Tony Bancroft, Director of Disney’s Mulan will publish Directing for Animation with Focal Press this summer. Directing for Animation integrates Tony’s personal stories, experiences, and tips learned at Disney and other studios with interviews of A-list animation directors including Nick Park, Jennifer Yuh Nelson, John Musker and more. In anticipation of Directing for Animation, we have decided to give you a sneak peek at some of the interviews captured for the book. Full interviews, tips, and techniques can be found in the forthcoming Directing for Animation.
Also, please check out some of the other interview sneak-peeks:
Striving for Spontaneity: Interview with John Musker
A member of the legendary CalArts class of ’76 and one of the directors of the “Disney Renaissance” of the ‘80s and ‘90s, John Musker, along with his directing partner Ron Clements, has undoubtedly made his mark as one of the animation industry’s most prolific and successful directors. Originally from Chicago before he moved to California, John started at Disney Studios as a character animator on The Fox and the Hound before quickly working his way up the ranks and making his directorial debut in 1986 on The Great Mouse Detective. Next, he and Ron wrote and directed the smash hit, The Little Mermaid in 1989, heralded by many as the return of critical and commercial success for feature animation, followed shortly after by Aladdin in 1992. For the next 20 years, John and Ron would continue to write and direct some of Disney’s biggest films including Hercules, Treasure Planet and, most recently The Princess and the Frog in 2009. John continues to work today as one of Disney’s most famous writers and directors.
Tony: What do you like most about working in animation?
John: Well, I like to draw, so I get to keep drawing. When I started, I wasn’t sure if I would go into comics or what. I wanted to be an editorial cartoonist at one point. I like graphic design -“postery” things. I’m a caricaturist, and I still get to do all that by being in animation, but I also did live action films. I like being a storyteller, and, it sounds goofy, but I don’t think of myself as an artist – I think of myself as an entertainer. Despite my verbosity now, I grew up a fairly introverted guy. I was part of a big, Irish-Catholic family. I had five sisters. I never needed to talk ‘cause they were always talking. But I saw plays when I was in high school. I saw Guys and Dolls at my local high school and I just thought that there was something so cool about seeing guys I know being on stage and communicating to an audience. And then I could do it through my drawings as well.
I would do these drawings, I’d do caricatures of teachers in my school, and next day, after the paper came out, there’d be a buzz in the school, “Oh, did you see this, and that?,” and it was like communicating with people I didn’t know. I did these little, live action Super 8 films, and they were shown at my high school, and people I didn’t know saw them, and laughed at my jokes, and things like that, and I got a rush out of that. I just felt like, “I’m connecting with people,” I mean, it’s that connection with people, and storytelling, and entertaining that I’m addicted to.
Tony: Maybe you get this question a lot: What does a director in animation do? What are some of your day-to-day responsibilities at Disney?
John: I always do this joke, because people always ask about being an animation director: “How’s that differ from a live action director?,” and I say, “Well, in live action you get to yell ‘Action!’, and the actors do their thing, and then you say ‘Cut!’ when they’re done. But what we do when we deal with the animators is we say ‘Draw!,’ and then we wait. And then we say, ‘Erase!” (laughter) But day-to-day responsibilities, that’s the other thing, people feel, of course. You tell them about animation, “It’s tedious. You’re doing one-million drawings ”and“ Oh my God.”
I think Bill Kroyer’s father once said something, I think it was about animation. He said “That’d drive me outta my box!,” and I think that a lot of people have that feeling. The irony, of course, is that with animation directing, actually every day is different. The production process is such that, over the course of the years that you’re working on a film your responsibilities vary hugely. Now Ron and I, traditionally, have written our films, so an initial period is spent coming up with the story, and outlining that story, and developing the characters, and then we co-write the script, and our writing system is such that I kind of do improv on paper, and Ron’s more of a structure guy, and he helps pull it all together. I’d say even though I think of myself as having a fair amount of ideas, and being a fairly creative guy, we are also very collaborative guys, and we encourage input. Not every director does that, nor is it a job requisite. You don’t have to do that to be a good director, but I think we have found that the films are enriched and the film becomes more than it would be if it was confined to what we do. Every film becomes different depending on the team of people that’s connected to it. So because of all that, as directors, our day-to-day things vary. We are looking at color. We’re looking at animation. We’re dealing with voice actors. We’re dealing with the marketing of the films.
