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.
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.