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Sometimes, the most distinctive pieces of animation can be traced back to the influence of a single artist: like “Destino,” Walt Disney’s ode to the world of surrealist Salvador Dali (finally completed, by Roy E. Disney, in 2003), or the “Rhapsody in Blue” segment of
, brilliantly overseen by animator Eric Goldberg in the style of cartoonist Al Hirschfeld. The same happened, on a much larger scale, with
, Disney’s retro futuristic 2001 adventure. Directors Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale had come off of back-to-back historical musicals in the form of
(in many ways the films are companion pieces for one another), and wanted to do something completely different: an old-fashioned adventure inspired by the classic monster movies of Ray Harryhausen, featuring a completely different aesthetic to the one they had previously worked with. And they knew exactly who to turn to in order to give their steampunk-y tale a singular style: Mike Mignola, the ridiculously talented creator of the long-running comic book series,
today, you can see Mignola’s influence: the sharp edges, deep shadows, and Jules Verne-y production design are like panels out of one of his comic books. And the characterization and story also bear similarities to his work: The tough “men on a mission” structure, abundance of creatures, and magical overtones are all Mignola touchstones. This kind of stylization and authorship fascinated us to the point that we had to call Mignola and get the whole story, directly from him.
When asked to recall how he first became involved in the project, Mignola answered snappily. “I remember it pretty distinctly: I came home from wherever and there was a message on my answering machine from Don Hahn. He said, ‘Hi this is Don Hahn, a producer at Disney, and we’re planning to do a film in your style. Would you like to work on it?’ It was so unreal that I thought,
,” Mignola explained. “It was so out of the blue and so bizarre. They asked me if I wanted to come work on it and I said, ‘Uh, yeah.’ That was it.”
Similarly surreal was Mignola’s first visit to the studio. “They brought me up to Disney Animation. It’s so overwhelming, the amount of art and the quality of the artwork that was hanging all over the place. I remember they were in pre-production on
at the time, so there were these insanely beautiful drawings from
and smack in the middle of it there was artwork of mine,” Mignola said. The artwork they had culled from his comic books was there to serve a specific purpose, though. “They had enlarged a bunch of comic book pages of mine and put diagrams over them, explaining in terms I didn’t understand, what I do. So basically it was charts to show artists that this is the look they were going for.”
While it might make sense for Mignola to have given seminars on how to recreate his distinctive style, that task fell to other animators. “I’m an idiot. I have no idea how I do what I do,” he said.
Instead, Mignola found himself working on pre-production artwork, mostly of the city of Atlantis (inspired by far off places like Angkor Wat in Cambodia), and spitballing story ideas with Hahn, Wise, and Trousdale. “I think really early on I became involved in the story, which I don’t think anybody expected me to do. But they gave me the script, which was in pretty rough shape at the time. It wasn’t a finished script. So I said, ‘Maybe you could do this …. ?’ I was just talking. I’d come back from lunch with Kirk and Gary and Don Hahn and have a meeting after lunch. The stuff I had been blabbing about at lunch, they would say to a room full of people, ‘We think we should do this …’ I’m so used to talking but I’m not used to anybody paying attention to what I had to say.”
While Mignola eventually stepped away from day-to-day operations on
to concentrate on his comic book work—instead of visiting the studio a couple of days a week— yet he still contributed a lot to the movie, particularly in the earlier days of the project, when it was envisioned as a much tougher
-style adventure. Of which, Mignola said was “really exciting.” Eventually, the tough nature of the film was rethought.
A key contribution Mignola made was the stone fish statues that, in the final act, animate and are revealed to be vehicles. The statues had already been designed, and were ruins covered with vines—a sign of the once-thriving civilization’s demise. “I said, ‘What if these things came to life at the end?’ Suddenly that takes on a life of its own and becomes a significant chunk of the movie.” This reveal became muted when a last minute change meant swapping an original opening sequence, that had Viking explorers offed by the Leviathan, with a sequence depicting a flourishing Atlantean society.
Mignola was blown away by the experience. “The whole thing was cool,” he said. “It’s in my top 3 or 4 surreal experiences I’ve had in my career. It was the first time my father went, ‘Oh, now I can tell people what you do for a living.’” And what’s more, people still come up to him wanting to talk about the film. “In the last couple of years, I had a lot of people coming up to me saying, ‘Oh you worked on
?’ It seems like it’s getting a second life.” Like the real Atlantis: just when you think it’s dormant, it’s secretly bustling underneath.
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