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The Making of Walt Disney's Pocahontas

Posted August 20, 2012 12:59 PM by Robert Siegel

The extraordinary life and indomitable spirit of a truly remarkable Native American heroine is celebrated through the artistry and storytelling magic of animation in what was Walt Disney Pictures' 33rd full-length animated feature, Pocahontas. The first animated feature from the studio ever to be inspired by a real-life figure, this musical adventure combines historical fact with popular folklore and legend and presents the compelling tale of a brave, compassionate young woman who "listens with her heart" to help her choose which path to follow. Disney's telling of the Pocahontas story takes a romantic and entertaining view of her legendary encounter with the adventurous English sea captain, John Smith. The film's release coincided with the 400th anniversary of Pocahontas' birth. Pocahontas explored new areas of the animation spectrum and demonstrates the unique power of this art form to blend great dramatic storytelling with elements of fantasy, comedy and music.

Pocahontas is set in 1607, just as a new age of exploration has begun. A group of British adventurers led by the greedy governor of the Virginia Company, John Ratcliffe, and including a fearless soldier named John Smith, have set sail for the New World aboard The Susan Constant, seeking gold and other treasures. Meanwhile, in Virginia, a young Native American woman named Pocahontas, the daughter of Chief Powhatan, ponders her path in life and dreams about what lies "just around the riverbend." Should she marry Kocoum, the stern warrior her father has chosen for her, or does destiny have something else planned for her? She turns to her forest friends -- Meeko, a raccoon, a hummingbird named Flit and Grandmother Willow, a 400-year-old mystical spirit residing in an ancient tree - for friendship and advice.

Upon their arrival, the British settlers begin digging up the countryside in a frenzied and naive quest for gold. Charged with protecting the colony, John Smith scouts the area and meets Pocahontas. Despite their initial apprehensions and conflicts, they are attracted to one another and she introduces him to a world unlike any he has ever known. Pocahontas teaches him that every rock, tree and creature has a living spirit and explains how the Indians are able to "paint with all the colors of the wind." As their friendship blossoms, relations between the British and the Indians continue to deteriorate with fear and hatred mounting daily. When Smith is captured by Powhatan and set to be executed, Pocahontas bravely places her own life on the line by declaring that he must kill her first. Smith reciprocates the sacrifice by saving Powhatan's life from a British bullet, but is wounded in the process. In a powerful and moving finale, he and Pocahontas must part, knowing that their spirits will be forever joined on a path that never ends.

With its emphasis on realistic human characters and the story's deeply moving dramatic tone, Pocahontas presented a unique set of challenges to the animation team and marked a significant departure from the studio's most recent efforts prior to its release. Supervising animator Glen Keane, who had previously guided the creation of Ariel ("The Little Mermaid"), the Beast ("Beauty and the Beast") and "Aladdin," drew upon the many talents and vast experience in designing the captivating lead character and bringing her convincingly to life. Veteran animator John Pomeroy supervised the animation of the equally demanding John Smith character. Eight other supervising animators provided their expertise along with a team of over 600 artists, animators and technicians in bringing this work to the screen.

Photos of Jamestown today and the created setting of the ship's arrival.

Overseeing the entire project was the directing team of Mike Gabriel and Eric Goldberg. Gabriel, a veteran Disney animator, had previously helmed Disney's 1990 animated feature "The Rescuers Down Under." Goldberg, a multi-talented animator/director who had operated his own commercial studio in London and joined Disney in 1990 to create and supervise the animation of the Genie in "Aladdin," made his feature directing debut on this film. Direct from Broadway, James Pentecost came on board as the film's producer and brought his creative energy, collaborative insights and vast stage experience to the project. Baker Bloodworth, who also began his career working in theater, served as associate producer. H. Lee Peterson ("Aladdin") was the editor. Early in the creative process, an outstanding team of vocal talent was assembled to bring humor, sincerity and distinct personalities to the characters. Irene Bedard, an actress of Native American heritage, provides the energy, spirit and speaking voice for the earthy Pocahontas while Broadway star and triple Tony-nominee Judy Kuhn ("Les Miserables," "Chess," "She Loves Me") lends her singing voice to the lead character. Mel Gibson voices John Smith. David Ogden Stiers, who voiced Cogsworth in Disney's "Beauty and the Beast," plays the gold-loving Governor Ratcliffe and doubles as the officious official's devoted sidekick, Wiggins. Distinguished Indian activist/actor Russell Means gives a memorable and heartfelt performance as the paternal voice of Chief Powhatan.

Also featured in the vocal ensemble is Academy Award-winning actress Linda Hunt, who roots out a great performance as the voice of Grandmother Willow, Pocahontas' wise old friend who is never stumped for an answer. Christian Bale ("Little Women") is the voice of Thomas, the dutiful settler who sparks a major confrontation. Scottish comedian/actor Billy Connolly and popular English comedy performer Joe Baker are the familiar voices behind the Jamestown duo of Ben and Lon. Rounding out the cast are James Fall as the voice of Pocahontas' serious suitor, Kocoum, and Michelle St. John, who speaks for her Indian pal, Nakoma. Gordon Tootoosis of "Legends of the Fall" fame is heard as the medicine man Kekata. Providing the vocal antics and miscellaneous sounds for the three featured animal characters are John Kassir (Meeko), Danny Mann (Percy) and Frank Welker (Flit).


