The Little Mermaid (Disney) - Production - Animation

Animation

More money and resources were dedicated to Mermaid than any other Disney animated film in decades. Aside from its main animation facility in Glendale, California, Disney opened a satellite feature animation facility during the production of Mermaid in Lake Buena Vista, Florida (near Orlando, Florida), within Disney-MGM Studios Theme Park at Walt Disney World. Opening in 1989, the Disney-MGM facility's first projects were to produce an entire Roger Rabbit cartoon short, Roller Coaster Rabbit, and to contribute ink and paint support to Mermaid.

Mermaid's supervising animators included Glen Keane and Mark Henn on Ariel, Duncan Marjoribanks on Sebastian, Andreas Deja on King Triton, and Ruben Aquino on Ursula. Originally, Keane had been asked to work on Ursula, as he had established a reputation for drawing large, powerful figures, such as the bear in The Fox and the Hound and Professor Ratigan in The Great Mouse Detective. Keane, however, was assigned as one of the two lead artists on the petite Ariel and oversaw the "Part of Your World" musical number. He jokingly stated that his wife looks exactly like Ariel "without the fins." The character's body type and personality were based upon that of Alyssa Milano, then starring on TV's Who's the Boss? and the effect of her hair underwater was based on footage of Sally Ride when she was in space.

The design of the villainous Ursula the Sea Witch was based upon drag performer Divine. Pat Carroll was not Clements and Musker's first choice to voice Ursula; the original script had been written with Bea Arthur of the Disney-owned TV series The Golden Girls in mind. After Arthur turned the part down, actresses such as Nancy Marchand, Nancy Wilson, Roseanne, Charlotte Rae, and Elaine Stritch were considered for the part. Stritch was eventually cast as Ursula, but clashed with Howard Ashman's style of music production and was replaced by Carroll.

Another first for recent years was the filming of live actors and actresses for motion reference material for the animators, a practice used frequently for many of the Disney animated features produced under Walt Disney's supervision. Broadway actress Jodi Benson was chosen to play Ariel, and Sherri Lynn Stoner, a former member of Los Angeles' Groundlings improvisation comedy group, acted out Ariel's key scenes.

The underwater setting required the most special effects animation for a Disney animated feature since Fantasia in 1940. Effects animation supervisor Mark Dindal estimated that over a million bubbles were drawn for this film, in addition to the use of other processes such as airbrushing, backlighting, superimposition, and some computer animation. The artistic manpower needed for Mermaid required Disney to farm out most of the underwater bubble effects animation in the film to Pacific Rim Productions, a China-based firm with production facilities in Beijing.

An attempt to use Disney's famed multiplane camera for the first time in years for quality "depth" shots failed because the machine was reputedly in dilapidated condition. The multiplane shots were instead photographed at an outside animation camera facility.

The Little Mermaid was the last Disney feature film to use the traditional hand-painted cel method of animation. Disney's next film, The Rescuers Down Under, used a digital method of coloring and combining scanned drawings developed for Disney by Pixar called CAPS (Computer Animation Production System), which would eliminate the need for cels, the multiplane camera, and many of the optical effects used for the last time in Mermaid. A CAPS prototype was used experimentally on a few scenes in Mermaid, and one shot produced using CAPS—the penultimate shot in the film, of Ariel and Eric's wedding ship sailing away under a rainbow—appears in the finished film. Computer-generated imagery was used to create some of the wrecked ships in the final battle, a staircase behind a shot of Ariel in Eric's castle, and the carriage Eric and Ariel are riding in when she bounces it over a ravine. These objects were animated using 3D wireframe models, which were plotted as line art to cels and painted traditionally.

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