Paula Sigman Lowery has been associated with Walt Disney her entire life working at Disney Character Voices as well as the Walt Disney Family Museum.
This week sees Cinderella released on Blu-Ray and I caught up with her to talk about the movie, the development of Disney characters and what makes this animation studio so special.
- Cinderella is now out on Blu-ray so what do you think this has been such an enduring movie?
I think Cinderella as a film has endured all these years because there are universal truths to be found in the characters and the story.
The story dates back to China in the 9th century and there have been more than 1,000 versions of it around the world, and the Disney version captures the essence of it.
The excellence is in the animation - in creating this world as paintings come to life, making drawings not only that move but which move people emotionally.
The essence of people basically hasn’t changed so if they were moved by it in 1950 and if it touched their hearts, it’s going to move them and touch their hearts in 2012.
- Cinderella was released back in 1950 so was the character an accurate depiction of women at that time?
It was very common for women in the 1950s to have their world be the home and to be involved in housekeeping and domestic duties, and that’s absolutely Cinderella’s role in the house she lives in.
Women of that period could relate to her. She dreamed of something more, and I think women of that period - whether they were at home or were starting to go out into the workplace - dreamed of adding value to the world around them, just as they do no now.
- Female characters obviously play a huge part in Disney movies - The Princess and the Frog and Tangled being the last releases - so how have we seen female characters change and develop over the years?
The way Disney heroines have changed over the years is that they are taking more steps to control their own destinies, just as young women do today.
- And while we have seen the female characters develop, how much more development do you feel is needed to truly reflect women today?
I’m not sure there needs to be any. In a sense they’ve always got it right. We get new storytellers, new animation artists and a lot more women directing and having lead roles in animation.
I think they will continue to reflect the concerns, issues and values that young women hold today. And you don’t need to set a story in the present day to reflect the times. In fact, when you do set stories in the present day what can happen is that if all the humour and all the elements are tied to a specific time period you’re taking away from the timelessness of it.
There are a lot of gags in Aladdin for example that rely for some of their humour on you recognising the source, on recognising some of the caricatures that Robin Williams is doing as the genie.
However, the filmmakers were smart enough that it works even if you don’t get the references, but that is a very tough thing to do. You have to have universal elements that will make the film play well in 10, 50 or 100 years’ time.
- Disney and Pixar are a great combination and this year Brave was the first time that they had used a female lead so what were your thoughts on this development?
I think she’s a wonderful character. I really felt for her. I felt that here was a young woman who goes off sometimes in the wrong direction but that’s what young people do - they have to make mistakes in order to find their own way.
- And it is a movie that has been incredibly well received so there is clearly an audience for the strong female led animation movie. Will Disney give this some further thought?
It’s very positive for Pixar to create their first female lead, but they’ll continue to find characters that everybody responds to and recognises - and whether that’s a male or female is less important than the values and stories.
Walt Disney had stories with female leads and male leads. It’s whatever serves the need of the story.
- Over the years the likes of Snow White, Jasmine, Ariel and Belle have all graced the big screen. Do you feel that any of these characters was before her time?
Because of the universality of the characters, they’re not only of-their-time they’re characters that will be understood by people further down the line.
I don’t think they’re necessarily pushing the boundaries. Sometimes when you push the boundaries too far you lose the recognisability for the audience that’s watching right then and there.
- As the years have gone by there have been major changes in technology so how has Disney had to change to keep up to date with these changes?
It has always been a company that has embraced new ideas and new ways of doing things. It’s always been at the forefront of developments in new technology.
That’s something that’s going to continue because it’s inbred into the Disney philosophy.
- While animation has gone CGI The Princess And The Frog nodded back to the traditional animation back in 2009, so will there always be a place for this at Disney?
I hope there always will be. I know many of the animators have enjoyed moving into the digital world, but I think there’s room for all kinds of art and artists.
There are some animators who would much rather be holding a pencil in their hand and finding nuances in the shape of the line that comes directly from them as a person as they hold that instrument. That’s something I don’t think technology has caught up with yet.
- We have seen the likes of The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast re-released in 3D, reaching new audiences as well as older audiences returning to these movies, so what makes Disney so special?
What makes Disney so special is the care that is taken with the storytelling and in finding a story that has an emotional thread from beginning to end.
You can enhance the presentation through the new technology of turning these films into three dimensions, but it’s not necessary in terms of telling an effective story - it’s just another way of looking at it and the characters and the stories are the same. That’s what is most important.
- Back to Cinderella and Lady Tremaine is the villain of the movie but where to you think she ranks amongst Disney villains?
She doesn’t have magic and she doesn’t command great power. She has very limited power but she uses it very well.
She’s an incredible villain because she’s very cold and subtle. She doesn’t make grand gestures, but she’s someone who has absolute control over Cinderella and she uses it in a way that is very chilling.
- You have long been linked with Walt Disney, founding Disney Character Voices and working on The Walt Disney Family Museum, so where did your work with Disney develop?
As a child I got involved with Disney in a sense because I was seeing all these films and going to Disneyland, but my professional association began after I graduated from library school - as a reference librarian and also a children’s librarian because fairy tales were my speciality.
It turned out at that time, which was in 1975, that the Walt Disney archives had an opening for someone who could do reference research and the dean of my library school called me and said 'I think you’d be really good at this'.
So I came to the Disney archives and spent 15 years there. Working in the archives introduced me to animation, filmmaking, music and art, and I spent an additional five years at Disney Character Voices writing scripts.
I also worked with the Walt Disney Collectors’ Society, which was the first official fanclub, trying to share the behind-the-scenes stories with the members of the society.
I left when my daughter was born, but in a way I never really left Disney because I continue to work as a consultant and a writer for many different areas of the company as well as working with the Disney family in the development of the Walt Disney Family Museum. I have been associated with Disney my entire working life and I hope that continues.
- Finally what is next for you?
I’m working on an exhibit this year in Japan on the life of Walt Disney. It’s felt that during the country’s recovery after the devastations of the earthquake and the tsunami that the story of Walt Disney and his ability to never give up in spite of tremendous difficulties would be inspirational.
It’s a travelling exhibit that opened in April and I’m a consultant on that, and I’m also continuing as a consultant for the Walt Disney Family Museum.
Cinderella Diamond Edition is available now on Disney Blu-ray
FemaleFirst Helen Earnshaw