A team of three writers - Carl Binder, Susannah Grant and Philip LaZebnik --were charged with crafting a screenplay that would capture the spirit of the real-life Pocahontas while providing the framework for an entertaining Disney-style animated adventure. Tom Sito served as head of story and worked with the directors, Glen Keane and the rest of the story team in creating the storyboards, which became a blueprint for the animators. Among the key players on the story and visual development team was Joe Grant, a legendary Disney artist/storyman whose amazing list of credits includes co-writing "Dumbo" and story supervision on the original "Fantasia." Grant's instincts for humor, storytelling and designing appealing personalities sparked the other members of the creative team.

Art director Michael Giaimo left an indelible mark on the film and was largely responsible for its unique design and innovative color palette, which is rich in pinks and blues. Along with Pentecost, the directors and other artistic supervisors, Giaimo traveled back to Virginia on several occasions to observe Jamestown and the natural beauty that surrounds it. The tall vertical imagery of the pine forests, contrasted with the long horizontal plains, left a deep impression and became an important design element for the film. Layout supervisor Rasoul Azadani experimented with these elements in planning the composition and camera angles. Background supervisor Cristy Maltese and her team created an array of beautiful backgrounds to expand upon the art director's concepts. Don Paul oversaw the spectacular effects animation and Dan Hansen served as artistic coordinator.

Old drawings and photos and posters used in research.

With music designed to play a major role in the storytelling process, Menken and Schwartz frequently attended story meetings and offered their expertise on the placement and content of the songs. Seven new songs are heard throughout the film itself and one additional number plays along with the end credits. Multiple Academy Award-winning composer Alan Menken ("The Little Mermaid," "Beauty and the Beast," "Aladdin") also composed the film's textured underscore, which captures and amplifies the action and emotions. For Roy Disney, at the time vice chairman of The Walt Disney Company and head of the feature animation department, "'Pocahontas' was a story that appealed to us because it was basically a story about people getting along together in this world. Even though their cultures are very, very different, they have to live on the same land and that seemed like an enormously appropriate kind of story to tell and one which is particularly applicable to lots of places in the world today."

Producer James Pentecost saw Pocahontas as "the strongest heroine ever to appear in a Disney film. She is open, athletic, dynamic, intelligent and quite beautiful. One historian described her as sort of the first diplomat. We also tried to tap into her spirituality and the spirituality of the Native Americans, especially in the way they relate to nature. The film is a love story, but it is also a father-daughter story. At the beginning of the movie, the father tries to teach the daughter something and by the end the daughter is teaching the father. In terms of relationships between parents and children, this is a very powerful and universal message. "I think another great thing about Pocahontas is the notion that one person can make a difference," Pentecost said to the New York Times. "By her action of saving John Smith's life, she caused her father to take a different course of action. I think that's a great thing to hear, especially for kids, because it empowers them to make a difference."

Chromolithograph credited to the New England Chromo Litho Company was studied for the film, here Pocahontas saves the life of John Smith.

In every aspect of the storytelling, filmmakers tried to treat Pocahontas with the respect she deserved and present a balanced and informed view of the Native American culture. When possible, they sought out advice, comments and participation from prominent Native American educators, leaders and groups. Jim "Great Elk" Waters, a Native American tribal leader and an artist/musician/poet, was brought in along with his ensemble to provide authentic Algonquin music and speech. Indian choreographers and storytellers were also consulted to ensure that the Powhatan lifestyle and customs were portrayed with a high degree of accuracy.

"Throughout the production, we met with surviving members of the Algonquin nation in Virginia and realized it would be fascinating to show their culture in our film" said director Eric Goldberg in an on-set interview. "We wanted to be as faithful as possible. They didn't live in teepees like the Great Plains American Indian. We wanted to present the uniqueness about the Powhatans." Mike Gabriel said, "It was of great observation to meet with members of the Native American community, whose warmth and long history of coexisting with the planet impressed us so much. They took us to museums on the reservation and urged us to learn as much as we could. We also learned from our actors, who would make suggestions about phrasing and customs."

Russell Means, the voice of Powhatan and an activist who dedicated his life to Indian causes, said, "I think 'Pocahontas' is the single finest work ever done on American Indians by Hollywood. When I first read the script, I was impressed with the beginning of the picture. In fact, I was overwhelmed by it. It tells the truth about the motives for Europeans initially coming to the New World. I find it amazing that Americans and Disney are willing to tell the truth. It's never been done before ... and it's great. The cooperation I got with every suggestion I made, even the smallest little things about our culture, were incorporated into the script. I'm very proud to be associated with this film." Thomas Schumacher, senior vice president of Feature Animation during the film's production, observed, "'Pocahontas' is much more than just a love story or an entertainment. It is a story that is also about racism and intolerance and we hope people will gain a greater understanding of themselves and of the world around them. It's also about having respect for each other's cultures."

