A VIS DEV YANKEE IN KING MICKEY’S COURT
RHETT WICKHAM talks to SUE NICHOLS
About Re-Discovering Her Roots and Her Audience
Nobody who ever knew her thought they could pry her pen, pencil and ink from her hands. Nor would they want to, as the delightful, whimsical, carefully rendered illustrations and designs that pour out of her are the sort of stuff dreams are made of. Still, she has traded markers and watercolors for a tablet and stylus, she has traded a view of the dry brown San Fernando hills, ablaze in summer smoke, for the fiery reds and golds of a New England autumn, and she surrendered a daily commute on the 110 for emails, faxes and phone calls at hours most farmers don’t see. Best of all, she has traded the quiet of an office with a door to shut out the chaos of colleagues riding bikes down the hall, for a home office that keeps little to none of the sounds and interruptions of a nine year old and an eleven year old from penetrating the plaster and unhinging the door. Of all the adjustments, it is the latter that makes Sue Nichols happier than she ever thought possible.
Back Row: Haraldo, Steve Markowski, Jim Reardon, Tami Becker, Rich Moore, Broose Johnson
Front Row: Russ Edmonds, Brenda Chapman, Andrew Stanton, Anita Ziobro, Sue Nichols
Sitting in her home studio, nestled in the foothills of the Berkshire Mountains in Massachusetts, the gifted and self-effacing Nichols is exactly where she wants to be after nearly two decades with the Walt Disney Studio. She is not only closer to the family of origin that she longed for but saw little of during the height of her career, but she has gained a family of her own. Now, as never before, Nichols better understands exactly for whom she was making movies all those years, and she is experiencing a culture and closeness that makes movie fiction pale in comparison.
For two decades Sue had come back and forth to Massachusetts, watching siblings have children and missing out on the day to day life of her large, loving family, and it was becoming increasingly difficult to get on planes and head back to California not knowing which trip would be the last time she’d see an aging grandparent or other relative.
“I had been loaned over to TV as head of story on the Piglet’s Big Movie, and I had an offer to direct Pooh’s Heffalump Movie, in Japan. I preferred moving home to moving to Japan, so I came back to New England
…and now I’m a Mom!”
In 2004, Sue met and married occupational therapist J.R. Maciorowski. Sue C. Nichols became Sue Macrorowski and Mother to J.R.’s children Stephanie age 11, and Jonathan, age 9, rounding out the ever-expanding Nichols of New England army.
“I’m really enjoying doing that for a living. It’s wonderful. We all get along super well, and our son and daughter are so excited to be part of my huge family. We do everything together. My husband’s side of the family is very small. I’m so thrilled to have a family. It’s kind of funny, because they don’t quite understand what I do. I’ll tell them ‘Don’t put that in the Good Will bag, I use that video for reference…you know I make those movies.’ ….‘You do?’”
(You’ll be happy to know that the Red Coats were defeated in the
battle raging behind them in this picture.)
Indeed she does. Schooled at CalArts, and launched into her professional career with a gig on Muppet Babies, Sue Nichols ended up with all of her school buddies over at Disney. Chris Sanders, who was two years ahead of her at Cal Arts was the first artist hired in the newly established “visual development” department. Along with Chris were Mike Gabriel, Jean Gillmore, and several other CalArts classmates. Sue joined them as “The Little Mermaid” was in production and over half a dozen other new ideas were being fleshed out in visual development.
“My first assignment was working on development of Farmer Giles of Hamm back before it was all that organized. They found out after we already started developing it that we couldn’t get the rights to any Tolkien story.” The willingness of the Tolkien estate to let Hollywood have a shot at his books is not the only thing that has changed in the ensuing years.
Nichols was put to work with a small group of people who were fleshing out the very earliest ideas for Aladdin. “It was really nice back in the 80’s. It was an atmosphere of pure creativity. They wanted to create something new and different because, at the time, animation was pretty much almost a dead industry and they were trying to figure out how to rebuild it. They basically were throwing out all sorts of ideas and we had free reign to just try whatever we could think of to make things work. We would work together with anywhere from three to six people, throwing ideas around and asking ‘well what if we did this?’, it was a very collaborative atmosphere.”
This is Jasmine, best friend to Aladdin’s Princess Alia (Development trims LOADS of fat to get to the story meat). The symbols on the left Sue pulled off of ethnic art from the period for design reference.
“Ron and John weren’t even on the project; they were still on The Little Mermaid. Originally Aladdin was being worked on by Linda Wolverton. It was one of those things where we weren’t supposed to talk to her or have any communication with her. We were on our own doing whatever we wanted. It was very chaotic. When it got put on hold, that’s when Beauty and the Beast kicked in. Somewhere in-between was Cranium Command. That was the first thing Kirk and Gary were put on to direct, because it was just a little thing and they needed someone to do it. We worked together as a crew on that, and they liked Kirk and Gary so much that they decided to make them directors on Beauty and the Beast.”
