A Chat with Tangled Directors Byron Howard and Nathan Greno Part 1

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Tangled directors Byron Howard and Nathan Greno

I recently had the opportunity to chat with Tangled directors Byron Howard (Lilo & Stitch, Brother Bear) and Nathan Greno (Bolt, Prep & Landing).

Byron Howard grew up in the borough of Landsdowne, Penn. (near Phliadelphia), and moved with his family to the Seattle area when he was 10 years old.  His innate love of art began as a child where he would fill reams of computer paper with characters and stories of his own creation.   His love of storytelling and art matured into a sincere interest in filmmaking in high school, and he went on to study story telling through great literature and film at The Evergreen State College in Washington (where he earned a Bachelor ofArts degree).

Howard structured his education with advice from veteran Disney animators Frank Thomas and David Block, and he set out in 1990 for Florida where he first became ahost of the Animation Tour on “the other side” of the glass window at Disney-MGM Studios.   His natural talent was soon noticed after acouple portfolio submissions, and by 1994 he’d completed his internship and joined Walt Disney Animation Studios as an inbetweener and clean-up artist on “Pocahontas.” He went on to become an animator on “Mulan,” and a supervising animator on “Lilo & Stitch,” ”John Henry” and “Brother Bear”; he also did character design on the latter three movies.

Soon after completing work on “Brother Bear,” Howard relocated to California.  He worked as a story artist and character designer before finally becoming a director in 2006.  Walt Disney Animation Studio’s 2008 release “Bolt” marked Howard’s debut as a feature animated film director. The film was nominated for an Academy Award® for Best Animated Feature Film.

Nathan Greno was born in Kenosha, Wisc., on the southwestern shores of Lake Michigan. As a child, he developed a love for drawing which quickly evolved into a passion for visual storytelling. Influenced by comic books and newspaper comic strips, he started filling tablets of paper full of sketches. Animation was quickly becoming his favorite form of visual storytelling, so at the ripe old age of 8 years old, he just knew he wanted to work for Disney.

Greno devoted himself to discovering all there was to know about the art of animation. He continued to create his own characters, crudely animating them in the pages of his school textbooks. In 1989, a family trip to Walt Disney World gave him his first real glimpse of animators at work. It was there that he watched the artists breathe life into their characters, and he was more determined than ever to continue on his path to joining the Disney family. He went on to attend the Columbus College of Art and Design in Columbus, Ohio.

In 1996, Greno’s portfolio was accepted by Walt Disney Animation Studios in Florida. His career started as a clean-up animation artist on “Mulan.” Having never lost his affinity for storytelling, he soon became obsessed with the storyboarding process at the studio. He realized that storyboarding was similar to the comic books and comic strips he grew up reading and creating.

Pursuing his new interest, Greno joined the story department in 1998. He was part of the story team on“John Henry” and “Brother Bear.” He relocated to California in 2003, where he continued to work in the story department and in a variety of other capacities. He served as a screenwriter, story artist and voice actor on “Meet the Robinsons” and was then promoted to head of story on “Bolt.” He also lent his voice talent to Dasher the Reindeer in Disney’s 2009 animated holiday special “Prep and Landing.”

Here’s part one of my chat with these two talented directors.

Congratulations on the film’s success. Have you given any thought to making a sequel?

Nathan Greno: We’d only do a sequel if there was a great story to tell. The movie buttons up really nicely… but we do love those characters… I guess we’ll have to wait and see. Again, we’d have to have a great story already in mind if we wanted to do a sequel…

Are you pleased with the film’s title change from “Rapunzel” to “Tangled”?

Byron Howard: When Nathan and I figured out that this film was really about two characters, Flynn and Rapunzel, we knew that changing the title would be a good idea. We like that TANGLED as a title sounds smart and intriguing, while also relating to the tangle of plot, characters and emotion in the film.

“Please be sure to select one of the talent before you submit your question. Thanks!”

Having worked in both mediums, what do you prefer about computer animation and what do you miss about traditional 2D animation?

Nathan Greno: I really love both 2D and 3D animation. 2D is really graphic and classic. 3D has amazing textures and cameras to play with. It all comes down to your story… some tales work best in 2D, some in 3D!

I loved the characters of Pascal and Maximus. Was there ever any discussion about giving them voices?

Byron Howard: Nathan and I are huge, HUGE fans of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, and we thought, “Wouldn’t it be great to have someone like that as a character in TANGLED?” Time and time again, people who have seen the film have said that they liked the fact that we kept them silent. Pantomime acting is a great challenge for our animators.

How early in the production process was it decided to make this a musical instead of a romantic comedy-adventure?

Byron Howard: We knew it could be both. Music can be more effective than the most brilliant dialogue at conveying emotion, so we were very excited to have someone as skilled as Alan Menken writing our songs and score. And just because it had songs didn’t mean that the film couldn’t be an action filled roller coaster ride. We like that.