Limited Edition book that was signed by cast/crew

Pocahontas arrived at a time when Disney's Feature Animation department entered into its greatest period of creativity and productivity. Employing over 1,200 creative people (from approximately 170 in 1985) they were working on a variety of projects at the studio's facilities in California, Florida and France, Disney animation continued to chart their new course. Symbolic of the important place that animation continued to occupy at Disney was the new Feature Animation Building, which crowned a 70-foot Sorcerer's Apprentice Cap and futuristic art modern design by architect Robert A. M. Stern, that opened in December, 1994. That same year, Disney scored its greatest success with the release of "The Lion King," which became the fifth highest grossing film of all time in this country and the second biggest ever released in the international market.

Among the animated features that were in production or advanced stages of development at Disney are: "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" (with music by Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz) which was released in 1996; "Hercules" (music by Alan Menken, lyrics by David Zippel) released in 1997; "The Legend of Mulan" (the studio's first feature to be animated entirely in Florida, renamed "Mulan") based on a Chinese legend; their adaptation of "Tarzan" and the release of the new Fantasia, which featured six newly-recorded classical pieces (conducted by the renowned James Levine). "I think what makes Disney animation so special is the collaboration of people who've worked so closely together over the past 10 years," said Peter Schneider, then president of Disney Feature Animation and the executive who guided the department to impressive artistic achievements since 1985. "We assembled a team of animators and artists unlike any in the world. They've shared something together in building these movies and have learned to speak the same language. Another part of the magic is the fact that our films go through such an evolutionary process. We're not afraid to throw things out that don't seem to work. The secret is being open to change."

Spanish video poster.


Mike Gabriel,m who had only recently finished co-directing Disney's "The Rescuers Down Under" in 1990 began giving serious thought to finding the next project he would like to work on. He wanted it to be a story with heart and humor; a big scale epic that would lend itself to the kind of Broadway-oriented animated musicals that Disney had recently reinvigorated. "It was Thanksgiving weekend and I was trying to figure what to do next," recalled Gabriel. "I knew that I wanted it to be a love story and I was thinking that a western might be something a little different. I thought about Pecos Bill and a bunch of other titles but it seemed like they'd all been done before. And then somehow the name Pocahontas came into my mind and I got very excited about it. Everyone knew the tale about her saving John Smith's life and it seemed a natural for telling a story about two separate clashing worlds trying to understand each other."

Peter Schneider and his development team were considering an animated version of "Romeo and Juliet" for many years and Gabriel's timely pitch had many of the same elements. "We were particularly interested in exploring the theme of 'If we don't learn to live with one another, we will destroy ourselves,'" recalled Schneider. "It is an important message to a generation to stop fighting, stop killing each other because of the color of your skin or who you are, because you feel differently about religion. The challenge was how to do a movie with such a theme and make it interesting, romantic, fun. We never wanted to do a documentary style film, instead something that was inspired by a legend. We never altered from the idea of how important it would be to make a film about the clash of two worlds." Given a green-light to develop the film, Gabriel set to work writing an outline and worked closely with Joe Grant on preliminary visual experimentation and story notes. Grant, who was a masterful concept artist and storyman, drew inspirational sketches and provided many gag ideas. Many of his suggestions with regard to humor, which were put aside in the early stages, were brought up later and used in the film.

Lobby card set 2.

"I always saw Pocahontas as a child of nature," said Grant. "She is one with nature just like the animals, streams, trees, leaves. It was impossible for me not to think of her as part of that world. Her relationship with the animals is, of course, also part of a Disney tradition of deriving humor and comedic support from animals." In 1992, after concluding his assignment as supervising animator on the Genie character in "Aladdin," Eric Goldberg was asked to join the directing team for Pocahontas. Realizing that the project would have resonance for many generations of moviegoers and sensing the enormous possibilities for the movie, he accepted the offer. "Mike and I carved up our functions," said Goldberg. "I was in charge of animation and clean-up while he handled layout, backgrounds and color models. We basically divided things up in a way where we felt our levels of expertise were the best and jointly made the major decisions. Fortunately, Mike and I appreciated many of the same things artistically and cinematically and were of a similar mind on a lot of ideas."

With a talented story team that included Tom Sito (head of story), Glen Keane, Burny Mattinson and Ed Gombert, the movie magicians began tackling some of the script's most challenging moments. "Because this film does not have the usual Disney ending, we looked at films like 'Casablanca,' 'Roman Holiday,' 'The Way We Were' and 'Green Card' to understand what made them so appealing even though the couple didn't stay together," said Pentecost. "In 'Pocahontas,' their love for one another completed something in each of them. She has now reached maturity and a stature where she can be a leader among her people and he has found something that he had been longing for all his life. Even though they can't be together, their lives changed for the better and they caused the two sides to see each other in a different light and see that they have to co-habitate or perish." Another challenge for the creative team: to balance the film's dramatic tone with the right amount of comedy and fantasy. "At one point during the process, comedy was thrown out of the entire movie until people felt comfortable with the drama aspect," explained Goldberg. "As the screenwriters and story artists made progress in shaping the romance and developing the personalities, the humor, carefully measured, began to work again set amidst the emotion and the drama."

