I had the privilege to interview Mike Gabriel, American animator and director of Disney classics such as Pocahontas, Princess and the Frog, and Brave. Author note: Considering my top two Disney movies are, in that order, Pocahontas and Mulan, this interview holds a special place in my heart. Talking to the director, animator and writer of one of them is like learning how to paint with all the colors of the wind. YES, I’m a big bloody cliche. What else is new?
What inspired You to become an animator? Do you remember the turning point in your life when you realised this was the path you wanted to pursue?
I saw Pinocchio when I was about 6 years old and came home and knew I wanted to be a Disney animator from that day on. It was in Salina, Kansas, where we lived on an Air Force base my father was stationed at. My siblings and I went back a few years ago as “grown ups” and I saw the exact spot in front of our old house where I looked down at a manhole cover–still there– on the sidewalk and said to myself, “ I am going to be a Disney animator. Definitely, yep, it is settled.” I wanted it badly and never ever faded off wanting it badly. I started writing to the studio in high school sending in my cartoon drawings. Many times. I got my interview in 1979 on the Disney lot. I got told go home and keep trying, son. I sent in new drawings two days later. I got hired a week later. I was always, my entire life, from grade school to college, known in class by students and teachers as the artist who was going to work at Disney. And I am.
Talk me through the stages of the pre-production process when working on an animated film. For instance, what happened first when developing the story of Pocahontas. Which task was the most challenging? Also, what influenced Pocahontas’ overall physique and style?
The first phase of pre production is research and learning everything about the world and characters that your story will take place in. Know the facts inside and out, get inspiration from those facts, before inventing anything derived from those facts. Start with learning the real world, then move on to what has been done before with this subject matter or world or story? Check out the previous versions. What’s been done before. What should we do differently? Why is ours going to be special? Joe Grant and I were the first two artists to start sketching out ideas and created characters that might populate the film from an animators perspective. What are going to be the animation elements to activate the imagination of the audience? I read all the books on Pocahontas and her “true” story. Later our team, Producer, Jim Pentecost, co- director, Eric Goldberg and art director Mike Giaimo met with many local tribal leaders in the Powhatan chiefdom area to make sure we were not being disrespectful in any way to Pocahontas’ culture and beliefs. We even visited her father, Chief Powhatan’s gravesite mound. Talked with many local Native Americans and got their take. Shirley Littledove was our culture expert to advise on customs and beliefs. Facts wise, differing opinions on the “love” story between John Smith and Pocahontas. Some believe it, some not sure, some sure it didn’t happen, some sure she was raped. The Native Americans back then did not write down their history, they passed it along verbally. But many books from the English perspective explain the way the settlers interacted with the Powhatan tribes and how the tribes lived in 1607 and 1608.
We always were determined to be true to the clothes, the villages, Jamestown itself, the details were important to us. But we structured our invented story loosely according to the relationship of Pocahontas and John Smith ( we condensed two years of their imagined relationship into about two weeks.) From when they met to when they parted in Jamestown. The climax would be the moment Pocahontas saved the life of John Smith. We never approached telling the true story of Pocahontas without our artistic interpretation of her relationship with Smith. That would be a documentary. We knew we were going to be respectful of the true story but not handcuffed into merely telling the facts without any creative an musicalized expression. We were artist interpreting a character from history in a new way. Hamilton is doing a great job of doing just that today on stage. This was an animated musical with comical animal sidekicks and talking trees not the real life disease and starving the real settlers went through as well as the violence experienced by all the historical figures. Jeffrey Katzenberg and the writers and the composers and lyricist liked the idea of doing it in the Romeo and Juliet/ West Side Story story/act structure. Also, we were not sure whether to start with Pocahontas saving John Smith in the first act or not, but when Glen Keane did a drawing of Pocahontas on top of John Smith protecting him from her father’s war club we knew this was the climactic moment of the story. It would represent Pocahontas as the peace maker. The many theories of whether this was actually a real rescue of Smith or just a ceremony not absolutely known for sure. Or whether Smith made it up entirely. No proof either way. We do know Pocahontas was very close with Smith and they spent a lot of time together and taught each other each other’s language. So the main issue we struggled with was not how to be exactly true to the timeline of all the facts but rather how serious of a tone did we want to tell this story. Comical and light with a comical villain in Ratcliffe and talking animal characters like all other Disney animated films or brief interludes of cartoon animal fun without them talking, but a much more serious tone overall due to the nature of the story and the impending war to come. Jeffrey insisted we keep the tone mature and respectful, light enough for a musical but not overly silly in the comedy and action, always stay dramatically true to the seriousness of the story’s situation and world.
