SPARK Animation conference draws big name players to Hollywood North

"There were so many elements of Tarzan that made it so special, especially to have it be my first feature." Director Chris Buck, who will be a keynote speaker at this year's SPARK Animation Conference

Chris Buck directed the Walt Disney animated movie Tarzan, which won an Oscar in 1999. PNG

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SPARK Animation

When: Oct. 24- 27, various times

Where: Emily Carr University, 520 E. 1st Ave. and other venues

Tickets and info:

In 1934, Walt Disney decided that the studio bearing his name would move into making feature-length animated films and work started on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The first full-length animated movie took years to make and industry insiders were so convinced it would bankrupt the studio, they dubbed the project “Disney’s Folly.” How wrong they were.

For a brief period, the 1937 film was the highest-grossing sound film of all time. It remains in the top-earning animated films to this day, and it’s impossible to separate the Disney brand from the animated feature genre.

In subsequent decades, full-length animated movies saw their popularity decline. Then the Disney Renaissance (1989 to 1999) restored Walt Disney Animation Studios into a global animation powerhouse.

Chris Buck was around for that rise, co-directing 1999s Academy Award-winning Tarzan. The Oscar-winning director of 2013s Frozen and the coming sequel Frozen 2 will appear at the 2019 SPARK Animation conference for a 20th anniversary screening of Tarzan on Saturday, preceded by a question and answer with Buck and co-director Kevin Lima. Buck is also a keynote speaker at the conference.

One of the things the session is certain to touch upon is the way in which the film managed to skirt both young and old audiences alike. This was the source material from author Edgar Rice Burroughs’ 1912 novel Tarzan of the Apes writ large in eye-catching animation.

“While we always had the kids in mind, we never talked down to them or deliberately did anything that would mess with the well-known original source material,” said Buck. “We had these incredible action sequences that we didn’t want to dilute or lessen the intensity of and that kept it enjoyable for all-ages and really got audiences thrilled with the viewing experience. Of course, we also had the incredible music from Phil Collins.”

Oscar-winning Director Chris Buck attends the Frozen Fan Fest Product Showcase at Casita Hollywood this October 02, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. Andrew Toth / Getty Images for Disney

In fact, it was Collins’ soundtrack and song, You’ll Be In My Heart, which won the movie an Oscar, a Golden Globe and a Grammy. The winning Disney formula dating back to classics like Dumbo and the Jungle Book, where a fast-paced classic storyline is paired with show-stopping musical numbers had been upgraded to the modern pop era. Subsequent hits such as Frozen and the Lion King remake have ridden this to massive appeal.

“There were so many elements of Tarzan that made it so special, especially to have it be my first feature,” said Buck. “It started over in the TV studio under Kevin Lima’s direction, as he had done a Goofy movie for them. Features got hold of it and took it over, but owing to the size and scope of the project, they wanted Kevin to bring in a second.”

Buck was reticent to become involved with the movie, viewing animation as a particularly time-consuming arena of the film biz. He had seen colleagues get bogged down in full-length cartoons and wasn’t sure that the work was for him.

“Then I was on weekend vacation at a ski hill in a rented condo and they had an old copy of Reader’s Digest in the room that I picked up to thumb through before we hit the slopes,” he said. “And in the margins, someone had written ‘people regret more of what they haven’t done than what they have done.’ There was my answer to my struggle over the decision whether to do Tarzan or not.”

Made for a budget of US$130-plus million, Tarzan was one of the most expensive animated features of the time. To date, worldwide box office proceeds are $450-plus million-and-counting with the 20th anniversary possibly driving sales up again. The Buck-directed Frozen was moderately more expensive ($150 million) and took in a staggering $1.2 billion-plus. Frozen held the top-grossing animated box office record until August 2019 when the reboot of the Lion King passed $1.3 billion.

Eighty two years on, “Disney’s Folly,” appears to paid off plenty. Frozen 2 lands on Nov. 22.

“Like Tarzan being somewhat more mature, in the world of Frozen 2, we are letting our characters grow up some,” said Buck. “We found the emotion in the adoption story, and being able to give life, emotion and voice to the animals that Tarzan is raised by and lives and communicates with was a beautiful way to go. Animation, particularly Disney, does that type of tale beautifully and, unlike any previous Tarzan film, we could make him move like Burroughs had written it.”

Naturally, working with source material as familiar as Tarzan enables the creative team a great deal more depth of background to work on the film’s narrative line. There are a total of 24 Tarzan books, the majority of them were written before Burroughs died in 1950, with subsequent novels being co-written from the author’s ideas or other writers officially authorized by the estate to keep the story going. Buck and the team knew that to keep their cinematic story going, they needed to embrace the latest technology for maximum impact.

“We were able to use this new technique called Deep Canvas, which enabled us to move through the jungle in a way that wasn’t just flat, but instead enabled you to be immersed in the environments you were moving through,” he said. “It was created by some of our incredible artists and technicians and that’s how you get those magic scenes of Tarzan practically surfing through the trees and the animals moving through so fluidly. I still think it looks amazing.”

Besides the panel discussion to follow the screening of Tarzan, Buck will also be presenting a lifetime achievement award on opening night (Oct. 24) to Hollywood animation production legend Bonnie Arnold. The producer of the How to Train Your Dragon franchise, as well as Toy Story and Tarzan, she has worked with Disney, Pixar and DreamWorks Animation.