Poster from Brazil

The Real Pocahontas

As a historical figure, the real Pocahontas was the subject of much debate over the past centuries and still remains shrouded in mystery to this day. Details regarding her early years were documented solely by the English settlers, who were not always the most impartial observers. John Smith himself is the only source of the well-known tale about Pocahontas saving his life, but curiously he didn't write about it until 1624, long after she was dead. Over the years, storytellers have romanticized her life to the point where its been difficult to separate fact from fiction. Although the Disney version takes liberties with regard to her actual age when she met Smith and speculates about their friendship, it remains true to her spirit and enhances her known role as a peace keeper.

Painting by John Gadsby Chapman of the Baptism of Pocohontis

Pocahontas' real name was Matoaca. Her father, Chief Powhatan, gave Matoaca the nickname, which means "little mischief." She was born into a very sophisticated culture that had some knowledge of Europeans. By most accounts, when Smith and the settlers arrived in Virginia, she was attracted to these peculiar strangers and she played an important role in keeping them alive through her diplomatic and charitable efforts. In reality, she may have been only 11 or 12 at the time the British first arrived, but her personality helped to ease tensions between the two decidedly different cultures. Smith himself was born in 1580 in Willoughby, Lincolnshire, England and was involved in international adventures before arriving in Virginia in 1607 at age 27.

Map of the Jamestown settlement in the period

His escapades included a soldier-of-fortune in the fighting between the Holy Roman Empire and the Turks, captured and enslaved in Istanbul followed by an escape to Russia where he was again enslaved and again escaped across Europe. In Virginia, he helped to save the colony when it fell on hard times with his expert skills as a forager and an Indian trader. Without the help of the Powhatan Indians, who shared food with the Englishmen and showed them how to plant corn, and introduced them to the ways of the forest, the Jamestown settlers would probably have perished. As it was, all but 51 of the original 150 colonists to arrive in 1607 died within a few months. Smith became a virtual military dictator but managed to keep the settlement going. He was both respected and feared by the Native Americans, but was generally fair in his dealings with them.

Statue of Pocahontas in Saint George's Church Gravesend, Kent, England.

Although Disney's "Pocahontas" deals with the very short episode in her life where she meets and rescues Smith, what happened to the real Pocahontas during the rest of her life is equally fascinating. In 1613, at the instigation of Captain Samuel Argall, Pocahontas was kidnapped by an Indian chief named Japazaws and used as bargaining to secure the release of British soldiers held prisoner by her father. Powhatan released seven hostages but Pocahontas was still not returned. A year later, with an intense confrontation possible, British settler John Rolfe (who discovered a new strain of tobacco in 1612 and thus gave the New World its first viable worthy crop) declared his love for Pocahontas and his desire to marry her. Sometime prior to her wedding in April, 1614, she was baptized and given the name "Lady Rebecca Rolfe."

In the spring of 1616, Rolfe, his wife and their son Thomas left for England where the Virginia Company had in mind to use her to attract investors for their New World ventures. Pocahontas became so popular that she was presented at the court of King James and to English society. At one social gathering, she was reunited with John Smith after seven years. She had apparently been told that he was dead and was stunned to see him. In the early spring of 1617, the Rolfe family set off for Virginia, but got no further than the English seaport of Gravesend when she came down with smallpox and died at the age of 21. Her final resting place is at St. George's Church at Gravesend.

British poster.

Glen Keane, Supervising Animator

For supervising animator Glen Keane, who had started at Disney 38 years ago and is widely considered among the best in his profession, bringing life to Pocahontas was not only the toughest assignment of his career but also the most difficult. Drawing inspiration from field trips to the locations in Jamestown where this real person once lived, meetings with actual descendants of Pocahontas, extensive studies of various live-action reference models and the voice of actress Irene Bedard, he was able to filter these elements through his own imagination in order to create the character. "This film was a real learning experience for me," said Keane in a press interview in 1996. "In many ways, it was like walking in the dark because I was unprepared in the beginning for the kind of subtlety of acting and sensitive storytelling that was involved here. We just hadn't done anything quite like it before. One of the major things I learned from working on this film in terms of design as well as acting and performance is that less is more. I found that you can have the same impact with a lot more subtlety. If you're able to control it, small expressions and subtle movements can mean a lot."

Keane learned early in his career from one of the old-time Disney animators that in order to make a character seem real to the audience the animator had to believe that it was real. "Eric Larson, one of Disney's nine old men, continued to told me how important it was to animate with sincerity. It took me time to figure out exactly what that meant. Finally I realized that when the great animators talked about characters like Pinocchio and Snow White, they weren't referring to cartoon characters. These were real people that they knew who just happened to be drawings. Sincerity for them meant believing that the character is real. This means finding an inspiration at an early stage in the development of a character. For me, going back to Jamestown provided the spark on this film. I kept picturing that maybe it was under this tree that John Smith was waiting for Pocahontas or perhaps this was the stream where she used to canoe."

John Smith concept art

A real drawing of the real-life Pocahontas became the starting point for Keane in terms of designing her. Books on beauty through the ages and studying live-action reference footage of different models helped him to get a grasp of what the character would look like and how she might move.""When I first began drawing the character, I came up with something different every time," said Keane. "It was weird. Sometimes she would appear and I would say 'that's her, that's her' and then I'd try to draw her again and she'd be gone. The writers said the same thing. It was as if she was real and every once in a while she'd reveal herself to us." Once Keane had a concept of the look and personality of the character, he had to communicate his thoughts to the other 16 animators. "This whole film involved constant teaching," said Keane. "Throughout the production, the animators on my team would get drawings and little tidbits on how to draw her. We also had lectures on things like how to construct her face and spent a lot of time going over videos to analyze every aspect of movement, posture and form."

