Fans ask questions to the director behind the first Balto movie.
Some may know him as the great-grandson of H.G. Wells, but Simon Wells has been known to have provided plenty of contributions to the animation industry. Starting off working for Richard Williams as an animator for many commercials and Who Framed Roger Rabbit, he has since provided storyboarding service to many DreamWorks Animation films, and has directed several major animated features including An American Tail: Fievel Goes West, We’re Back! A Dinosaur’s Story, Balto, The Prince of Egypt, and Mars Needs Moms. He also had a shot at directing live-action with 2002’s The Time Machine, an adaptation of his great-grandfather’s novel.
Amongst the Balto community however, fans most certainly recognise him as the director of the first Balto movie. The man in charge of providing the underrated classic that has touched the hearts of many people. I was able to get in contact with Simon, and he was more than happy to be interviewed with questions asked by the fans (minus some user-submitted questions we unfortunately could not accept), giving us the chance to to find out many of the unsolved mysteries of the first movie.
Karlamon: Have you seen the two Balto sequels [Wolf Quest, and Wings of Change]? If so, what are your thoughts on them?
SW: Actually, I haven't seen them. I'm not entirely sure why I haven't. I think perhaps the original movie was close to my heart, and I didn't want to see what other people had done afterwards. My daughters watched Wolf Quest many times when they were younger, and enjoyed it a great deal.
Nakou: What did Balto represent for you when you worked on the movie and what does he represent now? What is its place in your others projects? Are you still proud of that movie?
SW: I am very proud of the movie. It was made for a fairly modest budget - less than a third of what Disney was spending on animated movies at the time - but the crew put an enormous amount of care and attention into spending what money we did have as wisely as possible. Overall, it felt like everyone on the movie was putting their best efforts into it.
From [Cliff] Ruby and [Elana] Lesser's first draft of the script that I read, I felt that Balto was a classic animated movie: The underdog outcast who proves to be a hero. I think we all like to root for underdogs, and on some level identify with those kinds of characters. Everyone has felt misunderstood, or at times excluded, and this story gives that character a redemption in the eyes of his town.
I can't claim that Balto has a 'place' in my other projects. I haven't really had the luxury of choosing projects, beyond saying 'yes' or 'no' to projects that were offered to me. But this was a story that I lobbied Steven Spielberg vigorously to make.
(By the way, Steven liked the story, but was concerned that it wouldn't be colorful enough. Hans Bacher, our production designer, made dozens of wonderful small color studies that showed what we could do, and those reassured Steven that the movie would not just be black and white dogs in a white snow field.)
MightyBalto1925: If there's a backstory on this, how did Balto end up living with Boris?
SW: You know, I can't remember now. We made the film over twenty years ago. I think the idea was that Boris had found Balto as an outcast pup, and had stayed in Nome to look after him, so not flown South with the other geese. There is a little indication of Boris being a bit of an outcast too in the small scene on the boat where they see the geese flying overhead, and Balto asks him about it, just before Muk and Luk turn up.
(Useless trivia: I animated the longshot of the geese flying myself - I couldn't bring myself to ask any animator to do such a mundane shot.)
Somes: What was the inspiration behind Muk, Luk, and Boris? Did the staff try to pull characteristics of the character's respective voice actors into the design and personality of Balto's three sidekicks?
SW: Nicolas Marlet had done the designs for the characters before we cast the voices. Although it is common in animated movies to make the characters look similar to their voice actors, on this occasion we did not try to do this. Actually, Phil Collins created the voices of Muk and Luk in direct response to the drawn designs.
But certainly, the actors brought a great deal of themselves and their experiences to flesh out the personalities of the characters. Bob Hoskins' performance of Boris was a lot more emotional and effusive than we had originally conceived the character to be.
Fast As A Shark: What scene in Balto did you find to be the most challenging to work on?
SW: That's really hard to remember now. There was stuff that was surprisingly easier than we had expected - all the snow in the movie was done with an early CG particle animation system, and turned out far better than we had dared to hope.
The principle challenge was delivering a sufficiently lush-looking movie for the budget. We calculated that we could only have a limited amount of visual effects work in the picture, and so we would have to make hard choices between footprints or shadows, for instance. We couldn't afford to do both in most shots. We spent a lot of time figuring out what we could get away with leaving out.
Kitsune99: What exactly made you cast Jim Cummings over Brendan Fraiser as Steele?
SW: That was Steven Spielberg's call. I liked Brendan a great deal, and we did one recording session with him that was terrific. At the time, Brendan was almost unheard of - he had done Encino Man and had Airheads coming out, I think. I had pictured Steele as a kind of school quarterback jock, carried away by his own sense of importance. Brendan fitted that well, but Steven wanted to feel a clearer sense of Steele's inherent evil. Jim did a fantastic job, and totally made the character live, so I don't regret the choice.
