Mulan: An Animation Experience
by Jim Ryan
A few months ago, there was an article in Disney Magazine about a new
course at the Disney Institute-- "Mulan: An Animation Experience".
The description was sketchy, but what caught my eye was the fact that
June Foray (the voice of Grandma Fa, as well as Rocky from Rocky And
Bullwinkle) was a guest speaker. So I pulled out the credit card and
booked the package for Labor Day weekend.
A note about the Disney Institute packages-- DI prices their packages
based on a double occupancy room and program fees. It usually works out to
be about $225 a night per person. But, unfortunately, I couldn't convince
anyone in my family to come with me-- so I ended up paying a penalty of
about $200 for a single occupancy room.
The one and only problem I had with the trip was with the DI
reservation line. The first time I called, they did not have the
information on the Mulan program. It took several calls, over a few week
period, to get a reservation for the program.
I flew into Orlando in the morning, on a perfect flight on Delta
Express. I got to the Institute around noon, checked in and received my
program schedule. They did not have my original requests, but the cast
members in Program Services were very helpful in setting up my
I had requested a bungalow room, which are located across the pond from
the main campus (close to the North Studios). Nothing in the Institute was
more than a five minute walk from my room, and Downtown Disney was just a
few minutes further. I ended up with a corner room on the second floor,
which had a cathedral ceiling and a balcony with a breathtaking view of
the parking lot (grin). Seriously, the room was much bigger and brighter
than any room I've stayed in at WDW. I would definitely stay there
One of the great things DI did for the Mulan Animation Experience was a
Hospitality Suite. They took two of the classrooms in the South Studio,
and made a place for the guests to hang out and talk about animation.
They had some of the original art from Mulan, plus a lot of the
decorations that were up in the animation studios last year. They provided
soda and snacks, as well as pencils and drawing paper so we could draw if
we wanted to. They also had a VCR and LaserDisc unit, and were constantly
showing animation or tapes of the lectures.
They also had a guest book, which had the signatures and drawings of
some of Disney's most famous artists (as well as celebrities that have
visited the Institute). The book was wonderful to look through, and the
drawings were funny. My favorite was one of an animator working at a
drawing table with two people standing behind him-- Walt Disney and
Michael Eisner-- who are both arguing that the animator works for HIM.
I stopped by the Hospitality Suite a few times over the weekend. There
was usually at least one animation instructor in the room, and one or two
students either drawing or discussing animation. Some people even did
sketches of each other. Examples of the students work was posted on a
panel in the suite.
From Concept to Storyboard
My first class was "From Concept to Storyboard". The class is intended
to help you understand the process used to create a storyboard for a
scene. My class consisted of about 18 people, who were broken up into
three teams of six.
When we walked into the room, on a corkboard pane, was the original
storyboard artwork for the "Honor To Us All" sequence from Mulan. I had
seen the artwork at the studios a few weeks before-- but it was behind a
glass partition, where here it was out for us to see and (gasp) touch.
The instructor showed us the storyboard art, and then a video clip of
the same scene from the movie. The clip ended when Mulan walks into the
room with the Matchmaker and the door closes.
Our job was to brainstorm the next scene in the movie and storyboard
Our class was interesting-- a number of artists had congregated at one
table, while a lot of us with less than perfect drawing skills were at
another table. So as the artist group started drawing like mad, my group
started on writing gags.
Our premise was that Little Brother (Mulan's hyperactive puppy) snuck
into the room and was hidden behind a set of screens. While the Matchmaker
has her back to Mulan, Cri-Kee escapes from his cage. When Mulan tried to
catch him, she knocks over the tea service and the Matchmaker turns
At this point, the Matchmaker starts scolding Mulan-- telling her that
she need to CONCENTRATE and PAY ATTENTION. While she's doing that, Little
Brother and Cri-Kee are chasing each other between two screens-- out of
the view of the Matchmaker but in full view by Mulan. Finally, just as the
Matchmaker finishes her scolding, Little Brother goes over to her and...
ahem... relieves himself.
We had everything-- sound effects, action, the works. But we couldn't
agree to the order of events. We wanted to move things around, change
where things happened. It got a little heated, but we were having so much
fun it didn't matter.
Two of us did the presentation, and it went off very well. It was great
to hear everyone laugh at our bits. Plus it ended up bonding all of us
together for the weekend.
That evening, the Institute held a reception for the participants in
the Mulan program.
The room was filled-- there were about 125 participants in the program,
and I'm sure everyone was there. The in-house animation instructors were
there, doing sketches and talking about the animation process. Jeff
Kurtti, the author of The Art Of Mulan, was also there signing his
A word about Jeff is in order. If you excuse the expression, Jeff is
one of the most animated people I've ever met. He is really enthusiastic,
and spent the entire weekend with us talking about Mulan, animation and
Disney in general. If you love Disney, and ever have the chance to hear
him speak, do it. And, buy his books!
