Deja recently spoke with HeyUGuys to discuss his career to date, his work on Winnie The Pooh and the unique techniques Disney use in developing and animating a story.
On his early career at Disney, and their technique of assigning one animator per character
It was my first assignment. They had just finished Fox and the Hound, so I was not involved with that, and I jumped right on to Black Cauldron.
You were doing you own character there, weren’t you?
No, we didn’t have the animator per character system on Black Cauldron. I kind of focused on the boy and the girl, but I also did some scenes with the old man at the beginning, and the witches, and where I was needed. It really wasn’t until The Little Mermaid, when we said, ‘it’s probably better that we assign one animator to one character, because then it’s a bit more streamlined and you can focus on that one character’.
Is that something that originated at Disney, or is that something that existed in the industry prior to you guys?
Disney has always, over the years, gone back and forth. They had movies where they would let animators do whole sequences, for example, in Jungle Book, they would give a whole section with Balloo and Mowgli to Ollie Johnston, the next section to Frank Thomas, but then they would also have characters who were specialised. Shere Khan was pretty much only touched my Milt Kahl. He’s not in the movie much, so he could handle most of the footage – he’s also the animator who did Tigger. So over the years it kind of went both ways, Cruella De Ville was only animated by Marc Davis, he did every single scene with the character, but then other times he would take on the sequence.
You seem to be the new Milt Kahl…
I wouldn’t go that far, but I’m very much inspired by his work and what he’s done.
In terms of the use of the one-animator-per-character technique, is it something you prefer, or do you occasionally look at the script and think, ‘I’d really love to animate Winnie for this sequence’.
I did do a few scenes with Winnie too. There were times when I was waiting for scenes to come through from the layout department, they were late, you can’t sit around, you have to help out. So I did a few scenes with Winnie, and I even did a couple of scenes with Owl, but nothing to write home about. You focus on your own character.
I think it’s best that we do it that way, because you get the most consistency that way. Even though, when characters really, really interact, when they touch, or maybe dance or something like that, you really need to have one animator do that. You can’t break that up when they’re so intimately involved. What happens then, and I did that actually for Tigger, when Tigger bounces on Pooh, Mark Henn would animate Tigger just standing there at the beginning of the scene, hammering the sign in, then as soon as Tigger comes charging in and hits him, then I would take both characters, because they then just roll around, and there’s not much acting involved with that, and I would do both characters at that point.
On character, camera positions and the influence of the animators
Obviously this is a little bit spoilerish, but I think it’s worth discussing. During the movie, Tigger takes on the Bacsun character inadvertently. Did you change the style of animation for him to reflect the change in other people’s perceptions?
It’s more to do with the way he looks. We wanted him to look bigger and imposing, that has to do with staging, and where you place the camera. When Piglet sees him for the first time, it should be believable that piglet would think that he’s the Bacsun and not Tigger, so we stuffed him up with a lot of leaves and grass and gave him this coat and the horns; so it’s more a question of drawing, because as soon as Piglet yells ‘The Bacsun! The Bacsun!’, Tigger, as the Bacsun goes, ‘Where? Where? The Bacsun!’ and he runs away from the Bacsun. So I still kept his personality throughout that section.
You mentioned the camera position there. Obviously the directors have control over that, but how much influence do you have on where the camera’s placed in the scene? Do you ever get to discuss that, or is it a directorial decision?
No, we discuss everything. Even the camera mechanics. If I have Tigger saying something to Piglet, he’s bending down, then maybe he would say ‘I’m the only one’, he would straighten up. Because it was a close-up then I would say ‘I think for the second part of the scene, where he says ‘I’m the only one’ I think we should follow him and get away from Piglet. Is that OK? Would that work for you?’ So yeah, we absolutely talk about those things.
On the way a Disney film goes from idea to animation
I’d like to go on now to talk about the story development process that you use, because it’s very different from live-action film. It’s a case of you guys sitting around and, is it storyboarding first? You get the treatment…
The treatment is usually only a few pages long. We never really type up a whole script like in live action. That, to my knowledge, has never happened. So it might be as much as 15, 17 type written pages, hitting sort of the main chapters, then once you see that there’s a flow in this, let’s start storyboarding.
Then we have the storyboard artists, and the directors hammering that out, and really fleshing out the situations, and then when they pitch the board and it’s working, or changes would have been made, then you film that – it’s like a slideshow on film – and you add the dialogue, the recorded dialogue to that; you time out the scene, and you take care of the editing, from one story sketch, is it a long shot, or a close up?
Even at that stage, it’s still loose, you leave yourself the option to change, then we have a meeting before the sequence is going to animation, we look at that sequence one last time with the animators, and say, ‘is that the best way, the way it edits, or should we insert something here?’ Then the animators have input, and everybody’s throwing ideas back and forth, and we make some changes at that stage.
Everything is an open book. We even say, ‘that dialogue is not even necessary’, so we take that piece of dialogue out. I guess it could also happen where we say, ‘we need something there’ so we’re going to have Jim Cummings back in next week to do that line’. That could happen too. It’s really the final look at a story sequence, and saying, ’OK, how can we polish this the best way it could be, and should be?’
