Interview: Disney Animator Matthias Lechner

FILM & VIDEO INTERVIEW

Matthias Lechner meets a large group of mammals at the University of Michigan.

Matthias Lechner meets a large group of mammals at the University of Michigan. Photo by Patrick Dunn.

Budding animation enthusiasts at the University of Michigan and Eastern Michigan University had the opportunity to learn from one of the best in their field this Thursday and Friday, as Disney animator Matthias Lechner gave free presentations to students at both schools. As art director of environments on Disney’s upcoming March release Zootopia, the German-born Lechner oversaw a staff of about 100 through a four-year process that equates to set design on a non-animated movie.

Zootopia not only features the largest digital environment yet created for Disney; it doubles the size of the virtual world created for previous record holder Big Hero 6. Creating that world entails an insanely detailed process, as every set and every tiny object is meticulously researched, sketched, and then realized as a 3-D model. In a slide presentation, Lechner walked students through the process of developing Zootopia’s “world built by animals, for animals,” sharing research, early designs, and finished scenes from the film. He interacted warmly with the student audience, projecting enthusiasm for working on his first Disney movie after a lifelong love of the studio’s work.

After his presentation at U-M, Lechner chatted with me about the experience of working with Disney for the first time, the very realistic research that goes into creating a fantasy world, and the big Disney project he’s got lined up next.

Q: You said that seeing The Jungle Book at age 6 was what interested you in animation in the first place. How did you feel when you finally got your first job at Disney?
A: You’d think that I’d be really happy. But I have to say that the first half-year I was extremely stressed. It was like, “What do they want from me that they can’t do themselves?” I guess it was just my style that worked really well, and [Walt Disney Animation Studios chief creative officer] John Lasseter liked it, so they went with me. But everybody’s at the top of their game. I’m really used to working on movies that are middle-budget, so you try to make the best out of what you have. Suddenly you have all the time in the world, so you’ve got to come up with something that is worth all the time in the world.

Q: Disney’s such a big studio. How much do they try to impose a house style on what you’re doing?
A: That was surprising, that they don’t. I go in there and I was wondering, “What is it like? Is there a political agenda or anything like that?” But it’s not. The directors try to make it as good as we can, basically to please ourselves. If other people like it, that’s great. But nobody told me what to do or what not to do.

Q: What was John Lasseter like?
A: He’s a little bit of a celebrity at Disney because he’s the über-father, as we’d say in German. He’s a very emotional person, in a good way. He likes to hug. I was a little worried in the beginning because everybody really listens to what John wants, and that can be dangerous. But he wants the right things. Whenever he gave a note, it was the right note. So I don’t have a problem with that at all. That’s great. He’s been really good for Disney.

Q: In the animation that you enjoy, do you have a personal preference between cel animation and computer animation?
A: I used to. (Laughs) I come from cel animation, so for set design it had a lot of advantages. You would never have to wonder, “Can we afford this?” because everything’s just a drawing. You can draw whatever you want, and if it’s only for one scene it doesn’t matter. When you’re doing 3-D you have to plan: if we build a big set, can we use it in other scenes too? In the early days of 3-D there was a tendency of it not looking satisfying. Pixar did a very amazing job with their films, and yet they aged somewhat. I think now we’ve reached a point where Zootopia will not look old. It’ll just be a movie. In that respect, now I have a lot more possibilities, so I kind of like 3-D.

Q: It’s crazy looking back at Toy Story now, which looked so beautiful when it first came out, and seeing how much everything has changed since then.
A: Yeah. Toy Story is saved by the story, and that’s Pixar’s trick. If the story is entertaining then it doesn’t matter that much if it’s not perfect. In this movie we really went far out to fill it with detail and with love, basically to the top. We went as far as you can go right now.

Q: You mentioned bringing a NASA scientist in to consult about the “climate wall” [that separates Zootopia’s desert and tundra worlds, keeping the former hot and the latter cold]. Why put that level of scientific realism or scientific research into what is very much a fantasy creation?
A: Because they can. It’s one of John Lasseter’s little things, that he wants everything to be reasonable. Nothing is there just by coincidence. If you say, “This is the design I want,” you’d better find a good reason why you want this to be the design. Research is a big part of that. So if they offer to bring this guy in, of course we say, “Yeah. Let’s see if we can learn something from him.”

