20. Nik Ranieri
There’s a difference between an animator who can get a small portion of an audience to intellectually appreciate their draftsmanship and technique and an animator who is able to suck in a whole audience to a believable performance that gets the viewers involved with the character. The second is much harder to do but is much more rewarding and important when it comes to animation. An integration of many important elements (character, story, voice, etc.) as well as secondary actions and movements that support the key elements makes all the difference between a believable character and a character that doesn’t work. In Disney history one of the best at this skill has been and is Nik Ranieri, number 20 on our countdown and the subject of today’s post.
The range of Ranieri’s characters is pretty impressive. He animated the explosive, intense Hades in Hercules as well as the mute Meeko the raccoon in Pocahontas that had to act through pantomime. Nik also is great at transcending the medium and was one of the first animators at Disney trained to do CG. He animated the hand-drawn Lumiere in Beauty and the Beast just as well as he animated the computer-animated Lewis in Meet the Robinsons. In a nutshell Nik Ranieri is excellent at giving a believable, juicy performance on the screen especially when dealing with broad acting characters.
Nik Ranieri was born in Canada in 1961. Growing up he was a TV kid and was fascinated by the cartoony, wacky sitcoms of that era. “I was a TV kid at heart and watched a lot of cartoons and sitcoms growing up”, remembers Ranieri. “Some of the earlier sitcoms were more cartoony than today’s fare. Dick Van Dyke was a huge influence on me, as was Lucille Ball, Jackie Gleason, Dick York and shows like The Odd Couple, Mash, Bewitched, The Monkees, etc. were always on my TV. Just watch an episode of the Dick Van Dyke show and look at his expressions and the way he crafts dialogue – it’s truly inspiring.” His brother performed a lot of skits growing up and he always ended up helping him out in them. However, Ranieri didn’t always feel very comfortable on stage and didn’t necessarily share his brother’s interest. When in high school he was fascinated by animated cells he saw at the Sheridan Institute of Technology and Advanced Learning. Although Nik isn’t that fond for the slow, conservative pass of the Disney shorts he has always been a big Warner Brothers fan and loved watching cartoons growing up. After high school he went into the Classical Animation program at Sheridan. Among his classmates were Howy Perkins, who worked on the Simpsons and is one of the creators of Phineas and Ferb, and Robert Walker, who was a layout artist at Disney Florida and directed Brother Bear with Aaron Blaise.
After Sheridan Nik Ranieri began his career at Atkinson’s in Ottawa, where he worked as an animator on the Raccoons show. The quality wasn’t that good and he wouldn’t use the designs when working on Meeko in Pocahontas. Nik also met his longtime friend David Nethery, a longtime assistant animator at Disney and currently an online teacher, while working there. At the time no one thought much of Disney since the old guys were gone and things were getting pretty ugly making Don Bluth the studio that everyone wanted to be at. Also Ranieri remembers that they felt pretty isolated from the rest of the animation industry and didn’t feel like they could get into a studio like Disney since they were Canadians. After two years at Atkinson’s he moved over to Pascal Blais in Montreal where he worked in commercials for a year. Since there wasn’t too much work Nik decided to go over to Greg Duffel’s studio in Toronto where he stayed until he was fired in 1987 because of his sheet protesting the studio owner’s spending tons of money on things unrelated to animation and refusal to get a test machine. Also he remembers the studio being hard to work at because of the contradictory of time and quality they were being asked to do.
