Hello fellow San Diego Comic-Con fans!
As you may already know, this year’s convention was quite different due to the writers’ and actors strike. Typically, I would have had interview after interview lined up, but unfortunately, both unions were on strike, making it a lot different than in previous years.
Despite the challenges, I could still snag a fantastic interview with Disney Studios legend Andreas Deja (visit Andreas website) and the team behind the fantastic short film “Mushka.” The film tells the story of a nine-year-old girl and her pet tiger, set in the Ukraine. Although you may think it sounds familiar to the beloved cartoon “Calvin and Hobbes,” this film is different, with many political and social undertones in the animated short film.
One of the things I love about this film, aside from the fact that it has tigers (my favorite animal of all time), is that it’s drawn with ink and pencil and colored with watercolors. There was very little actual CGI or computers used. As someone who remembers Disney pre-Pixar and pre-digital animation, where everything was hand-drawn, I appreciate and love this animation style, which takes much more skill than sitting at a computer and using digital tools. Not to take anything away from the fantastic artists at Pixar, but there’s just something much more personal to me about using the blank page, paper, pen, and ink that makes it much more personal.
I had the immense pleasure of sitting down with Andreas himself and Roger Viloria, who acted as a Jack of all trades from producer to editor to production manager, Courtney DiPaola, one of the many animators on the film, and Fabrizio Mancinelli, who composed the original theme for the short.
All four of these fantastic artists were a pleasure to sit down with. They had such love and passion for this project, and I was thrilled that they were able to bring it to us here at Comic-Con.
When I asked Courtney about her favorite highlight of working on Mushka, she mentioned that she always wanted to work with Andreas. Working with such a prolific director early in her career was beautiful and will surely help her in all her future endeavors. Mushka came around when she was starting her career; at that time, there was not much in hand-drawn animation in America. Andreas was one of the voices she went to find motivation. She was holed up in her house trying to learn how to do it by herself, and it was hard to stay excited and feel like it was worth continuing. However, Andreas was one of the people she repeatedly returned to be inspired.
Roger’s answer was similar but different at the same time. He mentioned how well they all worked together, but also to see something from beginning to end come to fruition. He noted that, unfortunately, people love to start projects and are excited about them, but even if they get halfway through, they never finish. Can you imagine how many projects are on shelves or still in development? Mushka itself took more than seven years to complete.
During our conversation, Roger emphasized that there was no rush in completing the project and that it was important for everyone to work at their own pace and stay healthy. He explained that strict deadlines often lead to stress and mistakes, so they decided to ease up on deadlines. The objective was to ensure the project was done correctly, and they would release it only when it was fully ready. The project was completed in 2022, the Year of the Tiger, aligning perfectly with fate.
During the interview, I asked a question about the favorite tiger of both Courtney and Roger. Courtney’s answer was Shere Khan, the Bengal tiger antagonist in Rudyard Kipling‘s The Jungle Book. Courtney mentioned how she appreciated the way Shere Khan was drawn, his stripes, and the incredible voice acting by George Sanders. Roger agreed with Courtney and mentioned Rajah, the tiger from the movie Aladdin. He noted how Rajah reminded him of Mushka, a big tiger-sized baby. He enjoyed the animation and the personality of Rajah.
During our conversation, I pointed out to Courtney that she was one of the few women in the animation industry who was a hand-drawn animator. She mentioned that due to the period I was referring to, it was predominantly men in the industry. “I had never really thought much about it before. It’s funny; when I got to college, people started telling me that I was one of the best female artists there, and it made me realize that I had never really considered gender as a factor. I was simply interested in art and filmmaking.” Aside from Shere Khan, her inspiration regarding hand-drawn animation was the From Walt’s Table: A Tribute to Disney’s Nine Old Men “The movies that I just cycled over and over and over was The Jungle Book, 101 Dalmatians and The Sword in the Stone.”
During a conversation, it was mentioned that visible pencil lines were something that Courtney found inspiring. Roger shared that Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was his favorite movie when he was seven years old, and it profoundly impacted him. I can relate to this because watching those movies during my childhood brings back a sense of nostalgia. The animators of Mushka’s movie aimed to preserve the essence of earlier Disney films, such as 101 Dalmatians, and how they used to be drawn. Typically, Disney would put the project through a second phase of cleaning up the drawings. However, in the case of Mushka, they chose to keep the integrity of the pencil drawing intact.
Fabrizio talked about how he used Richard Sherman’s theme as a base for his film theme and used the Sherman song for the film’s end credits. Fabrizio had said that writing the score for a particular movie and setting the tone for it using a popular tune by Richard Sherman. The writer then had the opportunity to use this tune in some parts of the film and wrote their scenes around it to make it seem like they were coming from the same source. One of the inspirations for the music in this piece was Richard Sherman. The score is classic and symphonic, so he drew from that tradition. He even included Tchaikovsky, a composer from the former Soviet Union. “Korobeiniki,” a traditional 19th-century Russian piece of music, was also used as temp music. It’s a well-known piece as it’s the music played in the video game Tetris. He drew from his European roots of orchestral scoring and orchestral writing to write music appropriate for the film. The film is like a beautifully illustrated book from the 1970s, so that he couldn’t write something edgy or too modern. He had to write something respectful of the film’s aesthetic, which is delicate and pastel-colored at times but also strong during essential moments. He aimed to create music that fits well with the film and doesn’t feel overwhelming. During a conversation, Fabrizio revealed that his composing process begins with him playing everything on the piano before moving to the computer to refine the final product. He also mentioned that he wanted to pay tribute to the film’s initial stages, during which Andreas had worked with paper, by following a similar approach. The creative process is more immediate because technological limitations are not a factor. “The only limit to our creativity is the sky, so we look above and consider what this can communicate to us. Physical materials like paper are more tangible and can immediately reveal what works and what doesn’t, even without listening. As someone with classical training, I can easily identify what is effective and what is not.”
