When Director Simon Wells and Producer Steve Hickner signed on to make Balto, they knew the story had all of the elements necessary for a great animated feature. Action, adventure, romance, an uplifting tale with fabulous visual potential. And creative input from many talented individuals, including Executive Producer Steven Spielberg, one of the industry's foremost champions of animated films (Who Framed Roger Rabbit, American Tail, The Land Before Time) and television shows (Tiny Toons, Animaniacs, Freakazoid, Pinky and The Brain). "Steven's guidance and creative input were very important to the team throughout every step of the process, says Executive Producer Bonne Radford.
Hickner, who had worked with Wells on American Tail II: Feivel Goes West, saw something very valuable in Balto's story. "This is a very life-affirming story, he said. "Here we have an outcast, fairly conflicted about his heritage (half husky, half wolf). He's often denying what he is, and that only ends up preventing him from becoming what he wants to be. Accepted by others. It's very important when he finally utilizes the wolf in him at the moment of truth."
Equally important to everyone was that the breathtaking Alaskan landscape come alive in the film. Our hero faces extreme weather conditions in the film and re-creating these conditions in an animated film proved to be very challenging.
"We decided quite early on that the snow would be a featured element of the story, with as much attention as any featured character, said Wells. "Ultimately utilizing particle animation systems akin to those used for special effects in music videos (and the bubbles in Crimson Tide)", added producer Hickner, "Balto can boast of having the largest variety of depictions of snow of any animated feature everything from light snowfall and icicles to raging blizzards and avalanches!"
After getting the final go-ahead on the project, Hickner and Wells made the critical decision to make the film in London.
A center for the production of animated commercials throughout Europe, London had a cutting edge community of animators on hand. In addition, said Wells, "I had a good experience with European animators when I worked on Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and so the decision to make the film in London was a deliberate attempt to tap into that highly creative community of animators. Altogether, we had artists of 16 or so different nationalities working together on Balto.
It was like assembling a sports team. We had to get a group of individuals and mold them into one tight unit.
"Production designer Hans Bacher did a great job from the very beginning of the project, said Hickner, who also went on to commend character designers Carlos Grangel and Nicholas Marlet (who did Muk and Luk), animators Kristof Serrand (Boris), Jeff Varab and Dick Zondag (Balto), Sahin Ersoz and Rodolphe Guenoden (Steele), Rob Stevenhagen (Jenna) and Patrick Matè (the human characters), and Mike Smith, head of the special effects unit.
The talented artistic unit was complemented by cutting edge technology. "In addition to probably one of the first times particle animation systems have been used throughout a feature film, we had to develop our own computer system for the movie, without which we could not have painted the film, Hickner added.
Based on the Toonz program from SOFTIMAGE, the process involved scanning the drawings and bypassing the meticulous and time-consuming task of coloring each cel individually. "All of the elements are composited together, Hickner said, "and this allows you to do so much more."
The London location also afforded the luxury of having noted actor Bob Hoskins (Boris the Goose) close at hand. "Bob brought an enormous amount to the character, Wells recalled. "He was in on it from the beginning and contributed a lot to the development of Boris. Since he was around a lot, we were able to do a lot of experimenting early on."
Being in London also helped involve singer Phil Collins in the project. "He, in effect, approached us, Wells related. "He apparently had gone to his agent and asked, why hasn't anyone ever asked me to do a voice? Once Collins was on board, we let him try out a variety of roles, but his voicing of polar bears Muk and Luk was perfect."
Kevin Bacon and Bridget Fonda, who provide the voices of Balto and Jenna, recorded their parts at a later stage in the U.S.
Such turns of good fortune (which seemed to occur with some frequency on the production of Balto) were just the result of careful planning and teamwork, according to Hickner and Wells. "You have to remember, Wells explained, "by its very nature, animation takes a long time. Balto took three years. When your team works together for that long, things get done. Good things sometimes just happen."
Perhaps that explains, at least in part, why Hickner and Wells (along with Brenda Chapman) are already involved as co-directors in a new DreamWorks project, Prince of Egypt, with a team whose core includes a number of veterans from Balto.