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About The Filmmaking

"Lilo & Stitch" began with a flash of imagination. A little devilish creature lurking in the background, waiting for a story of his own. No one would imagine that eventually that tiny monster would go on to inspire a lush animated landscape with hearty themes like friendship, the value of differences, and most of all, the concept of 'ohana. What Stitch brought to the world was more than a sneaky grin and a penchant for destruction. He would give a little girl, who stood for more than just the Hawaiian people, but also represented all the nerds, freaks, and quirky kids (plus the grownups they grew up to be) a place where they belonged.

Here is the story of how a random character in a small corner of the mind of an animator grew into a cinematic treasure; a step back, and yet, forward in the world of animation, as well as a true inspiration to people worldwide.

The Beginning

Back in 1985, Chris Sanders began mulling over a small character in his head. He was a mysterious little creature that he envisioned living in a forest, secluded from the other animals, living there because of his ferocious looks. Nothing came out of that idea, and Sanders went on to work at Walt Disney Animation on animated films like "The Rescuers Down Under", "The Lion King", and "Mulan". But the little monster in his imagination never went away, so when given the opportunity to pitch his own story to Thomas Schumacher, President of Disney Feature Animation, the character of "Stitch" was re-born.

With help from Schumacher, Stitch was remodeled into an alien creature, having to cope with the unfamiliar land of the humans, instead of the animal kingdom. With this spark, Stitch's story emerged and was soon joined by a little girl- a girl who befriends this little creature, who thinks is a dog, but is unbeknownst to her being used as a shield for the lost alien. Soon enough, this pair of misfits learn to share a unique friendship.

The Research

Dean DeBlois joined Sanders in the endeavor, knowing each other from working on "Mulan", Sanders as Head of Story, and DeBlois as Co-Head of Story, made things easier. They used to dream about doing their own film for Disney during that time, and once given the opportunity, they wanted to do it right. Chris Spencer, who had never produced a film before (He worked in finance for most of his career), was brought in as producer. The air of inexperience was thick, but with that naivete, great things were born. First, Spencer allowed the directors the unthinkable: full story control. With most animated films, a story development team is set up and the plot, characters, and events are usually brought out through a series of endless meetings. But with Sanders and DeBlois in charge, they had the freedom to make any changes without wasting time.

But with this freedom and the prospect of doing something completely original, Disney must have been very worried. Not only were they stepping back from traditional storytelling, this film would be made the old-fashioned way. Like the films of Disney's past, Sanders and DeBlois wanted "Lilo & Stitch" to look like a storybook. So the art direction couldn't be the glossy or stylish look of the modern era, but a return to watercolors was re-introduced. This concept was truly unorthodox especially since it hadn't been done since "Dumbo" a generation ago.

Through this different approach, the directors wanted to make sure that things were kept simple. Disney was not going to gamble millions on such a crazy concept (first time directors and producer, no story team, done in an old animation style, a quirky storyline, and an unlovable main character?), but the production team was not worried. They were loyal to the idea of keeping production costs down, but also keeping every aspect simple. The story would not get complicated, the art direction was kept modest, and soon the theory of less is more became the mantra.

The Production

The production team of nearly 350 people was set at the Disney Studios in Florida. It was where Sanders and DeBlois had worked on "Mulan," so therefore most of the "Lilo & Stitch" staff were also alumni of "Mulan" (the first fully produced film in Orlando, as opposed to Burbank) as well. With the promise of a return to "old-school" animation and a story with a heart, everyone involved in the production fell in love with their work. An unprecedented loyalty to do a good job ran rampant and many poured more than just their average work hours into their assignments, but also a part of their souls.

Joining Sanders and DeBlois on story were Chris Williams, Ed Gombert, John Sanford, and Roger Allers, who helped sketch and develop the story throughout production. The production designer was Paul Felix; Rick Sluiter handled the art direction. Arden Chan supervised the layout design and Bob Stanton was the head of the background department. Many well-known Disney animators worked on "Lilo & Stitch," including Andreas Deja ("The Little Mermaid", "The Lion King") and Mark Henn ("Aladdin"). Deja was supervising animator for "Lilo Pelekai" and Henn was the lead animator of the Hula Dancers. Other supervising animators were Alex Kupershmidt ("Stitch"), Stephane Sainte Foi ("Nani Pelekai"), Byron Howard ("Cobra Bubbles"), Bolhem Bouchiba ("Jumba Jookiba"), and Ruben A. Aquino ("Agent Pleakley" and "David Kawena"). Working as Lead Animators with Henn, were James Young Jackson ("Grand Councilwoman"), Theodore Anthony Lee Ty ("Captain Gantu"), and Dominic M. Carol (Hula Teacher).

