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An Inside Look at the Original
Beauty and the Beast

by Joe Tracy, Publisher of Digital Media FX Magazine
© Joe Tracy and Digital Media FX

Disney's Beauty and the BeastA tale as old as time has to start somewhere and for Disney it was in the mid 1980's when development work started on Beauty and the Beast.

Set in and around a small French village in the late 18th century, Beauty and the Beast represented only the fifth Disney animated movie to be adapted from a fairy tale. The others were Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and The Little Mermaid.

The story of Beauty and the Beast has been retold for centuries, with the earliest known work being Italian author Giovan Straparalo in 1550. Film adaptations and even a TV series (that starred Linda Hamilton as Beauty and Ron Perlman as Beast) have kept the story alive. Disney had a task of creating its own unique take on the fable.

"Doing your own version of Beauty and the Beast is as much a tradition as is the story itself," says Beauty and the Beast producer Don Hahn. "Part of the fun is that each generation and culture adapts this story to be its own. The themes, you can't judge a book by its cover and beauty is only skin deep, are as relevant today as ever."

At the time Beauty and the Beast was released Jeffrey Katzenberg, now an executive and owner with Disney rival DreamWorks, was Disney Studios Chairman. He was happy with the concept behind Beauty and the Beast because "it's about making ourselves better. Through these classic fables and fairy tales, we can learn important things about ourselves and the world we live in. They usually contain very noble ideas and morals about good and evil, which can be inspirational on many levels to audiences of ages."

"Inspirational" was only the beginning for Beauty and the Beast which played in theaters for 42 weeks, bringing in $144.8 million, and garnishing a Best Picture Oscar Academy Award nomination. To this day it remains the only animated movie to ever achieve such a nomination. Critics and audiences alike were nearly unanimous in their praise for the overall strength of the visuals, story telling, character development, and music.

It was a long road to get to the point of success that Beauty and the Beast achieved. The movie took nearly four years to produce with the full time help of over about 600 animators, artists, and technicians. There were over 226,000 individually painted cels and over one million drawings. Over 1,300 backgrounds were created for Beauty and the Beast.

Creating the Main Characters
Some of Disney's best animators, like Glen Keane, worked on Beauty and the Beast. Keane was a supervising animator who designed and drew the Beast while overseeing six animators that worked with him. Keane's had a lot of experience with Disney characters (i.e. Ariel in The Little Mermaid, Professor Ratigan in The Great Mouse Detective) and he was ready for the new challenge.

"There's never been a character like him before," Keane says about the Beast, "so there was nothing to fall back on. I began creating the Beast by figuring out who the character really is inside. He's a guy trapped between two worlds. He's part animal and part human and he's not comfortable with either. His design had to show the human side - heart, warmth and the ability to love. The ferocious, hideous animal side had to reflect his incredible power and agility. I filled my mind with all these things and began processing it into a final design. Numerous trips to the zoo, studying National Geographic videos and analysis of stuffed animals helped in the process."

The final design of the Beast ended up being various parts from a lion, buffalo, wild boar, gorilla, wolf, and bear. But the key to designing and animating the Beast was making sure he appeared sincere.

"The eyes are the window to the soul," says Keane. "When Belle looks into Beast's eyes, she must see his human heart and soul. She must see sincerity and believe that she can actually truly love this creature. This had to come across in our animation."

Keane was thrilled with the choice of Robby Benson to voice the Beast, saying, "He was the best actor that we heard by far and his performance really helped us get the emotional edge that we needed for the character."

Supervising animators James Baxter and Mark Henn were called upon for the design of the movie's heroine, Belle.

"Physically, we tried to make her a little bit more European looking with fuller lips, a little bit darker eyebrows and slightly smaller eyes than Ariel," says Baxter. "She's also a few years older than Ariel and a lot more worldly because she's always reading. We tried to make her movements very real whether she's simply walking or waltzing with the Beast in the ballroom sequence."

The ballroom sequence was a key defining moment for both animated characters. Baxter was given the job of animating both characters for the scene because they were so "interconnected." To achieve the results, Baxter studied dancers and even took waltzing lessons!

