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ROY DISNEY - Imagineer

Roy Disney, nephew of Walt, and former Chairman of Disney's feature animation, worked for the 'Mouse House' for over thirty years before Michael Eisner pushed him from the board. Responsible for everything from Toy Story to The Lion King, Roy is an unashamed lover of comedy and escapist family entertainment. In his only interview for online media, Roy talked with Netribution in 2000 about IMAX and the future of Fantasia, the problems with Dinosaur, the secrets of Disney's success, growing up in the shadow of Uncle Walt and his unfulfilled dreams of designing aircraft. He also talks for the first time about the then year's eagerly awaited follow-up to Toy Story/A Bug's Life - Monster's Inc. In Belfast for the first European showing of 102 Dalmations, I caught up with Roy at the Cinemagic conference where he was the keynote speaker. Roy's Irish routes are quite sincere - he owns a house near Cork where he spends a third of his year - and at the turn of the century the Disney clan found themselves in Ireland en route from France to the States.

Roy Disney at Cinemagine 2000What brings you to Belfast?
Well we were asked by Shona McCarthy the best part of a year ago to become part of the festivals and over several months we found out more about it, then Shona came to Los Angeles - and she's tough - I couldn't help it really. I was really curious to come up here in any case, spend a little more time than the one day I was up here last summer.

I understand you have a home near Cork?
Yes, I've had that for about 10 years now and we try to spend 3 or 4 months there every year.

Do the Disney family have any Irish routes?
Yes, the name is actually French - it came from a little town in Normandy called Disigny, the name got corrupted and a lot of those people found themselves in Ireland on the way to the States. We have some pretty deep roots here, I married a girl named Daly who's older brother was the ambassador to Dublin back in '81/'82, during Reagan's years. That was the first time I came to Ireland - she was there and we fell in love, wound up buying a place and it’s a pretty solid thing here.

Why was the decision made to shoot 102 Dalmatians in the UK?
Well, if you take it back to the original anyway it 's actually a British story, there were also financial reasons as much as anything else I think.

Were you happy with the outcome of Dinosaur?
I'm just boggled by it, the first few scenes I finally saw off the printer when we were really getting going were just amazing. Frankly I think the story could have been a bit stronger but we learnt enormous amount about the technology, what you can and can't do and it requires such a different type of planning, to make a picture like that, some things that we'd never been acquainted with before. I think we know now how to really do it well.

Do you think Disney will continue to work on their own as well as with Pixar?
I hope we have an eternal association with Pixar and John Lasseter, we had to make a studio to make Dinosaur, at the same time as we were making the film - it was a hand in glove type of deal. The digital studio is there now to create more product and also to be a big part of our whole live action operation.

roy disneyWhat was the thinking behind releasing Fantasia on Imax first?
We were trying to make an event out of it because it was an event the first time around in the 1940's. They invented this very complex stereophonic sound system for it and took it to a very limited number of theatres with Walt's original idea that it would play forever, we'd make new segments and it would be an eternal work in progress. We were just looking for ways to turn this new one into an event, it would have had a hard time as a normal release I think and our way has made it enormously successful and it's played in almost every Imax theatre in the world now!

Are there plans to create more segments?
Yes, there are plans and there are a few pieces in production as we speak which really thrills me because that was the momentum I was hoping to create with the first one.

How long do you think they'll take?
2005 or 2006 at a good guess.

This is probably a common question but what would you put down as the secret of Disney's success?
Great story telling I think. Great stories, great characters, great music - it's a lot of things, music is an amazing part of people's memories of film. When you play 'when you wish upon a star' it conjures up a whole movie for you and The Lion King is like that as well - it’s a lot of things. We have such a tremendous tradition of what was done in the past, it kinda looks over our shoulder and says 'this is what you have to live up to - be this good, be this good.'

Do you feel uncle Walt is peering over your shoulder too?
We try not to think that way to often because I think it hurt us in the years right after he died, a lot of people didn't know what to do without him - thinking, 'would Walt like this?'. I think we are past that point now but we can laugh at it, 'boy, am I glad he's not looking at this!' (laughs)

You mentioned earlier that you make films about what you like, can I ask what you like?
I like comedy. I like to go into a theatre and sit back and relax, not have to many heavy social messages crammed down my throat and if so I'd like to be entertained by that too. I'd like to understand that if people have problems that they have funny sides and sad sides, I want a picture with memorable characters in. I find a lot of disaster movies, shoot-em-ups and exploding planet movies don't really work that way for me, I'd rather be entertained by something small and charming than by someone blowing up the world - unless it's funny! (laughter)

roy disneyWhat was it like to grow up in Walt's shadow?
I never thought about it very much because I never had an ambition to be in this business, I grew up near Lockheed aircraft company, planes flew over our heads all day long - I fell in love with planes. In went all the way through college trying to be an engineer so that I could design them, not a successful career path for me and, just by happenstance, I ended up at Disney. I was not an artist so I didn't have that compulsion to draw but I found my way into the business by way of nature movies - turned out to be the greatest film school you could have gone to. We'd go out with a 16mm camera and an endless supply of film and literally shoot pictures of animals for months and months throughout the seasons. Many of the movies involved the birth and growing up of different animals, we'd take that back to the studio and they'd have to try to make a story out of it. The craft of story telling was implicit in everything we did, the look of the film, how we did this or that etc.

Do you have any regrets about not pursuing your passion for aircraft?
Not a bit. Although I got my pilot license at 16, I've flown all my life and I really would rather have been a pilot than a designer.

Do you still fly?
I don't but we still have a plane so I get to sit in front with the guys.

What can we expect from Disney in the next few years?
Well we've got a pipeline of animated films, the next film is out next week in the States, it's The Emperor's New Groove David Spade, John Goodman and Ertha Kitt as the 3 main voices. Very funny movie, I'm delighted with it and it's a little out of the Disney box in the sense that it feels more like a Saturday Night Live piece than a Disney movie. David Spade is the emperor of a little South American country and Ertha Kitt is a witch doctor trying to get him out of the way so that she can be emperor, she accidentally turns him into a llama by mistake instead of killing him. So, to turn back into a human he's gotta become a good guy - he was the most selfish person before. Suddenly becoming a helpless llama in the middle of the Andes he's helped by a very nice peasant man - John Goodman, It’s a truly delightful story. Next spring/summer we've got a great big animated movie called Atlantis with Michael J Fox and James Garner playing the 2 leads. Its shot in Cinemascope, think of it as a sort of Indiana Jones adventure movie, we go to the sea floor and find the lost city of Atlantis - marvellous looking movie. After that there's another Pixar movie coming out in September or October of next year, it's called Monsters Incorporated.

What's it about?

We saw that a couple of months ago in a very, very rough state and I literally did not stop laughing for an hour and ten minutes. It's about the monsters that live behind your closet door when you were a kid, they come out at night in the darkness and scare you to death - it's about what they do when they go back behind the closet door. There's another world back there where they live, they have homes and get in the car to go to the work in the morning - coming to scare you. They are all different types, John Goodman's in that one too with Billy Crystal as the sidekick scary guy. It's really very funny, it's about a little girl who finds herself in the monster's world - she becomes a big problem for them! 

by Nic Wistreich

Published 20 March 2006
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