25 Years in the Animation Industry

Andreas

Here is a letter written by Andreas Wessel-Therhorn, former animator at Walt Disney Animation Studios.

Wessel-Therhorn’s feature film credits include The Thief and the Cobbler, A Goofy Movie, Balto, All Dogs go to Heaven 2, Space Jam, Hercules, Tarzan, Fantasia/ 2000, The Emperors New Groove, Looney Tunes: Back in Action, Home on the Range, Curious George, and The Princess and the Frog, to name a few.

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Transcript:

When I was approached to write a letter of encouragement to young animators, I was searching my brain for nuggets of wisdom. Alas, none came to mind.

So I thought I’d tell you a bit about how I came to animation and how I managed to stay in it for the last 25 years and let you take from it what you may.

Born into a black and white 1960’s Germany, I was powerfully drawn to the colorful and magical world of Walt Disney. Nothing was more exciting than seeing a poster announcing a new feature or a re-release of a classic I only knew from my beloved storyteller records. And I dreamed to somehow be part of that world.

I always drew a bit, but thought I had little talent for it. It didn’t come easy to me. When I was 15, I happened to meet Hans Bacher, designer and Disney expert (and later art director on films from Balto to Mulan) and a young student of his, Andreas Deja who had just been accepted to work for the Walt Disney Studios.

Hans encouraged me to work on my drawing skills if I was really that passionate about working in animation. And so I did.

He pretty much destroyed my first portfolio, not mincing his words. So I followed his advice to look, to understand what I saw, to not hide my shortcomings behind bad shading and slowly, gradually, my drawings improved.

I then studied graphic design, though I never intended to work in that field, but it was the closest thing to animation available to me and something like CalArts was way out of reach.

Some of my professors thought little of my interests, but I met a fellow student who did and we decided to join forces and make an animated music video. As luck would have it, our film was spotted by a TV scout and he purchased the rights to show it as part of a political satire program.

And again, Hans Bacher was instrumental in our careers. Two of his students had just been hired to work on Richard Williams’ legendary ‘Once’, better known as ‘The Thief and the Cobbler’. With his recommendation, we flew to London and interviewed with Dick, who wanted young and enthusiastic  people not yet set into a particular style and he hired us on the spot.

So that’s how I got started in animation. After 2 years animating on the Thief, I moved on to Disney Paris for ‘The Goofy Movie’, then Amblimation and the London commercial scene. After an unprecedented animation boom in London that drew talent from around the world, feature work dried up and relocated to Los Angeles. While I decided not to move with Amblimation to the newly formed DreamWorks, mainly to not leave my boyfriend behind, work became more sparse and I attended a talent drive for Walt Disney Feature Animation. I was offered a position on their upcoming ‘Hercules’ and, after a lot of thinking and discussions with my partner, I accepted and moved to Los Angeles in 1996.

It is hard to describe what working for Disney meant to me after being such a fan for most of my life. The possibility to work amongst amazing artists, to walk around the studio lot where my childhood was created was sheer bliss. I won’t list the other projects I was lucky enough to have been a part of, that is what IMDB is for.

Then, as we all know, it all came crashing down when Disney decided to dismantle their traditional animation department in favor of computer animation. And my world came crashing down with it. I was heart broken. After having been part of the ‘Disney family’, this felt like a death.

While I admire and enjoy a lot of CG animation, I didn’t feel the passion for it that made me an animator in the first place and, against all reasoning, I stayed with pencil and paper.

While it is fair to say that I don’t experience the thrill of my Disney years anymore, I also don’t suffer the crushing disappointment.

I was lucky enough to be part of the ‘Princess and the Frog’ team, even though we eventually failed to breathe new life into hand drawn animation at Disney. And while it was nice to be back, I didn’t let myself become as attached to the studio as I was before. Leaving a second time was a lot easier that way.

Over the years I worked for Disney, Warner Bros., Universal, DreamWorks, Duck Studios, Uli Meyers Studios and various others.

