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Olympic Animation
Sci-Fi Entertainment, July 1997
Cory Doctorow

This is the first film piece I ever wrote. Scott Edelman assigned it to me because we share an unhealthy obsession with the Disney empire, and he knew I'd give it the right kind of attention to detail.

After all the good stuff I heard about the effects, I was pretty disappointed when I finally saw the movie. The hydra looked like it had been parachuted in from the set of ReBoot and stuck on the film with an X-Acto blade. For what it's worth, the effects in Mu-Lan kicked tons of ass.


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Cinderella's Wicked Stepmother amputated several of her Wicked Stepsister's toes with a kitchen knife, so it could squeeze into the glass slipper. The Little Mermaid had her tongue cut out, then her body turned into sea-foam at the end. You don't even wanna know what happened to The Sleeping Beauty in the original Grimm tale.

And then there's Hercules. He kills a serpent in his cradle. Driven mad by Hera, he murders his children and his nephews. He spends a real long time up to his chin in manure, then kills an entire menagerie of fantastic animals. Don't get me wrong -- they clearly need killing, but it doesn't change the fact that the guy's story is a gorefest from the word go.

Anyway, that's what the history books say.

Disney has animated 34 full-length features to date, and Hercules, the 35th, will be the first one drawn from classical mythology. Like other Disney forays into the stuff of legend, this one will end up, well, Disnefied. This is no surprise -- Disney is not known for its slavish devotion of the grotesque realities of life.

What Disney is known for is their technical prowess, kick-butt tunes, and, lately, an irreverent, self-referential humour. Hercules promises to score on all counts.

The Disney Hercules is a wise-cracking hero who navigates the lovingly hand-drawn landscape of a mythical, somewhat sanitized ancient Greece. The son of Zeus, father of the gods on Olympus, Herc is born in the midst an impressive computer-generated "morph," in which the hand-rendered clouds that make up Olympus are transformed into a cradle for the infant.

Switch to the Underworld (read, "Hell") wherein Hades (voice of James Woods, of Ghosts of Mississippi fame), is planning a hostile takeover of Olympus. His two comic sidekicks, Pain (Bobcat Goldthwaite) and Panic (Matt Frewer, AKA Max Headroom) are sent to kidnap the baby Herc. The duo fumble, and fail to administer the whole dose of "Grecian Formula," the potion that will kill Hercules, so that he ends up intact, but mortal.

The orphan Hercules grows to maturity on Earth, having all manner of amusing contretemps revolving around his superhuman strength, arousing the ire of the townsfolk until his adopted father ponies up the revelation that he's adopted, and hands over the medallion that is the only clue to his origins. Herc visits the Temple of Zeus to seek guidance, and poof-whammo, here comes Zeus (voice of Rip Torn), to explain the plot. Hercules can only take his place on Olympus if he's immortal, and the only way that's gonna happen is if he proves himself a hero on Earth. By a happy coincidence, a satyr named Phil (Danny DeVito) is a hero-trainer par-excellance, and he's currently taking on new clients.

The stage is set. Herc and Phil head to Thebes, a rough-and-tumble seaport where our boy will find ample opportunity to prove his heroism. He rescues a damsel-in-apparent-distress named Meg (Susan Egan, Belle in the Beauty and the Beast stage show), only to discover that she was more than capable of rescuing herself. This, as they say, is the love interest.

But Meg is in thrall to the evil Hades, who orders her to track down, befriend and betray Herc. Here is where a much abbreviated and way less gory version of the Twelve Labors begins. Herc slays the thirty-headed Hydra, then takes of on the track of the aforementioned menagerie.

Pretty much a typical day in the world of Disney -- boy meets girl, boy kills stuff, boy and/or girl wrestles with moral quandries, boy and girl live happily yakketa-yakketa.

But that's not why we go to see a Disney movie. We go for the special effects, for the music, for the outstanding and ground-breaking animation.

For Fred Roger, Computer Animation Supervisor for Hercules, the Hydra is the stand-out scene in the film.

