- The Washington Times - Friday, June 15, 2001

John Pomeroy, whose specialty is character animation, was in charge of the John Smith character for the Disney animated feature "Pocahontas." He also supervised Milo Thatch, the gee-whiz young hero of "Atlantis: The Lost Empire," Disneys latest animated spectacle, which opens today.
Milo, an amateur explorer with a voice that belongs to Michael J. Fox, hopes to discover the mythical island civilization of Atlantis, which is found in the movie in more or less thriving seclusion beneath the South Atlantic in 1914.
Like Capt. Smith in the Disney version of "Pocahontas," Milo enjoys a romance with the resident native princess, Kida, a nubile cartoon goddess who has a way with magic crystals and even walks on water during one trance.
Mr. Pomeroy, who went to work for Disney at the tender age of 22 in 1973, was in Washington recently to help promote "Atlantis." Also at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel for the session were producer Don Hahn, co-director Gary Trousdale and consultant Mark Okrand, a Washington-based linguistics expert who was hired to invent an Atlantean language for the production.

"Atlantis" lacks traditional animated critters, which is something of a departure for Disney artists. "When you think of animation, usually you dont think of a subtle range of expression," Mr. Pomeroy says. "You think of slapstick exaggeration, of mugging. And if youre dealing with cute, cuddly animal characters, you can cheat a little bit with the illustrations. They dont have to be absolutely authentic."
Expectations grow more demanding when the cartoon characters are human facsimiles, he says. "People are much less forgiving about the humans because we observe each other every day and find it easier to notice discrepancies," Mr. Pomeroy says. "Animating humans, your guard has to be up 100 percent — not just in locomotion and mechanics, but in performance as well. If we miss a stitch, the illusion were trying so hard to captivate you with starts to unravel. If people start thinking, well, these are just drawings going by, theyre not participating vicariously in the adventure."
Mr. Pomeroy says the human emphasis in "Atlantis" demanded subtler forms of illustrative "acting." He singles out a scene with Milo, whom he regards fondly as an alter ego. "This was a real opportunity to take animation acting a step further," he says. "I remember a scene where Milo is on a mountaintop overlooking Atlantis. He begins to reminisce about his grandfather and starts to tear up a little bit. Then he tries to hide that from Kida. These are difficult things to depict graphically on paper, so it really tested our skills. You invent as you go along: How can I make this moment of sadness subtly distinctive? How about anger or rage or embarrassment? There were all sorts of little seasonings we had to put in the drawings."
"Atlantis" — prompted to some extent by fond memories of the live-action adventure features made by the Disney studio in the 1950s, notably "Treasure Island" and "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" — departs from the recent Disney emphasis on animated musicals. It doesnt accommodate a single song interlude, even though Kirk Douglas got one years ago in "20,000 Leagues."
"It was part of Walts genius back in his golden heyday to keep trying different things, to guard against wedding himself to any single formula," Mr. Pomeroy says. "Weve done so many musicals in the last decade. Its natural to suspect it might be time for a change. Just to get a little bit of variety in our diet is good for us. We had the full support of the executive command of the studio."
Producer Hahn, whose credits include the studios most prestigious animated musical of the 1990s, "Beauty and the Beast," and its most successful, "The Lion King," believes it was more a question of never finding an appropriate place for song enhancement. "Our goal early on was to create these big, fun, visceral action sequences in a traditional animation format," he says. "We also wanted to pepper them with heart, story, character, emotional content. But we thought, why force songs into this? When so much of the story involved a trek of rugged, sweaty explorers, it seemed a little silly to imagine this crew breaking into song."

Although the movies prologue and press notes call attention to the Greek origins of the Atlantis myth, the stylization itself studiously avoided Grecian illustrative touches. Mr. Trousdale explains: "We were trying to come up with a distinctive style, and the one thing we didnt want was anything that resembled the old George Pal movie 'Atlantis: The Lost Continent, which was made 40 years ago. So no people in togas, gathering at the Acropolis. We thought in terms of a new habitat, sort of Edenic and down close to the center of the Earth.
"Jules Verne was obviously a big influence," he says, "and we looked very closely at 'Journey to the Center of the Earth. So we came up with lava fields and waterfalls, kind of misty and humid, and an advanced civilization thats gone a little feral during 10,000 years of isolation."
One of the debatable command decisions in the scenario for "Atlantis" is the early sinking of a majestic wonder submarine called Ulysses, a variation on Capt. Nemos Nautilus that seems to cry out for more generous showcasing.
"There was a desire to get to Atlantis without too much delay," Mr. Trousdale says. "One of the problems with 'Journey is that it took so much time journeying that you didnt see much 'Center of the Earth. So, calling our movie 'Atlantis, we thought it important to find it fairly soon and spend as much time there as possible. The other stuff, including the submarine, could be compressed. Also, we decided that the sea beast that destroys the ship and puts our characters at a disadvantage could remain a menace. Its still out there somewhere."
Hmmm. Why not bring it back for a last-act encore if its that imposing?
Perhaps contemplating a sequel, Mr. Hahn replies, "Maybe itll come back some day."