Byanca Moureen: Balto is half wolf and half dog. He doesn't know who he is. But I just want to ask. Balto's wolf side is from his father or mother? Who was a wolf? Balto's mother or father?
SW: I always kinda assumed that Balto's father was a wolf, and that his mother had been a working sled dog. (There's probably a Romeo and Juliet-style prequel in that.) But we never state that for certain.
Nakou: I was curious about knowing if you had a precise idea about who the white wolf was for Balto: His mother? Father? Brother? Or just a random wolf with a mystical appearance?
SW: Whether the White Wolf is Balto's father or some kind of ephemeral Spirit of the Wolf is deliberately unstated. The White Wolf Sequence is still my favorite part of the movie, and James Horner's extraordinary score that accompanies it still raises the hairs on the back of my neck.
We wanted to keep it mystical and vague - is this a real event or is it some kind of hallucination that Balto is experiencing? All of these were reasons to not have the White Wolf speak or in any way explain himself. Perhaps the Wolf is a manifestation of Balto's inner voice, telling him to take ownership and use that part of him that he has always been ashamed of - certainly that is the message Balto takes from the encounter, real or not.
(And by the way, if it was really his dad why didn't the old man help him drag the antitoxin up the cliff?)
Cyclone Blaze: In your experience, what's the key for creating a good character?
SW: Character is really in the writing. Good performance animation can support the character, just as good voice acting can deliver on the promise of the written word - and even find nuances in the script that the writer hadn't considered. But fundamentally you can't make a superb character out of a lousy script. Character is not simply the statements that person makes, however. It has to stem out of the REASONS why a character chooses to do the things they do. That is by far the hardest thing to figure out. As Bob [Robert] Zemeckis told me, after you have figured out your motivations, the rest is just logistics.
Cyclone Blaze: Which characters are preferable for a story, bidimensional or really complex characters?
SW: I think it was [Alfred] Hitchcock who said you can only remember five people you meet at a cocktail party, so there should only be five principle characters in a screenplay. This isn't a hard and fast rule, but it is generally true that you only have enough time in a movie to get to know a small number of characters with any depth. Your main characters should have complexity, contradictions, subtlety, and nuance. Secondary characters tend to have simpler defining personalities, and a question and answer kind of arc, if they have any arc at all. Tertiary characters are usually simple archetypes, easily recognized and with characteristics that can be inferred.
MightyBalto1925: When you were developing Dixie, were you working from a specific breed of dog, or is she just a mixture of other breeds? Most of the fans agree that she's a Pomeranian.
SW: Yeah, I think she was intended to be a Pomeranian. I have no idea what a Pomeranian was doing in Nome, but I'm sure there is a backstory to be created there!
Karlamon: For your first two movies at Amblimation [An American Tail: Fievel Goes West, and We're Back! A Dinosaurs Story], you were co-directing with Phil Nibbelink (and two others for We're Back!). What was the reason for you directing Balto solo? Was it an extra challenge without a co-director assisting you?
SW: Phil and I started We're Back and then passed it over to the Zondag brothers [Dick and Ralph] while we developed another picture (that didn't ultimately get made.) We never worked on the picture alongside them. Steven [Spielberg] eventually dismissed them and asked us to return to finish the picture. We had started developing Balto together, but at the time we were looking to develop more movies for Amblimation to make after Balto. It made sense for Phil to peel off and finish up We're Back, then move on to developing a new picture. Before that new picture could materialize Steven got involved in setting up DreamWorks, concluded his deal with Universal and closed down Amblimation.
Nakou: How was it like to work with James Horner? How did you react to the sad new of the plane accident? Could you say something for him?
SW: James was a stunningly talented and prolific composer. He created an outstanding score for Balto, for which I will always be hugely grateful. I can't claim to have had a close working relationship with him. He was working in California, and we were based in London, England. Also James preferred to present his score as the orchestral finished product, and make alterations based on notes from that finished product as opposed to, for instance, Hans Zimmer [The Prince of Egypt], Klaus Badelt [The Time Machine], or John Powell [Mars Needs Moms] who all involved me in the composing process and played elements mocked-up in synthesizers before the final scoring days.
Ronno: Which Balto character do you feel the closest to?
SW: That's a really good question. I think there are parts of all the characters that I sympathize with strongly - you have to feel the character's drive to direct it. I think probably Balto himself is the one I feel the strongest empathy for.
