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"Mulan' brings prominence to Disney's Orlando animators

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Updated Sep 13, 2005

Nine years is a long time to be an understudy in show business, always wondering when your turn in the spotlight will arrive.

The wait is nearly over for Walt Disney Feature Animation Florida at Disney-MGM Studios in Orlando, a satellite studio of the entertainment empire.

When the Chinese folk tale Mulan opens nationwide Friday, moviegoers will see what Disney says is its first animated feature to be produced chiefly in Central Florida.

After impressing Disney Chairman and CEO Michael Eisner with its handling of secondary duties on such films as Hercules, Pocahontas and The Lion King, the Orlando studio isn't merely a tourist stop in the theme park anymore. Eisner's plan to turn Disney-MGM into a production facility complementing the company's animation workshops in Los Angeles and Paris is complete.

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"Part of the conception of the (Orlando) park was that it would be a working facility," Disney executive vice president of feature animation Thomas Schumacher said during a recent interview. "Michael felt passionate about having animation down here.

"Therefore, we started with a very small idea, which was to have about 80 artists here, and to be part of a tour. You could walk though and knock on the glass, that sort of thing. We just kept building from there."

Tourists strolled through the complex, viewing a video lesson in animation techniques featuring Walter Cronkite and Robin Williams and watching artists working at their desks. The tour still exists, but most of the nearly 400 artists and technicians moved in April to a new 200,000-square-foot building on the back lot.

Most of Disney's animators _ about 1,500 _ work in Los Angeles studio. The Paris facility employs only 175; there are no plans primarily to produce a feature film there.

With the new offices and the release of Mulan, animators in the Orlando studio won't be considered just another theme-park attraction by their counterparts in Los Angeles and Paris. Schumacher believes those in-house ribbings inspired the Orlando crews.

"They felt like the little engine that could," he said. "It really fueled their enthusiasm that they felt they were in competition with people, which I feel was very imaginary. But it was helpful for them because they were going to show the world."

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The Orlando staff can't take all the credit for Mulan. The closing credits list is almost equally divided between dozens of artists, technicians and supervisors working in Florida and working in California. That list doesn't include actors and musicians who added their parts on Los Angeles soundstages.

On the surface, it appears that Mulan is an Orlando production by Disney decree only.

"The bulk of the production was done here," Schumacher replied to that suggestion. "We brought people from California and Paris to work here throughout the process. We were linked up constantly in video conferencing. I was down here about once a month to work on it.

"Just like Florida used to do about 10 minutes in all of the movies they've done, California has about 10 minutes in Mulan."

Peter Schneider, president of Walt Disney Feature Animation, interjected: "When we made The Lion King, nobody asked us if that was a California movie, just because we did 10 minutes in Florida."

Both executives noted that Disney's trio of studios and technological advances in communication erase any geographic boundaries.

"What you're seeing is our artists traveling around substantially, either in person or by computer," Schumacher said. "One guy is spending two years in Paris animating our next picture, Tarzan; another person is laying out Tarzan in California. You're starting to see tremendous cross-fertilization of artists moving backward and forward. It becomes meaningless where you are."

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It does matter to people who are looking for an economic boost from film production, although the impact isn't the same for animated and live-action films.

Kathy Ramsberger, film commissioner for 38 cities in the Orlando metropolitan area, said her department got no requests for assistance on Mulan. There was no need to scout locations, provide transportation, obtain permits for traffic diversions or any other necessities for a live-action film shoot, such as the recent Orlando productions Instinct and The Water Boy.

"'It's pretty much an all-inclusive thing within the Walt Disney feature animation facility," she said.

Rather than a two-month burst of economic activity from a flesh-and-blood production, the Disney-MGM animation studio provides a relatively small but steady influence in the marketplace.

"The animation facility has lured a great deal of animators who are very nicely compensated because of their skills," Ramsberger said. "They move here and buy nice homes and do all of their shopping. From an economic perspective, it's a high-tech job. That's always a very nice industry to nurture."

Plans are already in the works for at least one more animated feature to be produced primarily in Orlando. As usual, Disney's corporate cloak of creative security prevented Schneider and Schumacher from offering specifics about the project.

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"Yes, there will be another feature down here, it will be based out of Florida, and we're very excited about what the potential of it might be', Schumacher commented in guarded Disney-speak. "There are a few things being worked on down here while we get the next one worked out."

What are they?

"I'm not going to tell you," Schneider said. His smile was as friendly as his stare was insistent.

"We would be happy to have you write about the movies we make. What we don't want to do is have a lot of speculation about the movies that we elect not to make, that we're rethinking, that we're working on in any level, because that totally steps on the process.

"There are a number of things happening here in Orlando, and there are a number of film projects that are being readied to become the next one. But until we commit to production, we never talk about it."

Quiet as a mouse.

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