In His Own Words: Mike Gabriel on Pocahontas

EDITOR’S NOTE: We have an update on the health of Jim Korkis from Jim’s brother, Michael:

Jim’s heart surgery this week went well!!! He’ll be in intensive care for a few days. No phones there etc. Will know more in a couple of days.

Prior to his medical emergency, Jim provided us with this weeks column – and we are posting it according to his wishes. Jim does not use social media – but he will see this post, so if you’d like to send a message please place it in the comments below.

Speedy recovery, Jim. – Jerry Beck

Suspended Animation #411

Mike Gabriel co-directed The Rescuers Down Under (1990) and Pocahontas (1995). He began his career at Disney as an assistant animator on The Fox and the Hound (1981).

In 2004, he directed the Oscar nominated short Lorenzo about a cat dancing with its tail. For the short, he designed the characters, storyboarded the film, painted all the backgrounds, and was responsible for the production design. 

He works for Walt Disney Animation in a variety of capacities including director, animator, storyman, character designer, visual development, production designer and art director. 

Some readers may be unaware that earlier in my life, I earned a living as a professional actor in Los Angeles doing voice-over work, stage and television. I developed a pretty extensive and impressive resume but it was hard work.

One of the most important tools for an actor in Los Angeles was Drama-Logue, a weekly newspaper with casting listings. It also included ads, interviews, articles and more. Most issues were just casually tossed after sending out head shots and resumes for potential jobs.

In a storage box, I recently found a copy of the June 15-21, 1995 edition that included an interview with Mike Gabriel. Here is an excerpt that hasn’t been seen in twenty-seven years.

Gabriel: “I had just finished co-directing my first animated feature for Disney and I was a little surprised at how arduous these are to make. For the next one I wanted specific things in it that I really loved.

Mike Gabriel

“I wanted it to be based on a love story. I wanted it to be a musical. I thought I wanted to do a western. I was thinking of Pecos Bill and Calamity Jane and Annie Oakley but they’d all been done to death. Disney did them in short form for Melody Time in the 1940s. They were really terrific and I loved them but these ideas seemed tired and dog-eared and then I thought of Pocahontas!

“I know the Eisner-Katzenberg regime loved the fish-out-of-water story. We had John Smith from a whole other land. When I pitched it, Michael Eisner immediately sparked up. ‘That’s it!’ He knew a lot about it. I guess he was working on Disney’s America in Virginia. I didn’t even know about the project.

“I grew up with a burning desire to draw Disney animated features. I took every rejection as a cue to push myself harder. Now that I am a director, I miss the days of working in the trenches, developing characters. On Pocahontas, at first I went back to coming up with ideas for the film.

“A fellow named Joe Grant and I started drawing every day. He is 87. He was Walt’s right hand man on Fantasia and Dumbo. He started in 1933 at the company and was head of the model department back in the 1930s and 1940s. He left in about 1950 and came back about six years ago. He and I had hit it off working on Swan Lake which is hitting a bit of a road block.

“We are simpatico and he immediately liked the idea of Pocahontas so we started drawing little dogs that the villain would have. Then we thought of what Pocahontas would have so he drew a raccoon sitting on a stump and a cob of corn on his head and Pocahontas was trying to shoot it off. So it is a lot of fun at that stage.

“It definitely influences our animated character by who is doing the voice. There are sessions of video recording to check their eye expressions and what their acting is doing. We also do video reference to check out body acting.

“I was delighted and astonished by the professionalism and generosity of Mel Gibson who provided the voice for John Smith. We went to Ireland a couple of times. Mel was so gracious about his time. I have done a number of these and it was unbelievable how accessible he made himself to our picture.

“When we began, he hadn’t even started The Man Without a Face, so he went through that and made time for us. He went through Maverick coming in with sideburns. As he was doing the final Maverick stuff, he started talking about Braveheart.

“Then we went through the making of that with him. In the middle of shooting at eight pm, he would come in freshly showered and miserably sick with a cold. ‘Sorry, I was in the dungeon all day, chained and shackled, have a throat thing here’. I thought he was nice to do this but we came all this way and he has no voice.

“Then we’d roll the tape and he cleared his throat and this glorious voice would come out! We used a lot of bits from that session. After that he invited us into his trailer to see dailies from the battle sequences of Braveheart!

“On the film, our two greatest challenges were showing Native Americans in a positive light and women always being the victim in a Disney animated feature. Pocahontas is the most liberated. The old films were based on fairytales where the mode seems for the most part to be female as victim. Disney just followed the stories he chose.

“That’s one thing I felt with this story – in story meetings it is always talked about ‘Nope, she’s being a victim not proactive’. But Pocahontas is proactive. She saves John Smith’s life. She throws her head over his and takes an active role in the outcome. She is not sitting around in the tower waiting for someone to come help her.

“There was some concern about the absence of a mother for Pocahontas. It is difficult because the chief would have many wives. At a certain age the daughters were taken to different aunts. John Smith’s writings don’t mention the mother role at all.

“Michael Eisner was concerned about the absence of a mother so I tried to find a solution. We had this wind in our movie. Pocahontas has a special relationship with the wind and leaves. The wind became a character in the film for a while.

“Early on I wanted the mother to be deceased and represented by a star. I asked advisor Geraldine Kemas about the spirits of rocks and trees and stars and foam. She said, ‘These are ancestors from long ago’. So I wanted to make a star be her mother. She can relate to the star and the star beam can come down and guide her.

“It didn’t fly with the executives. I tried hard. But it became this fairy godmother kind of thing. When Michael came in late in the process again talking about the mother, I brought up the star thing again. The writers liked the idea but then came back the next day and said, ‘Let’s say the wind is the mother’.

“We already had the wind come in at the last minute to help her. It was better than the star. That’s when I love the collaborative process.”


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