Quick, somebody call Michael Eisner: The halls of Disney Online boast as much Mickey Mouse spirit as a post-lawsuit Jeffrey Katzenberg. Employees working on Tarzan.com, the website devoted to the studio’s latest animated extravaganza, sport slacker chic ranging from cargo shorts to tattoos; a Ping-Pong table sits folded up on the floor; and the only clue that you’ve stumbled upon a spoke in the Disney corporate wheel is someone’s 3-D portrait of Jesus sporting mouse ears. It all smacks more of Silicon Valley than the happiest place on earth. Sacrilege, right?
But for Disney, turning corporate tradition on its head may be the path to a better mousetrap. “Disney’s been more aggressive in using the Internet as its own medium,” notes Jupiter Communications analyst Anya Sacharow, who sees the studio as running neck and neck with Sony and Warner Bros. in the race to snap up an online audience. With the May 25 launch of Tarzan.com (www.tarzan.com), the studio is making a full-fledged effort to bring animated storytelling to the Web: Besides the requisite story nuggets, trailers, and cast bios, the site blitzes visitors with story-driven games, a how’d-they-do-that demo of Deep Canvas computer animation, and Phil Collins chirping the soundtrack single “Strangers Like Me” in five, count ’em, five languages. Not surprisingly, all roads lead to shopping, with products ranging from posters to a $200 watch only a click away.
With online buzz building (Tarzan.com has already logged 1,100 percent more hits than the Bug’s Life site did six weeks prior to release), this is a far cry from the studio’s strategy in 1995, when creating a Web presence for Toy Story was practically an afterthought. Now “the Internet as a whole is mission critical to Disney,” says Disney Online founder and top dog Jake Winebaum. “On the Web, we’re a marketer, a publisher, and an e-merchant as well. We’re not just a presence but a real business.” Internet synergy peaked this March with the overhaul of Disney.com, a hub page that now redefines one-stop shopping by lumping everything from homework help to vacation planning under one URL. “We’ve integrated the Internet into every aspect of Disney, from theme parks to cable networks,” says Winebaum.
Still, the freedom to wear shorts and the power to “refuse to play the business-unit game,” according to Disney Online senior VP and general manager Ken Goldstein, didn’t make launching the world’s favorite swinger onto the Web any easier for the staff of 25 engineers, writers, and programmers. When the feature-animation department introduced its revisionist take on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ rusty characters at an introductory “rollout” last October, the online concept team, led by art director Adam Breivis, was faced with conjuring up 15 story lines based on little more than drawings, rough plotlines, and the original text. Neither a script nor a rough cut would be available by the time the Web pitch was due in January. “That’s all nondisclosure, even for anybody in the company,” explains website writer Chris Gortz.
But Breivis, Gortz, and artist George Stiehl knew that Tarzan needed to be pushed beyond what Breivis describes as “that Cheetah-and-Boy, Saturday-morning thing between episodes of The Three Stooges” and closer to supervising animator Glen Keane’s hipper, sportier version of the character. The question was how far to strain the limits of the average family’s tech savvy. “It’s a real issue for all movie websites,” says a Web guru at a rival studio. “How far do you push the consumer with technology without alienating them?” Though conservatively setting the bar for a 28.8 modem, Disney opted to make such Web-browser plug-ins as Shockwave and Flash required in order to view the site’s animated games — a tricky proposition for a fan base still at tantrum-tossing age. “If you can’t install Shockwave for some reason, then I’ve got a problem,” admits Breivis. “I want to create a website everyone can use.”
By the middle of March, the 15 story lines had been whittled down to 4 and handed off to the production team, but getting Tarzan and the gang animated was hardly child’s play. Limited to half the 24 frames per second common to film, the Tarzan.com team had to scrap such complex Web gimmicks as characters vine-swinging straight toward the viewer as “too processor intensive.” Nor were sluggish downloads the only constraint. “There are people who train for years to draw these characters, and we had about a month to do the whole project,” says site writer-producer Robin Levey.
Rather than generate their own artwork, the team instead went through “stacks and stacks” of pencil sketches from the movie itself, photocopying, scanning, and tweaking 286 images for Flash animation in just two weeks. Meanwhile, the engineering team had one month to flesh out “games that, you know, aren’t solely about smacking something,” according to Disney Online senior producer Jung Suh. Tasks ranged from ironing out programming hiccups to blocking children from logging on to multiuser games with the moniker Ph**ck. “Kids are clever,” shrugs Suh.
Despite the hipster togs, the mostly twentysomething staff approached the long hours spent in the office’s endless maze of cubicles with the enthusiasm of true Disney devotees. But even the hardiest souls couldn’t always bring themselves to whistle when they worked late into the night. “I’ve probably made all these guys pretty angry,” says Suh. “But it’s rare that we can just put something out very quickly and easily. You can’t foresee the hurdles.”
On the bright side, the relentless grind was often disrupted with approval meetings. Lots and lots of approval meetings. As Tarzan.com neared launch and the mothership’s quality-assurance department was called in, face time with marketing execs was bumped up to daily status — with no guarantees that the online team wouldn’t be sent back to the drawing board. “No one’s looking to say, ‘We don’t like it, start over,'” says Breivis. “But, even so, there’s no flexible deadline here. You knock on wood.”
Luck isn’t likely to run out for Tarzan.com. With the movie being trumpeted as the second big event of the summer (after Lucas’ little space flick), chances are that the site will be the commercial and promotional success Disney’s been hoping for, luring fans to not only play a few games but also check out a banner ad and prepurchase a movie ticket or two. By then the Disney Online team will have already moved on to Toy Story 2 and Fantasia 2000 — but not without regrets. “There’s no way, but we’d love to spend a year on it and make it really, really, really cool,” sighs one Tarzan.com artist. Who knows? Maybe this is the happiest place on earth.