Concept production art.

Among the most memorable scenes in the film is the one where Pocahontas and John Smith meet for the first time. Keane explained, "The scene was originally written with dialogue but never seemed to play right. What should they be saying to each other? In thinking about it, I remembered meeting my wife in line at a movie and knowing it was love at first sight and that I was destined for her and she for me. We needed that same kind of electric moment for Pocahontas and Smith. With the sights and sound of a powerful waterfall as a backdrop to this moment, nothing is happening except their eyes are looking at each other. This allows the audience the freedom to go into their minds and feel how they're feeling. Her hair also adds an important dimension as it blows because it emphasizes that nothing is moving. It's a moment for me that is perhaps the most challenging and most satisfying.

"This movie required acting that was so delicate. It required artists to draw better than we've ever drawn. I used to think that animation was about moving a lot of drawings. In order to make it great, you had to bounce it, squash it, stretch it, make the eyes go big. But as time went on, I started loving animating a character who had a kind of burning passion in her heart. Suddenly, animation became for me not so much about moving stuff as it was about moving the audience. Animation is still a very new art form. With this film, I believe that we've really entered into a whole new area that is going to open up new avenues for animation in the years to come."

Production layout.

For the past 38 years, Glen Keane became one of the most prolific and talented animators at Walt Disney Animation Studios, creating many of the famous Disney characters that have gone on to become cultural icons. However, earlier this year, Keane announced that after 38 years with the company, he would be leaving Disney to pursue new projects. In an internal letter to his co-workers breaking the news of his departure, Keane said that he had reached this decision to leave his "artistic home" only "after long and thoughtful consideration." He made this statement, "I am convinced that animation really is the ultimate art form of our time with endless new territories to explore. I can't resist it's siren call to step out and discover them. I am humbled and deeply honored to have worked side by side so many artists, producers and directors during my career here at Disney, and I am tremendously proud of the films which together we have created. I will deeply miss working with you." He was last directing animator for the character of Rapunzel in the 2010 film Tangled.

Poster for the special showing at the El Capitan

The Characters

John Pomeroy, the animator in charge of John Smith, viewed his assignment on this film as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Not only did it allow him a chance to do what he considered the best work of his then 22-year career but it brought him into a world that has intrigued him since he was 12 years old. "Military historical subjects have fascinated me for many years and I have always expressed this interest through my art work," said Pomeroy. "This film gave me the first chance to fulfill that fascination in animation and the character is almost a self-portrait because it embodies many of the virtues that I certainly wish I had. When Disney approached me about working on this particular film, I was just finishing a giant painting of guys on horseback in battle during the seventeenth century."

In the course of developing Smith's personality, Pomeroy recalled the appeal of Errol Flynn in several of his more dashing roles as the kind of attribute he was seeking for his character. In the voice of Mel Gibson, he found elements of boyish charm and roguishness that were perfect for John Smith. "John Smith is the kind of man who is looking for the next adventure in order to sidestep or avoid any real personal issues in his own unexamined life," observed Pomeroy. "Something is missing inside of him until he arrives in Virginia. Like two magnets, Pocahontas and Smith are drawn together. Their meetings so powerful that they just stand there and gaze at each other. Now he has found something that he really cares about in his life. He doesn't have to escape anymore. She represents the missing component in his life." Grasping the personality and expressing it in animation art are two different disciplines. Said Pomeroy, "Animating a realistic human character is one of the most difficult things to do, especially in a story like this which doesn't allow the character to be too broad or hammy. If the slightest action is off, if he takes a step and it looks wrong, then you've destroyed the illusion that you're trying to create. There has to be a constant attention to how authentic the movement is and how well the drawing is done. I worked with a fantastic team of animators on this character and they really rose to the challenge."

John Smith concept art.

Just as the actions of John Smith and Pocahontas intertwined on the screen, Pomeroy and Glen Keane formed a close working relationship. "I have known Glen for over 20 years and we've been wanting to work together on a film for a long time," said Pomeroy. "It was an amazing experience for both of us and our two artistic philosophies fit together in perfect harmony. Each of our characters was like a mirror image of ourselves."According to Keane, "We went back and forth showing each other the latest drawings and scenes. It was great moral support to look over and see him struggling in the same way I was. I really needed someone like John who was just as insane as I was in trying to get those tiny little subtle things into the film. A lot of what we do, no one but us will even notice, but it's important to us just the same."

Lobby Card set 1.

