The 12th Marc Davis Celebration of Animation: Mentorship

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.

11 Responses to “The 12th Marc Davis Celebration of Animation: Mentorship”

  1. Ratul Sarna Says:

    Hi Kevin!
    Thanx a lot for the overview of the event. It was almost as if you recaped the whole thing for us. I saw on the net that this event was going to take place but being in India it’s impossible to attend such events which are so awesome. Thanx for posting your thoughts and notes.

  2. Adam Fontenault Says:

    Hey Kevin, thanks for putting together this overview. I saw a posting about it in the AM forums a week or so back and was once again bummed out about being on the East Coast. Gotta get some of these events to NY City. Anyways, great post, sounds like it was a fun event.

    Thanks again

  3. alonso Says:

    It’s interesting the lack of mentoring in CG. The latest Animation Podcast with Ken Duncan talked about a CG mentoring program set up during Sharktales I think where the mentor basically does the CG keys , breakdowns, and timing charts and the assistant finishes it and adds 2ndary action and 2ndary characters.
    But in general it seems like you need to come in at pro level, that you presumably have gained on your own or at a school. I don’t understand, it seems like a studios biggest resource would be a team that has learned the pipeline and how to work together well, but as I understand it at the end of most productions it’s pretty common for the team to get dispersed. Training also would seem to be a wise investment, it seems like it would cost less money to maintain a talent pool and nurture one then to constantly be getting new people up to speed. I wonder why studios don’t recognize their biggest asset.

  4. Roberto Genito Says:

    Hey Kevin,
    Thank you for giving us a breakdown of the evening it would have been great to attend. I only hope that in time more studios adopt mentors assigned to the new hires, i know from my experience that i benefited greatly from have a mentor in my first CG job.



  5. Ian Says:

    Hi Kevin

    Lately I’ve been experimenting with Jason Ryan’s technique where the animation is drawn first and then imported into the 3D software on an image plane. I realise it’s a technique that’s best suited to broad physical animation, but it did cross my mind that it could potentially be used as a way of breaking up the animation process.

    What if a senior animator roughed out the animation with pencil and paper or a tablet, and the junior animator started in Maya with an image plane that has the senior animator’s animation on it?

    I’m sure it would require a heap of communication between the senior and junior animator, with plenty of opportunities for learning.

  6. Daniel Yu Says:

    Hey Kevin,
    thanks for sharing this post and your thoughts. Man I wish I could’ve been there as well. Too bad I work in Vancouver. Hope to see more great posts soon!

  7. Jenny Lerew Says:

    This is a great rundown, Kevin. Thanks for doing it.
    Before I discovered this (via the union blog) I’d been taking days to do my own recap-so in the middle of it I’ve now linked to your more detailed description here rather than repeat what you wrote(or make mine 3x as long!).
    -I also swiped your jpg of the program. I’ve been meaning to scan it myself…I have to have something up there next to text! Hope that’s okay.

    About the title/theme of the evening: what’s interesting is that it seemed to me that it would have been better dubbed “influences” rather than “mentoring”; none of the speakers had been mentored (in the way most people understand the word) by the nine old men-Pete and James are both much too young for a start. At least, not directly. But all of them have been if not personally mentored absolutely influenced and inspired by studying work of all of those artists.
    In that way, they made use of opportunities open to anyone else today, including your readers here who wish they had a mentor available. Not to say a living, immediate artist working alongside one isn’t important-obviously it is, but it isn’t what these guys were specifically demonstrating last Friday. Andreas showed in particular how much he’s learned from studying drawings individually, as well as looking at the rough animation or watching the films frame by frame or for story, as they all also have done.
    Again–nice post!

  8. Kevin Says:

    Ratul, Adam, and Daniel, thanks for the kind words.

    Alonso, Ken Duncan was talking about the same experiment with animating assistants on Shark Tale that I was referring to in the post. I think part of the reason the studio didn’t try it again was that a lot of the software tools that allowed the assistants to work with the animators were dependent upon the Maya pipeline DreamWorks built, and not long after that everything switched to the proprietary animation software from PDI. Anyway, your point about the cost effectiveness and utility of both mentoring and good training, and keeping a crew together, seem to be lessons that some studios have to relearn and relearn. The hard way, unfortunately.

    Rob, I get a twinge of pride every time I hear from you and your latest animation accomplishments. You were a great mentee!

    Ian, that’s in intriguing workflow idea. It would be well suited to a situation where you had a senior animator who was an accomplished 2-d animator, a junior animator who had good CG chops, and a production that was flexible.

    Jenny, you hit the nail right on the head — it really was about “influences” from some of the Nine Old Men, and not really about mentoring. They absolutely did show how any of us can (with the exception of having access to the Disney ARL) can study and break down the work of those who came before. Still, I think actual person-to-person mentoring is an invaluable, integral part of learing this craft, and I think the industry can do a much better job of it.

    Oh, and no worries about the jpg. I just took it from the Academy site! Keep up the great posts on the Blackwing Diaries. I think between the two of us, we covered that evening pretty well!

  9. Jenny Lerew Says:

    Back to amend my first go-round.
    From my own comment above: “Not to say a living, immediate artist working alongside one isn’t important-obviously it is, but it isn’t what these guys were specifically demonstrating last Friday. ”

    D’OH! I kind of blew it when I said that, because for one thing Pete Docter sought out Joe Grant to learn from and listen to, and while he didn’t work under Joe directly(Joe being engaged here at FA, Pete up at Pixar), he certainly relied upon his wisdom and opinions while he was alive as he expressed beautifully in his remarks(I write these posts too late at night, I think!).

    I think I made it sound like it was ALL third hand from the older generation to the younger…I wasn’t right about that & I know better. Andreas too went to see Milt Kahl every year to hang out and glean all kinds of things…and of course Eric mentioned working around Art Babbitt and Ken Harris in London.

    But the direct mentoring that results from, say, an assistant/supervisor situation is so rare nowadays. Too rare.

    Thanks a million for the kind words, btw. I’m rusty at writing long(er) posts, and as Mike Barrier might put it, I get “windy”, lol. Yours are always clear and concise-bravo.

  10. Kevin Says:

    Clear and concise! Ha! I definitely go for ‘clear,’ but I think I usually miss out on ‘concise.’

    By the way, I don’t think you blew it at all. I think what Pete did with Joe Grant, and Andreas did with Milt, wasn’t true ‘mentoring.’ Not to minimize the seeking out of sage wisdom, which those are good examples of, but I think you need to do exactly what you referred to — work along side — for mentoring to truly happen.

    Again, learning from others by studying their work is invaluable and an important skill. So is being willing to seek out the pearls of wisdom directly from those who came before. Both of those things can happen (and do happen) in CG animation. It’s the actual day-to-day mentoring that I think is much more rare now, at least for character animators.

  11. Carlos Baena Says:

    Wonderful post Kevin.
    Loved reading this man.


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The animation and animation-related musings of Kevin Koch