One of the good things about the Disney system is that we try and keep the film as fluid as possible for as long as possible to accommodate new ideas that may not necessarily change the whole film, but perhaps new ways to tell the story that we’re trying to tell. Being able to incorporate those things and do it efficiently becomes more and more important the smaller your budget is. “Why can’t we just write a script, storyboard exactly that script, animate that script, put it on the screen…” However, that doesn’t take into account, first, and foremost, the fact that in live action you shoot coverage. You shoot the scene from many different angles, and so you have opportunities to re-fashion the film in the editing room. Animation is more akin to theatre, where you try something out on the road, and you re-write on the fly… Because it takes longer, you have more time to make mid-course corrections, and that, I think, is part of the reason why the Pixar films and the best Disney films have been so good, because you can make things work better while you’re doing it and find things that work, and tailor things to some of the things that work, and things that aren’t working. That’s one of the pluses of working in feature animation, where there is enough time built into the system to fix things, and money, obviously. It’s time, and money.
Tony: That is one thing that live-action has going for it. They have the gift of spontaneity as a resource.
John: And that’s one of the challenges in animation: To produce a film that has a feeling of spontaneity, because it is the least spontaneous medium imaginable. You have to work hard to get that spontaneity, but the best animated films, whether it’s Pinocchio, The Incredibles, or Toy Story, have an “improvy” feel to them. Even in the straighter scenes, it feels like it’s playing out in front of your eyes spontaneously.
Tony: Can you talk about storyboards a little bit? Nowadays animatics are a valuable tool. How important is the animatic to you, in your process?
John: At a certain point the script becomes immaterial and the boards become the next thing, but more important, even than the boards, are the reels. The reels are the working draft of the movie, and they’re the most malleable clay. They are the blueprint of the movie, but they are an organic, fluid, dynamic, ever-changing writing instrument for the movie, and so they’re really a crucial step. We’re exploring different ways of staging things, and cutting things and putting over story ideas, and putting over jokes, and getting emotion… And now with the new technology, you can work out performance in even more detail, and staging ideas, effects animation ideas, color- you name it. It’s become a very useful tool that we didn’t used to have in terms of exploring ideas, developing them, and communicating ideas to people in the various departments down the road. (They can review them and know), “Oh, this is what’s going to be coming for my department,” whether that’s the effects department, or background department, or whatever, you know. It’s just extremely helpful.
Tony: As a director, how important is it to you to keep up with current technology – The latest software and hardware?
John: Technology’s a funny thing, because back when I was studying animation, Chuck Jones came and spoke about animation at CalArts and he made the joke: “When you talk about technical stuff with me, I am someone who has never understood past the infinite mysteries of the screwdriver.” (laughter) I’m not that technically savvy either, but you surround yourself with people who are. I think in a broad sense it is good to have some sense of what technology can do, and to evolve with the technology, or to learn about new tools. I think that is good. If you’re really stuck, if you really haven’t embraced that… I know some directors who came out of story, and they wouldn’t use a Cintiq. They’re like, “I really think it should be drawn on paper,” and, to me that was a little bit crazy. I would say “Wait, if you’re boarding then a Cintiq is an ideal tool for storyboarding!” In terms of efficiency, new technologies can be an aid to you.
The other thing I think, when you talk about keeping current, is that it’s good to see contemporary live action films, and contemporary theatre, and contemporary animation. You need to see the animation of other studios, see what they’re doing. The other thing that we have nowadays that is a fun thing is how much content there is out there on the Internet. Different people have their blogs, and there’s just a lot of interesting people around the world. Artists whose work I look at and I just enjoy seeing that. That’s all work that I would have never seen without the Internet. Then you see student projects with Vimeo or YouTube and things like that, where you can see work from studios and artists from around the world – student work from around the world even. That’s a whole world that didn’t exist when I was in school. I think it is a resource, and I don’t know if it will develop into a system that people can make money from or make a living doing it but the Internet can be the platform that people see these things on. I think it’s changing and evolving. I don’t know where it’s going to wind up, but there’s an aspect of it that I think is exciting. It’s kind of decentralizing animation and artwork and there’s such a huge appetite, I think, for stories and visual stimuli. I don’t think there’s any less of an appetite for that than there was thirty years ago, yet somehow I think the Internet is going to play a huge role in that, or whatever the Internet evolves into.