I asked Fabrizio again about his favorite tiger; as before, he answered Shere Khan. According to Fabrizio, Shere Khan is one of the finest animated characters created by Milt Kahl. Moreover, Fabrizio appreciates the work of other artists from different fields of art who have contributed to his love for the art form. These great artists have created something that has communicated with him from thousands of miles away in another country and has helped shape the person he is today. Fabrizio owes his love for storytelling to these people.
The final interview of the day was with the maestro himself, Andreas Deja. It’s not often that I get to sit down and chat with a legend in the industry. The experience is comparable to my first time at Comic-Con in 2012 when I had the incredible opportunity to sit in the press room and interview the celebrated director, Roger Corman – a personal hero of mine. Andreas was asked about his experience at the Con so far. He shared that he had discussed making his own film with his producer, Roger Viloria, about ten years ago. Even then, Andreas knew a tiger would be in the movie. Roger had suggested showing it at Comic-Con. Now, he finds himself here after all those years.
I had asked Andreas what inspired the story of Mushka. Was it anything in the past that he had heard or something else? He had said, “Over the years, we have had friends over to view our almost finished project. The audience was usually small, consisting of two or three people. One person asked me about a story we had presented, thinking it was true. This was interesting because the story was completely made up. This experience led me to start asking myself questions. After 30 years at Disney, I realized I needed my own project. I asked myself what kind of animals I would love to draw and animate. I have loved drawing animals since I was a kid and received a letter from Disney.”
As a child, Disney sent him a letter advising him to become an animator – drawing animals at the zoo and people in life drawing classes. He followed this advice and found a passion for drawing animals that has stayed with him ever since. When choosing the central character for a project, Andreas considered using an animal but wasn’t sure which one. A big fan of big cats with experience from The Lion King, he thought a tiger could be a great choice and take their research to the next level. Tigers are such beautiful animals with all the stripes and then with the gorgeous coats and anatomy and all that, so he wanted to pair it with a human because the TV series he grew up watching, like Flipper, Lassie were shows he saw in Germany where he grew up, and so he thought that had something to do with it. At the same time, this kind of relationship fascinates him.
Andreas had this idea for a story about a girl and a tiger. The girl raises the tiger from an orphaned cub, forming a strong bond. However, as the tiger grows up, they both face a threat from some nefarious individuals who want to kill the tiger for money. The girl is determined to save her beloved tiger and takes him back to the forest where she found him, hoping that he will learn to live as a wild tiger. However, this plan may not be enough if things don’t go according to plan. He discussed this idea with his friend Michael McKinney, who helped him flesh out the story. They first thought of India when they thought of tigers but then realized that the story had already been done with The Jungle Book. So, they decided to explore a different part of the world. They asked themselves, which country has the largest tigers in the world? Siberia came to mind, and we decided to set the story there.
When I asked Andreas who his favorite Tiger was, he said something I had completely forgotten about: he said Tigger from Winnie the Pooh. His last assignment for Disney was a Winnie the Pooh feature in 2010, and he did Tigger. Being responsible for animating established characters he didn’t initially design felt daunting. However, he was determined to study their movements and draw inspiration from them while adding his touches to their animation. Fortunately, Disney has an Animation Research Library with millions of original drawings and sketches. He spent much time analyzing and studying old scenes featuring Tigger, which was an enjoyable experience. Throughout his three decades at Disney, he had access to this library and regularly visited it to improve his skills. Sometimes, holding a scene from a classic movie like The Jungle Book or Bambi in your hands can make you feel like you can never create something of equal quality. Still, he always tried to stay positive and remind himself of animation’s great potential. By taking it seriously and making it personal, it’s possible to create something truly remarkable, and that’s what he aimed for by studying the work of the old masters. If you do your job well, if the story is good, and the characters act well, people will believe that, and that’s to him. A big part of the magic is the combination of making drawings come to life on paper. He finds nothing more fascinating than that, and I agree.
At the end of the Press Room interview at San Diego Comic-Con 2023, Andreas offered to sign a wonderful production picture of Mushka and Sarah for me and the other journalist at the table. It was not only beautiful, it was a delightful gesture to conclude the interview. If you have the opportunity to watch Mushka, I highly recommend it.
I am grateful to Kenn for giving me this assignment when I had none. It was a highlight of my Con experience.
I would also like to express my gratitude to the fantastic team behind Mushka. It was an absolute pleasure to interview you and learn about this beautiful piece of art.
Since Kenn was in another Press Room at the same time with our professional video camera TeamWHR uses for interviews, we include a video below featuring Roger and Courtney from the Press Room for your enjoyment.
Thanks to Kenn for video and image embedding for my feature article and many thanks to you for visiting WormholeRiders News Agency. I will be back in the future with new series analysis after my adventure at Comic-Con 2023 in San Diego!
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Until next time,