- The Washington Times - Friday, May 19, 2000

The Walt Disney Co. frequently recruits producers for its animated features from the ranks of theater repertory companies around the country. The reasoning is that the management skills required for rep closely resemble those needed to shepherd an animated feature through five or six years of experimentation, preparation and realization.

The latest successful transplant, Pam Marsden, is a native of Kalamazoo, Mich., who majored in theater arts as an undergraduate at Kalamazoo College and a graduate student at the University of Massachusetts. She attracted Disney's interest after a decade or so of theater management in Chicago, principally with a biennial event called the International Theatre Festival, which showcased plays by about 20 theater troupes. When Disney approached her in 1994 about a project called "Dinosaur," Mrs. Marsden had several acquaintances at the studio, notably Peter Schneider, at the time a successful producer and now chairman of Walt Disney Studios.

"Peter had hired me for my first theater job in Chicago," Mrs. Marsden says during a recent phone conversation to discuss Friday's opening of "Dinosaur." The film a pictorially stunning and often surprisingly somber spectacle about prehistoric creatures embarking on a desperate exodus after a meteor shower ravages their island and coastal habitats looms as another landmark entertainment piece for Disney animation.

Although Disney arguably is a bit late to spearhead the digital revolution, it has the will and resources necessary to make up for a cautious, tortoiselike start. The studio has a beguiling partnership with Pixar, a pioneer in computer animation, augmented by an auspicious home-base capability. Disney built an entire digital studio on the Burbank, Calif., lot in order to complete "Dinosaur."

At the start, Mrs. Marsden says, the work force was very small. It consisted of Mrs. Marsden; the animator, Eric Leighton (eventually promoted to co-director with Ralph Zondag); "and a security guard." Eventually, the "Dinosaur" team required about four dozen principal animators and several hundred illustrators or programmers.

Disney, which used to pride itself on the thousands of drawings that were necessary to complete a traditional cel animation feature, can now boast in another dimension. For example, "Dinosaur" required "30,000 processing hours per week" on average and obliged software experts to write "70,000 lines of code, which translates to approximately 11,700 pages of text, or a 25-volume set of encyclopedias."

Fortunately, "Dinosaur" remains relatively light on its feet while transporting this burden of effort, not to mention several ponderously configured characters and a suspense plot with more sense of mortality and peril than Disney fables usually tolerate. By 1999, an in-house effects unit called Dream Quest, which had been supplying trick shots for various Disney features, was folded into a new digital studio called TSL, short for the Secret Lab. Future visitors are likely to hear it described as the house that "Dinosaur" built.

"Our charge," Mrs. Marsden says, "was always to figure out how we would do it, not whether or not we could do it. We were always convinced we'd do it somehow." She originally was hired to supervise a six-month test, ultimately designed and shot by Mr. Leighton. That period expanded to 18 months, "more or less in the nature of things, because many things needed to be done that hadn't been done before."

The success of "Jurassic Park" in the summer of 1993 had convinced Disney that it wanted both a dinosaur spectacle and a computer-graphic apparatus to call its own. A screenplay by Walon Green of "The Wild Bunch" and "The Hellstrom Chronicle" had been kicked over from the live-action division to the animation division. At one point, well before their collaboration on "Starship Troopers," director Paul Verhoeven and animator Phil Tippett seem to have been keen on Mr. Green's "Dinosaur." Mrs. Marsden isn't certain if human characters ever were involved prominently, but there was a rumor that tests had been shot "with actors in lemur costumes."

The protagonist of "Dinosaur," an orphaned iguanodon called Aladar, is raised on a tropical island by an adoptive, cutely Disneyesque family of lemurs. The meteor calamity drives him back to the mainland with this diminutive family. Aladar encounters big creatures like himself for the first time all headed in the direction of a nesting ground that may or may not have escaped the ecological destruction that surrounds the survivors.

Hmmm. If actors got into lemur costumes, did they also get into dinosaur outfits when the Green screenplay was under consideration? Mrs. Marsden pleads ignorance on that line of speculation. "The question for us," she emphasizes, "was creating photo-realistic [computer-generated] dinosaurs. They needed to look real and yet act. They had to work as characters, since they'd be speaking dialogue and expressing emotions."

"We kind of forced contradictory elements to work together. It's never been a 'not go' project," she says. "The studio said we were going to have a dinosaur movie, but it needed to reconcile realistic aspects with fantasy and storytelling in ways that were difficult to achieve. Even our background plates that began with location shooting around the world have been significantly altered inside the computer-graphic system. There's not a single 'real' shot that wasn't changed or enhanced in some way."

These backgrounds, originally photographed in panoramic VistaVision, include Death Valley and Dumont Dunes in California, Seminole County in Florida, the islands of Hawaii and Kauai, El Parque Nacional Canaima in Venezuela and Port Campbell National Park in Australia.

"Dinosaur" utilizes live-action vistas of scenically imposing sites as the backdrop for its exodus yarn. In addition, the footage served as a modeling device for computer animators.

"The location crews were also survey crews," Mrs. Marsden says. "They took very precise measurements of distances while photographing our backgrounds. Then we would build virtual sets inside the computers, based on the survey information they brought back. That became the standard working method. From real location to virtual set, with the action staged inside our simulations, which permitted all kinds of enhancement and tweaking."

In retrospect, Mrs. Marsden believes that her biggest executive challenge was "putting together a crew of this size and talent." Understating the case, she says: "This was a really big project. There's nothing in nonprofit theater that could really prepare you for it. Usually, you're talking about 200 special effects shots in a feature film. This one was all special effects shots something like 1,300 of them."

Married and the mother of two children, 11 and 13, Mrs. Marsden plans to spend the opening night of her first movie watching a theater production, "Shock-Headed Peter," based on Grimm fairy tales. "It's back to my roots, sort of," she says. "Friends of mine work for this theater company, and I've really been looking forward to their show. I probably will haunt theaters where 'Dinosaur' is playing later this weekend."

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