That year Nik Ranieri went over to Europe to look for work both at Bluth in Ireland and in the commercial studios in London. Eventually he came across Disney UK, the collaboration between Richard Williams and Disney on the project Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Thanks to having an Italian passport Ranieri was hired and worked first as an inbetweener before being promoted to animator, where he animated scenes including the one where Roger is dancing on the bar. Among the people he met on the project included longtime friend and future Disney colleague Andreas Deja as well as a very young but talented James Baxter. After the film was completed both Nik and James went out to Los Angeles staying with Andreas Deja while they interviewed to join the production of the Little Mermaid at Disney, where both of them were hired. At first he was assigned to Ariel but because of difficulty with the character he was switched to Ruben Aquino’s unit on Ursula. Ranieri began to pick up some major scenes and because of his accomplishments got to supervise Wilbur the albatross in the Rescuers Down Under. After this he got his first major part by supervising Lumiere the candlestick in Beauty and the Beast, where he did some very great performance animation and a splendid job on conceiving the character. During that production Nik worked with Cogsworth supervising animator Will Finn, who didn’t always see eye to eye on the animation process (the two men have great respect for eachother though.) After Beauty he went on to do lots of various animation on Aladdin, mainly on Jafar(the sequence after Prince Ali where he says “It’s time to say goodbye to Prince Abubu) but also animated the fire-eater, miscellaneous characters, and did one shot of the Genie(I do know which one it is but I’ll let you animation geeks figure that one out on your own.)
Nik Ranieri was originally cast to supervise Timon in the Lion King and did a few designs as well as tests with the character but ultimately found one of the directors indecisive and hard to work with motivating him to transfer to Pocahontas with the desire to work with directors Mike Gabriel and Eric Goldberg. Although he originally did a test with a turkey character that didn’t make it into the film he ultimately ended up doing Meeko, a raccoon who was originally suggested by Glen Keane. “On Pocahontas, I talked with Glen about how he designed Pocahontas and then used some of those same design characteristics on Meeko, since he was part of her world,” once wrote Ranieri. A particularly good challenge with Meeko was that he was mute and had to act through pantomime. Nik did a brilliant job on this and the raccoon is one of the most entertaining and well-done parts of an otherwise pretty restrained, overly serious film. After Pocahontas he went on to supervise the flamboyant, explosive Hades in Hercules. “During Hercules, I had to stick to the Gerald Scarfe style and added the physical features of James Woods because he was a “Larger than Life” personality,” says Ranieri on the character. Originally intended more seriously and supposed to be animated by Andreas Deja, Nik Ranieri found the direction the character went after James Woods came on as a great opportunity for a unique, entertaining performance and took advantage of that to the hilt.
Next he supervised the selfish, egotistical Kuzco in Emperor’s New Groove who gets turned into a llama because of his ways. “On “Emperor’s New Groove”, I wasn’t thinking about anything from Disney’s past,” comments Nik. “I was just trying to create animation that fit the vocal performance.” After Emperor’s New Groove he got trained in CG animation and was the first supervising animator at Disney to be one in both hand-drawn and CG, when he animated Buck Cluck in Chicken Little. He also supervised Lewis in Robinsons and helped out some on Bolt before supervising Charlotte in the hand-drawn Princess and the Frog. On Charlotte, there was so much secondary animation that I had to do several passes on the shot,” reflects Nik on the production. “First pass – primary animation, second pass – dress animation, third pass – bow animation, fourth pass – hair animation, fifth pass – earing animation (this I usually left until the very end – once the director(s) approved the final). Not all characters are this complex, some may only need 2 passes. It’s funny, even after all that, I’ve noticed that there are STILL things that I’ve missed fixing in some of those Charlotte shots (and others throughout my career). You’re never quite sure if it was you or clean-up that messed up. That’s why I try to draw as clean as possible – it lessens the odds that a mistake will be made. Oh well, you’re your own worst critic.” After Frog the animator went on to animate some scenes on Tangled primarily of Mother Gothel. Although he’s happy with how the film turned out Nik isn’t too fond of the experience of working on the production for various reasons. After that he went on to work as an animator on Winnie the Pooh and currently is doing some experimental 2d animation for a CG film at Disney, where he still continues to work. Outside of work Nik Ranieri is a big family man and spends a lot of time with his wife of 16 years Jennifer as well as his five kids.