These days I work on commercials, TV specials, shorts, featurettes and still animate Disney characters for special projects such as theme park-related shows. I am also currently finishing up my own short film. Well, there it is, my career in a nutshell. Let me try and draw some conclusions before you draw your own.

  • The love for animation alone is not enough to start a career. You have to prepare and improve your skills. This is a craft like any other and requires the mastery of certain techniques. To paraphrase Tiana’s dad: “You can wish upon a star, but you have to back it up with hard work.”
  • Luck plays a big part in any career. I was fortunate enough that, just as I was ready for it, there were many opportunities in hand drawn animation.
  • While I have never been the most talented or inspired, work ethic and professionalism go a long way. Don’t over promise on what you can deliver but deliver what you promise. Especially in today’s market, where a ‘ramp up’ time is very unusual, one needs to be ready to jump into a job, adapt to a style quickly and get on with it.
  • Working around the clock, while occasionally unavoidable, is not something to be proud of and is seldom productive. I find that, after a long 10-12 hour day, the concentration wanes, the drawings get sloppy and you end up spending half the next day fixing the problems you created when you were tired the night before. Work hard- then go home and have a life.
  • No career stands alone. I had help from various people over the years, in small and in large ways to which I’ll always be grateful for. Our business is a team effort. Keep the diva on the back burner and don’t burn bridges you may have to cross again.
  • I wish you as encouraging a partner as my husband who put up with me living half way across the globe to follow this crazy calling.

And finally, as Wollie Rheitherman predicted in a letter to a teenage me:

“Work on your drawing skills and you will find this a very rewarding career.”

I still do and I hope you will too.

Best wishes,

Andreas (signed)

Letter to the Younger Bancroft Brothers

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Here is a letter written as a joint effort by the Bancroft brothersTom and Tony Bancroft, both former animators at Walt Disney Animation Studios. Currently, Tom is the Art Director for The Christian Broadcasting Network, and Tony is a director at RGH Entertainment.

Tom’s feature film credits include The Rescuers Down Under, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King, Pocahontas, Mulan, and Tarzan, to name a few. Check out Tom’s book, Character Mentor Studio.

Tony’s feature film credits include The Rescuers Down Under, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and The Emperor’s New Groove, to name a few.

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Transcript:

“The Old Bancroft Brother’s letter to the Younger Bancroft Brothers’”

Lessons learned (so far) in a career of 25 years in animation

By Tom and Tony Bancroft

 

Dear Tom and Tony (the younger and more stupid),  

We know that acne is a big bummer but it will go away.  We know that girls ignore you and… well, that will continue for a long time.  And that’s mostly because of your passion for drawing cartoons and reading comic books.  But don’t worry, the world is changing and soon the geeks will rule the world!  So, keep drawing and take these lessons to heart in your life and animation career:

1) Have a direction.

Tom: One summer day when Tony and I were about 10, we were with a couple friends playing.  Soon, the games stopped and we sat there bored, trying to figure out what to do next.  Star Wars (the original film) had come out recently, so naturally one of us said, “Let’s build a robot!”  That led to a mad dash to our garage where (in our minds) tons of robot parts were laying around in the form of nuts, screws, and random pieces of machinery we could take a part and make into a working, talking, walking, friendly robot.  We just knew it was in that garage, just waiting to be put together and become our afternoon- or life long- entertainment!  We all sat at our workbenches with our pieces of junk, tools laid out in front of us, and excitement in our hearts.  I remember this part like it was yesterday: I looked at the tools and pieces and it took me about three seconds to think, “What am I doing?”  We HAD NO IDEA how to make a robot!   But it also hit us real quick that even with the tiny amount of knowledge we had about advanced robotics, the pieces of junk we had in front of us would NEVER make a robot.

