Chris Sanders Talks About “Big Bear”

Chris Sanders, the author of the Big Bear Aircraft Company, penned a detailed comment that clarifies the purpose of the book and the ideas contained within it. Here’s what he has to say:

Golly, I never thought I’d see that thing on the internet. I really wish I could re-do those drawings right about now.

I read some of the comments earlier, and I think I can provide some perspective as to what I was up to, and what was happening at the time I wrote this.

It was created for a Disney offsite. I wasn’t invited to the retreat, but anyone could write their thoughts down and submit them, and they would be copied and bound into a folder that would accompany the attendees. The hope being that all this stuff would be read carefully and thoughtfully and then discussed by the attendees at the retreat.

I wanted to submit some thoughts of my own, but from the size of some of the notes being submitted by my fellow artists, I thought it was unlikely anyone would really read all that material. We’re talking dozens if not hundreds of pages of thoughts/complaints/suggestions in that folder.

So I decided to submit mine in the form of this little picture book — so it might stand out. I’m not sure if it worked, but if someone found a copy of it twenty years later, at least one person must have read it.

Anyone who read the story would see that I wasn’t a proponent of the removal of writers from the development process. But I was focusing on the quantity of writers, the quality of the writers, and the unwillingness of writers to partner with the artists they worked so near. And, I would say, the artists they needed to make their material work. In feature animation a great deal of the finished film, if not the bulk of it, is written by the story crew. And I mean entire scenes, not the occasional gag that is transcribed back into a script. As head of story on Mulan, I received a writing credit for that very reason.

The other thing I was concerned about was the ever-growing complexity of our films, and what I saw as an emerging pattern they were all cut from. A lot of our films fell into a well-worn groove. Different characters, but similar roles. It didn’t seem like we could get away with that forever. I felt we could be more inventive. I felt that a film with a smaller crew and lower budget could be successful.

While the story crew was debating how we would kill the villain at the end of Mulan, we began reflecting on how strange it was that we spent so much time trying to find fresh ways to kill characters in Disney films. In Mulan we (the story crew) came up with the idea that the villain could be blown to bits by fireworks, rather than falling to his death as was written in the script. A lot of those villains fall at the end of Disney films. Some get stabbed first, but a whole lot of them fall. There was almost always a death at the end of our movies. It was one of those patterns I worried about.

That’s where Lilo and Stitch came from. At its base, Lilo and Stitch is a story about a villain who becomes a hero. A redemption story. A story that diverged from the pattern.

At the time I wrote that document, the suggestion that Disney could be surpassed by another studio seemed outrageous. Impossible. But a studio or company that feels secure, is slow to innovate and has trouble with self-examination can certainly be surpassed by something fresh, small, and fast.

Anyway, that’s where the little story book came from. To my surprise, it made the rounds. In the years that followed I got the occasional call from people at other companies that asked if they could use it for a presentation. I guess it was vague enough that it could apply in other places. Including Lockheed, to my surprise.

UPDATE: Chris has followed up with a second comment about the role of writers in animation:

I’m glad this forum has generated such passion – it’s so nice to hear so many perspectives. The only thing I’d add at this point, is that I don’t assume anything about writers. All my experience with the writers I was referring to was first-hand.

Again, I like writers. The good ones. The ones that aren’t just good at structure or inventive dialogue or the rhythm of a scene – but the ones that are also good in a room. The ones that are friendly, energetic and collaborative. The ones that can adapt quickly to a change and don’t have a problem editing their own pages. The ones that think visually, and understand when to let the characters shut up and let the score do the talking. And the ones that do their job without arrogance or ego. One thing I’ve learned – if someone tells you they are a great writer, they probably aren’t a great writer. At the very least they are a writer who’s better off mailing their pages in because you probably don’t want them around.