MightyBalto1925: A while back a user on here attempted to decode the Morse code in the film, but came to the conclusion that the code is nothing more than gibberish. But despite their efforts, is their a message in the code (if you can recall), or is it indeed only gibberish?
SW: I wish there was! No, I'm afraid it is gibberish. If I did the film now I would certainly hide an 'Easter Egg' in there. I'm not sure where the Morse Code track came from - it may have been a sample from a sound effects library.
jerseycaptain: Why did the story writers and the production team decide against featuring the many other teams which took part in the actual 1925 Nome serum run? As we know, there were actually twenty-one teams which were intended to participate...one of which didn't, due to being bypassed by the musher of Balto's team (musher Ed Rohn, whose lead dog--interestingly enough--was named "Star").
I fully realize that, in a movie, you need to try and focus on a small cast of regulars and, ideally, one primary protagonist, but there are plenty of aficionados of the actual serum run who have always been bothered by the fact that dogs like Togo, Fritz, Scotty, Blackie, Star (the real one, who wasn't a Klee Kai because they didn't exist until the 1970s), etc., and people like Leonhard Seppala, Gunnar Kaasen, Emily Morgan, Curtis Welch, Scott Bone, Wild Bill Shannon, etc. were forgotten completely in the script (at best, Dr. Welch is indirectly nodded to by the unnamed doctor who is shown).
Plenty of people have long been curious about that. And especially as concerns the lead dog Togo (who led Leonhard Seppala's team). Togo is widely viewed as the major canine hero of the serum run even if each dog which participated did its part very well.
SW: Yes, I read a lot of the contemporary news articles about the real serum run, so I am aware that the original plan had been for Seppala to do the whole round-trip, and it was only after he had set out from Nome that the relay plan was hatched. (The truly stunning thing is that Seppala met the serum relay en route, took a turn and then handed it over to the next team in the relay, and then continued on to Nome and arrived only a day or so after the relay of fresh teams made it there.)
I can understand the concern about how far the plot of the movie deviates from the historical truth, and feel badly for the many families who are proud of their relatives' involvement in the real-life heroics.
The movie is a fantasy based (loosely) on historical events, and concentrates on one character's personal journey - and that character is highly fictionalized, too. We never set out to make a documentary, and in our defense the live-action frame of the film does indicate that what we are being told is childhood memory, and that it is being told to entertain a grandchild, so may have considerable deviations from fact in it.
I know that when the Balto statue was commissioned for Central Park, many people felt that it should have been Togo. But Balto had been the hero of the sensationalist news stories and the name everyone had heard. In compromise, the plaque does not name Balto specifically, but talks about all the sled dogs - which is also why we read it out in full in the final scene of the film.
(Note: jerseycaptain also questioned Simon about the research on Nome's appearance. This can be viewed here due to the length.)
Nakou: How did the idea of creating Balto come up? How did the character evolve?
SW: Balto originated from the writers Cliff Ruby and Elana Lesser. Elana remembers her grandfather telling her the story when she was a child, and had felt it would make an excellent animated feature. Ruby and Lesser had then approached Amblin with a screenplay, and Doug Wood and Bonne Radford passed it on to Phil Nibbelink and me in London.
We read it and thought it would make a terrific feature, and lobbied Steven Spielberg to let us make it. Phil later dropped off the project to finish We're Back, and [Roger S.H.] Schulman & [David Steven] Cohen (plus a few other uncredited writers) did further development. The essential ideas of the main characters were Ruby and Lesser's, although I think the sled dog sidekicks originated with Schulman & Cohen. (If I'm wrong about that I apologize. it was a long time ago!)
#1SteeleFan: Can you tell me more of the backstory of Steele's character in the first film? Like how he was thought up and maybe some information that we the fans may not have heard like if he had a different name or something along those lines?
SW: We originally envisaged Steele as the most popular kid in school; the king of the jocks. He has always
been the best, and never had to really work to maintain his position. In a word: cover-confident. Never having had to try very hard, he is not ready for adversity when it confronts him, and his grip on right and wrong goes away as soon as he is rattled.
I had wanted to cast Brendan Fraser (at the time almost unknown; he'd been in Encino Man and was shooting Airheads) but Steven Spielberg felt a more directly villainous take would be better, and pushed us to cast Jim Cummings (a well-known animation voice even then). Jim did a tremendous job, and we were very happy with the resulting characterization.
Byanca Moureen: I saw a lot of old backgrounds for the film. There were Northern Lights with a silhouette of a wolf, as well as a snowy owl. Can you tell me about this? It's really something mystical for me.
SW: The shape of the wolf howling in the northern lights at the end of the movie was always envisaged as the closing image of the animation, from the earliest script. I'm not sure where the owl image came from. I don't recall seeing it before, but maybe my memory is faulty.