Now for my addition to the magic... After my class, I went to Publix to
get some groceries and supplies. While I was there, I decided to pick up
some flowers for the DI staff and the ladies that I had class with. I gave
out the flowers during the reception, and was surprised by the wonderful
responses I got. So that became my "thing" for the entire weekend-- every
night the DI staff and my fellow students got flowers, just because.
The first evenings "performance" was a screening of Mulan, with a
roundtable discussion by the animators after the performance.
Watching the movie with this group was a much different experience than
seeing it in the theatre the first time. The people in this theatre really
cared about the movie, and their reactions were much more intense than
when I saw it back home.
For me personally, taking the animation class in the afternoon made me
pay much closer attention to the movie (and the level of detail involved
in creating something that complex and beautiful). I think I appreciated
the film more because of the class.
Also, because of the class, I felt as though I was a part of the
process. I think that says a lot for the instructors at the Disney
Institute-- they truly bring you into their world, and make you a part of
the magic. Thank you, Lock and Natalia!
Unfortunately, I had arranged to meet a friend that evening and was
unable to attend the roundtable discussion. Hopefully someone else can
fill in the details on what I missed.
I woke up pretty late on Friday-- too late to catch the Tai-Chi class
that was held in the morning by the lake. Oh, well...
I had signed up for two classes on Friday, both of which were
Eric Guaglione, CGI
The first lecture was by Eric Guaglione, head of the CGI group at
Disney. Eric talked about his group, and some of the sequences that they
I'm sure everyone recognizes the fact that the Hun charge was done by
the CGI group, but there were a number of less obvious sequences where CGI
Some of the ones that Eric showed us were...
- The floor of the Fa family
temple, when Mulan is walking through to pray.
- The incense burner in the
temple, which eventually becomes Mushu. (Eric explained that they
wanted it to swing, and have sufficient detail so that when Mushu
appeared it would be believable).
- The arrows in most of the
sequences (training, the Hun attack). What was funny was that
although the arrows were CGI, the fires and smoke trails were
- The crowd sequence at the
Emperor's palace. The "big" crowd scene was animated using planes,
where individual characters were placed. The parade sequences were
also CGI (the foreground and background crowds were CGI, the main
characters were conventional animation).
Eric showed us a series of clips, repeating each clip several times, so
that he could better show how his groups work fit into the film. I would
not have believed that the crowd sequences were CGI, but after looking at
them several times you notice that certain characters repeat actions when
they enter the scene, and just before they leave the screen. That was
really the only indication that you had that the animation was computer
Eric's last set of slides were an homage to his group-- he had images
from the film, with the faces of his group superimposed over the
characters. It was a funny way to end an excellent discussion.
Eric stayed and answered questions, and signed our books and
After catching a quick lunch in my room, I went over to the North
Studios for Tai-Chi.
As I said earlier, Tai-Chi was offered as part of the Mulan Animation
Experience. The original program only called for Tai-Chi in the morning,
but there was so much demand for the classes that they offered them in the
afternoon as well.
Tai-Chi is kind of hard to explain. The Institute instructor explained
that Tai- Chi is taught to children in China at an early age (and as part
of physical education). Tai-Chi is a series of movements, meant to
concentrate or shape your Chi (internal energy).
The instructor was very good at explaining the movements, their Chinese
names and his "English translations". After a few minutes of warm-up
exercises, he started explaining the movements and the flow between them.
He then led us through a series of Tai-Chi exercises, first by explaining
them and then doing them to music.
I had a little trouble at first, mainly duplicating the instructors
movements when he was facing the group (his left is my right). But once we
started doing it together, with the instructor facing the same way the
group was, I started getting better at it.
Overall, it was a lot of fun.
The Art Of Mulan
As I said before,
Jeff Kurtti is an animated individual. He reminds me
a lot of the people you see in RADP-- he truly loves Disney.
Jeff talked about how he got involved with the Disney organization,
from the first Disney movie he saw (Mary Poppins) to working in public
relations for Disney. While working at Disney, he also authored a movie
trivia book ("The Great Movie Musical Trivia Book").
Jeff talked about working for Disney, and that although it was
frustrating at times it was also very rewarding (which had a familiar ring
to me). But he always felt he could do more. That feeling led Jeff to
leave the company and pursue a writing career.
Jeff's writing pursuits led him back to Disney-- he's written several
book about Disney and Disney animation, and had written and produced
several documentaries for and about Disney. (He bacame a producer kind of
by accident-- a producer hired him for the project, and then stepped away
from the project making Jeff the producer by default).
Jeff showed us a documentary he did on the making of The Little
Mermaid, which is distributed with the LaserDisc version of the film (but
not on VHS). Afterwards, Jeff stepped offstage, and answered questions
from the audience.