Q: You’ve mentioned how passionate you are about this movie. What do you like so much about it, besides the fact that you worked on it?
A: There’s that. And actually that doesn’t necessarily mean I like it, because I would see all the flaws. But I’m very happy with the sets. I’m happy with my part of the movie. Imagine that you think of something, or you dream something, and the best people in the world realize that for you. That’s an amazing experience. But what I really get a kick out of is the animation of the animals. We have dailies, and every day you see five or six scenes that come fresh from animation. It’s like Christmas for me. They’re so funny. There’s a scene where somebody crosses the road, which was not interesting in storyboard, and then the way they walk just makes it.

Q: How does it feel, after four years, to have this almost off your shoulders?
A: It is off my shoulders now. This [speaking engagement] is just reminiscing. It feels a little bit scary. I really got into it. I have to say, if it would have been only three and a half years, I would have said, “Ah, I can’t believe it’s over.” After four years I was like, “Okay. Done that.” It’s going to be hard for me to get as invested in the next project.

Q: Do you have your next project lined up?
A: Yes. Off the record–well, you can check if you can say it or not, but it’s Wreck-It Ralph 2.


Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer whose work appears regularly in the Detroit News, the Ann Arbor Observer, and other local publications. He can be heard most Friday mornings at 8:40 am on the Martin Bandyke morning program on Ann Arbor's 107one.

Martin Bandyke Under Covers: Martin interviews Peter Guralnick, author of Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ‘n’ Roll

Peter Guralnick

Peter Guralnick.

Peter Guralnick, author of the critically acclaimed Elvis Presley biography Last Train to Memphis, brings us the life of Sam Phillips, the visionary genius who singlehandedly steered the revolutionary path of Sun Records.

The music that Sam Phillips shaped in his tiny Memphis studio with artists as diverse as Elvis Presley, Ike Turner, Howlin, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Johnny Cash, introduced a sound that had never been heard before. He brought forth a singular mix of black and white voices passionately proclaiming the vitality of the American vernacular tradition while at the same time declaring, once and for all, a new, integrated musical day. With extensive interviews and firsthand personal observations extending over a 25-year period with Phillips, along with wide-ranging interviews with nearly all the legendary Sun Records artists, Guralnick gives us an ardent, unrestrained portrait of an American original as compelling in his own right as Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, or Thomas Edison.

The interview with Peter Guralnick was originally recorded on December 10, 2015.

History In The Making: The River Street Anthology

INTERVIEW MUSIC

Lights and Love by Robert de Jonge [digitally-modified color photography</a>

Matt Jones was ironically hatless at his River Street Anthology Listening Party on Saturday. (Photo by Doug Coombe)

Matt Jones wears a lot of hats—songwriter and bandleader for Matt Jones & the Reconstruction, drummer for Misty Lyn & the Big Beautiful as well as Loose Teeth, Civil War expert/aspiring Gettysburg National Park Ranger, and EMU Historical Preservation student. Yet his newest hat is the most ambitious. He’s becoming the Alan Lomax of Michigan with his new project The River Street Anthology.

Lomax made extensive field recordings of American Folk Music from the 40’s through the 60’s. He covered a vast range of musical idioms with his recordings. They are not only a major historic document, but an endless font of musical inspiration for generations. From Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes to the O Brother Where Art Thou? soundtrack, the list of music inspired by these recordings is staggering. Jones aims to do something similar—just a little closer to home—by capturing a multitude of musicians across genres throughout the entire state of Michigan.

The River Street Anthology had humble beginnings in spite of its now ambitious scope. Matt explains:

It started out as a way to get my musician friends together. There aren’t a whole lot of venues in Ypsi. I felt more often than not, I saw my musician friends just sitting around on bar stools—myself included—not playing on stage, and I just wanted something to do. The idea had been there for years—ever since Fred Thomas put his Ypsilanti Folk Singers compilation together back in 2006/¬07. That project was so fun, that I wanted to do the same, and I even asked him if he minded me using the same title (he was happy to let me use it—a sort of Volume II). It started off as a little 10 or 15 person compilation from Ypsi. Within an hour (of posting it to Facebook on February 6, 2015) it turned into 60 people.

