When 11-year-old Walt, a logical perfectionist, and his eccentric grandfather are magically pulled into a world of paintings, they find themselves traveling through the mazes of M.C. Escher, the brushwork of Van Gogh, the cubist creations of Picasso and the pop art of Roy Lichtenstein. Along the way, a painted villain pursues their every move—and draws the mismatched duo closer together as they put their artistic differences aside to figure out how to get back home.
This colorful story comes from the imaginative minds of Aaron Blaise and Chuck Williams, two Academy Award-nominated former Disney animators based in Martin County. Now independent, the two have been investing their time and money into Art Story, a computer-animated film they seek to release on the big screen by 2016.
The concept for the movie began with an interest in using cutting-edge technology to bring to animated life the masterpieces of artists like Van Gogh and Monet, Williams says.
“The core part of story came together when we started talking about the grandfather-grandchild relationship based on our own relationships with our grandparents,” he says. “The idea of getting them stuck in paintings and telling a buddy story like that really appealed to us. When we found the heart, the core emotion to it, the story took off.”
At the center of Art Story’s kid-friendly plot and dynamic visuals is an elementary introduction to different styles of art. Viewers learn how, for instance, a Van Gogh piece connects to a Gauguin as Walt and his grandfather travel through a series of post-impressionism paintings. Each world they enter depicts a different type of art—classical, fine, modern—as represented in works by landmark painters of each style.
Yet the film’s educational aspect is secondary to its ultimate intent of simply evoking laughter, tears and thrills, Williams says.
“The best stories, if you fall in love with the characters and their goals and their journeys, should entertain,” he says. “You want an emotional experience. You want the sad parts to make you cry, you want the funny parts to make you laugh and the action parts to get your heart beating. [Art Story is] meant to work at that level—and compete. Like the great Disney films and the great Pixar films, we’re trying to make something along those lines.”
Blaise and Williams would know what makes an animated film a hit, having each worked 21 years at Disney. The two met their first day on the job in the Orlando studio on April 17, 1989, during a period Blaise refers to as “the new golden age of animation.”
“Animation in the mid-’80s was about to go away. Disney was looking to shut down the studios, and it was [former Disney CEOs] Michael Eisner and Roy E. Disney and people that saw potential and future who came in and decided to turn it around,” he says. “It started turning around with Oliver & Company and The Little Mermaid, and that’s when we came in.”
At Disney, Blaise and Williams worked on such classics as The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Pocahontas and the Academy Award-nominated Brother Bear, which Blaise codirected and Williams produced.
“We know the honor that it was to be able to be a part of those things. That’s great,” Blaise says. “And on top of it, [Disney is] where we got our storytelling and filmmaking chops. We were lucky enough to be born at the right time to have experienced that.”
Blaise and Williams worked at the Orlando studio for more than a decade, then relocated to Los Angeles for seven years. In 2010, they left Disney and moved to South Florida (Blaise lives in Stuart, while Williams is in Palm City) to help found the Digital Domain animation studio in Port St. Lucie, an initiative that went bankrupt last September. Since then, Blaise has been doing freelance work while Williams has been consulting and teaching at Florida State University’s film school. They hope to one day launch the institute and even produce Art Story in the area, goals they admit seem lofty, but plan to at least develop and pre-produce their movie in Southeast Florida.
Although the animators are confident about bringing Art Story to theaters, not having a clear production future is just one obstacle that makes the film unlike Blaise’s and Williams’ past movies. Their most daunting new undertaking, they say, is rendering every chapter of the film in a different way for each art world. This means designing six to eight versions of the same character, a challenge technically and financially—possibly costing millions of dollars.
To offset costs, Blaise and Williams turned to Kickstarter, a crowd-funding website in which individuals can receive donations for a creative project if they raise their desired amount by a certain date. Offering incentives such as Art Story T-shirts, a tour of their studio and even the opportunity to voice a character, Blaise and Williams set a 47-day goal to acquire $350,000 by August 23. They met their goal a day early, securing more than $365,000 by the deadline.
Of course, raising the funds meant having to tell the world about Art Story early in the production process, also an unfamiliar approach for Blaise and Williams. Unlike their films at Disney, which remained top secret for months until previews were shown, Art Story is an open project: The Kickstarter site displays behind-the-scenes videos of filmmaking and concepts for the movie. The animators plan to create a children’s ebook that tells the story before the film is released. And as pledged, they’ll reward Kickstarter backers with access to blog posts that share casting details, possible sneak previews and more—all this years before the movie comes out.
For now, the open-book movie is still in its early stages. Having raised financial and audience support, Blaise and Williams are concentrating on their next major hurdle: developing the story. The theme of Art Story begins with Walt’s serious perspective and lack of interest in creativity. His perfectionistic desire for control “dampens the color of life,” Blaise says, a concept that will be conveyed metaphorically throughout the film.
“Life is something to be explored and embraced. Enjoy all the colors of it,” he says. “The whole life ahead of you is a blank canvas, and you can live it boring or you can live it to the fullest and look back on the end of it as this great masterpiece that you’ve lived.”