When I talk about writers I’m talking about the ones I actually worked with. In development my room was right next to theirs. A whole slew of different writers passed through that room – none of them stuck around very long. Some were silly, some were lazy, some were arrogant, and some were just plain mean. One group yelled at our PA because their phone cord wasn’t long enough. Another set spent the entire day wadding up fresh pieces of typing paper and throwing them at a wastebasket till it was buried, then took a three hour lunch. They came back for an hour before they left for the day. One came into my room, complained about my drawings, then took a piece of paper from me and scribbled the most terrible little drawing. He gave it to me and said, “There, that’s how the villain should look.”

Boy, I wish I kept that drawing. Once, while in a very tense meeting, our writer banged their head on a table, burst into tears, and ran out of the room.

And I listened to them all day long. That’s why I wrote what I did about them. I actually heard the stories they were hatching. It was pure insanity. The Sound Of Music set underwater with Nazi sharks. I saw them watch a Goofy cartoon and one of them asked why Goofy was acting so dumb. They thought they could probably fix that, because, well, I guess they thought the way Goofy was acting must have been some sort of mistake.

The ones I worked with, especially in development, didn’t belong there. They had no love for animation. In fact there was usually contempt for it. They wasted our time, money, and seriously stressed everyone out because we fretted that one of them might actually be assigned to one of our films and we’d have to carry them all the way through.

We wondered where they all came from. When you bought a typewriter did a certificate fall out that said, “Congratulations! You are now a writer. Take this certificate to your nearest studio where you can redeem it for a job.”

To the fellow who joked that I should have hired a writer for my story, I would say it already had one – me. I thought it up. I wrote it. And I drew it. It may not be perfect, but it exists solely because I made it. And it still seems to have some ability to start conversation, which is what I wanted it to do when it was written twenty years ago.

The implication of course that a “real” writer could have done it better. But as usual, when I was making it, there weren’t any around. All the “real” ones had gone home at 4:00. So I did it. And it got done.

One final note – I’ve written scripts and I’ve drawn story boards. I’ve even boarded my own pages. And when I board my own pages I change about the same amount of stuff I do when working from other writers pages. Even I can’t foresee all the adaptation a scene will need until I actually start drawing it. So if you’re writing for feature animation, don’t be too quick to feel upset if things get changed in boards. As soon as I sit down to board my own pages, I’ll think, “Well this doesn’t work.” Or, “I can dump half of this, what the hell was I thinking?”

Boarding is physically more demanding than writing. It just is. Write a battle scene, then try boarding it. A single paragraph of a script can stretch into hundreds of drawings. Feature animation is ultimately written on the boards. Pixar, Disney, Dreamworks, are all massive collaborations. Scenes are written, boarded, pitched… and then the real work begins. Those meetings can last days, and the story artists, directors, and writers are all in that room together. Writers return to their computers alone, but they are carrying all the material generated in those story meetings. So be careful not to imagine a pristine process where a writer sends pages along, and they simply get made into a movie.


  • Matt Sullivan

    A message for Chris:

    Chris. You the man.

    I’ve watched you ever since I was an animation student at CalArts myself. First off, those drawings are old, but great. Second, it still makes an impact to this day. As an animation story artist/writer, I fully appreciate what you were trying to emphasize.

    There’s no need to second guess your philosophy, because it works. Your stuff is some of the wackiest, most stylized, most outlandishly creative I’ve ever seen ( And i hate to look like I’m kissing ass but dammit, I’m smooching your derrière gal-dernit )

    1.Fun With Father=Awesome
    2. Electric Breakfast=Unreal
    3. TOBY= ohhh yeah.
    4. Your individual Disney story sequences=GOLD
    5. How To Train your Dragon= Ties SECRET OF NIMH as my favorite film of all time
    6. Whatever you do in the future=Bound to be great
    7. HOW IN HELL DO YOU STAY SO THIN!?! This is animation! We have desk jobs!

