If you haven’t seen Brigham Taylor’s work, you are at least aware of it: he helped bring about Disney’s newfound emphasis on re-telling animated classics as live-action or photorealistic hybrid animated movies. He has a 25-year history with Disney in a variety of positions, and he now heads a company (TaylorMade Productions) responsible for helping produce The Jungle Book (2016), Christopher Robin (2018), and Lady and the Tramp (2019).
I sat down with Brigham in his office, lined wall-to-wall with movie memorabilia, toys, figurines, and even two arcade cabinets and a pinball machine. We spoke about the history of live-action remakes, how they fit into film culture, and what trends he hopes to see in future films. The following is an edited version of that interview.
How did you get involved in producing live-action and photorealistic versions of Disney’s animated movies?
It happened organically! Specifically, when it comes to photorealistic animals, it was the technology breakthroughs that started to allow us to conceive of re-telling some of these stories in this way. There were certain titles that paved the way to understand how this could work. Prior to the first one I worked on—The Jungle Book (2016)—you could look at films like Fox’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) or Life of Pi (2012) and other amazing examples of where the technology and the animation skill had gone. That, and there’s always an interest in looking at which stories felt like they are worth re-telling.
Live-action remakes of animated classics is not a new phenomenon. There was 1994’s The Jungle Book as well as 101 Dalmatians in 1996 and its sequel in 2000, among others. What happened to make the current approach to these movies appealing to audiences?
You look at the history of film, and with technological leaps—like going from silent movies to sound, from black and white films to color—a lot of interesting titles were looked at to ask “How can we reach an audience in a different way.” Ben-Hur (1925) had an amazing silent version, and then later filmmakers decided “Let’s tell this again, and do it in color, in widescreen, with sound” [Brigham is referring to 1959 version directed by William Wyler].
We had cinematically taken this huge leap visually and technologically into this world where you could make realistic things that you could never have done before. That’s one of the reasons we leave our homes and go to the cinema: to go on a visual adventure as well as get engrossed in a story. The confluence of all those facets led to the current regime’s focus on re-telling these stories.
What does the future hold for live-action and photorealistic versions of animated movies? How do you see things evolving?
When it comes to re-telling animated classics, I think more and more about the audience looking to be rewarded with something that stands apart from its original. More and more, I feel like we need to challenge ourselves to find ways to tell stories that are unique, that might be founded on familiar characters and familiar story elements, but ensure that they surprise the audience in some unexpected way. It’s one of the pleasures of going to see films!
I think also that we have gone to a point now where we’ve sort of proven that we can get very close to photoreal. But at a certain point you realize that’s no longer the trick: the trick now may be figuring out how you can use those tools to come back to something that is more impressionistic and stylized, to be able to stretch that medium back into something where you have latitude to create a broader character performance. We shouldn’t get too bogged down in being completely photoreal, because again I think we’ve hit almost an apex there. But now we can come back to a more expressionistic use of those animation tools with the photoreal approach. We can start to have more fun with it!