Jeffrey also gave Glen Keane the goal to make Pocahontas the most beautiful Disney heroine in history. She must look and feel like a real native of America with her features and clothing, (except obviously not her tribes normal topless look w leather skirt) and be very physically strong and fit. She was made to move and climb in a way true to her heritage like no other female lead in our Disney canon. More physical. More strong and more fit. More beautiful too. Glen Keane and his team surpassed the challenge in every way. I think she is a great success (although a few scenes her bust looks off model and too large.) But our voice of Powhatan, Russell Means, was a reliable and fierce critical representative of the American Indians on the film, and how they were being portrayed, and he loved her look. He said she looks just like my daughter, whom he explained was 15 years old, a little older than Pocahontas when she the real John Smith. But at the wrap party in New York at the Central Park premier, his daughter was there and she was a dead ringer for our version of Pocahontas. Her face her hair her figure—exact replica– just like Russell always told us. You would have sworn she was a Disney hired walk around character from one of the theme parks. At the end of the film Russell gave press interviews saying this film was the best most accurate representation of the American Indian in the history of film. He loved it and loved what we did. Also, the Smithsonian in Washington DC told me that all the research specialists in that era of our history were astounded at the level of accuracy we put in every single detail of the way the Powhatans lived and worshipped. He said kudos from all of us at the Smithsonian, well done. They noticed all the care put in to all the historically accurate details.
Some people critique Pocahontas for including a “white saviour” type of storyline. How do you respond to that?
That is odd about the White savior plot. When I came up with the idea of the film from looking at books on my wife’s uncles bookcases, the first thing that came into my mind when I saw the title Pocahontas was “wow that will finally be a chance to make the princess the one who saves the prince!” Oh well, each viewer of film sees it through their own life prism and experience. Makes for an interesting combination of perspectives from many many different types of people from all over the world. Cool to think about how many interpretations Pocahontas garnered. I am just happy people are paying attention to things like that and can alert us when we get down a wrong path. We try so hard to be considerate, respectful and careful no too offend.
You worked on animations such as Pocahontas and Brave which in my opinion have brilliant feminist subtexts. The characters do not accept men’s dominant culture and their patriarchal rules and they fight the social and gender norms in order to stand for what they believe in. Do you think it’s crucial for film creators to include such empowering messages in their works?
We have great respect for the messages we send to the children in our films, and the way we instill certain aspirations at times. We want to be aspirational to the girls and young women, and mothers too, who come to our films. We want to make sure they feel empowered after seeing our films. This is why so many stories are about that, Judy Hopps, from Zootopia, and Elsa and Anna from Frozen most recently. All film makers at Disney should create entertaining films that send positive, uplifting messages out to the world so that we add hope and belief in one’s self and inspire the children in our audience to grow into the best version of themselves. If we aren’t making female centric, and yes female empowering stories, then we are leaving half the audience out of the fullest participation in the fun. It needs to stay fun and not become didactic. Nobody goes to the theater to be taught a lesson. It has to be truly, sincerely felt within the telling of the story. The female empowerment films, ideally would be directed by one of our extremely talented and valued female directors, who would bring a personal, visceral, emotionally insightful vision to her film. The emotional core of your story has to be genuine.
Describe the moment when you learned that your hard work had been appreciated by the Academy. What was going through your mind?
It felt like I had become a real boy in Pinocchio. My wife and I were up at the crack of dawn and we were watching the Oscar web site to see the nominations get posted. They dropped in. I saw Lorenzo Mike Gabriel listed. It was the purest sense of success I have ever felt. My wife and I danced around like Geppetto and Pinocchio when he became a real live boy. An Oscar nomination represents to the world, and frankly to yourself, that you are talented at what you do. And lucky!
Do you prefer traditional hand-drawn animation or the computer, CGI one? Do you see the 2D one ever making a comeback?
I would much rather animate in 2 D than cg, personally. I like the drawing aspect as well as the acting. I loved animating for a living at Disney. Every day a joy. Cg has so many attributes that dazzle the eye. It is remarkable evolution of the art form, that takes the viewer ever closer into believing the created universe on screen is real. It adds a sense of almost being able to touch and feel the created worlds on screen. You can almost feel the textures. The light can be stunningly beautiful. The acting as eloquent and subtle as the best live action actors. Many things about cg are truly dazzling. Historically, regarding children’s somewhat recent preferred story entertainment vehicle, puppetry was surpassed by 2D animation and 2D animation has been surpassed by cg animation. 2D animation not likely to ever get to the top spot again in children’s preferred entertainment experience unless it reinvented somehow in a hybrid new way that makes it feel like you are experiencing 2D more viscerally and more sensorily so it is a whole new experience. But people want the state of the art version of whatever it is they are paying for. They don’t want, as a whole, old fashioned over the new version. They want the latest greatest version. Every package in the grocery store aisle says NEW on it for a reason. NEW is the best. Hand drawn animation looks old fashioned. A death knell to the medium. Old fashioned says to the audience old way not the best way, not the newest, coolest way. What a shame to see such a glorious beautiful art form fall back into niche work. It will always be my preferred medium regardless. I can look at hand drawn animated films over and over again. CG films only once or twice. Not sure why. I love many of them. Totally, thoroughly impressed and entertained by them in the theater like everybody else. But. Something about them stays distant from my true love of gorgeously appealing designs and drawings and art that breathes and engages my imagination and moves me.
It might make a comeback. Never say never. But it would have to be a true revolutionary genius who knows how to entertain in spite of the medium not because of it. A Damien Chazelle 2 D animated musical film might be a hit. Who knows? And the one form of children’s story telling entertainment that never ever grows old is the story book being read to them at night when they are in bed. They still love it.