The Heimlich manoeuvre

A Bugs Life

Joe Ranft is one of those people for whom the phrase 'multi-talented' really was invented. Not only is he the voice for Heimlich the caterpillar in A Bugs Life, but he is one of the top story men in animation. Elise Harris talked to him in 2000.

Joe Raft studied animation for two years before joining Disney in 1980. He worked as a storyboarder on many Pixar and Disney projects, including Tim Burton's Nightmare Before Christmas, Toy Story, James and The Giant Peach and The Little Mermaid.

He is also a 'scratch' performer: "There's a whole group of us here that when we put the film up on reels as the template for what the movie's going to be, we provide the voices for all the characters. So each one of us will do two or three voices on the film, it's just to see if the scenes are working.

"So I was doing scratch for Heimlich - and it stuck.They actually tried another actor and then went back to me - they said "we think you're funnier."

As the voice of Heimlich he has a good idea of the psychology of caterpillars: "He's like a guy who's in perpetual Oktoberfest, you know and he's like a big fat momma's boy. What's great about him is he's got this hook that it's all about food, his whole life revolves around food. Like Donald Duck always gets mad, or Goofy always acts dumb, he's like 'Oh look, are you going to finish that - Oh that looks so good.' Heimlich is like - 'hey it's just a big party'. If someone's feelings are hurt he'll go over and make it better." Joe has also provided the final voices of the little blue binoculars, in Toy Story, and Wheezy the Penguin in Toy Story 2.

He says the process of voice-work is very different to storyboarding. "It's a blast. The work I normally do is like a hundreds and thousands of drawings over the course of years - to try and explore this stuff and there's a lot of labour involved so the spot opposite of that is like the spontaneity of just going in and screaming and doing jokes - it's really, really fun. It's a great way to make a living. I don't make a full time living out of it at all, but it's pretty darn fun."

Of all the charaters in A Bugs Life, which one did he think worked best?
"Some of my favourite characters on A Bugs Life are the flies - they were lots of fun.

"I'm partial to the clowns in the circus, and then also Molt who is Hopper's brother - Richard Kind did his voice. I like the sillier, fun characters. And Flick - I liked Dave Foley, he�s a guy in over his head and I can relate to that sometimes."

He says he got on well with the other voice actors. �"One of the jobs I get to do is I go along to the recording session and I read the other characters' lines opposite like with Kevin Spacey. And just seeing how these other actors work.

"David Hyde Pierce (Niles in Frasier), who did Slim, the walking stick, was just amazing, and he's really super-smart. He would make really great suggestions about his relationship with other characters - for instance between him and Francis [the male Ladybug voiced by comedian Denis Leary]."

A Bugs Lifetook many years to complete. Joe says, "The whole project from beginning to end was probably four-and-a-half to five years, from the first idea to developing the story, then six to eight months writing the script and storyboarding. I was on it for just purely storyboarding for about two-and-half years. "The crew did about 27,600 story drawings. for every scene that's in the movie there�s like five to 10 versions of it that were thrown out or changed.

"We were just looking for it for years just in drawings, little marks on paper. I almost can't take it in when I very first see it, so I get the DVD and I'll just look at some of the scenes and look at all the extra detail in the background and I'll go 'wow - someone really worked hard on that'."

Joe Ranft (1960 - 2005)

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