How Tonic DNA Sprinkled 2D Animation Magic into Disney’s ‘Disenchanted’

***This article originally appeared in the January ’23 issue of Animation Magazine (No. 326)***

Crossing from animation to live action has long been one of the great technical challenges of moviemaking, from the early days of Gertie the Dinosaur (1914) and Anchors Aweigh (1945) to Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), Space Jam: A New Legacy (2021) and this year’s Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers.

The most recent mixture is Disenchanted, a sequel to the 2007 feature Enchanted that starred Amy Adams as an animated Disney princess named Giselle who crosses over into the real world. Now, Adams returns as Giselle, a little older and maybe a little wiser, for a second round of searching for happily ever after — in one world or another.

Also reprising their roles for Disenchanted are Patrick Dempsey, Idina Menzel and James Marsden, who are joined by new cast members Maya Rudolph, Yvette Nicole Brown, Jayma Mays and Gabriella Baldacchino. Directed by Adam Shankman from a screenplay by Brigitte Hales and a story by J. David Stem & David N. Weiss and Richard LaGravenese, Disenchanted features songs with music by eight-time Oscar-winning composer Alan Menken and lyrics by three-time Oscar-winning lyricist Stephen Schwartz, whose work on the original movie earned three Academy Award nominations.

Amy Adams returns as the fairy tale princess Giselle in ‘Disenchanted’ © 2022 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Calling on the Wizards Up North

As in the original, Disenchanted crosses the line from live action to animation, requiring the services of an animation studio — and animators — to bring key parts of the movie to life. With a script in hand and director Shankman on board, Disney turned to Montreal-based Tonic DNA, where the project was overseen by creative director Todd Shaffer and animation supervisor Simon Pope.

“They came to us with already some preconceived ideas of how they wanted to approach it,” says Shaffer. “We wanted that classic Disney style, but we also wanted to honor what was done with Enchanted, which was just really good for the time … we were just basically trying to follow their lead.”

Shaffer came on early to storyboard the animated sequences with Tonic DNA colleague Joe Bluhm, with those morphing into animatics that needed Disney’s approval before entering the animation phase. Work on the project began in January 2021, with the preproduction phase taking about seven months, he says. The work really got started to pick up in October 2021, and the production was fully rolling by January. The final project was delivered somewhere between two and three months prior to Disenchanted’s November 18 release on Disney+.

Pope began work on the project with the actual animation team, which involved experienced animators doing roughs, followed by a team of tie-down artists that got everything ready for cleanup. This workflow was more complicated due to the slightly heavier story being told in the sequel.

“The acting is a bit more subdued, and there’s a lot more subtlety in the facial acting, rather than big physical performances,” Pope says. ”We had to have that extra step to make sure we captured the facial acting and emotions just right, as it moved over to cleanup.”

Todd Shaffer
Todd Shaffer

There were two main types of sequences, Shaffer says. One is more cartoony, with animated animal characters, and then there were sequences with animated versions of the live-action characters. These required more fidelity to the actors’ likenesses and movements.

The cartoony sequences were relatively easy and a lot of fun to work on, Shaffer says. The ones featuring the live actors’ characters were more difficult and time consuming. “The human characters were very, very demanding,” he says. They relied on each animator’s strengths, focusing artists who were skilled with performance on performance, and more detail-oriented animators on costuming details and facial expressions.

The live-action footage of the actors was valuable reference, Pope says, though there was little if any one-to-one reference available for the performances or the voice recordings. “Some of the animators would use people in their family, their friends, whatever,” says Shaffer. ”And we did have a lot of reference from the previous show, as well as from the current show, to show how they moved.”

While Disenchanted is a sequel, there was no real way to reuse any of the animation or assets from the original 2007 movie, save for a few artistic still lifts put into a storybook sequence, Shaffer says.

Melding animation with live action required a lot of flexibility. The movie originally called for 20 minutes of animation, but editing trims cut it down to more like 14 to 17 minutes based on reactions to each cut.

“They had packed the front end [of the movie] with so much information and a lot of fun stuff, that it took forever to get to the live-action section,” Shaffer says. “So, in that process, it was constantly trimming down and trimming down and trimming down so that they could get to the live action faster … It was a lengthy process, and those cuts and changes went up a lot later in the schedule.”

Terrific 2D: Tonic DNA was tasked with creating 2D animation and characters like Scroll (voiced by Alan Tudyk) that blended smoothly with the live-action footage, which included the challenging 30-second opening scene. © 2022 Disney. All Rights Reserved.

The movie’s opening shot — a 30-second scene of a camera sweeping from a castle down to the field to find Adams’ Giselle — was among the more demanding, with frequent tweaks required. “It was hugely challenging,” says Shaffer. “They would edit sections out, and then we’d have to go back and try to repair and figure them out.”

While the animation was looking to evoke the look of classic Disney fairytale movies, the performances and the storytelling are more subtle and tailored to the needs of this movie, Pope says. “The tone of the shot as a composition is the thing that’s different, rather than necessarily the animation,” he says.

Shaffer compares the result to the style seen in the 1995 feature Pocahontas, which is on the more realistic end of the Disney style spectrum.

“Adam didn’t want us to go from live action into a world where they were more cartoony and bubbly, and then they go back to live action,” Shaffer says. “And so that’s sort of where we landed with it, and that did distinguish us from the previous movie.”

Changes included swapping out dialog late in the process, which also required the crew to move quickly. “We’d get new audios coming in and we’d have to adapt,” says Pope.

Shaffer is based at Tonic DNA in Montreal, with Pope in Halifax, Nova Scotia. COVID-19 protocols meant the team worked remotely from locations from Turkey to contingents based in Los Angeles and British Columbia. Shaffer says he and Pope would divide up the workload to keep the work flowing steadily. “At some point, we divided where I was working with the rough animators, and he was working with the tight animators, because it got to be so, so enormously big to handle and manage all those artists,” says Shaffer, who estimates the animation crew at times swelled past 60.

Disenchanted © 2022 Disney. All Rights Reserved.

Rare Talents

Finding 2D animation talent wasn’t easy, Shaffer says. The animators worked in Toon Boom software, but without 3D references it was all essentially hand drawn. “We don’t have the talent pool that we once had, but that’s changing,” he says.

The highlight of the project for Pope was seeing the performances come together. “It was a new challenge for, I think, most people to do such a realistic approach,” he says.

“I love working with new animators and seeing what their strengths are and collaborating with them,” adds Shaffer. “This is a very demanding project. It’s great that we have demanding projects because that’s where you learn to grow. And those are great challenges that are very exciting.”

Disenchanted is currently streaming on Disney+.

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