"The directors has the conception that Herc was going to fight the Hydra, this wonderful, many-headed beast. The directors said, it'd be nice to do a three-headed Hydra, but what if we want to do something outrageous, like a 30-headed Hydra? And that's something -- while you could draw a single image of that, you wouldn't animate 30 heads. You wouldn't have enough time.

"As well, they wanted the Hydra to be a large animal; not a large animal like an elephant -- they wanted it gigantic, like a skyscraper. So Herc could hop aboard Pegasus and fly in and among this kind of living jungle of Hydra necks.

"So that complexity and that dimensionality, maybe that would be a great thing to do on the computer."

To animate the Hydra, the Disney Computer Generated Imagery crew used a network of over 100 Silicon Graphics workstations. They started with a model of a single head, consisting of 557 "Nerve patches --" individual polygons, and 1,244 animation controls. Think of an animation control as a marionette's string -- one may control the horizontal movement of the head, another, the size of the left eye. Then, using the computer as an infinitely patient, tireless animator, they duplicated this head 30 times, resulting in a 3D virtual puppet with 23,392 strings.

Using a combination of software from Alias/Wavefront (Dragonheart, Jurassic Park), other commercial packages, and custom software built-to-order by Disney's team of crack code-jocks, they then "rendered" the Hydra into animation cels. The simpler cells, with only a single head, are rendered over 100 computers in an hour and a half. The monster cells, with all 30 heads, took 36 hours to render. Figure 30 frames per second, and you get a sense of the Herculean undertaking that the CGI team at Disney was responsible for.

Roger stresses that despite all this, the computer is just another tool. "Herc is a traditionally animated film, and contrary to a lot of popular opinion, this is animated just like Snow White was, one frame at a time. A lot of people are under the misconception that computers rule the world here, but in fact, all of our characters are drawn by hand, pencil and paper, just the way we've been doing it for half a century."

Ken Duncan, a transplanted Canadian, is one of those pencil-and-paper jocks. He was Supervising Animator for Meg, the heroine. "The movie has a 'forties look, from when things were rounder and more cartoony -- that squash and stretch feeling." When asked which Disney feature he'd compare it to, he said, "Well, I don't want to say Dumbo, but definitely something from that era."

"The look of the film, a lot was based on [New Yorker cartoonist] Gerald Scarfe, taking in the idea of Greek graphics, greek shapes, I thought of Meg's torso as a column, her waist is like a vase, her head is like a vase, too, her hair has the long vertical lines, and then Greek curls."

Like the best of the latest round of Disney features, there's plenty of irreverant humor in Hercules.

"One of the funniest moments in the film," says Duncan, "is the product-endorsement scene, when Hades spots Pain wearing Hercules sneakers, and then looks over at Panic, and he's sipping from a Herc water-bottle."

It's funny, but it's true, too. There's a wide variety of Hercules merchandise ready to go for the film's release, and currently underway is the 20-city "Hercules Mega-Mall Tour," which includes a Pegasus carousel, lessons on drawing Herc, video games, midway games, and, of course, stuff to buy.

The music for Hercules promises to be some of the best since Aladdin, composed by Alan Menken (Aladdin, The Little Mermaid and others) with lyrics by David Zippel (City of Angels).

The two decided to forego traditional Greek music (can you imagine? Disney tunes played on a bouzouki?) in favour of Gospel.

Duncan explained this: "Because it's the Gods, Gospel would be an interesting way to go."

The music is uptempo, and full of the witty wordplay that has characterized the best Disney songs. Michael Bolton has reportedly been paid $1,000,000 to sing "Go the Distance," the film's theme, for the closing credits.

The prognosis looks good, then for Herc. It's no wonder, with the all star production team. Director/Producer/Writers John Musker and Ron Clements, whose directorial credits include The Little Mermaid and Aladdin; and Producer Alice Dewey, who was associate producer on The Lion King.

Look for Hercules June 27, 1997, and keep an eye on Disney's Hercules homepage at:


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