Ralph Fernan: Chicken Little animator
Wednesday, November 30th, 2005
Walt Disney’s newest animated feature “Chicken Little” is making waves at the American box office, as grosses hit nearly $120 million since it first opened three weeks ago.
A very loose adaptation of the venerable children’s story, Chicken Little is bound to be as popular as the other Disney characters. This quirky new character is the archetype 98-ounce weakling, yet children will soon be posing for pictures with his six-foot-tall mascot in Disney’s theme parks around the world.
Nobody could be prouder of this little hero than Philippine-born Ralph Fernan, who was responsible for animating both the title character and his father, Buck Cluck. It was up to Fernan to give life to these two lead chickens. He clearly had the most challenging task of giving the film its heart.
“As you have probably noticed, there are many scenes between Chicken Little and his father,” the 40-something Fernan told Life & Times via phone patch. “So as animator, I had to build a rapport between father and son and make it look realistic.”
Many of the scenes between the older chicken and his tiny son are tender and actually human, and they comprise the best moments of this otherwise rapidly paced CGI movie. Yet Fernan refused to take the entire credit. He attributes the success of the film to a lot of contributors, from the gifted voice talents, the art directors and the overall director Mark Dindal.
With all the talented animators and art directors working on the film, it seems that director Dindal would have little else to do, but Fernan said that on the contrary, he was the central guiding force of the whole production.
“True, we all had our duties but it was Mark who set the tone and direction of the film. He’d advise us in certain scenes and describe their purpose. How the characters should react to certain situations, how the action ought to be depicted and he more or less choreographed entire scenes,” he explained.
It was Dindal who also coached the voice talents, which included major stars like Steve Zahn, Patrick Stewart, Don Knotts and Joan Cusack.
From UE’s pride to Disney’s gem
Fernan was born in Manila and is a Fine Arts graduate of the University of the East. Although he majored in painting, he found himself working on animation. “My first stint with animation was when I was hired by the local studio of Hanna-Barbera,” he said.
“That was in the eighties, not long after I finished college. You can say that it was at Hanna-Barbera where I got my formal training, where I learned the ropes.”
Most children are familiar with many of Hanna-Barbera’s beloved characters — from Scooby-Doo and Yogi Bear to The Flintstones and Josie and the Pussycats.
Fernan was assistant editor of the Hanna-Barbera’s feature-length cartoon Once Upon A Forest (1993), which featured the voice talents of Michael Crawford and Ben Vereen.
Sadly, however, the company was compelled to shut down its Manila studio due to financial difficulties.
As with most of the talented Filipino animators, Fernan decided to seek his fortunes in other countries. There were fewer opportunities for animators in the Philippines, he explained. While others found employment in Australia, Fernan and a few others tried their luck in the United States. Fernan has so far been the most fortunate Filipino animator. He found work at Burbank Studios and was animator for the features of Turner Pictures and Warner Brothers. Among his credits are the highly acclaimed Iron Giant (1999) and Stuart Little 2 (2003).
Not long after, he was hired by Walt Disney and was immediately assigned to Chicken Little. “We started to work on Chicken Little two years ago. It all began with storyboarding and scripts which were continuously revised,” Fernan recalled.
Fernan noted there are several Filipinos working in Disney, both in the production and administration’s departments. “We’re all so proud to be part of this great company. I’ve met Roy Disney, the son of Walt Disney. He looks a lot like his father!” he said.
For Disney, Chicken Little was a major gamble that paid off. It was the first CGI film, the studio produced on its own. (Pixar produced most of its CGI productions.) The studio first adapted Chicken Little for the screen in 1943 using traditional animation.
“Of course, traditional animation will always have its advantages, but with CGI, the work is faster and easier. I would like to work on conventional animation again,” he said.
Fernan resides with his wife and son in Altadena, California. While he’s enjoying his work in Disney, he said he hopes the animation industry in the Philippines would eventually get off the ground. “Then perhaps the talent wouldn’t have to migrate to other countries,” he said.