One supervising animator had a more difficult time identifying with his character. Duncan Marjoribanks, who led the team for Governor Ratcliffe. "Ratcliffe carries the racism and greed of the movie," said Marjoribanks. "He represents the aristocracy and his greatest fault is that he ignores everything about this new land that he's come to. He is more of a colonialist than a settler. Instead of adapting, he becomes more European than ever. Even the red and black clothing he wears clashes with his new surroundings. David Ogden Stiers was a great voice to work with because he brought a spontaneity to the performance. His timing was very smooth and comfortable." Supervising animator Ruben Aquino, in charge of bringing Powhatan to life, found inspiration studying the film performances of Russell Means and observing him during the voice sessions. "His mannerisms and expressions while he was recording gave me a good balance on how to animate the character," said Aquino. "He has a certain understated way of moving, very economical and it seemed right for the character. Like Powhatan, he has great presence and commands the attention of people without having to do a lot of physical movements. Russell also has a certain way of smiling where his eyes crinkle up that I ended up incorporating into the character. You will see the design of the character itself is very angular with lots of extra lines that help to anchor his features. His face is very expressive and I had to reflect not only the angry, fierce look, but a smiling, kinder attitude as well."

Russell Means voice of Chief Powatan with Irene Bedard, voice of Pocahontas at a Disney festival.

The film's comic relief is provided by the antics of a raccoon named Meeko and Pocahontas' hummingbird protector, Flit. "Flit and Meeko share a role that was played by the mice in 'Cinderella' or Jiminy Cricket in 'Pinocchio,'" explained Flit's supervising animator Dave Pruiksma. "We established a kind of sibling rivalry between them with Flit basically mirroring what Pocahontas is thinking inside and Meeko being more spontaneous, a fun-loving type. "The animals don't have voices but they still express attitudes and emotions with their bodies," explained Pruiksma. "At first we thought that would be a hindrance but it turned out to be very appropriate with the tone of the production. We often used pantomime to help convey ideas. I studied hummingbirds to determine how they move and what made them unique and tried to adapt a personality to fit. Flit has a nervous staccato movement. The humor and pathos of his character comes from the fact that he is a tiny thing that feels responsibility for her safety. That's very characteristic of hummingbirds. They have very little fear as they move at such a rapid speed."

Nik Ranieri, the supervising animator responsible for Meeko, initially was assigned to a talking turkey named Red Feather. When it was decided to adopt a "silence is golden" policy with the animals, Ranieri shifted gears and became Meeko's master instead. "Meeko is the first character that I've animated without any vocals," said Ranieri. "Without dialogue, I found myself making the scenes longer in order to communicate a thought or emotion. It's easier to say I'm hungry than animating a character going through the motions of showing that. It required a lot more tests and using a lot of nuance to have the message read visually. As the story developed, we discovered that Meeko could do things to help advance the story and his part expanded accordingly." Supervising animator Chris Buck oversaw three of the film's characters, a pug named Percy, a tree spirit known as Grandmother Willow and Ratcliffe's servant, Wiggins. Percy, who tends to reflect the changes taking place in John Smith as sort of a parallel universe, was inspired by observing real Pugs brought into the studio as well as the behavior of his own pets. The creation of Grandmother Willow required the animator's skills as an actor as well as the involvement of the CGI departments. "The idea for Grandmother Willow came from the Indian culture, which believes that there is a spirit in all of nature," said Buck. "Linda Hunt had the perfect grandmotherly quality with her overly warm, rich voice and humorous delivery. Her inflections suggested attitudes that we would put into our performance as animators."

"The unusual thing about Grandmother Willow is that the face is all traditionally hand-drawn," continued Buck. "The other part, the cowl and the trunk of the tree, was done by the CGI department. Then the effects animators took over and created her moving vines and matched the face to the CGI texture." Steve Goldberg, artistic supervisor for CGI, said, "It would have been impossible for the effects department to draw an entire tree's worth of bark animating in each frame so Marcus Hobbs in CGI created a special program that would treat the bark like hundreds of little "islands" that could be individually manipulated. The result is much more believable looking animation that blended with the hand-drawn face. It was a real exciting case of teamwork." Goldberg and his CGI team also used computers to create a rich looking believable surface for the Susan Constant (the British ship) and to add detail to the canoe used by Pocahontas. After the film has been available for years now, fans of the film find Grandmother Willow to be among Disney's best characters and closer to their cherished old-time Disney character type.

Laserdisc box art

The Art

To create a unique look for Pocahontas, Directors Gabriel and Goldberg hired the talents of Michael Giaimo, a former Disney animator, to oversee the design and color elements. Supported by a talented team of experts that included the legendary Joe Grant, layout supervisor Rasoul Azadani, background supervisor Cristy Maltese, visual effects supervisor Don Paul and artistic coordinator Dan Hansen, Giaimo set out to make Pocahontas one of the most visually exciting films the studio had ever produced. "We felt that we've pushed a lot of boundaries with this film with regard to design and color," said Giaimo. "We set out to make the characters the brightest, punchiest, warmest element on the screen by sublimating the backgrounds. With deeper and darker backgrounds, the character's performance becomes the main objective and it was my job to showcase that performance in terms of lighting, color and design. This was pretty common with the Disney films of the late '40s and through the '50s but hadn't been done much in recent times."

Special poster produced for a Disney Convention.

