Sunday, March 19, 2006

The History of Lucky — Part 1

To better understand how the idea for Lucky came about, I feel like a little back-story is necessary. Lucky has become a very personal project and there are certain events in my career that helped to shape the project into what it is today. Many of the people who contributed to the preproduction don’t know the whole history, so, for good or bad, here it is.

In 1999 I was working as an inbetweener at the Walt Disney Feature Animation Florida studio. It wasn’t a particularly bright time for me professionally. I was absolutely miserable in my job and after almost two years at the company, I was still in an entry-level position. Although my supervisors trusted me with work well above my position, there was a freeze on promotions in the clean-up department and, I was beginning to notice how low the ceiling was on my new animation career.

Also, oddly enough, I just couldn’t seem to connect to the people of the studio. Before Disney hired me, I dreamed of being surrounded by like-minded artists sharing a passion about animation, cartooning and filmmaking. But the people of the Florida studio were (and still are) very tight nit—a family who had grown up together as they built a tourist attraction into a feature studio—and it’s hard to connect with people who share such an extensive history.

From what I remember, by the spring of 1999, we had completed Tarzan and were deep in the middle of downtime. During these times between productions, many of the artists would work on tests to improve their skills. The goal for most was to break out of their mundane follow-up position into some thing more exciting, like animation, background, layout or story. Downtime also brought great lectures and workshops given by master artists and filmmakers.

However, downtime was a time I really dreaded. You see, I am not much of a self-starter. I have found that I need the pressure of deadlines to keep myself motivated. When I have all the time in the world I’ll almost always waste it away on something completely trivial. But there were a couple of visitors that spring that inspired and motivated me.

The first was Joe Ranft, the late head of story at Pixar. Joe came to the studio in April and, in the screening room full of people, he pitched the “Flaming Death” sequence from A Bug’s Life. It was amazing! The storyboards were hung on story rail, starting from the upper left side moving clockwise down the steps, past the screen and up the right side of the room. Although I’m sure everyone in the theater had seen the finished film, Joe pitched the sequence as if he was selling it for the first time, with a passionate energy and excitement. Out of breath, this giant man ran around that room like a child with a pitch stick in his hand and uttering that familiar voice of Heimlich the caterpillar. You knew that Joe Ranft loved what he did. I was so stoked!

When I found out that Joe would be repeating the lecture at the Disney Institute (open to the public) I called my girlfriend, Beth (now my wife) and told her she had to see him! In a small room with just a hand full of people, Joe pitched again with the same energetic performance. We spoke to him afterwards and he was very gracious (as I later found out, he always was). It was one of my dreams to one day work with Joe — his death this past year hit me pretty hard. I feel blessed to have seen him pitch (two no-hitters) and to have shared a few words with him.

The second visitor we had that spring was the film producer and consultant Bruce Block. It was the second time I had attended his lectures on visual structure in film, but the first time he had taught us a workshop. About a dozen of us made 5-minute videos using the principles that Bruce taught, then they were screened and critiqued. The process was a re-awakening for me. As a teenager I had made 8mm films using my friends and classmates. However, over the years I had given up on many of my dreams and the dream of being a filmmaker had been one of them. Thanks to Bruce’s lectures my love for filmmaking was revived and I began to search for ideas for a short film to produce.

One afternoon, over lunch, Beth and I were tossing around story ideas. I wanted something short, unique and full of character. At the time, I mainly wanted to make a live action film, but I believe we were entertaining animation ideas as well. I don’t remember how it came up, but Beth pitched to me a story she had come up with in high school. It was a about a four leaf clover that was being made fun of by the surrounding “normal” clovers. As they ridicule “Lucky” someone plucks him out of the ground at the roaring delight of the other clovers. But at that moment, they are mowed down by, yes, a lawn mower. Teenage justice.

But the story intrigued me and I think I suggested that we could follow “Lucky” around as he brings luck to all he comes in contact with, yet, every time he passes on his luck, something bad happens to him. Perhaps he is stepped on, drowned, etc. You know, kind of that “no good deed goes unpunished” kind of thing, but in a quirky, comedic way. We agreed the idea had potential, but we were stuck on how to flesh it out. I had forgotten that I shot some reference photos until I came across the pictures during a recent move. Just a handful: a patch of clover in my parents yard and an old manual lawn mower. But the visual exploration had begun.

Still, the idea for Lucky didn’t come together and was put aside for a few more years.



Blogger Kevin Barber said...

Super interesting. Thanks for sharing Eddie. I too remeber both of those lectures. I miss those invigorating wisdom giving lectures so much. They really made me love the potential of doing, and what was to come.

9:48 PM  

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