BOTH: You have both worked on several films prior to Tangled. Please explain the process of transitioning into the role of director.

Nathan Greno: I came from the story department. I was drawing story boards for over a decade before I started directing. I was always at the start of the process, but now I get to follow the ideas all the way through to the finish frame. It’s an incredible process. I feel like I’ve become a much better artist. And I still get to storyboard… so I’m happy.

How do you feel about Tangled being the last of the Disney Princess films (for awhile anyway)?

Nathan Greno: I’ve heard that rumor. Not true! If we wanted to do a Princess movie as our next project, John Lasseter would be ok with that. There is a lot in development at Disney Animation… I wouldn’t rule out the idea of seeing another Princess movie!

How has the animation processed changed through the years you have been working on Disney films?

Byron Howard: When I first started at Disney animation, CG animation was really just a tiny blip on the radar. Lion King had just come out to huge success, and Disney had a long slate of traditionally animated films in production. I actually remember seeing some of the first scenes from Toy Story, when the Army Men leave Andy’s room to spy on the birthday party, and I was like “Wow. This is going to change things from now on.” Now CG is the expected route for animated films, and the scope of the stories get bigger and bigger with each release.

In both of your last two projects, you’ve had to take over for another director. Was that challenging for you?

Byron Howard: It’s very challenging to step in on a project after another director has put his stamp on it. We’ve learned that the best thing to do is to tear the existing film down to the foundation and start with as much of a clean slate as possible. In doing that you can find the core ideas that made the films appealing in the first place.

What was it like to become a director after having run the storyboards?

Nathan Greno: In the past I would pitch my storyboards and ideas and sometimes they would change by the time they hit the big screen. I didn’t always understand why. Now I can follow ideas through start to finish. They still change… but at least I now understand why they are changing!

What was it like working with Alan Menken?

Byron Howard: Alan Menken, and our lyricist Glenn Slater are two genuinely brilliant guys. In a few minutes on the piano, Alan can create a tune that you will remember for the rest of your life, and Glenn’s diverse talent shows from the hilarious pub song to the heartfelt ballad in the gondolas. We’re very honored to have worked with them both.

How important is music to an animated film?

Byron Howard: I think music is integral to all film. Every animated film shouldn’t be a musical, but songs, music or score can do so much to move an audience emotionally, and that’s a power we don’t take lightly. There are parts of TANGLED’s score that still make me tear up.

Did you always have Mandy Moore and Zachary Levi in mind for the roles?

Nathan Greno: In the very beginning, we try to create very appealing characters. We have friends around the studio do the temp voices for our early screenings. At some point (before animation begins) we begin the casting process. We saw hundreds of people for the role of Flynn and Rapunzel. Hundreds! It was crazy. It seemed that all of Hollywood wanted these parts. There were a lot of amazing auditions, but in the end Mandy and Zac totally nailed it. They were incredible. People are always surprsied to hear they didn’t record together because their characters are so charming on screen. Mandy and Zac were the perfect fit.

Did you have any real life locations in mind when designing the Kingdom and its surrounding environments?

Byron Howard: Yes. We take our research very seriously. Knowing that we wanted Rapunzel’s story to take place in central Europe (Austria/Hungary) we did exhaustive research into local architecture, artwork, even flora and fauna. Every tree you see in TANGLED’s forest actually grows in those regions of central Europe.

What prompted you to inlude Pascal, Rapunzel’s chameleon side kick, in the cast?

Byron Howard: Pascal came from the need to have someone for Rapunzel to talk to in that tower. We knew we needed that character, but we didn’t want to do the typical squirrel, chipmunk or bird that you see so often in these tales. We thought a lizard sounded like a quirky pet for a quirky young woman.

Can you talk a bit about the genesis and evolution of Tangled?

Nathan Greno: The idea of a Rapunzel story has been around the Disney Animation Studios since the 1930’s… it was on one of Walt’s early lists. It took a long time to bring this film to the screen. The problem is the original tale is a very small story. It takes place in a tower. A girl is waiting around to be rescued. It’s all very passive and small. We needed to blow up the scale of the film… turn it into a big event. We really tried to keep what worked in the original. The original icons of the classic story are all there… it’s just been updated for a modern audience.

How do you feel about Tangled being the last of the Disney Princess films (for awhile anyway)?

Byron Howard: Honestly, I’m very happy that Disney Animation’s upcoming slate includes vastly diverse projects. That keeps the studio healthy. And, believe it or not, that slate does still include some great fairy tales.

Is it me or did some of the animals seem smarter than Flynn?

Nathan Greno: Max and Pascal would agree with that.

At what point during the film making process did you know you had a hit?

Byron Howard: I don’t think you know anything about how a film’s going to do until it does it. It’s always our hope that these films will do well; we pour our hearts and souls into every frame, tear the story apart reaching for more emotion and more comedy, but ultimately, it’s up to the audience whether they fall in love with a film or not. We’re delighted that TANGLED has become so popular, it’s a great reward for all that work.

