character , who do all the character voice stuff that the company needs. So we had that continuity to draw from in doing the film and sort of doing the voices of the film.

"Cinderella II" had little influence on its numerical follow-up, though Nissen states they decided to continue having Anastasia (left, with Drizella) be "the stepsister who makes the biggest turn." Nissen says that "Cinderella III" entailed "basically creating the Prince." He admits "we had to really do a lot of work on exactly the right flavor of the Prince...[which] was a very delicate thing."

I was actually going to ask about that, because the voice cast is comprised of so many of these regulars who have sort of become Disney legends in their own right, so were all these voice actors already in your mind based on their performances previously?

Um, not really. I knew we had to mimic, we had to get as close as we could to the original voices and I knew from the Heffalump movie that Disney did have this stable of people. So I really didn't put a lot of thought or energy into it because that part of the structure was in place.
And I knew that the biggest goal was to capture the spirit of the movie, capture the quality of the characterizations from the first movie in the script, you know, what they said. Because I knew the actors could do the voices, you know, I was secure in that, that the actors had the skill and the craft to recreate the voices. I just had to make sure that in the writing and the shaping of the dialogue and what the characters did in the story, that the actors would know -- would have good stuff to work with when it actually came to the recording.

During the time travel sequence, there are a few frames that look identical to the corresponding scenes in the original. Are they in fact the original animation, or were they re-drawn?

They were all re-drawn. We couldn't -- the frame format is different now than it was then and because it's all -- it's drawn by hand, but as soon as that drawing's done, it goes into the digital world. You know, it's colored digitally, it's composited digitally, so we just felt it was better to start from scratch. I mean, it's not even traced. I mean, that stuff is all drawn originally. It's studied closely, obviously, but it's all hand-drawn from scratch.

Did you ever feel a tension between wanting to be reverential towards this classic 1950 film and the need to create something for contemporary audiences to enjoy?

Oh yes (laughs). But again, it was an exciting challenge, because I really, really wanted to keep the spirit of the first movie, but I knew that we had to shape particularly Cinderella and the Prince to appeal to a more modern sensibility. The Stepmother I wanted to keep the same because she's one of the greatest villains that we've ever had and Lucifer and the mice, they're the comedy stuff and they're great just as they are. But the Prince and Cinderella were the biggest challenges because we wanted Cinderella to appeal to a modern audience while keeping the qualities that everybody loves about her and [we were] basically creating the Prince. I mean in the first movie, the Prince has maybe four or five lines and he dances for, you know, five minutes, so we had to really do a lot of work on exactly the right flavor of the Prince. We didn't want him too modern so he would appear like a nice guy from the suburbs. I still wanted that romantic kind of quality to the Prince, so it was a very delicate thing and we wrote a lot of lines of dialogue, searching for the right quality of his self-awareness, his deprecating sense of humor and yet, we wanted him to be sincere too. So it was a really interesting balance. We had a number of writers come in and help us with polishing the Prince's lines, getting just the right mix of qualities.

Do you have any other Disney projects lined up for the future?

Right now, I'm working on Tinker Bell, which is a new franchise that DTS [DisneyToon Studios] is getting off the ground.

And you're directing?

No -- well, I'm directing some short pieces that will sort of be in conjunction with the movie, but I'm in story development on the feature itself.

Well, I'm looking forward to it. I got a chance to watch Cinderella III last night and I really enjoyed it, so congratulations on a job well done.

I appreciate your thoughts. You have a good day.

You too. Thanks for talking with me.

Related DVD Reviews - The Works of Frank Nissen:
Cinderella III: A Twist in Time
Pooh's Heffalump Movie (director)
Dinosaur: Collector's Edition (story artist) Treasure Planet (production designer & storyboard artist)
Mulan: Special Edition Tarzan: Special Edition (additional story material)

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Interview conducted January 19, 2007. Published January 30, 2007. All images copyright Disney.
Thanks to Frank Nissen for his time and Buena Vista Home Entertainment for making the interview possible.

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