Several visual elements for the production were suggested by the artistic team's field trips to Virginia. Giaimo was impressed with the natural colors and set out to heighten them for cinematic brilliance. Under his direction, the real Virginia setting was transformed into a mystical paradise. Another design element also came from the trip. The tall forests of pine trees suggested a vertical theme which Giaimo incorporated into the character design. Pocahontas has vertical lines running throughout her hair with more vertical shapes used in her fringed clothing as does Ratcliffe, who was designed with vertical striping going down his chest. Because of this, the artists were able to create a uniform look for the film by placing one layer on top of another. The background artists also used color, depth and tone in such a way as to add emotion to each scene. Under their skilled hands, the forests become magical places that draw you in. Background supervisor Cristy Maltese said, "In an animated film, the audience sees two things on screen: background and character. A good background doesn't draw attention to itself but it impacts upon you anyway."

Lighting was another important element that we used to get the desired emotional response from the audience. In the film, lighting is both highly controlled and boldly stylized to enhance texture, add resonance and serve the needs of the story. According to layout supervisor Rasoul Azadani, "In the scene where Smith and Pocahontas meet, we used low intensity lighting to give it an idyllic, other-worldly feeling, and to add to the emotional impact of the moment." One final visual element used to best advantage was effects animation, the specialty branch of the art form that concentrates on non-personality oriented movements. Under the direction of supervisor Don Paul, the effects department created the most sophisticated imagery used in an animated film. Magnificent waterfalls, a turbulent sea storm, countless swirls of multicolored leaves, misty environments and blazing fires are all beautifully rendered by the effects animation team and add a dimension of excitement and credibility to the proceedings. A palette was chosen rich with blues and pinks, and the effect ended up working perfectly, it set the film apart from many other Disney animated films and added a "fantasy" yet real world.

Austrailian poster.

The Score

"Pocahontas" features some of the most sophisticated music and lyrics. With Alan Menken on board as composer and Stephen Schwartz writing the lyrics, the film has a quality that is reflected throughout the production. The songwriters were involved from the earliest stages and contributed to the story's development. According to Menken, "Stephen is a neighbor of mine in Westchester. I've known him casually for many years and never thought about working with him because I have an immense respect for his career as a composer/lyricist. When Disney recommended him to be my lyricist, I realized that his style would be perfect." Schwartz said, "I think that Alan and I have had and continue to have a really wonderful and happy collaboration. He has a real gift for melody and for creating songs that are deceptive in their simplicity. When you analyze them, you find there's lots of musical sophistication going on. His melodies land easily on your ear and you remember them."

Composer Alan Menkin

With regard to the music for Pocahontas, Menken studied Baroque influences for songs associated with the British settlers and tried to be as authentic as possible with the Native American music. "I listened to the music of the Eastern Indian tribes and the Algonquins, as opposed to that of the Plains Indians," he explained. "Stephen and I were involved from the start," said Menken. "We don't just stick songs into the story but instead we function as dramatists who tell the story through song and conceive a score that creates and opens up a whole world. We look for those moments where you really feel the instinct to move beyond mere dialogue and beyond words into something that's sung. That's a good indicator of where a song belongs."

Stephen Schwartz did a great deal of research for Pocahontas, about the specific period, history and location and about Native American ways of thinking and expression. In addition to history books, some of the books were other novels, collections of Native American poetry, etc., things to bring inspiration and immersion in the place, time, and culture. Among the titles of influence, were: "The Powhatan Indians of Virginia" by Helen C. Rountree, "Pocahontas" by Grace Steele Woodward Pocahontas, "First Lady of America" by Leon Phillips "Pocahontas" by Susan Donnell Algonquin "Legends" by Charles G. Leland "The Indians' Book" by Natalie Curtis and "The Last Algonquin" by Theodore L. Kaimiroff. And "Native Religions of North America" by Ake Hultkrantz.

The first song on the film's musical program is "The Virginia Company," sung by a British chorus on-board the Susan Constant when they sail towards the New World. The song reveals the naivete and cocky attitude of the settlers and foretells the threat to the Indians presented by this motley group. The style was influenced by actual music of the period. The Native Americans are first introduced through the song, "Steady as the Beating Drum," which begins with the words of an authentic Northern Algonquin chant. Menken's earthy and rhythmic musical palette reflects the influence of the actual music of the Indians. Schwartz's lyrics give a picture of a complete, fully-formed civilization and talks about the earth and the benefits derived from it. The songwriters' extensive research included studying music of the Eastern tribes as well as Native American language and poetry.

Lyricist Stephen Schwartz

"Just Around the Riverbend," which is sung by Judy Kuhn, is the song that reveals what Pocahontas is searching for most in life "It's her 'I Want' song," explained Schwartz. "We decided she was someone who always sensed that there was something waiting for her and she didn't know what it was. It was just out of reach." Next on the music schedule was is "Mine, Mine, Mine," a rousing production number sung by Ratcliffe (David Ogden Stiers) as he orders his men to dig up Virginia in search of gold and jewels. As the settlers wreak havoc on the countryside, John Smith (Mel Gibson) breaks away from the pack and sings a refrain about the adventures and dangers that await him in this exciting new place. The song, "Mine, Mine, Mine," has the sound of the very early Disney films, and contains a quality similar to "Whistle While you Work." In the song, "Listen with Your Heart," Grandmother Willow gives Pocahontas simple advice as to how she can communicate with John Smith. A blend of Indian and Western sounds highlight this song performed by Linda Hunt and Bobbi Page.

