Mark Henn was supervising animator for the iconic title character in Disney’s new animated feature, “Winnie the Pooh” and for Christopher Robin as well. He is a Disney veteran, having served in the same role for Princess Tiana in “The Princess and the Frog,” helping to design the character and oversee her animation throughout the film, and worked on Ariel in “The Little Mermaid,” Jasmine in “Aladdin,” and young Simba in “The Lion King.” He talked to me about the challenge of taking on Winnie the Pooh, a character the audience knows well and feels very attached to but who has been interpreted by many different artists over the years.
I love the traditional look of this film.
One of the great sources of inspiration for me has been the golden age of illustration. Early in my career here at the studio I discovered people like N.C. Wyeth, Rockwell, Maxfield Parrish, E.F. Ward.
It’s always a little tricky when you’re working with something that’s well-established. And certainly, Disney’s Pooh is — most of us grew up with these characters, the original three featurettes produced at the studio in the 1980’s, “Blustery Day,” “Honey Tree,” and “Tigger Too.” We all knew that some of the very best of the studio had the opportunity to animate it. Now for us it was a great opportunity. You could tell these guys had a lot of fun with the characters. It was light, fun, they had these rich characters and charming stories. We had the same idea now that we had a turn. And it was important to go back to the original material. The directors, Steve [Anderson] and Don [Hall], went back to the original stories by A.A. Milne to find elements from previously unused stories to put together our current film. There’s such a charm and sophistication to his story-telling even though it seems very simple. It’s very elegant.
It was a wonderful chance to stand on the shoulders of what has gone before but John Lasseter also encouraged us to make it our own, bring our own sensibilities as artists and animators as well. But for me the biggest compliment is to hear people say, “That’s the Pooh I remember.” Then I feel that I’ve done my job. After all, that’s the Pooh I remember, too!
I was very captivated by the way the characters interacted with the narrator and the actual text.
Again, it goes back to what had been done. We screened the originals several times throughout the production and we all loved that, with the narrator breaking the fourth wall and the characters talking to the narrator. And interacting with the text on the pages — one of my favorites is in “Blustery Day” when the “rain rain rain came down down down” and the lettering gets washed away. We wanted to build on that and we had the chance with the way the story was structured to take advantage of that. For me, in one particular instance, Pooh is dejected and he’s walking out of the woods and the narrator is talking and says he didn’t notice that he walked into the next paragraph. It was just story-boarded that far, with him walking out of the woods. And he says, “What’s a paragraph?” and he finds the yarn that show’s Eeyore’s scarf tail had come unraveled. As I was looking at the sequence in a meeting, thinking about animating the scene and thinking about what would be fun, I said, “How about if he picks up the P for Pooh and says, ‘Is there any honey in this paragraph?'” I liked the idea of his picking up the letter P and looking at it like it might be a box or jar.
It was in everyone’s mind to look at our scenes to see where we could find the entertaining ways to bring these scenes to live within the character and story, which is always the trick.
The backgrounds are beautiful. Were they hand-done?
Yes, but they use a digital paint system. It has the same hand-feel as a brush. It looks like watercolor and the artists still do it by hand but instead of painting on illustration board it’s now done digitally. You hold the stylus in your hand and all the background painters are terrific painters. The head of the background department went to the real 100 acre wood in England on a research trip and did a lot of watercolors on site to capture the feel. They all worked hard to re-create the world that we were so familiar with.
How were you influenced by the original illustrator of the books, E.H. Shepard?
I love his work, I really do. One of the first things we had to do was settle on which Pooh design we wanted to use, proportions and all that. When we looked at the films, we realized that each artist that touched the characters had created a slightly different look. Frank Thomas’ Winnie the Pooh had a slightly different look than Hal Kings, and on down the line. We all kind of agreed that the work that Hal King did on “Honey Tree” was really the definitive model we should use for Pooh. So we had our model sheets built around that, but I took it a step further and went back to Shepard to pull out as many images of his throughout the books and created some inspirational model sheets we had all around and in the office so I could always be reminded of what Shepard had in mind and Pooh-isms and poses.
Before I tell you about this film and about how much I liked it, I want to say thank you to J.K. Rowling and Warner Brothers for the care and devotion they gave to this extraordinary story. On the page and on the screen, this tale of The Boy Who Lived, from sleeping in a closet under the stairs and his first days at Hogwarts to the final confrontation with He Who Must Not Be Named (or perhaps He Who Must Be Named to be Confronted), it has been genuinely thrilling, deeply moving, and thoroughly satisfying.
There has never been and may never be again a story so electrifying over so many pages that has been so devotedly and expertly translated to the screen, with, remarkably, the same cast throughout (with the exception of the original Dumbledore, the late Richard Harris) to preserve our sense of seamless immersion in its world. Those of us lucky enough to start at the beginning and follow from the publication of the first book in 1998 (1997 in the UK) can measure our own passage of time against the characters’ as Harry, Hermione, Ron, and the rest grew up with never a false step or disappointment to speak of. The world of Harry Potter puts its surprises in a world that is completely believable because it is so thoroughly imagined. Perhaps the movies’ greatest achievement is in matching the visual detail to not just the descriptions in the books but to the narrative richness of a fully-realized world. Even the 3D glasses are Harry-fied.