“The head of the development department that was going through scripts and ideas would throw out this story or that story and put a couple of people on it. We would get either a script or we would get a children’s book or maybe it was just a two line concept idea from somebody, and they’d say ‘what can you do with this?’ We would work a few weeks or a month or two to flesh out a presentation. It could be two people, it could be three people or six people working on the same idea. There were always three or four projects being juggled around at the same time. It was very chaotic but fun because we all collaborated and said ‘that may not work for your project, but it will work for this project’ and ‘how about this idea?!’, and it was just one big ball of collaboration, feeding off of each other. It was something that kind of got worked out of the system when the company got larger and things had to be more organized for the business aspect, which is totally understandable. They had to count every penny and know where every penny was going to. So you had to clock your hours on each project and it got to a point where they said ‘you can’t go over to this project and talk to them because you’re not on their project!’. The collaboration got harder and harder to do because you can’t float from project to project; you had to do your one thing. That one project there was still a lot of nice collaboration working with people, back in the early days.
After Sue finished on Beauty and the Beast, she and the other earliest Aladdin artists were brought in by Ron and John, to whom the project had be handed over, and asked to help further develop the feature. “They needed more story people”, Sue remembers, “so that’s when I started storyboarding.”
“They liked my sense of stories and the contributions. I didn’t just do character designs, I was contributing to story ideas. That was the whole point of the visual development department. You weren’t developing ‘visuals’, you were visually developing the story. The whole thing is that no matter what you do it has have something to do with the story, so you had to be a writer, only with visuals. I think that’s something that got lost along the way, with people having to be put in categories for business reasons – ‘Story people do this, and designers do this, and you can’t mix the two!” But that’s the thing with animation, you can’t design without knowing the story behind the design you’re doing, because everything has to be about the story! I think at that point the development department ended up becoming more ‘the doodle department’, doing designs and having no idea what the designs were going to be used for, so you ended up having a lot of stuff that was basically a waist of time, thrown out the window, because you’re sitting there saying ‘I have no idea what the story is so I don’t know why I’m drawing this character!’”
“I’m glad to see now that they’re going back to the original way, where it’s all about the story and cutting back on the crew so that you could do story development, and visualize the story, and go back to really thinking your story through. The wonderful thing about Pixar is that they never lost the purpose of development – to visualize the development of the story, and not just do pretty drawings.”
We all know that common sense would make it impossible for something so right to go so wrong. Alas, we also know that when the net present value becomes a greater concern than understanding of how animation is different than other businesses, and when people from consumer products marketing are put in charge of development, it can be easily forgotten that development is more than coming up with cute character designs for merchandising.
Just as a scene is keyed by the supervising animator, and an assistant takes their cue from and follows up on those key drawings, so good visual development keys the anchoring moments in film and offers exacting visual representations of those moments that inspire everyone. The best films are built around this kind of careful development that understands animation is the purest form of visual storytelling – more so than live action.
“You can’t really separate story and visual development”, says Sue, “and I’ve noticed a lot of story people now do what we used to refer to as ‘Saturday morning storyboarding’, which isn’t a bad thing, but it is very simple and straight forward. They don’t do the color and in-depth lighting and staging that feature films take the next level up. A lot of it is due to time and money management and all that where you can’t have that extra time to look at what theatrical staging and lighting you could throw onto your bit of story development that would enhance the storytelling of the emotion of your scene. I think that’s the part of visual development that goes hand in hand with storyboarding, that says so much and adds so much to the production, and it’s kind of missing and I’d love to see them go back to it.”
“Even visual development when you’re just doing design and not boarding, you have to think what is this character going to portray in the story. The character designs I find that I’ve done that have made it into the final steps of pre-production are the ones that tend to capture the story of the character. The ones that animators tend to grab onto and work with are the ones like Frollo, even though it was a graphic design and they wanted something more realistic, they grabbed the graphic design Frollo that I had done because it had the essence of who he was in the story.”
“Visual development needs to really get in on story meetings, sit in on story meetings, like they used to in the old days. Vis Dev always sat in on story meetings, which nowadays is hard because you’ve got twenty story people and twenty vis dev people, so it’s hard…too many cooks, which you can’t have in a room, I understand that.”
It doesn’t change the sting of the past, when, as Nichols recalls, “I was told once about a time when we had to do what this one creative executive had said, even though all the story people were saying it won’t work, it’s insane, it’s a waste of time, everybody wants to do it this way. But we were told no, we had to do it this way because this person went to Harvard. Oh!,” she says with appropriately mocking sudden realization, “I should have gotten a degree in business at Harvard, what was I thinking getting a degree in animation at CalArts?! That was the mentality at the time when the development department was overrun by creative executives. My favorite quote was when we were watching a movie and this one person asked ‘have you seen this?’ and I said ‘oh yeah, I’ve seen this millions of times’. They said ‘All you people amaze me because you watch these movies more than once, I can’t watch a movie more than once. I can’t understand how you people can watch a movie over and over and over again.’” Thankfully, she can laugh about it now. “When they first hired creative executives they sent them to us to teach them about animation, and then after a while I think they forgot who they went to learn about animation, because then they were telling us ‘now this is how you do it.’”
