Last night the Academy (you know, the Oscar folks) staged the 12th Marc Davis Celebration of Animation at the beautiful Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills.
The subject was Drawing on the Future: Mentorship in Animation (a subject near and dear to my heart). My friend Charles Solomon hosted four panelists: Andreas Deja, Pete Docter, James Baxter, and Eric Goldberg. Each panelist talked a bit about ways they were mentored, especially by some of the Disney greats, and showed a clip from a classic Disney film followed by a clip of some of their own work.
Here are a few scattered thoughts and insights I jotted down from the evening. Andreas went first. He spoke about how, when he was animating Jafar, he drew on Marc Davis’ work on Maleficent. After Andreas saw the work going into the Genie and some of the other characters in Aladdin, he realized he couldn’t compete with that kind of broadness, so he decided to underplay Jafar. Jafar would become the dark cloud that hovered over the bright, energetic proceedings of the film.
He recalled Marc saying a tough thing about animating Maleficent was that “she’s a character who stands there giving speeches.” Anyone who has animated acting and dialog scenes knows how difficult, and boring, that can be. Andreas played a clip from Sleeping Beauty that beautifully illustrated how Marc overcame that difficulty. I don’t have time to find and upload the clip right now, but it’s one that I’ll try to upload soon for a little analysis.
Pete Docter spoke of being mentored by Joe Grant. Joe liked to ask the question: “What are you giving to the audience to take home?” What he meant was what part of the animation or story will stick with the audience beyond that momentary viewing. Pete recalled being in school and the urge some students had to do such intensely personal films (“like therapy”!) that they were inaccessible to the audience. He always keeps in mind that, no matter how much we put our own tastes into our work, what gets on the screen must be something the audience will connect with and respond to.
He also spoke of Ollie Johnston talking about the surprising power of physical touch, and how moving it is when one character convincingly touches another. Yes, that can be tricky in CG, where characters simply intersect each other, and lots of digital wizardry goes into any physical contact between characters, but the payoff can be huge. Those physical gestures and touches draw on the power of real relationships, and in animating them we need to draw upon our own experiences and relationships.
He showed a clip from The Jungle Book of Mowgli meeting Baloo (another clip worthy of detailed study), and followed it with a clip of Sully and Boo playing and hugging in Monsters, Inc. Between those clips and Pete talking of his feelings towards his own children, there was a lot of misty eyes in the theater!
James Baxter spoke of learning from Milt Kahl by analyzing his work and deeply studying his original scenes in the Disney morgue. Like many animators, James initially used to use a ton of charts in his work, but he kept noticing that Milt virtually always had a single chart. He wasn’t animating with a checklist of the 12 principles, he wasn’t thinking of individual parts — he had it all flowing together. “It was all there.” A key to Milt’s technique was to do lots of partial drawings of hands, etc. on the inbetweens, rather than devising complex charts for his assistant to follow (as I’ve mentioned before, that exactly the way James works, too). Milt couldn’t explain what he did or how he did it (this from Andreas Deja, who had many conversations with Milt), but James was able to draw important lessons by carefully studying the actual work.
James also mentioned the importance of drawing on the story-artist’s work, and how much Milt and the other Disney animators got from Bill Pete and other great story artists, just as James drew on Lorna Cook’s great boards in his work on Rafiki (Lorna boarded virtually all of the Rafiki sequences, just as James animated virtually all of those scenes). James then showed a clip of King Louie (by Milt) from The Jungle Book, followed by Rafiki from The Lion King.
Eric Goldberg talked about Ward Kimball and Freddie Moore in particular. I became so caught up in the clips that I stopped taking notes, so I apologize. Eric showed a great excerpt from The Three Caballeros, followed by the A Friend Like Me song from Aladdin. When Chuck Jones took a tour of Disney during the making of Aladdin and saw that animation by the Goldberg unit, he immediately connected it with the song in Three Caballeros. Later, when Ward Kimball saw it, he commented, “Yeah, like MTV!”
One of the things that this program highlighted, and that I’ve been concerned with for awhile, is the huge difference in mentoring between hand-drawn animation and CG animation. It used to be that animators began as assistants and ruff inbetweeners, and worked their way up the ranks. For a long time the accepted wisdom was that it took about six years of concerted effort to become an animator. There were exceptions, but long periods of training and mentoring were generally part of the process to becoming a competent animator.
In CG, there aren’t any assistant positions. Pete Docter even mentioned that they’d tried to have an assistant for Doug Sweetland (and I assume for other key animators), but that it hadn’t worked. During Shark Tale production DreamWorks also experimented with animation assistants, but gave up on it after that film. In the CG animation world you basically get the best training you can, and hope to get hired right onto a production. Yes, most studios have “mentors” who are assigned to new hires, and there’s usually a ramp-up or training process, but it’s nothing compared to how it used to be.
When I asked about this during the Q&A, it was encouraging to hear from James Baxter that a few studios were seriously looking at that issue, and my guess is that that’s part of the reason he’s gone back to DreamWorks. This very issue is part of the reason I started doing these posts. There’s so much generous teaching and mentoring I’ve gotten that it feels good to pass some of it on. Of course, I still have as much to learn as I have to teach, but that’s the beauty of animation.
Addendum: Jenny Lerew also wrote a detailed summary of the evening here. As always, the Blackwing Diaries are worth a daily check.