How did you two divide your directing tasks?

Nathan Greno: We mostly didn’t! We tried to stick together as much as we could. We are both better in different areas… but we like to be there in the same room to challege each other. We want to make all of our decisions the best they can be. We work best as a team. It brings us the best results on screen.

Her “mother” was also a very interest, and rather scary, character. Did you draw on past witches and femme fatales from Disney movies for inspiration?

Nathan Greno: Disney does villians better than anyone and we needed to live up to the classic villians of our past films. We think Gothel is mostly scary because she isn’t a witch. She doesn’t have “powers”, but she has a very evil mind. Evil minds actually exisit in the real world — I think that’s why she freaks people out!


I’ve noticed that you bear a slight resemblance to Flynn Rider. Is this simply coincidence or directorial influence perhaps…? In all seriousness though, having been a huge part of films like Tangled and Bolt means that your influence in these films will carry on to future generations of viewers. Does this knowledge play a part in the choices you make during the production of these films?

Byron Howard: We like to say that Flynn has my hair and Nathan’s strong chin and goatee. Flynn’s a handsome guy, so if anyone think we look like him, we’ll take it. The fact that these films can endure for generations is one of the reasons we work at DIsney. Last Halloween, a little girl showed up on Nathan’s doorstep dressed as Snow White. That film is over seventy years old, can you think of any other films that have that kind of longevity? It’s amazing. We really hope this version of the Rapunzel story becomes the definitive version for generations of movie fans.

What are you most proud of with Tangled?

Nathan Greno: The whole thing! Really. We worked hard to make sure it was all worth watching. The movie had to look great, the story had to be strong, the characters had to be fun and appealing. There’s so much action and emotion in the film… it’s really everything I wanted it to be. I’m most proud of the whole thing!

How important was for you to make sure that the lead in this movie were a strong woman, which goes a little bit against the stereotype of a fairy tale princess…

Byron Howard: We knew Rapunzel had to have a lot of girl power. She and Flynn are the engine that drives this story, and making her too prissy or passive would have been cheating our audience. We love that Rapunzel’s not perfect, she’s quirky, funny and real. She has a very bohemian quality about her, painting her walls and running around the forest with bare feet through the mud. Above all, she’s much more like a real person, strong, smart interesting and flawed.

How did each of you get your start in the entertainment industry? Was animation always you passion?

Nathan Greno: I wanted to work for Disney ever since I was a kid. I was always into creating my own comic strips and comic books. I loved to create my own worlds and characters. I loved storytelling. My mom started taking me to see the Disney films when I was a kid and I fell in love with them. Disney created better stories and better characters than anyone. I wanted to go there and learn. I was in first grade when I told my parents I wanted to work for Disney. I guess things do work out in life if you want something bad enough.

BOTH: You have both worked on several films prior to Tangled. please explain the process of transitioning into the role of Director.

Byron Howard: Being an animation director is an amazing job. We are surrounded by the most skilled artists, composers and craftsmen in the film business. Nathan and I start at the very beginning of a film when there’s only an idea and thousands of blank storyboards, through to the end when the film premieres in theaters all over the world. In working with so many brilliant people along the way, we both become better filmmakers ourselves. I love my job.

Will you be working together on another Disney animation project, in the future?

Nathan Greno: Yep. We couldn’t be happier with the results of Tangled… we felt like we had no choice but to do this again! We pitched a few ideas to John Lasseter and we are currently developing another film… stay tuned!

Which Disney princess is your favorite?

Nathan Greno: Rapunzel, baby!

What are you most proud of with Tangled?

Byron Howard: I think we’re most proud of our crew. Nathan and I asked the world of them during our hectic production schedule and they delivered the most beautiful film anyone could imagine. It’s a great reward for all six hundred crew members to see people around the world falling in love with their work.

Did you have the cast of actors and actresses for this movie already planned out – or did you go into this project with an open mind for talent?

Byron Howard: Our audition process for TANGLED was unbelieveably huge. Nathan and I saw over three hundred actresses for the Rapunzel role alone. The benefit to doing that thorough of a search is that when you finally find the right actress, as we did in Mandy Moore, you really know that she’s the one.

What artists did you consult for the look of the film? It looks pre-Raphaelite to me.

Nathan Greno: We actually looked at the classic Disney films of the 1940’s and 50’s! We wanted Tangled to sit on the shelf next to Alice in Wonderland, Dumbo, Peter Pan — all of those great movies, but we wanted it to be fresh and different and modern as well. By going after a classic Disney look/style… and creating that look in the computer… we thought we could find that balance.

Tangled, The Walt Disney Studios blockbuster animated feature that takes a modern twist on the famous hair-raising fable Rapunzel, debuts as the ultimate 4-Disc Disney Blu-ray Combo Pack (3D Blu-ray + Blu-ray + DVD + Digital Copy in a single package) on March 29, 2011.

Stay tuned for part two of my interview coming soon!


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