And now, eight movies later, it takes us back to where it all began. Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) is The Boy Who Lived. He was just a baby when his parents were killed protecting him from the Dark Lord known as Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) to those brave enough to whisper his name. Most just call him He Who Must Not Be Named or try not to mention him at all. For seven movies, Voldemort has been getting stronger as Harry has been getting older. Now it is time for them to face each other.
The parallels between them are strong. They both have the rare gift of parseltongue, the ability to understand the language of snakes. The wand that chose Harry was the twin of the one used by Voldemort. In this last chapter, Harry finds out that they share more than he knew and that defeating Voldemort will require him to be willing to make the ultimate sacrifice.
As we learned in the last chapter, in a sense Voldemort has to be killed seven times. To make himself immortal, he has taken pieces of his soul and placed them in seven different objects, each well hidden and well protected. As this film begins, Harry, Hermione (Emma Watson), and Ron (Rupert Grint) have made some progress but the most difficult are still ahead. The separation of the soul itself is, for want of a better word, de-humanizing, and as a result of this dis-intigration Voldemort is disfigured inside and out, adding to his ruthlessness and power.
Part of the wonder of the books is the way small details that seemed merely deliciously atmospheric in earlier chapters turn out to be essential foundation for what comes now. We learned early in book one that the most impenetrable place on earth was the Gringott’s bank, run by goblins (those of a certain age might remember Jack Benny’s bank which was similarly, if more humorously, secure). Well, now our heroes have to break into the bank’s vaults and how will they do it?
The use of polyjuice potion is another reference to the first book, then an impetuous adventure, now deadly serious. Helena Bonham-Carter’s palpable pleasure in playing the deranged and evil Bellatrix Lestrange (Rowling has a Dickensian way with names) in the previous films benefits from too many years confined (literally) to corseted tea party roles. It is Bellatrix’s vault they must enter, and so here, Bonham-Carter has to turn herself inside out, playing Hermione disguised as Bellatrix. The balance of tension and comedy is exquisitely nerve-wracking.
Again and again, Rowling brings the story back to its origins and so after a movie away from school we return to Hogwarts, where the great battle begins. The more we remember of what we have seen so far, the deeper our understanding, whether it is the satisfaction of seeing something come together we have waited for or the surprise of seeing someone exceed our expectations by being more than we or even they thought possible. Everyone grows up, and we grow along with them.
Director David Yates moves the story smoothly into 3D, though you won’t miss much if you stick with the 2D version. The battle scenes are well staged and the pacing is excellent. If the final chapter got an unexpected and distracting laugh from the audience, it is a small problem in light of the grand sweep of a thoroughly enthralling epic, seamlessly organic, exciting, romantic, funny, and smart, one of the great cinematic achievements of the studio system. Well done, Harry, and a thousand points to Gryffindor.
Many thanks to Roger and Chaz Ebert and all the wonderful folks at Ebert Presents At the Movies for including my segment on kids and 3D in this week’s show!
More from the set of “The Help:”
Tate Taylor, writer and director of the film, told us, “I grew up coming to Greenwood. It stopped in time in 1963. These homes, these locations, these trees – we put together a look book. They asked, ‘Where do you want to film, Vancouver?’ We gave the book to Spielberg and he went, ‘Wow.’ Louisiana has tax breaks – it is Southern, but has a very different feel.” So they came to Greenwood, which stood in for Jackson in 1963, and he brought along Mark Richter as the production designer because he was from the South — they had worked together as production assistants on a Gap catalogue photo shoot for $100 a day. Taylor said Northerners don’t understand much about the South. “I’ve been asked if we have malls here. They don’t understand why people are being so nice – What do they want?” He told us about adapting his friend’s novel. “I had to get the first 200 pages of the book into 30 pages of screenplay.” He had just one disagreement with Kathryn Stockett and admitted she was right. “People do not know about the Jim Crow laws. We had to leave that in.”
Chris Columbus, producer, described Greenwood as “In a sense, frozen in time. ‘The Reivers’ was shot here.” He said the production team was energized by the excitement of the community and pride. And they all appreciated “the friendliness – everyone knows what everyone else is doing.” The house where they were filming that day (Elizabeth Leefolt’s home in the movie) “was built around 1958 but it had to have a shimmer of newness about it.”
“I knew Tate because his sister’s kid and my kid were in school together and were friends. I saw his short film, ‘The Chicken Party” and we stayed in touch. He sent me the manuscript and I said, ‘It’s a woman’s book’ and gave it to my wife.” But it turned out to be more than that. He urged the studio to use Taylor even though he was a newcomer. “He seems to really know this world inside out.” And he told us that it was important to have accurate detail but keep the focus on the story: “History is the backdrop. It’s all about the characters. You don’t want it to be a PBS special. What was going on creates a sense of tension and danger. When there’s too much Hollywood [casting big name stars) the authenticity disappears.” Columbus, one of Hollywood’s most successful directors (including the first two Harry Potter films) told us he wanted to be in Greenwood to see the filming. “I’m here almost every day because I love it. It is very inspirational. Why can’t we go back to making films that inspire us? Times really haven’t changed that much in terms of the way we deal with each other. And I love to be working on a movie where you really want to hate the villain. It’s learning an entirely new culture, accent, food. There was a time when the studio was talking about a cookbook, but the food is horrendous!”