With these craftsmen in place, it was hard to imagine anything less than perfection. The "keeping it simple" approach had not waned in these people. By cutting corners and honing in on the important things, the result became meatier and of fine quality. Shadows and tone were abandoned for bright colors. Underlays and overlays were used sparsely, as to avoid splitting elements. These were to keep costs down, but also to create a different style within the picture. No one else made sure that things were done in a different style more than Sanders himself. His patented "Sanders Style" became the bible for all the animators; one to which they all had to adhere during production. His style was full of simple, rounded shapes with a weighted feel. Objects that would normally be hard-edged or straight were given a "puffed-up" look. Muscles would not be outlined, but rounder outlines were given more precedence. This, of course, was evenly matched with the subject's characters. Hawaiians in general are a larger, puffier people. Besides surfers, most locals do not have the ripped muscles, skinny abs, and tanned torso look (well, they have the tanned part, maybe). Hawaiian girls do not look like the average Disney heroine (Snow White, Ariel, Jasmine, Pocahontas, et al), so for Lilo to look "fluffier" than those who came before her is quite revolutionary. All the people, objects, buildings, even explosions in the film were given rounder shapes, based on a theory founded in an old study that babies cling to circles and tube shapes naturally.

Since the film takes place almost entirely in Hawai'i, the producers and artists had to spend a lot of time researching the Hawaiian landscape. They settled on focusing on the island of Kaua'i, particularly the towns of Hanalei and Hanapepe. It provided the perfect backdrop of a small town in the middle of paradise. Stitch's attraction to large cities would easily be calmed by being stuck on a sleepy island surrounded by water, the one thing in the universe that can slow him down. It was a perfect match. To make sure they got the cultural parts down, the producers visited hula festivals and ended up enlisting the help of Mark Keali'i Ho'omalu, a hula teacher (or kumu) in the San Francisco Bay area, who ended up writing two of the main songs on the soundtrack. His hula school (or halau), 'Ohana, provided the hula reference for the animators during the opening hula sequence with Lilo's hula class. Ho'omalu joined Alan Silvestri, the film's composer, in writing the original songs ("He Mele No Lilo" for the hula sequence, "Hawaiian Roller Coaster Ride" for a surfing scene later in the film). The well-renowned Children's Chorus of Kamehameha Schools (a local prep school for children of Hawaiian ancestry in Honolulu) provided the glorious vocals on both songs.

As in all animated films, the voices are the most important element of the film. Leading the cast was the young Daveigh Chase, who projected the childlike innocence in Lilo's character. Hawai'i-born Tia Carrere and Jason Scott Lee were cast as Lilo's sister, Nani, and the hunky David, respectively. Veteran voice and screen actor David Ogden Stiers ("Atlantis: The Lost Empire") voiced the evil genius scientist Dr. Jumba Jookiba, Experiment 626's ("Stitch") creator. Kevin McDonald provided the comic relief as Agent Pleakley, who is partnered with Jumba to travel to Earth, hoping to recapture 626 for the Galactic Federation. The Grand Councilwoman provides order for the Federation and was portrayed by Zoe Caldwell, while voice actor Kevin Michael Richardson ("The Animatrix") was her right-hand man, Captain Gantu. Although, Ho'omalu wrote and sings the hula songs (or mele) for the soundtrack, the voice of Lilo's Hula Teacher is voiced by another kumu hula, Kunewa Mook, who operates Hula Halau 'O Kamuela Elua right down the street from Disney's headquarters in Burbank, CA. But the most interesting voice of all is for the one character who doesn't seem to speak as much as he grunts. The only logical choice for Stitch's voice would be the person who was crazy enough to create the monster in the first place: Chris Sanders.