    Dear sweet buttery Christ bro, I’m 38 and I’m fawning like a Twilight fan-tard. No explanation from you is necessary. No disclaimer necessary. It’s just…wow man…maybe I’ve got low blood sugar but I MUST work with you someday!

  • MissConception

    Story has always been my favorite aspect of animation, and it makes me very happy that there are people in the industry who are willing to reflect on themselves and the companies they work for. Personally, I believe Chris’s document is just as applicable today as it ever was. It seems just about everyone likes to get their paws on the script and pull it different ways. As a student, I was shocked and appalled to learn that the marketing department has a significant power over the story. Not to mention more and more executives are getting involved as well, making creative decisions when they have little to no artistic experience. It truly worries me.

  • eeteed

    bravo.

    chris sanders, you are a genius, and one of the most important people working in the animation industry.

  • Randy

    Chris…that is all so damn true it’s scary.
    Very well said…..brilliant stuff!
    Randy

  • Nancy Beiman

    Chris,
    What you said was true then and is truer now.

  • Was My Face Red

    Ooo, it’s all getting a bit fanboy around here now, but as a grown up screenwriter can I say CHRIS I LOVE YOU LOVE LOVE YOUR WORK and every non-cliched story beat of Lilo and Stitch too. I look forward to lots more great WRITING from you in the future (plus you draw good too!)

  • Paul M

    This would work nicely as a short film, in the vein of the old WB narrated cartoons that explained how business works to kids (and adults). I’d like to see some hyper exaggerated airplane designs lending themselves to squash and stretch gags.

    How about it Chris?

  • Lynda

    I do wish Lilo and stitch had a stronger script. I like many of the elements, but as a whole it peters out.

    • eeteed

      @ Lynda

      I disagree.

      • http://elblogderg.blogspot.com Roberto

        I neither agree or disagree. I also thought especially at first watch that its first half has a stronger story than its second half. I like the idea of Jumba and Pleakley not being entirely villains, but I don’t really believe their change of mind. Especially Jumba’s. Pleakley seems kind of a good guy from the start.

        But it’s anyway more interesting and unpredictable than anything Disney has done in years.

        It also helps that it has fantastic characters with great designs, animation and personality.

        Actually, I wouldn’t mind if it had gone a little more wacky and surreal.

        IMO How To Train Your Dragon kind of ‘peters out’ a little more with the presence of the giant beast, but that’s maybe me.

        Anyway, Chris is absolutely right about everything he says there and it’s really interesting to know that artist do realize that studios overuse certain formulas. Especially the ‘killing the villain’ thing that I usually find a little mean spirited, sometimes they just could get captured or find redemption.

      • David Mackenzie

        I loved Lilo & Stitch, probably one of my favourite films and the best thing Disney has done in years. I do wonder if the post-9/11 changes harmed it at all, though.

    • http://pitchbibles.blogspot.com Steve Schnier

      I have to disagree. Lilo & Stitch is one of my favorite movies, animated or otherwise. Strong, motivated characters and action. Cute story. But what sold it for me was the atmosphere and details and I loved the watercolor background style. It hit all the right chords.

  • http://MrFun'sBlog Floyd Norman

    Yep, I’m a Chris Sanders Fan Boy too. Plus, I’ve had the pleasure of working with him. “Lilo and Stitch” did everything right in my opinion. All this while everything else was going wrong.

    And, Damn! An awesome third act was screwed because of 9/11. Oh well, that’s life, I guess.

  • http://www.toonhole.com Chris Allison

    “I felt that a film with a smaller crew and lower budget could be successful.” I think this is the piece of gold in that comment. Thanks Chris!

    • http://Sezura.blogspot.com CraCra Tytla

      I remember hearing stories about the early stages of Lilo and Stitch flying under the executive radar @ Disney. To craft an original film with the little nuances and subtle (though compelling) story shifts would not have been as successful had it had a larger crew that needed disney executive “story” supervision. The unique situation of being left alone and unnoticed is what gave the story the incubation period it needed to turn out as charming as it is.