I have often thought of that story in my animation career.  During those younger years, not having a direction defined my art.  I would often watch an animated cartoon or see a great comic strip, get inspired, and run to my sketchbook wanting to harness that passion and create something great!  I would start sketching and with each line I put down I got more confused.  With each stroke of the pencil, the drawing would get stranger and stranger, the character’s pose was unclear, the expression bland, and I would soon stop.  Frustrated, I would shut the sketchbook and stop drawing for the day.  It only takes that happening a handful of times before you stop for months, maybe years, and possibly the rest of your life.  Passion is one thing, but true art has a reason.  Whenever I sat down with an idea of what I wanted to draw- even something simple, like “a silly looking dog”- then the drawings often turned out much better.  It took me many years to learn this.  My first animation test at Disney, I got so excited to get it done and see it moving that I forsook finishing my thumbnails.  I started animating with no clear idea of where my character was going or what it was doing.    I started animating “straight ahead”, making it up in little chunks.  Even shooting those little chunks so I could “check” to see if it was moving okay.  I’d animate the character into a pose, then think what he could do next, then animate that action, then repeat, repeat, repeat.  I ended up with what I call “animated spaghetti”.   It was moving alright- it was moving all over the place- but it wasn’t coming to life!    I was 10 years old trying to make a robot.  I made the hard choice to throw everything away and start over.  I finally realized that the character wasn’t going to come to life unless I made a plan and took the steps- start to finish- to get there.  I thumbnailed out the entire scene and carefully acted out what that character should do.  I asked questions of “why” the character would do what he was doing.  I pushed myself to come up with funny situations for the character that hadn’t occurred to me yet.   Only once I had a real roadmap, still made with passion, did I sit down to start animating it.   I took a slight moment to do a few key poses throughout the animation so I could have something to animate “straight ahead” into.  They would be my reference to where I was going and would also help me not make the character grow and shrink as I moved him across the page. The animation flowed smoother than ever before!  As I animated, I did move away from my thumbnails here and there, but only because I had an even better idea or pose in the moment.  I could go back to the thumbnails for my original direction.  In the end, it turned out pretty good.  It got me promoted to animator also.   That animation test was a first step to truly learning that without a plan, its all a pile of nuts and bolts that will always just be junk.

2) Be confident.

Tony: This is probably the polar opposite of what you feel when you pick up a pencil to create.  I know it was for me when I was as a young artist.  Feeling confident in your drawing, animating, sculpting, painting or anything artistic can be the difference between success and utter failure (depending on how you judge success in your work).  For me, I usually judge a drawing as successful if it communicates my intent to myself or others around me.  When I was young, success would be judged by my Mom when she came home and I held up a drawing that I did and said, “Look, Mom! What do you think?”  In your professional animation career success will be judged by an invisible audience who turns on the TV, buys a ticket to the movie or plays your video game.  The idea of the effects of confidence on my daily work didn’t fully hit me until I worked at Disney with Glen Keane.  Glen was taught by Ollie Johnston who taught him the importance of confidence in his work.  Ollie used to tell a story about his mentor, the legendary Freddie Moore.  Freddie created the popular version of Mickey Mouse that we know and love today.  He, like most artists, struggled with his own demons of not being good enough or talented enough for the challenges before him.  In fact, he was known to have a routine before starting a big scene.  He would go out into the hall outside of his office and ask his friends how much they liked his work.  As if on cue, he would hear them call out in unison, “Freddie, you’re the best!  Freddie, your scenes are the stuff of legend.  No one can animate Mickey better than you!” and so on.  Freddie’s chest would puff up and he would swagger back into his office and attack his scene.  Whether false or not, once he was filled with confidence Freddie Moore created some of the best animation of all time.  He relied on that confidence to wage war on his doubts and clear the way to a place of connection between himself and his work that created magic.  When Glen Keane would talk about confidence it was specific to knowing your character.  What it was doing, thinking, or feeling.  Glen was investing himself into his work with the confidence of knowing what he was GOING to create before it came out of his pencil!  He once gave me a drawing of Ariel and instead of some humorous pun like “I’m glad to be A Part of Your World–Glen Keane” he signed it, “Make those drawings LIVE!”  The only way to imbue life into your animation is to put your WHOLE self into your work.  The only way to truly do that is to erase timidity out of your mind and to replace it with CONFIDENCE!  This lesson comes by way of Freddie Moore to Ollie Johnston to Glen Keane to me and now–to YOU.  Be confident.