As far as process goes Nik Ranieri doesn’t ever uses thumbnails and uses an alternative method called a pose test. “I basically do a pose test – hitting the major poses of the performance,” explains Nik. “I think, “What are the expressions that would best represent the dialog/situation”, “How many are too many”, when it comes to poses, and what secondary or sub-conscience actions could I add to make the performance more believable (ie. human errors, eye darts, hand gestures, etc.) but not too many that it looks pretentious. Once I get the first pass down – which is what I refer to as a “Scribble pass” because there is no thought to proportion or model or quality of drawing at all, it’s just raw emotion – I watch it play over and over to see where some things could be added or removed or adjusted. Then I make those adjustments and when I’m satisfied with it, I show the director(s) and discuss it. Sometimes, because of the rough state of the test, I get the question, “So, this is going to look nice, eventually, right?”. I have to assure them that the test is this messy because it was done in a day, so if there are changes, I won’t have wasted several days doing pretty drawings just to throw them out. Once the shot is approved, I sit down at my desk and start to tie down the drawings. This is when all the technical aspects come into play. I take the first drawing and draw it properly, taking note of details like proportion, clothing, etc. This is the first major key. I use that drawing as a reference for every other key in the shot so that the character doesn’t inadvertently grow or shrink throughout the shot. I then start with the first action and draw the last drawing in that action (using drawing one as a ref.), which will be the second major key. Then I add break downs and rough inbetweens, working towards that second major key. Once that is done, I’ll shoot the drawings and see if it flows. I won’t go on until I’m happy with those drawings. Sometimes, I’ll work up to the second major key and find that I have to change it in some way to make it resolve the drawings/action that led up to it. Then, of course, I’ll follow the same procedure with the second main action. This will usually end up being about an average of 50 frames long. At this point, I go back to the start and begin to add secondary action. Because that action must be in a constant state of movement (unless the primary animation pauses for a substantial amount of time), it’s necessary to have enough primary animation to be able to properly add believable follow-through and settling of the secondary animation.” Like I said above Nik Ranieri’s two greatest skills as an animator are integrating the different aspects of a character (especially when it comes to making the design and animation have an excellent marriage with the voice) and at finding secondary actions and body postures that enrich the performance of a character. Of all his supreme performances I would have to say Hades is the one that has it all. Not only does the animation fit so well with James Woods’s voice but he uses broad body movements to show the flamboyance of the character and uses hand gestures as well as facial expressions to communicate clearly to the audience the motives of the character. He also does a great job with subtle expressions and broad movements on Lumiere in the Be Our Guest scene. Comic facial expressions are also something Nik uses very well. For example one of my favorite scenes of his is Meeko in the river sequence of Pocahontas. The distinct expressions during the anticipation, the drop, and the reaction to getting wet are priceless.
Impact wise I think Nik Ranieri is significant for a number of reasons. For one thing his excellent skills at doing and enriching an animated performance have really impacted the way animators do acting in animation. Since he’s become a supervisor there’s been a lot more emphasis on a character’s performance as well as the secondary actions that enhance it. Also I think that Nik’s work has inspired more people to take the character’s voice acting to the hilt and really integrate it with the animation. Last Ranieri is important because he was one of the first to prove that hand-drawn veterans can also be great computer animators. All this put together makes one heck of a terrific animator.
Nik Ranieri is a great inspiration to me in many ways. On the technical side he’s inspired me to integrate the aspects of a character as well as find the specific things that make a performance convincing, believable, and distinct. Also his process and procedures have always reminded me that it’s good sometimes to do things differently than others and not try to emulate the styles/ work of other animators. Nik doesn’t live in Disney past and tries to do his own thing, which is a very valuable thing to do. I’ve been very fortunate to get to talk in-depth with him a few times and I can tell you he’s just as entertaining and great as his work if not even more so. Nik’s a very genuine and caring man as well as an animator who really cares about quality and working real hard to make his character unique and entertaining. He’s also a great family man and always love to talk about them. Thank you Nik Ranieri for being a great hero to me and for your contributions to the art of Disney animation.