In the field of animation, one can work with the most amazing people—“amazing” in terms of talent, enthusiasm, generosity and vision. Genius, even. I am speaking of Michel Gagné. I met him when I began working at Sullivan-Bluth Animation at their facility in Burbank. At the time, the creative triumvirate of Don Bluth, Gary Goldman and John Pomeroy were hard at work on Rock-a-Doodle and A Troll in Central Park. Twelve years after Star Wars, and eight years after Raiders of the Lost Ark, we were animating films about a rock-and-roll rooster and a troll who magically created tap-dancing pansies. It was great training for us; we appreciated the opportunity to work for these experienced film veterans. But we thought animation’s subject matter should be more compelling, more exciting.
Michel worked his magic in the special effects department. In his off-hours, he developed a short film called Origin, inspired by a Japanese-animated work called Planetbusters (aka Birth). Otomo’s newly-released Akira served as another inspiration. Animé appealed to us because of its creative staging, its kinetic action, its ability to dazzle the senses. Michel wanted to apply that dynamic to his short. He wanted to show that animation could be more than tap-dancing pansies. And so, he labored on his short, gathering attention as he showed the pencil tests of his work-in-progress. “Build it and they will come,” Michel said, referring to a line from Field of Dreams. And come we did. Bluth’s artists were swept into Michel’s vision. We didn’t mind devoting our spare time to a project that was really exciting. My input involved suggesting dynamic staging in some shots, and in cleaning up/in-betweening key drawings in a few scenes.
Origin eventually developed into Prelude to Eden. Michel teamed up with Cambridge Animation Systems. They would allow him to use their new Animo software to color and composite his film. In turn, Michel would help make the software more “user friendly” to artists. The finished Prelude short would be used to market Animo. It was perfect timing. Michel needed to color his film; Cambridge needed a film to promote Animo. A win-win situation for both.
Bluth’s studio shut down in 1992 and we migrated to other studios. By the time 1994 rolled around, Michel had finished the visuals for his short and was working full-time at Rich Animation on the movie, The Swan Princess. Michel hired me to work as an effects animator (tones and props) in his department. At that point, he needed sound effects and music for his short. Danny Elfman’s theme to Batman was used as a temp track. “Why not use Shirley Walker?” I suggested. “She’s been scoring Batman: The Animated Series. She’d be perfect.” Lo and behold, Michel contacted her, showed her the short, and she was jazzed enough to provide the score. She used an orchestra, which played for a big-budget film in a recording session, followed by a recording of her music for the short. Sadly, Walker passed away on November 30, 2006.
Completed in 1995, Prelude was a mini-masterpiece. Michel used it as his demo reel to get employment at various studios, first on The Swan Princess in its pre-music state. The completed film led to his gigs as head of effects on Quest for Camelot, The Iron Giant and Osmosis Jones. Animo would be used in The Iron Giant, The Prince of Egypt, Eldorado, Space Jam, Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, Osmosis Jones, among other films. In 1996, Prelude was nominated for an Annie Award in the best animated shorts category.
Prelude to Eden was Michel’s take on the “Big Bang.” What caused it? This was his answer:
Michel tells how he accomplished his work here.
And he discusses working with Shirley Walker here.
I am grateful to have worked on this pivotal film. And more than that, grateful to have met Michel, whom I consider to be a great friend.
To be continued.
P.S. Michel graciously illustrated the cover of Apatoons San Diego Sampler #3, featuring one of Prelude‘s robotic life forms, which you can see at the top right of the page, and here.