By Kirk Wise
Was it the incessantly farting ogre that first tipped me off? Or the flat plywood sets that looked like a poorly-lit episode of H.R. Pufnstuf, minus the whimsy and imagination? Perhaps it was TV funnyman Howie Mandel, capering and lisping his way through his role as a glitter encrusted genie? I suppose if I had to choose, I’d say the penny dropped when the head of the production company went to prison.
But I’m getting ahead of myself...this the story of my ill-fated, almost-debut in the world of live-action.
In early 2002, I left Walt Disney Feature Animation after a 16-year run. Though I loved my friends and colleagues there like a second family, 10+ years of directing big-budget animated features had left me exhausted. I was ready for a sabbatical. And I was ready for a new challenge once I felt rested and my creative engines were re-engaged. Other animation directors had successfully transitioned into live-action filmmaking, so why not me?
My newly hired and well-meaning agents booked dozens of general meetings which consisted of me sweatily twiddling my thumbs in a series of fancy (and not-so-fancy) production company lobbies, and engaging in vapid chitchat with a series of smiley (and not- so-smiley) studio execs. Eventually, all the meetings began to blur together like carnival spin-art. But still, I soldiered on. Apparently, this was how things were done.
I soon learned that my extensive animation experience wasn’t a surefire ticket to live-action fame and fortune. Far from it, in fact. A music video or TV commercial on your resume opened a lot of doors. An Academy Award-nominated 2D animated feature from ten years ago? Not so much. And plenty of live-action execs weren’t the least bit shy about offering this somewhat belated bit of career advice.
Then I had a meeting at a tiny production company just down the road from Universal’s fabled Black Tower. I’d grown so accustomed to rejection at that point that I was floored when they expressed what seemed like actual enthusiasm for my work. It made it easy to look past the cheap looking Photoshopped posters on the walls; family-friendly fare with unfamiliar titles, featuring a roster of C and D-list celebs. One did catch my eye: a live-action Hansel and Gretel starring Delta “Designing Women” Burke and Gerald “Major Dad” McRaney. Alrighty then, I thought.