Linda Woolverton wrote Beauty and the Beast and perhaps gives the best perspective into the character of Belle, seeing her as "a very strong, smart, courageous woman."

"She trades her freedom, the very thing she's been wanting from the start of the film, in order to save her father. Because she is an avid reader, she has a point of view of her life and that doesn't necessarily involve a man getting her there."

Well known animator Andreas Deja was given the task of bringing the movie's unique villain, Gaston, to life. Gaston isn't your typical villain as he was "handsome" and somewhat of a overly confident charmer to the women with a touch of sarcasm.

"I tried to retain the whole range of expressions - the sarcasm, the broadness and the expressiveness - that the handsome leading man seldom gets to show," says Deja. "I wanted Gaston to be a dimensional character that the audience would feel they could reach out and grab.

According to Deja, doing research for Gaston was quite easy. "Los Angeles is full of good-looking guys who just adore themselves," he says. "You see them all over, always admiring themselves in the mirror, making sure their hair and everything else is in place. It was fun to observe them and bring some of that attitude to Gaston."

Computer Animation
Beauty and the Beast was a major stepping stone for Disney into the world of innovative computer animation for theatrical animated movies. A relatively unknown company at the time called Pixar produced the rendering software that was used in Beauty and the Beast.

Beauty and the Beast mixed traditional animation and select scenes of computer animation together to create new visuals of grandeur for the audience. And the computer animated assisted scene that seemed to capture people's imagination the most was the ballroom scene.

"The ballroom sequence features the first computer-generated color background to be both animated and fully dimensional," says Jim Hillin, CGI Artistic Supervisor for Beauty and the Beast. "What this means is that the background is literally moving and the animators had to animate to it in much the same way that they worked with the live action composites in Who Framed Roger Rabbit. This gives the advantage of sweeping camera moves and perspectives as well as theatrical lighting that would otherwise be impossible. It introduces live action techniques into the animated world. Here the camera plays a very important role in establishing the mood and helps us to experience what the characters themselves are feeling."

Hahn saw the ballroom sequence as a defining moment in the movie.

"The ballroom sequence is the bonding moment of the film when the two main characters finally get together," says Hahn. "For us as filmmakers, the computer offered us a way to get heightened emotions on the screen and more dramatic effects than we could have gotten conventionally. It allowed us to move the camera around and take a look at the room instead of just looking at a flat piece of artwork. Technology as a whole is an extension of our fingers, hands, and minds. Computer graphics let us go beyond what we can currently achieve with pencil and paper or paint and a brush."

Computer artists and technicians worked alongside the layout, art direction, and background teams to achieve the results of the ballroom scene. Even the dimensions of the ballroom played a major role in creating the final look.

  • 72-foot high ceilings.
  • 184 feet from door-to-door with a width of 126 feet.
  • 28 wall window sections.
  • A 86 X 126 foot dome with a mural (that was hand painted then applied as a texture map)

But the ballroom wasn't the only extensive use of computer-assisted animation in Beauty and the Beast. The movie's climactic song, "Be Our Guest," also made use of computers. Dancing plates, forks, goblets, bubbles, and the chandelier were created with computers.

"The main purpose of CGI is to build and animate things with the computer that will aid and enhance what is going on with the hand-drawn art," says Hillin. "Our biggest challenge is to incorporate the two things and make it seem as if they belong together. If we get too real or the perspectives are too perfect then it doesn't fit in with the rest of the film."

In the case of Beauty and the Beast both the traditional and computer animated environments melded near flawlessly to create a magical and enchanting environment for millions of people worldwide to enjoy.

Joe Tracy is the publisher of Digital Media FX Magazine, the premiere online publication for animators, FX artists, and animation enthusiasts. Tracy's past online animation publications have won several industry awards including being named by Smart Computing Magazine as one of the "Top 2,500 Sites on the Web." Tracy serves as co-author on two computer animation books and is the author of two Web marketing books. You can email Tracy via His favorite animated movie of all time remains Beauty and the Beast.



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