Prior to her departure from Disney, Nichols most significant contribution may well have been what is, essentially, her un-credited production design on Hercules. Her official title was Production Stylist, but the simple fact is that while the brilliant and gifted Gerald Scarfe is the Production Designer of record, and his influence is obvious and far reaching, it truly was Sue Nichols’ production styling that had the most significant influence on the look of the finished film.
Taking the impossible-to-animate world of Scarfe, with his broken lines and swooping calligraphic elegance that doesn’t exactly turn around so easily, Nichols found a way to make the concept of Scarfe into an animatable reality. Her five years on the project, including consulting on the transfer of the property to television, made Madame Zsa Zsa the true spiritual leader of what is arguably the most magnificently pushed design of any Disney feature of the second silver age.
The other thing that Hercules did for Nichols was introduce her to a new way of rendering. Actually, that’s thanks to Tina Price. “I knew nothing about computers and technology, and I owe my existence nowadays to what Tina taught me over at the ‘creation station.’ Now the way I exist is out of the computer! God bless Tina! I LOVE my Cintiqe. When I first started on Hercules, I was still doing these big drawings with ink and pencil on big paper, but by the time Hercules was over, I was all digital, and I just loved it. So when I moved away it just seemed natural that since I was going to have to be sending all my work over the computer, I might as well do it on the computer. Yeah Tina!” This from an artist most people might expect would have a white-knuckled grip on her brushes and markers.
She misses the collaborative presence of her colleagues, and the day to day exchange, but she also welcomes the return to a more grounded and realistic view of life. “We’re so disembodied from the industry. But it’s nice, because this is real America where people get on with their life, and not everything is about movie making. How can you make a movie for an audience when you don’t know what that audience is like?” The distance from Los Angeles has given the artist a new found appreciation for what truly moves an audience. “I was in the theater watching Wall*E, and I hadn’t experienced this in a long time because I’m not in ‘movie land’, I’m in western Massachusetts, conservative New England, but you could slowly hear not just the kids but some moms get involved with the film, and then some dads reacting to the film, and then everybody is reacting to the film. By the time the film finished everybody stared applauding! Then they stopped, realizing ‘oh, wait, I’m in conservative New England and you’re not supposed to applaud a film…there’s nobody there!’. Then you hear the thought process of ‘oh, what the heck, it was such a good film I’m going to applaud, I don’t care what people think’, and slowly the applause started again until everyone was just roaring with applause! That’s what happens when you have your artist crew in charge of making the decisions!”
Looking back on the time she was at the studio, Sue remarks on how much she learned from everyone with whom she worked. “Everybody’s work influenced me so much. I loved Chris Sanders work from the moment I saw it back in 1983. I used to see Rowland Wilson’s work in magazines…not the Playbody stuff!…but MetLife and other cartoons. I use to cut them out as a little kid and study them. I was so inspired by them. Then I went to Disney and I was working next to somebody that I grew up with and didn’t know it. There were so many people like that at Disney. I was out there visiting shortly after he passed away, and his wife came up to me and said that she wanted to meet me because Rowland had always talked very highly of my work and that I was one of his favorites. I just dropped and said “Oh my Gosh! He was one of my favorites!” That’s’ so inspirational to know that someone who I looked up to that I didn’t’ think even noticed me liked my work. Andreas is another one. He’s a perpetual student. The inspirational thing about him is that here’s an icon of animation, but when you work with him he’s like a freshman in college, one of your students that’s just starry eyed and looks at everyone’s work and wants to learn from it. Whether you’re a trainee or a seasoned professional, he just looks at what you’ve got and what to be inspired by, and think the really good people are like that, they’re perpetual students. Brenda Chapman’s sensitivity in her storyboards was very inspiring. The level of quality that everybody was doing there. Everybody inspires me for different reasons, whether it’s Mauro Maressa, working with him in special effects and learning all about what he was doing – he was amazing to work with! – or Lisa Keene in backgrounds, and Ian Gooding for his color styling. I still have several of Ian’s paintings that he’s done over the years to look at. I have a painting of Kathy Altieri’s over my fireplace, and I’m just inspired by people who can do wonderful paintings, being an illustrator myself. You can get something from everybody there. It was wonderful.”
The lessons Sue learned never got lost, thankfully, as Disney under Iger and Lasseter have reminded Hollywood that it’s never too late to return to best practices. Some great talents are making their way back to the screen, and the The Princess and the Frog crew is tighter and smaller and taking an approach that could make the film the hit it looks like it can be, at least gauging from all the small peeks people have had in the past few weeks.
Sue Nichols is once again a vital part of that process. She contributed a significant amount of visual development work from 2006 through early 2008. Through the convenience of technology, and, admittedly, a well-earned stature that makes it worth a studio’s while, Nichols was able to make only a handful of trips back west during early development of Princess and the Frog (then, still Frog Princess) and work the rest of the time from her home outside of Springfield. Her closest connections to the film industry are her children, who grew up on the movies Sue helped to make. Not that they quite understand that…yet.
“Now that they’ve seen over the last two and half years me drawing these drawings, to actually see them up on the screen will hit home a little more. They know I’ve done movies, and they’ve seen my name in books and on the credits, but they still don’t quite get it. I think seeing Princess and the Frog will change that.”