The beloved film “The Little Mermaid” has been viewed and adored by many. People know the story and the words to each song. Not many people know, however, that Cal Lutheran professor Joshua Finkel had a huge hand in the making of the film.
Finkel is not only a senior adjunct professor at Cal Lutheran, but a prominent actor and director as well. Along with being part of the original Los Angeles, the Hollywood Bowl and the national tour companies of “Les Miserables” and the original cast of “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” Finkel was also the live action reference for Prince Eric in Disney’s “The Little Mermaid.”
“I did everything but the voice. I did all the movement and all of the physicalization,” Finkel said. Along with Sherri Lynn Stoner, who was the live action reference for Ariel, Finkel’s job was to bring the film’s storyboard to life for the animators.
This process took two days per scene. Finkel would get the storyboards and vocal tracks for a scene, find ways to physicalize them, rehearse and finally film. On top of the storyboard and script, the actors would also improvise small moments that have grown into huge, memorable parts of the movie.
Finkel was able to create the Prince that so many people have grown to love, beginning with Eric’s physical appearance.
“I used a Shakespearian feel as inspiration as to how I designed the physicality of this prince,” Finkel said. “He’s an outdoorsy guy but he’s still a prince with that regal training,”
The set and props given to the live action references were extremely bare. Often, the actors made the most of minimal props while bringing their characters to life.
“Oh here comes Flounder!” Finkel said as Eric. “And it was a beach ball. You had to talk talk to a beach ball and then they drew in Flounder and the whole thing becomes animated. You really act and use your substitutions.”
Even the famous “Kiss the Girl” scene was done on two office chairs. The crew turned the actors while the camera was facing the opposite way. There were no fish, the actors just made it up based on the storyboards.
After filming his live action scenes, Finkel did not see the finished product until he went to the premier. It was a Wednesday and he was doing “Les Miserables” in New Haven when he took the train to the premier of “The Little Mermaid” to see it in New York.
“I suddenly felt, it was very specific, I really felt like I was five-years-old again watching my very first film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” Finkel said. “Seeing all the stuff that I had done a year and a half earlier and being thrilled that things we created made it in! That bit that we created, oh look, it’s there! And I really saw myself and I saw Sherri Stoner who I worked with, as Ariel, you know you could just really see us in it.”
Finkel’s experience with “The Little Mermaid” translates to his teaching, particularly in his acting and musical theater classes at Cal Lutheran.
“Because animation models are based very much on movement he has taught me a lot about moving as a character and making sure that every move you make is specifically chosen for that character,” said junior Sam Winters, a previous student of Finkel’s.
At Cal Lutheran, Finkel teaches acting skills based on movement and breath, both cornerstones in the work he was doing for Disney.
His real world experience inspires students, especially hopefuls pursuing acting. “When teachers have the experience then they can teach people what it’s actually like,” said sophomore Malissa Marlow, a current student of Finkel’s.
For Finkel, his time with “The Little Mermaid” contributed to his life as an actor and teacher. He also hopes that students who know about his past experience will be inspired as well.
“It hopefully opens the ears to someone who’s learning to understand that I do have my finger on the pulse and I do know what I’m talking about. The skills I’m teaching are not hypothetical. They are practical,” said Finkel.
To find out more about Finkel as an actor, director or teacher, visit his website at www.joshuafinkel.com.
Published November 5, 2014