"Colors of the Wind" best sums up the entire essence of the film. Sung by Pocahontas (Judy Kuhn, who has done extensive Broadway vocal work), this was the first song Menken and Schwartz wrote for the film and in many ways is the most resonant. According to producer Pentecost, "This song was written before anything else. It set the tone of the movie and defined the character of Pocahontas. Once Alan and Stephen wrote that song, we knew what the film was about." "I'm incredibly pleased with this song," commented Menken. "It may be the best song I've ever been involved in writing. There's something about it that is very compelling. It's a song with both a strong musical identity and a strong thematic identity. The quality of the lyric was astonishing and maybe the quality of the collaboration was pretty amazing too. The song is about respecting the environment and I think its an important theme for our country and our generation."

U.S. Poster style B.

Schwartz also believes that "Colors of the Wind" was one of his finest efforts. "It was just one of those magical things that happens," he said. "We knew what we wanted to say and we knew who the person was. We were able to find the parts of ourselves that beat in synchronicity with Pocahontas on those particular thoughts. The image of a sycamore echoes Chief Seattle's speech to Congress, in which he says, 'No one can own the sky' and 'What will you do when the rivers are gone.'" Schwartz was also pleased with the selection of the Pocahontas' singing voice. "Judy is a lyricist's dream," he said. "She has an extraordinary instrument and a range that goes from a deep belt right up to a real soprano, with true feeling. She has a rare gift for singing a lyric that makes absolute sense. Her phrasing, what words she stresses and where she pours her emotion ... it's an extraordinary talent."

"Savages" is a powerful song that exposes the ugliness and stupidity which results when people give into racism and intolerance. This song deals with one of the most adult themes ever in a Disney film and serves as the perfect accompaniment to the drama that is to follow. The final song in the film, "If I Never Knew You," which plays over the end credit is sung by Jon Secada and Shanice. This appealing love ballad was one of half-a-dozen songs written for the film itself but ultimately sacrificed to enhance the flow of the story. A pop version of "Colors of the Wind" is also heard over the credits and beautifully sung by Mercury Records recording artist, Vanessa Williams and became a top hit on the Billboard charts and one of her most popular songs.


Pocahontas was filmed in 35mm at 1.66:1 and released with an aspect ratio of 1.85:1. Disney made several 70mm blow-up prints including one for the Central Park premiere in New York. Pocahontas was released as a summer 1995 Disney release. Its premiere was on June 15, 1995 in New York and it opened wide on June 23. The budget for the film was $55 million, and the film took in $142 in U.S. Gross and $347 million worldwide. For the 10th anniversary video release, Disney included "If I Never Knew You" which also contained a small reprise near the end.

U.S. Poster

Reviews from critics were more on the positive side. Roger Ebert said, "Pocahontas" is the best-looking of the modern Disney animated features, and one of the more thoughtful: It is about real issues, even if it treats them with naive idealism. In its view, Native Americans lived in peaceful harmony with nature until European settlers came, bringing guns and ecological destruction. The Europeans, puffed up with their notions of civilization, did not realize how much they had to learn from the Indians." The San Francisco Chronicle said, "In its most poignant and richly drawn work since the tender classic "Bambi," Walt Disney Studios has fashioned a jewel of romance -- but one aglow with fun -- in "Pocahontas," opening today at Bay Area theaters." Rolling Stone Magazine said, "in Pocahontas, the 33rd animated film from the House That Walt Built, the matter at hand is somber history instead of the typical sweet fable. It's a bold move. Pocahontas has its own stately beauty and a pervading sadness that may be tough on kids who have to watch racial tension ending in murder, the wounding of John Smith, and poor Pocahontas, loveless as John returns home, left to hector again in PC song about "the colors of the wind." Disney deserves praise for raising the ante on its ambitions in animation."

Pocahontas stamps

The film was two Academy Awards, one for Best Song (Colors of the Wind) and one for Best Music, original Musical or Comedy. It also won the ASCAP award in 1995 for Top Boxoffice Films and Most Performed Songs from a Motion Picture. It was the Annie Award for Best Animated Feature, Best Individual Achievement for Production Design in the Field of Animation, Best Individual Achievement for Music in the Field of Animation, and Best Individual Achievement for Animation Nik Ranieri (supervising animator). The film also took home awards from BMI Film Awards, Golden Screen (Germany), Motion Picture Sound Editors, and won a Grammy for Best Original Song in a Motion Picture. Pocahontas is a story that has remained in the public eye for years. It's a brave tale, part of our heritage. Disney's re-telling, though taking several liberties with the story-with beautiful animation and a wonderful musical score is perfect for the Blu-ray format.

Poster for Pocahontas 2, also part of the Blu-ray set.

To discuss this and other Silver Screen columns, join us in our "The Silver Screen" forum thread Here

Past Silver Screen columns, including Star Wars, Close Encounters, The Blues Brothers, South Pacific, Charade, The Egyptian, The Ten Commandments, Jurassic Park, My Fair Lady, Mutiny on the Bounty and over 35 more titles are available Here

All materials in this and other Silver Screen columns are copyright their respective studios, and the collection of Robert Siegel. Many graphics on this page have been painstakingly corrected and cleaned, and are internet tracked. Artwork, publicity and production photos/drawings/logo copyright Walt Disney Pictures and are presented here for historic, editorial and promotional purposes.

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