DragonTamer: What do you think each of the characters (such as Muk and Luk or Steele's lackeys) brought to the table in terms of making the movie what it was? Were there any you thought were particularly key in their unique contributions to the finished product?
SW: Sidekick characters are always a useful element in a story. They allow the lead character to explain things to the audience, and also provide comedic relief from tension. The great thing about having silly characters is that they can say the obvious things, the things that smarter characters might be too polite or too sensitive to point out. So the sled dog lackeys are the stupid version of Steele, they back up and enhance his point of view. They also acted as the voice for all the sled dogs, as allegiances start to shift away from Steele and towards Balto.
Acanis: I understand that there were a few scenes that were cut from the final movie and in some cases it would appear that they were even animated as unfamiliar frames from the movie appear on some of the official movie merchandise items such as story books and sticker albums (for example Rosie's father chasing Balto out of the Hardware store). In addition I have been fortunate enough to acquire some of the original artwork from some of these scenes such as the "Barrel Sequence". Other cut scenes/moments include Star ripping Steele's collar off and an alternative Balto/Jenna first encounter.
Sadly it seems unlikely that we will ever see a Director's Cut or Special Edition Blu-ray so could you please give us an insight into some of the scenes that were not included in the final version?
In addition do you know if any of the footage still exists?
SW: Yeah, there were a number of bits that were in earlier versions of the story that we chose to cut down to streamline and clarify the story intent. Merchandising is often put into work before the final version of the story is nailed down, which is why episodes that are not in the film sometimes show up in these ancillary elements.
Ultimately, we felt that things like Balto being shoo'd away from the store was taking a long time to deliver an idea that we could deliver much more efficiently in Rosie's dad's reaction to Balto after the race.
Whereas in live action films the whole script is shot and then the edit is a cut-down of the material available, in animation the script is being written and reworked simultaneously with the storyboarding. So I think some of these things were discarded ideas that were replaced in the development process.
The film that we released was, in effect, the 'director's cut' in that there was no material that I wanted in the movie that wasn't there; I was not forced to cut anything out. And if you did put some of that material back (it only ever existed as storyboards, never finished animation), you'd find that there were repeated beats and the continuity would no longer make sense.
Phalynx: What inspired Balto to be made part-wolf?
SW: Again, this was a concept that was present in the earliest [Cliff] Ruby and [Elana] Lesser script. Balto's half-caste nature is not historically factual at all, but the story is being used as a vehicle for a theme about understanding and appreciating differences. The real Balto was not particularly pure-bred - he was not a racing dog, just the lead of one of the working teams that hauled cargo around the place. There is no evidence that there was any wolf blood in him.
Karlamon: Out of all the movies you've directed, which one would you say you're most proud of?
SW: I am proud of most of the movies I have directed, for different reasons.
Balto I love because it was my first solo-directing experience and the crew were a wonderfully cohesive group who really wanted the movie to turn out well, and put their hearts and souls into it. I am very proud of what we accomplished on a very limited budget, and particularly pleased that it is a picture that continues to touch people's hearts so long after it was made.
Prince of Egypt is probably the animated film for which I get the greatest credit, in that it was a truly ground-breaking movie and had some utterly spectacular animation and effects work in it.
My last picture, Mars Needs Moms, is actually one I am very proud of, even though it did not perform at the box-office. I still sincerely believe in the heart of the film, and had the most fun on it of all the pictures I have been involved in. I made a lot of very good friends and loved going to work every single day of the three years we worked on it - not a lot of jobs are that good.
Karlamon: Any future plans you got in animated filmmaking?
SW: The pictures that I am writing and developing at the moment are live action, although my wife and I have written proposals for several animated movies over the last three or four years. None of them have been picked up, but if they were I would probably direct them. By the time you have written and rewritten a script to the point where a studio feels ready to produce it, you are so familiar with it - and so connected to it - that it would feel difficult to pass it to another director. So although I haven't any immediate plans to direct an animated feature, if the right project came up I wouldn't turn it down.
As it is, I also get a big kick out of helping other filmmakers realize their visions, so I am boarding on a variety of movies - mostly for DreamWorks Animation. Among other things this year I have done stuff on Croods 2 and How to Train Your Dragon 3, both of which promise to be terrific movies.
Karlamon: In closing, we have been so thankful of you for taking your time to answer our questions, and your answers have taught us fans a lot. That, and the opportunity to contact you as one of my animation idols is truly something very special. So again, thank you very much Simon.
SW: You're very welcome! I must say it has been wonderful to see the level of interest and passion that still surrounds our little old movie. It's very gratifying - so thank all of you!