Book Review: Dream Worlds

Full Title: Dream Worlds: Production Design for Animation

Author: Hans Bacher

Publication Date: 2006 (2019 edition)

Publisher: CRC Press

Pages: 216 pages

Bacher #1

Hello and welcome, everyone! For this month’s book review, we’re going to be taking a look at a colourful and very personal work by production designer Hans Bacher, who worked for much of his career at Walt Disney Animation Studios. Dream Worlds has much to teach us about the intricacies of Bacher’s craft, told with warm familiarity and beautifully illustrated throughout.

First comes a foreword courtesy of producer Don Hahn, who is filled with compliments for Bacher and his work, followed by an introduction in which Bacher provides an overview of the role of a production designer (and talks briefly about working on Who Framed Roger Rabbit {1988}). Then, for the rest of the book, Bacher alternates between teaching and reflecting; some chapters are filled with good advice about the various aspects of the job for aspiring designers, while others offer fascinating anecdotes from Bacher’s own experiences working on films during the animation renaissance.

On the teaching side of things, Bacher begins by analysing Cinderella (1950) as an example of excellence in production design, discussing his method of creating an archive of images to draw inspiration from, and listing some of his most highly recommended films to study. Bacher later breaks down the various steps involved in making an animated film, while being careful to emphasise that he is not a producer and has not been involved in every stage of the process. Across its chapters, the book covers visual development and research, finding inspiration from the diversity of the art world, basic rules for camera shots and angles, and using shape language, space distribution and different aspect ratios to compose a shot. Bacher also discusses staging in detail and compares the different considerations of working within the four most common aspect ratios – normal 3:4, widescreen 1:1.85, Cinemascope 1:2, and Panavision 1:2.35. Towards the end, he gets into more abstract concepts like rhythm and style, exploring the role of pacing in creating a good film and talking a little about the differences in individual styles vs. studio styles. Perhaps the most interesting of these informative chapters is the one on value and colour, which is not often discussed in much detail elsewhere. No part of a production is considered too small to be given some attention.

As if these chapters aren’t enough, we also have the tales from Bacher’s own years in the animation game. After Roger Rabbit, his next work for Disney was on Beauty and the Beast (1991), where he was able to take part in the research trip to France and the initial work done at the Purdum studio before the turnaround. While he found the “generic” aesthetic of the finished film rather disappointing, he did enjoy the experience overall and was grateful to be a part of it, acknowledging the debt later Disney classics owed to this one’s success.

Bacher #4

Bacher next worked on Aladdin (1992), which was another enjoyable experience that opened him up to the world of Persian miniatures, although this film, too, went through a last-minute turnaround during its production. For The Lion King (1994), Bacher was only involved very briefly, with Disney’s lack of faith in the project meaning he was forced to work on it from afar (remember, it was playing second fiddle to Pocahontas {1995} at the time), but once again, he did like the final film. He also went on to design the logo for the Broadway show, which he greatly preferred. After this, Bacher also spent a short time working on Hercules (1997), which he did not consider to be one of his “favourites” due to it having too much talking; his main contribution was the creation of a colour script with Andy Gaskill.

Bacher #3

Mulan (1998) was where Bacher’s talents were really able to shine. That film marked his first time being permanently employed by Disney, so he and his wife moved out to LA in 1994 to begin work on it, alongside other projects. Chen-Yi Chang was the character designer on Mulan and worked closely with Bacher as the latter began figuring out how the film should look. Once Bacher was made the official production designer at the end of that year, he had the rare luxury of being free to explore and develop the film’s aesthetic for two whole years, which he attributed largely to the financial success of the earlier renaissance films. The experience seems to have been one of his happiest periods as a designer, and the warmth with which he recalls these years makes this one of the book’s best chapters.

Bacher #2

Bacher’s remaining Disney projects included Lilo & Stitch (2002), a short but sweet experience which made him fall in love with Hawaii, and Brother Bear (2003), his second Alaskan adventure after Balto (1995). He also worked on a few other unfinished projects during his time at Disney, including The Little Matchgirl (which was later completed by others and released in 2006) and something called Wild Life which he was particularly passionate about. Bacher then includes a chapter on his own projects, or, as he puts it, “Your Own Crazy Ideas nobody will ever want to produce”, in which he talks about his struggles with unproductivity and decision making, and includes a selection of amusing doodles made during endless meetings in his studio days.

Finally, we have a small section simply titled “The Masters – Bambi”, a gorgeous way to close the book, in which Bacher composites various backgrounds from the 1942 classic to replicate the way they would have looked to the operators of the old multiplane cameras back when it was first shot. Bacher was once given a tour of the Disney studio back when they still had one of these monsters, and his notes on what he learned are illuminating.

Dream Worlds is a highly informative work and an easy read, despite its many technical details; it is broken into numerous short chapters that flow together seamlessly, creating a single treatise on Bacher’s artistic experiences. The guy really knows his stuff, talking about a wide range of different artists, filmmakers and techniques with an ease bred by familiarity. Any designers seeking inspiration or wisdom are in very good hands, and this book would be a valuable addition to any animator or cinephile’s collection.

Thank you so much for reading, and I hope you’ve enjoyed this review. There are plenty more books to come, and as ever, the battle to return to the film reviews rages on. Until next time, take care and staaay animated!

 

Buy it on Amazon:

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Dream-Worlds-Production-Design-Animation/dp/0240520939/ – UK

https://www.amazon.com/Dream-Worlds-Production-Design-Animation/dp/0240520939/ – USA

Also, check out Bacher’s blog – he now uses Instagram rather than WordPress, but you can still see his archived posts: https://one1more2time3.wordpress.com

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