It’s turned into my dream job that I don’t get paid for. I want this to be a legitimate historical document. It’s always been my goal to get something into The Library of Congress. I’ve been trying to weasel my way into history for years. This is even better because I can take everybody with me. It’s a way to get everybody on the books.

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"This is even better because I can take everybody with me. It’s a way to get everybody on the books." Photo by Doug Coombe.

In the process the project birthed in the basement of his River Street home in Ypsilanti has changed him.

I lost my edge. I think that I had developed a sort of reputation around here for being a little dark, sarcastic, and quick to judge. Quick to plunge the knife in. I don't think that is necessarily ever who I really was, but we settle into playing out roles. Sometimes doing what is expected is easier than showing your real hand—vulnerability and all that. I learned real quick that there was no room for that edge in this project. I realized that to make the RSA, I would have to have support basically growing out of my armpits, up to my eyeballs and I found that I liked it. Then I found that everyone deserves it and that people thrive with it. I sit here, a foot away from people and watch/listen to them do what they love doing most. They are excited about taking part in this project and they play their hearts out. If you can seriously sit there, that close to someone pouring it out, and not love it too, I'd say you just might be a sociopath.

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"If you can seriously sit there, that close to someone pouring it out, and not love it too, I'd say you just might be a sociopath." Photo by Doug Coombe.

The beauty of Jones’ recordings is his stripped down approach. He uses one inexpensive microphone, a preamp for the mic, and a digital recorder. That’s it. And he doesn’t do a lot of takes. He tells artists it’s one take—even though it’s not always so. The end result is a great—and quick—spontaneous take that leaves him time to record a lot of other artists in a session.

At first, I wanted it to be one mic, one song, one take—I think just because it had a real nice, punk rock ring to it. I still have just the one mic, and I still only want one song... and it would be reeeeallly nice if people could pull it off in one take. But truth be told, I only tell people "one take" anymore so they rehearse before they get to my house. Usually people get in and out in under a half hour, BECAUSE THEY PRACTICED BEFOREHAND. Thing is—I have never really truly enjoyed the recording studio because it's one of those places where I can't have total control all the time. I don't pretend to be a recording engineer—I want to be a historian, not an engineer. I don't want to sit there while you work your parts out, and decide which lyrics to sing, and have second thoughts about that ending or that intro. We aren't making your next record—we are making a historical document of What You Sound Like Today. So hopefully, when I tell people “one take,” it scares ‘em enough to rehearse prior, in order to get that one take, and get themselves down on tape, and hopefully, into history the fastest way possible. History doesn't wait—you either get in it or you don't.

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"The beauty of Jones’ recordings is his stripped down approach. He uses one inexpensive microphone, a preamp for the mic, and a digital recorder. That’s it." Photo by Doug Coombe.

All of which brings us to last Saturday. Matt had his second River Street Anthology Listening Party down the street from his house at Cultivate Coffee & Taphouse on River Street in Ypsilanti’s Depot Town. Alternately insightful and funny, Matt gave the backstory on his project and shared 10 audio recordings as well as several videos done by Charlie Steen and Mostly Midwest from his project so far. To date Matt has recorded over 200 artists in 7-plus towns in both peninsulas of Michigan.

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Charlie Steen / Photo by Doug Coombe

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Matt Jones / Photo by Doug Coombe

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A rapt audience / Photo by Doug Coombe

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Erin Zindle / Photo by Doug Coombe

The evening wound up as Matt added another recording to the anthology—live in front of the hushed audience, Jones recorded Erin Zindle of The Ragbirds (along with percussionist Randall Moore) in one beautiful take.

He took about a minute to position the microphone and get the levels right and hit record. The rest is history.


Doug Coombe is an Ann Arbor and Detroit based music and editorial photographer. He's been a photographer for the Detroit's Metro Times, Concentrate Media, and Urban Innovation Exchange Detroit.


This Sunday Jones continues the project, recording 20 musicians in Kalamazoo.