The End Result

With the film finally finished after 5 years of hard work, "Lilo & Stitch" was in the can. But would the world embrace it like the Disney gems of yesteryear? Or would it die a painful death like so many recent Disney 2-D animated films? That seemed to be the biggest controversy: Disney's unabashed faith in a hand-drawn movie, when all the critics hailed the demise of traditional animated filmmaking over the technologically-advanced and audience-approved Digital 3-D trend ("Toy Story", "Shrek"). Particularly for a movie with such a strange premise, a chubby Hawaiian girl who befriends a slightly scary-looking alien dog and tries to teach him the concept of family, most critics were very wary.

To promote the film, Disney launched a campaign to introduce their new blue furball friend to the public. The "His Name Is Stitch" teasers incorporated clips from some of Disney's animated classics, but this time Stitch somehow gets on the set to wreck havoc. He interrupts "The Little Mermaid"'s Ariel as she sings "Part Of Your World" as he hangs ten on a wave. Stitch crashes the ballroom's chandelier during The Beast and Belle's romantic waltz in "Beauty & The Beast". Jasmine is swept off her feet by the little alien while Aladdin serenades her with "A Whole New World" in "Aladdin". Rafiki presents Stitch, not baby Simba, to the Prideland denizens in "The Lion King", while they all run away in terror.

In the end, the substance of the story and filmmaking won over the critics and audiences, not any campaign. The reviews hailed the gentleness and easy-going nature of the film. The Wall Street Journal called it "powered by ferocious joy...a visually bold, subversively witty package". Folks also bought the "less is more" mantra. The Journal also said, "Modestly scaled though it may be, "Lilo & Stitch" is top-of-the-line entertainment."

Best yet, people really were attracted to the movie's message: "'Ohana means family, and family means nobody gets left behind, or forgotten." In Hawai'i, the concept of 'ohana is part of daily life (it is also closely associated with "aloha spirit", which is the same idea of welcoming and showing love to everyone). People Magazine wrote, "Not to be downplayed is the picture's noteworthy message: families stick to gether through good times and bad, even when the definition of family (two sisters and an alien) falls outside our traditional notions." The public couldn't help falling for a movie that preached that anyone, no matter how "broken" or strange they are, can be accepted and loved.

The Future

The film went on to gross $145.8 million domestically and $238.3 million internationally. It was nominated for Best Animated Feature at the 2002 Academy Awards (it lost out to "Miyazaki's Spirited Away"). But almost immediately after the film hit theaters, it was apparent to the Disney executives that a franchise was born. A sequel and tv show were soon in the works.

In August 2003, "Stitch: The Movie" was released on Disney DVD & Video. Featuring almost the entire original voice cast, the sequel was directed by Tony Craig and Robert Gannaway (Sanders stayed on board only as the voice of "Stitch"). This story actually worked best as a catalyst for the TV series. It picks up soon after the end of the Original's credits. Stitch has his own room in an attic of the rebuilt Pelekai home. Jumba and Pleakley have also somehow managed to move in as well, and they share a room near Lilo's. Captain Gantu, now disavowed from the Galactic Federation, makes a deal to work with the evil Dr. Hamsterviel, a German-accented hamster who used to be evil-genius-partners with Jumba. After developing 626 experiments, Jumba split with Hamsterviel, and the rodent has been hunting him ever since. Gantu successfully steals one of the experiments (#625) and kidnaps Jumba, before Lilo & Stitch try to free him. After finding out that all 624 experiments reside in Jumba and Pleakley's bedroom, they accidently let one (#221, Sparky) loose on the island of Kaua'i and they need to find it before it's too late.

Needless to say, at the end of the film, things are resolved, but not enough to stop the TV episodes from continuing. The show, "Lilo & Stitch: The Series", airs on ABC Saturday Mornings (6AM) and almost daily on The Disney Channel's weekday afternoon schedule. The series takes off after the sequel and Lilo and Stitch's new purpose is to find each of the encapsulated experiments (Stitch's "cousins") before they cause mass destruction on the island. Usually Jumba and Pleakley are part of the team, and Cobra Bubbles is occasionally called in to help. Gantu, with his new sidekick 625, a sandwich-loving, wisecracking, and pacifist version of Stitch, are also trying to capture the experiments for Hamsterviel's collection. Nani has a new job at a snack shop on the beach, to which David comes by to visit sometimes. Each episode focuses on trying to find each of the "cousins" a useful job in which they can use their individual talents (i.e. a hairstylist job for #177 or "Clip" who loves eating hair).

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