I talked with him about LaserDisc vs DVD (vs DIVX, which is what Disney
is currently leaning towards). Jeff said that Disney is not releasing
animation on DVD because the quality isn't good (which was what several
people on RADP have said), but because it's TOO good (and might lead to
piracy). I said that if Disney released their library with LaserDisc-style
content and DVD pricing ($20/title), they could drive demand for DVD.
Although Jeff has worked for Disney, and with many of the animators and
artists, he is still awe-struck by the whole thing. He said several times
during his session that this little kid would wake up inside him and say
"Hey, this is REALLY COOL". And I think we all agreed with him.
The Great Macaroni Grill Debate
Ok, ok. So I finally ate at Macaroni Grill. Some things were better
than the Olive Garden, some things weren't. 'nuf said.
Dean DeBlois, Story Artist
The evening presentation was Dean DeBlois, the storyboard artist that
did (among other things) the "Mulan's Decision" sequence.
The original idea was that he would do the "pitch" for that sequence,
using the original storyboard art. When we came in, there were two boards
with the original storyboard art. Once again, I was in awe that this
artwork was there for us to just go up and look at.
When Dean got up, he said that he really couldn't do the pitch because
only about 1/3 of the original artwork was there. Instead, Dean showed us
two clips of the same scene-- one with the storyboard artwork, and one
with the production artwork.
The music that accompanied the storyboard art was from another movie,
but still set the mood in the same way that the Mulan score did. But even
the production clip had a different score (the score was recomposed just
before release, and the clip he showed has the first version).
Dean talked about how stories get developed and approved at Disney. He
talked about the groups of people who provide input, and some of the
dangers of getting consensus on a project (groups tend to drift to the
center, going for the "safer" route-- Disney is no different in this
respect than any other organization). Dean even said that Michael Eisner
gets in on the act, but mostly for a semi-unbiased outside opinion.
When Mulan was originally developed, the storyline and major / minor
characters were very different from the characters we saw in the movie.
Dean talked about all the changes, but specifically the change in Mulan...
At first, she was motivated to join the army to escape an arranged
marriage. The whole story and score revolved around this. When the
decision was made to have her join in order to protect her father, the
story changed focus and much of the original material and music had to be
One thing that Dean talked about really struck home-- he said that
after a while, the characters actually come alive in the minds of the
animators. They take on a life of their own. An animator will argue that
Mulan would not do this or say that in a scene because she is real to him.
And watching Dean talk about that made me realize that it was true, he
felt that Mulan was alive.
After his presentation, Dean answered questions about the movie and
Disney animation. The questions ranged from issues about Chinese culture
to how many moon gates did the Fa family really have (don't ask).
I was most impressed with a young girl who, after a long discussion
about a "spitting contest" that was removed from movie because it was
considered offensive in Chinese culture, asked why Mulan was seen trying
to spit in one scene. (Dean's response was that she was trying to imitate
Yao, and that one Chinese man spitting wasn't considered offensive).
Dean was more than willing to answer all the questions we posed to
DisneyQuest / Downtown Disney
After the evening presentation, I decided to spend some time at
DisneyQuest. DisneyQuest is a high-tech arcade, with a lot of the Disney
feel (many of the games are based on Disney characters).
I won't go into much detail here-- several other people have done
reviews of DisneyQuest-- so all I'll say is that I had a great time over
there (and spread a little magic as well ;->).
I did have one problem, though. I ended up leaving DisneyQuest at about
12:15am, and by the time I reached the boat dock the last boat shuttle had
left. So I decided to walk over to the west side bus stop and get a bus
back to the Institute. Big mistake. It would have been faster to walk than
to wait for the bus.
Again, I got up much later than I wanted to... and ended up missing the
morning Tai-Chi class.
Hey, it's my vacation. I can sleep in if I want to!
I had originally signed up for a lecture on Saturday morning. Although
I really enjoyed the two lectures I attended Friday, I felt like doing a
more hands-on class.
There were several animation classes Saturday morning, including a
Mulan themed Character Development class. I went over to the South Studio
around 10:00 to see if I could make it in.
The policy of DI is to start classes on time, and to allow 10 minutes
for late-comers to arrive. Since the Character Development class was
booked, I had to wait outside until they were sure that there would be
room. I got in just as Lock (the animation instructor) was finishing
Lock and Phil took turns leading us through some drawing exercises,
and then through drawing some of the characters from Mulan.
At first, I was sure I couldn't draw anything at all-- my initial
practice drawings were crude at best. But as we went through the steps to
draw Cri-Kee (the first of four characters we drew), I started to feel a
lot better about my drawing skills.