      I’ve always appreciated the crazy stylized art and unique creative ideas that Chris has. He pushes the edges, and it comes out FRESH. To combine that with a story talent and self-examination, and you can never be dull. Good stuff!

  • bob kurtz

    chris,those are smart observations.you are so right.

  • Ju-osh

    Just a quick, un-paid plug for Cartoon Brew advertiser Stuart Ng Books:

    They’ve got Chris Sanders’ newest sketchbook (Volume 5) for $20, plus two new, large, signed Sanders’ prints – one featuring three witches in varying states of undress, one featuring a massive menagerie of cute and cuddly space creatures. Both of these are only $25.

    (F.W.I.W.: I ordered one of each about an hour ago. I mean, you didn’t think I’d tell you about them if there was ANY chance I’d miss out on getting ‘em myself, did you?)

  • http://deleted OtherDan

    That’s so awesome. Forget the drawings Chris, you should be proud of that message – which hopefully won’t fall on deaf ears (“won’t”, because it apparently once “did”).

  • http://kandjcomic.com/ John S

    The drawings are super appealing. The message is as relevant as ever.

  • http://www.daryl-rhystaylor.co.uk DarylT

    I thin it’s still relevant.

  • Brian

    Hey did anyone save these? The images on the blog all say “bandwidth exceeded”

  • Brian

    Here’s a mirror of The Big Bear Aircraft Company

    http://www.onanimation.com/2011/07/29/the-big-bear-company/

  • andreas Wessel-Therhorn

    letting Chris go was Lasseter’s biggest mistake..well that and Cars2

    • http://youtube.com/user/Mesterius1 Mesterius

      Yeah… While Bolt was enjoyable, I’m much more curious to see Chris Sanders’ version of the film… no matter how much of a mess “American Dog” was when Sanders left the project. His take seemed really experimental and interesting, while the finished Bolt version simply played it safe.

      By the way, I’ll add another candidate to Lasseter’s biggest mistakes: Making the first Cars. The whole concept of living cars was extremely weak to begin with. In my eyes, Cars from 2006 – and not Cars 2 – was Pixar’s first creative failure. (Besides, the sequel would never have happened if that lackluster first movie hadn’t been made.) Nice intentions, but a lousy film. However, thanks to Brad Bird’s amazing “Rataotuille” debuting only a year later, Pixar all but redeemed themselves with the critics. We’ll see if they manage that again with “Brave”.

      • http://ryuuseipro.blogspot.com/ John Paul Cassidy

        Even though I love BOLT, I agree that the firing of Sanders from AMERICAN DOG was tragic, and gave us our first glimpse into the dark side of Lasseter. I’ll admit that it wasn’t as bad as what happened to THE THIEF AND THE COBBLER, though. If they used Sanders’ designs without him, it would’ve been worse.

        Speaking of lazy writers, is it me, or are both THE INCREDIBLES and WALL-E the only Pixar (or Disney in general) films that refrained from one super-cliched story value that’s always gotten on my nerves: You know how in the second or third act, there’s this obligatory scene where the hero has some disagreement or some such predicament with his friend or friends, and, in the most histrionic way possible, they walk out on him until later on. As far as I know, this has happened in EVERY DISNEY MOVIE I’VE EVER SEEN!!! And other non-Disney animated films, for that matter! This routine, which I like to call “the Great Disney Walkout” (unless anyone has a better name for it), is lazy writing, and it must die! Writers need to come up with more creative new ways to challenge the hero and his friendships/relationships.

      • whippsersnapper

        @John Paul: I totally get what you’re talking about with that walkout thing. It’s also called the End of Act II Conflict I believe, and it’s pretty much in the same spot in every 86 minute animated feature. They talk about it in a story structure bonus feature on the TS3 blu-ray (or at least I think that’s where they saw it). A lot of live-action films and plays do it too. Even Wicked has a walkout scene at the end of Act I (which in terms of running time would translate to the end of the second act of an animated feature).