Mr. Hahn first went to work for Disney in 1976. Apart from a professional side trip of less than a year while collaborating on a business venture with his brother, Mr. Hahn has remained at the studio through thin and thick, rising from a gofer and animation assistant to a top-flight producer.
Mr. Trousdale came aboard during the lackluster years of the early 1980s and worked as an effects animator on "The Black Cauldron." He eventually teamed with colleague Kirk Wise; their first co-directing project, under Mr. Hahns auspices, was "Beauty and the Beast." They were reunited for "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" and now "Atlantis."
Mr. Pomeroy would have been the senior Disney animator of the trio except he left the company in 1979 to form an independent animation company with colleagues Don Bluth and Gary Goldman and did not return until 1992. They collaborated on such animated features as "The Secret of NIMH." "An American Tail," "The Land Before Time," "All Dogs Go to Heaven" and "Thumbelina." Mr. Pomeroy returned to Disney for "Pocahontas."
"When I first got to the studio , there was a wonderful period of five years or so when I was learning from the masters, the group of supervising animators Walt had recruited during the 1930s and 1940s, who were known collectively as the 'nine old men," he says.
"Around 1978 or 79 I began to feel that we were in a creative rut and there was nothing I could do about it. I left with two other partners to form our own company. Some of the films we did were wonderful to work on, but toward the end of the run, we were encountering the same problems that had prompted us to leave Disney. Another creative rut. Plus, a lot of my responsibilities had become more administrative than creative. They had taken me away from my first love, animation."
Mr. Pomeroy found a transformed studio upon his return, resurgent with the success of "The Little Mermaid," "Beauty and the Beast" and "Aladdin." He associated it with legends of the working atmosphere that had inspired the "nine old men" when they were young animators.
"It had come full circle," he says. "In the early 1990s, the studio was growing and thriving again. They were telling new stories. They were producing new types of products. They had recruited a new generation of talent. It was a great place to be, and I was the prodigal animator happily and gratefully returned. It seemed the smoothest of homecomings. On my first day, I met people from all the stages of my animation career, including people I had trained on the outside as an independent producer."
Mr. Okrand, a newcomer to the Disney apparatus, blundered into the movie business almost 20 years ago as a linguistic consultant on the second and third "Star Trek" features. He has a doctorate from the University of California at Berkeley but could not find an academic job in a timely fashion. He relocated to Washington, where he worked for the Smithsonian Institution. He later joined a firm that specializes in closed captioning for television shows.
"In academia, there are fat years and lean years," he says. "The year I needed a job was a lean year. To get the kind of position I wanted, which would have involved anthropological linguistics, would have demanded a wait of about five years at that time."

As the captioning job found new customers, he went to Los Angeles to supervise the first application of the service to an Academy Awards telecast. While waiting for a draft of the script from the writing staff, he had lunch with an old friend who worked as a secretary at Paramount Pictures. He learned that the first "Star Trek" was having a bit of trouble securing a linguistics expert to supply a few lines of Vulcan dialogue.
Mr. Okrand got the gig, returned to supply a more generous batch of Klingon in the subsequent sequel and eventually became the author of two volumes very popular with series loyalists: a Klingon dictionary and an abridged Klingon translation of the Bible.
He says there were distinct differences between inventing Klingon and inventing Atlantean. "Klingon is not an Earth language," he says. "It doesnt have to follow rules of human language, which are very structured, with all kinds of rules, or at least tendencies. Thats one of the reasons why theyre all so learnable."
In contrast, "Atlantean is a root language for Earthlings. So its like other languages — a very ordinary sound system, with a word order that favors subject, object and verb. Klingon sounds very choppy, Atlantean very fluid."
The Atlanteans retain spoken-language skills despite losing sight of their written traditions. "Literacy in the world, mass literacy, is relatively new," Mr. Okrand says. "Only the higher-ups, however defined, could read and write. Knowledge among the rest of the population was passed on orally. The great Sanskrit grammar was composed as poetry and passed from generation to generation in that form. Some languages I studied in college are no longer spoken. Theres no one to talk to, unless youre talking to another scholar who likes to speculate about the sound of a dead language. You deal only with documents. You have to guess about how those words actually sounded."

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