The next character we drew was Little Brother. The instructors started
moving faster now, which was both a good and a bad thing-- I kept falling
behind, but it made me worry less about any one step. When we were done, I
looked down to see a pretty damn good picture of
Little Brother. I almost
We drew Chien Po next, and finished by drawing Mulan. Although neither
drawing was perfect, they both were far beyond what I would have ever
expected to come from my hand.
Dean DeBlois came in during the class, and walked around looking at our
work (talk about pressure ;->). He also answered more questions about
Mulan and animation. It was another little thing that made us feel that we
were part of the magic.
Wolfgang Puck's Cafe
For lunch, I decided to walk over to Downtown Disney. I stopped by the
bookstore to pick up a copy of "Disney's Mulan", and had lunch at Wolfgang
Piece of advice-- bring a friend. Their personal pizzas could easily
feed two. And mine (a spicy chicken pizza) was WONDERFUL!
TV Studio Live
I took TV Studio Live because I wanted to try my hand at video
production. Our class was very small-- so instead of doing a news
broadcast (which is their normal format), we ended up doing
The interview process was fun-- we got to know each other quite well
before the end of the session.
We did a total of two interviews, and the people who weren't on- camera
were handling the cameras and control room. I was on camera for the first
interview, and was the interviewer the second one.
We were told to come up with 5-6 questions, and to shoot for a four
minute interview. About three minutes into my interview, I completely ran
out of material and blanked (can you say crash and burn? ;->). I was
We then got to watch our interviews on tape. It was funny seeing myself
on TV, and watching me run out of ideas-- so much so, I collapsed on the
I'd do this class again. Except next time, I think I'd have someone
interview me instead. ;->
For the last night, the Disney Institute devoted a section of Seasons
Restaurant to a Chinese dinner for the Mulan Experience guests. All of the
animation instructors were there, as well as several of the guest
speakers. We even had a surprise visit by Mulan and Shang.
Looking around the room, you saw groups of people that had only met
that weekend chatting like they've known each other all their lives. It
seemed like every table had it's own animator or instructor.
Of course, dotting the room were pink and red roses. After all, it was
our last night together as a group ;->.
I asked the instructors to autograph the copy of "Disney's Mulan" that
I purchased, and then asked all my classmates (the "future" animators) to
do the same. That book is sitting in my office now, and is my favorite
souvenir from the trip.
Early in the evening, Larry Laurie (the program manager for the Disney
Institute) got up and thanked his staff and us for attending the program.
When he got done, I went over and asked him if he would mind if I said a
few words. A few minutes later, I was standing in the center of the room
with a microphone in my hand... and scared to death! But I calmed myself
down, and proposed a toast:
To the people who made the Mulan Animation Experience the weekend of a
lifetime-- the guest speakers and animators, the animation instructors,
and the staff here at the Disney Institute.
You have shared with us your knowledge, and experience, and humor-- but
most of all the joy of being a part of something as beautiful as
You have truly brought honor to us all.
I went back to my table, and shook for a solid minute afterwards.
The dinner was wonderful, and the company was fantastic (although
every time I got up, I came back to find someone else in my seat). A
splendid time was had by all.
Near the end, everyone said there goodbyes. Hugs were exchanged, as
were e-mail (and snail-mail) addresses. I think there was a collective
hope that we would be doing this again next year...
The Morning After
I got up earlier this morning, mainly because I wanted to attend the
rock- climbing class in the morning. My only problem was that I didn't
pack yet! Chalk up another early morning class.
I came down with only one bag, and had way too much stuff to bring back
(sounds like every vacation I've ever taken). I decided that I would just
ship my stuff back, so I packed all my dirty clothes in a box and went in
search of someplace that would send it for me.
Two hours later, I returned to the Institute with my box-- I couldn't
find a single place on Sunday that would ship my stuff to me. Luckily, the
front desk manager at the Institute said that he could send it for me (for
a small fee, of course).
While I was out, I also got flowers for the DI staff, and bouquets for
the two female animation instructors. I had fun spending my last few
moments at the Institute brightening the days of people who made my
My flight back from Orlando on Delta Express was also perfect. I had
trouble with Delta Express on my last trip, but these two flight make me
believe that my previous experience was the exception and not the
Sharing The Magic
The slogan for the Disney Institute is "Make Your Own Magic"-- and the
Mulan Animation Experience was truly a magical weekend for me. But the
magic goes far beyond the gates of the Institute, or even Walt Disney
World itself. I know I've shared a little of that magic with the people
around me-- from the eight year old boy on the plane that I drew Spiderman
with, to Dotti and her Soap and Shampoo campaign (which received a small
donation courtesy of Housekeeping at DI).
I hope the people at the Institute, and at Walt Disney World in
general, know that the magic they help to create continues to grow... and
And one last thing...
Hey Larry, Lock, Natalia, Phil, Graham, Esther, Holly, David, Tom and
Karen! Can we do this again next year...
Thanks to all of you, and all the Disney guest artists, for a truly