Did you ever wonder about the science behind your favorite animated movie? Maggie Malone, director of development at Walt Disney Animation Studios, shares about her what inspired her to make movies, science consulting, and much more!
Tell us about your background. What inspired you to want to make movies, and what led you to your current position at Disney Animation?
My father is a novelist and my mother is an English professor. No one in my family can do basic subtraction without counting on their fingers. I grew up watching movies on VHS with my dad and putting on Shakespeare plays in our backyard with my parents and their amateur theatrical societies. They founded one everywhere we lived. First there was CATS—Clinton Amateur Theatrical Society in Connecticut. Then there was PHATS in Philadelphia, and now they do plays in Hillsborough, North Carolina, with none other than HATS. I did a lot of theater in college and eventually segued from working in theater in New York to working in film in Los Angeles.
I love Disney Animation because it is a huge creative community—700 people in one building doing the professional equivalent of an amateur theatrical society. We are all here to help put on a show.
What do you think makes Disney Animation’s development process different from others in the entertainment industry?
Core to our philosophy has always been an in-depth research phase for each film, which is something we have in common with our friends up at Pixar. We have heard stories about how on Ratatouille, Brad Bird and his crew spent hours in real restaurant kitchens, researching the food prep process. All of that translates into a believable world on the screen.
We have had some amazing, eye-opening research trips, too, for many of our films in development—unfortunately, they are still so many years away from release that I cannot talk about them here. The early research phase of a project is one of my favorites. It is essentially creative R&D.
What are the advantages of working with a science consultant? How does having accurate information keep an audience engaged in a plot?
Science consultants have spent their lifetimes in the library, the lab, and the field. They have logged lots of boring hours and accrued some amazing tales of experiences you cannot find in books. When we speak with them, we get the benefit of all their years of study, with all the boring bits cut out.
I always tell our consultants when they come in to speak with us to prepare for a great dinner party conversation. We want to know what excites them about their field. John Lasseter is always reminding the directors to remember what excites us the first time we hear it—be it story or world research. Because chances are, if we are excited with a particular discovery, our audience will be, too.
Do you think filmmakers are increasingly interested in getting the science right in their movies because contemporary audiences demand it by Googling or checking up on Wikipedia or because the filmmakers themselves have greater access to information in the digital age?
It is true that moviegoers are incredibly savvy nowadays. They can feel if something is right. If a sequence seems particularly intricate and realistic, they can go online and within minutes figure out if we have done our homework, too. We not only want to stay ahead of our audience and what they can find online, but by working with experts we take our research beyond the Internet, into a land our audience has never seen before. That is what John Lasseter is always challenging us to do—take our audience some place that they can relate to and yet have never been.
More often than not, we talk to experts and we find out that truth is stranger than fiction! In some ways we are more interested in the research leading us to a more original story than we are in using the research to make our story factual.
What do you think you learned from the scientists you have met that made you a better filmmaker?
I have been struck time and time again by how similar the film development process is to the scientific experimental research process. It is painstaking. It is frustrating. Sometimes you have elaborate plans and they work. Other times they fail. We are all plugging away in our chosen fields and everywhere the breakthroughs can feel few and far between. It is good to get out from under your rock every once in a while and talk to someone outside of your field. A creative endeavor—be it film or science—takes patience, common sense, and the chutzpah to do some crazy things, which more often than not help you find the right solution.
Talking to science experts helps inspire us with little-known details and re-energize our discovery process, so we can endure from script draft to script draft and screening to screening.
What is the best thing about working for Disney that you have not mentioned yet?
Disney in general attracts the unaffected, genuinely goofy creative types in the film industry and through Disney and the film industry we have found our tribe. You know the type—the truly awesome people that were not afraid to go all out at college costume parties. In fact, the yearly Halloween group costume competition on the lot is fierce. This sense of play inspires us in our work, and Disney encourages it in all sorts of events on and off the lot.
Science geeks and film geeks have a lot in common. We are kindred spirits who just happen to be working in different areas of expertise. I think it is why the work that The Exchange is doing to try to blend the two communities feels so natural.