        It’s not all that annoying/overly-predictable if it’s done right (in fact it’s pretty badass in Wicked)- problem is…it isn’t done right a lot. :P

      • http://elblogderg.blogspot.com Roberto

        I also dislike that cliche. I think it’s tolerable in Monsters Inc. and Up but quite forced in Ratatouille. I get Remy was conflicted between the human and mice worlds. I guess it’s also fair that he got ‘some’ credit for being the chef at the end of the movie. But the premise didn’t show that Remy wasn’t to be recognized at all. He just wanted to cook. That was the deal and Linguini and him were ok with it. I don’t see why Remy should get angry when Linguini was taken the credit. Did he expect him to announce that a rat was working at the kitchen?

        And, yet again, I’m falling in this cliche in a little comic I’m working on. Cliches are very hard to break, but Lilo and Stitch or the first Toy Story managed to avoid the majority of them.

        Also , if they use cliches, they could at least try to make them look more natural. That’s why Kung Fu Panda works so well. Most of the story structure is well known, but it also feels natural, there is nothing forced in it.

      • http://ryuuseipro.blogspot.com/ John Paul Cassidy

        Yeah, at least Po is the one who “walks out” in KUNG FU PANDA, as he was bitterly disappointed to discover the “secret” of kung fu! That was a bit more creative than most.

  • Paul N

    A certificate falls out of a TYPEWRITER? Careful Chris; you’re giving away your age… :0)

  • andreas Wessel-Therhorn

    agreed, Mesterius. I didn’t like the first one much either.Lilo and Stitch , to me, was a real Disney picture.It was great fun and had a lot of whimsy, but it was deeply grounded in real emotions.Anyone who both loved and despised their elder sibling at the same time could relate to the two sisters.It was also refreshingly underwritten…the scene where we find out about the parents is great example for that.so many recent animated feature never shut up because they don’t believe in the strength of the images.
    the marriage sequence in UP: beautifully dialogue free, pure animation and emotion, CARS2: wall to wall stand up ‘comedy’, no room for emotion.
    To me, Lilo was the modern day Dumbo. And it was so delightfully aware of the advantages and limits of hand drawn animation. It never tried to be realistic, but believable. Huge difference that many films don’t heed.

  • http://4eyedanimation.com JoeCorrao

    “To the fellow who joked that I should have hired a writer for my story, I would say it already had one – me. I thought it up. I wrote it. And I drew it. It may not be perfect, but it exists solely because I made it. And it still seems to have some ability to start conversation, which is what I wanted it to do when it was written twenty years ago.”

    that’s it in a nutshell

  • eeteed

    Chris’ experiences with writers and all the difficulties he encountered when making animated cartoons would make a great basis for an animated feature.

    those horror stories about writers are pure gold.

  • Marie Bower

    Chris,
    Even your words have images to them and that is a testament to your talent and ability to observe which is the backbone of a great artist, which you are!
    “One group yelled at our PA because their phone cord wasn’t long enough. Another set spent the entire day wadding up fresh pieces of typing paper and throwing them at a wastebasket till it was buried, then took a three hour lunch. They came back for an hour before they left for the day. One came into my room, complained about my drawings, then took a piece of paper from me and scribbled the most terrible little drawing. He gave it to me and said, “There, that’s how the villain should look.” ” I could see all of this and it’s hilarious! No doubt nerve-racking to live through, but still hilarious. I hope you continue to head up projects for as long as possible, because I know as long as you do we can expect the unique and unexpected from you.

  • http://www.MouseTracksOnline.com Giovanni Jones

    Chris is 100% right, but please note that he makes a point — over and over again — to clarify that he is not fingering ALL writers. I’m sure most of you realize that already, but the comments tend to, little by little, simply use the word “writers” as a general term.