3) Never stop learning.

Tom:  I used to look up to top cartoonists- not for their money or fame- but because they could draw whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted.  In my childhood artistic viewpoint my ultimate goal was to be able to draw whatever I could think of- perfectly.  That’s when I would know I made it as an artist, I thought.    That’s when I could relax and stop having to practice, learn, and strive.   I would have all the answers and just be able to express anything on paper to the enjoyment and amazement of the world.  That was my dream.

But it still hasn’t happened.  I’m 46 years old and I learn something new about art, drawing, animation, cartooning, and life- everyday.  And I love it.  I WANT that now.  I don’t want to be the BEST artist in the room, if possible.  And it took me a little while to learn that.  I started seeing hints of that the first days of going to CalArts.  Tony and I had gone from having the title of “best artists in our high school” to a classroom FULL of the “best artists in their high school”.   For the first time, we were faced with true competition and even better- new talent to learn from.  And that was just the students.  We then met our instructors: The late, great Joe Ranft taught us Story, Disney animator (and now director of “Frozen”) Chris Buck taught us Animation, the incredible Mike Giamo taught us Character Design, along with the occasional guest lecture by Glen Keane and Brad Bird.   All were in their primes of passion for what they did and each one spoke about new things they were learning on the projects they were working on at Disney and other studios.  Wait- these incredible talents- professionals at Disney- were still LEARNING?  And they were passing on these newfound lessons onto us?  It blew my mind.   From that point forward I discovered that there are so many aspects to what makes a person truly great at anything that there is no stopping point.  There is no mountaintop to being an artist.  There’s always a new challenge.  And, I also discovered, the BEST Animators/Artists SEARCH OUT new challenges to make them learn more and grow!  To be a GREAT animator you have to learn acting, drawing, anatomy, movement mechanics, film, timing, pacing, editing, and a million other nuances of life.  How can any one person know it all?  Additionally, each new element learned folds into the knowledge base you already have and compounds so that everything else you know is even better.  Learning sculpture makes your drawings better, learning painting makes your sculptures better and on and on.   My old dream was to hit a peak and be able to coast on my artistic ability, but now I realize that that will only lead to artistic death.   I now hope for new challenges and the passion to learn from them.

4) Make friends not enemies.

Tony:  Every “good thing” I received in my career came because of a friend or a close relationship.  Every job, every promotion, every opportunity.  Everyone.  When people talk about success in Hollywood as being because of “who you know” it is just as true for the animation industry.  This is something that is little talked about in art school but your instructors and classmates maybe the reason you get your first job in animation.  It was for me.  I had just finished my freshman year in 1989 and I needed a summer job to raise funds for my next semester of college if I was going to continue on at the very expensive and celebrated California Institute of the Arts (CalArts).  But I also wanted the job to be in animation if possible.  Everyday I went to the school’s job board to find, well….nothing.  Then, through an upperclassman, I heard that Ralph Bakshi had hired several upperclassmen to work on The New Adventures of Mighty Mouse, which he was producing at his studio in the valley.  I knew that a freshman like myself didn’t have a hope of getting an artist position but I was willing to do anything to be around animation and make some money doing it.  Somehow I acquired the phone number to the Bakshi studio and asked to speak to one of the CalArts upperclassmen that I knew.  He was surprised to get a call from a freshman but liked my tenacity.  He spoke to Bakshi on my behalf and I started the following week with my first job in animation as a Production Assistant for Ralph Bakshi Productions!  Without the help of the upperclassman who connected me I never would have gotten in front of Bakshi to plead my case.  I know that because my first job as PA for the studio was to answer the phone and turn away all of the wanna-be students looking for jobs.  Since that time, I have always tried to be good, honest and fair with others.  To give more than I get and to help others like I have been helped.  Because you never know if the kid that is your Production Assistant may one day be your boss!

Well, there’s more, but these are some of your weaknesses that both of you need to learn to “make it” in animation.  Get busy, don’t play video games, and don’t forget to exercise- you need it!

Love,

Tony Bancroft and Tom Bancroft (signed)

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