So the dialogue is written at treatment stage?
It is. Or right after the treatment. It’s basically written when they storyboard, because the storyboard artist would also, with the help of the writers, would take these thin strips of paper that have the dialogue on it. Based on that the actor would come in, before the animation of course, we have access to those recordings, and they inspire us for the animation.
I know you didn’t take a lot of inspiration from the actor’s facial performances, but in terms of deciding how the characters look when they are emoting and expressing things, how do you break it down frame-by-frame and make it work?
I don’t know. Over the years you just learn how to act. It really is acting, you know the range of the character, the graphic range, or the emotional range, not that you can’t invent expressions, and add to that, you’re actually encouraged to do that. You can look through the old films and say, that expression has never been done, absolutely you can add that to it. It’s up to you, the way you feel about the character right there, and act it out.
On future career plans
One of the things that a lot of your colleagues have done is transition from being an animator, to a story supervisor, to a director. You’ve not done that, at least, not in features.
You mean change from being an animator to…
To story or directing. I would imagine that you’re in a position where if you chose to do that, you would be listened to and allowed to do that. What’s keeping you back?
To put it very simple, as a director, especially as a director, you don’t draw anymore. That would just be too difficult for me, and not acceptable. You do other very important functions, you are basically in charge of the flow of the story and make sure the story is working, that’s your main job, and then of course you work with the animators slash actors and see that emotionally each scene is acted out in the right way. You work with all the departments, layout, background, story, animators, but you just don’t draw anymore.
One of the old animators said, ‘I got my kicks over the decades by putting a performance on the screen’, I would have to say the same thing. There’s nothing like seeing your work, your acting, up there and how it looks with the other characters. It’s something that these nine old men did for their whole life, and I don’t see anything wrong with that lifestyle. You don’t have to climb up the career ladder to get to the next career level, to get to the next highest salary. It’s not about that, it’s about who you are, and I love animating. That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t be able, or willing to direct a short some time. For a short I would be able to do that, but not a feature film.
I’m actually looking into it now, because we are, kind of in waiting mode at Disney, because the next feature is at such an early stage that there’s time to experiment and do your own thing, so I’m looking to flesh out a little short film.
Is it an original story?
On Disney’s Nine Old Men, and his love of animation history
You mention the Nine Old Men. I know you’re something of a historian when it comes to animation. Are you still planning to write a book on each of them?
That still might happen, but, you know what? That book has been written. John Canemaker, I don’t know if you know his books, he is a New York-based writer. He teaches the history of animation at NYU, and he wrote many Disney books. My favourite one is called Walt Disney’s Nine Old Men and the Art of Animation. It came out about five years ago. Nine big chapters, one on each of the animator’s lives. He did all the research, and he’s a fantastic writer. Very interesting book. Their lives have been documented, and their paths to Disney and what they’ve done.
I just have so much artwork by these guys; I’m a passionate collector of vintage animation art. I’ve been to auctions all my life, I purchased what Frank Thompson and Ollie Johnston have kept throughout the years, I made a deal with them, and I have all that. So there’s a lot of animation drawings all the way back to Pinocchio, and Bambi and Jungle Book, that people have never seen. The interesting thing is that even the studio never kept the rough animation, the animator’s loose drawings. They kept the tied down version, the clean up, the final version of the scene, but the roughs were usually tossed away.
That would be beyond the animatic stage. The animatic stage would be story sketches, where you just see one slide per scene. We’re talking about the first pass of rough animation, where it’s not even detailed yet, it’s just loose. That has the most emotion in it, because you see the animator’s brain at work.
So, the live action equivalent would be the blocking shots?
Maybe one step further, because the animation is already fluid, and the acting is already there. The line is very loose, very rough, but it’s a fascinating stage because you see the animators struggle, where they erase something, and where they just hammered it out to get something worked out. That, to me, is a fascinating stage, because I can see their thought process. I can’t see that from the final frame in colour, I can’t see that from the traced clean-up drawing that an assistant did. If they put it down, the animators, in their work, I can see what they’re thinking.
Is there any way you could convince your employers to allow you to publish those as a book?
It’s very difficult to get something published at Disney. There’s a lot of people who question how commercial a book like that would be. What I will do, as soon as I get back, is start a blog. I’m going to put these images in high-res on there with little comments, and I can use that as a reference point, when I do get a publisher, is say, ‘it’s this sort of art. it’s those kind of comments. I’ll be that kind of book’.
On what he would have done if things had turned out differently
You’ve been at Disney your entire career. Had it not worked out, had you not been at Disney, had it gone another way, what would you have liked to have done?
I totally had a ‘Plan B’. I was crazy in terms of drive, and thinking ‘what if that doesn’t work out?’ ‘Plan B’ was Richard Williams Animation in London. I’d visited them a couple of times before I went to America, and had taken my show reel and my portfolio to them. I had not met Richard because he was always in the States when I was visiting, but I talked to his production people and they said, ‘if Disney doesn’t work out, come here. We do commercials, but really high end commercials.’ And they were incredible. That studio, and other studios too throughout the 60s and 70s did classic work, beautiful work. That was my ‘Plan B’, to join Richard Williams animation.