    I work in a similar environment and completely understand and empathize with Chris’ past frustrations. I get tired of seeing my car all alone in the vast parking lot long after others have dumped and ran before dark. I’ve also dealt with the astonishing lack of even the most common knowledge of the, let’s say “brand,” on the part of others who can’t be bothered with seeing the films or getting to know the wonders of the legacy we are blessed with being a small part of.

    That was bad grammar. I should know. I’m a eeeeewwww-WRITER! But I love collaboration, love the “brand” (sorry to use the word again, “Roy-E-in-the-sky”), and am wired to get the work done even when it’s not comfy-cozy. No, I don’t like revisions, but the ones I mostly bristle at are the ones that DON’T from fellow creatives, but from people around tables who don’t “get it.”

    And I presume to believe that Chris is really talking about those who don’t “get it,” regardless of what their title is. In a former culture of this “company,” there was an almost ironfisted determination to NOT be what it was, and lots of people were brought in who didn’t just “not get it,” but could barely hold back their disgust for it. That regime has passed, and lots of those people came and went.

    I have hope for the present culture, thought humanly imperfect, not so adamantly “above” the “kitsch” of over one hundred years of entertainment and still is holds a strong bond with its audience. If those “inside” have even a fraction of same passion for this “brand” as the rest of the “outside” public does, it would bode well for the future.

    • http://www.benlevin.net Ben

      It’s nice to see someone recognize that Chris isn’t vilifying all writers.

      Based on my limited experiences, I think that being a writer doesn’t necessarily mean you can write for animation. But being able to draw doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a good storyteller either.

  • Rufus

    You’re a smart guy, Chris.

  • Ethan

    Wow. I can’t stop thinking about that “propeller” analogy, it’ll get stuck in my head for a long time. If the world was fair, American Dog would have been done the way Chris Sanders wanted it.

    I do disagree about the “brand” being a good thing, brand is a curse, a business crutch, an value to exploit and drive to the ground for bonuses within the fiscal year. A limitation, a restriction, a compliance. Heritage however is a very good thing. I know I tend to understand everything backwards, but Lilo and Stitch didn’t feel like it was following the Disney “brand” in it’s art style at all. It did seem to respect the Disney heritage however. It’s just a feeling.

    • http://www.MouseTracksOnline.com Giovanni Jones

      Who said “brand” was a good thing? Just trying to be less overt.

      • Ethan

        Sorry, I saw the word “brand” and I went berserk, it’s one of my major pet peeves with the animation industry.

      • http://www.MouseTracksOnline.com Giovanni Jones

        I agree with you, and it’s not just the animation industry. A recent clip showed a politician saying he was going to block his opposing party’s mission in order to help his own party’s “brand.” Brand’s gotten out of hand. Roy E saw it coming.

  • http://kyan0.deviantart.com/ Kyan O

    That was a really great read and I probably couldn’t agree more. Also, it was fascinating reading how you had such a hard time with writers. I’m glad I’m good friends with some.

  • http://totald.blogspot.com DarlieB

    I thought Lilo and Stitch was the most innovative, off the formula Disney movie in 20 years. You can quote endless lines from the dialogue and situations because they aren’t the same as any other Disney scenes. You know, the one where the villain wants to rule the world ?

    When Walt died he took the process with him but Chris and others seems to understand the same process. Movies are not this 3 act structure that you rigidly follow film after film after film. They are living things fed by your reactions and like life they go where they want. Sadly the Bear Aircraft Company is still in effect. They are still making the same planes, all with propellers.

  • http://n/a Tony Claar

    Dear Chris,
    We are glad to have you on board. Your personal ideas are interesting, but we feel that they could be better. Please rewrite them PRONTO and have them in our office by noon.
    PS. Cool it on the crazy, creative stuff; we NEED a hit.
    —the management

  • Angry Anim

    People can disagree on about his story sensibilities and comment on whatever they want, but there’s one thing that I think we can all agree upon:

    Chris Sanders is a pretty ripped dude.