Tale as old as time: ESO Network chats with Disney animator Tom Bancroft

Beauty and the Beast. The Lion King. Aladdin. Mulan.

These iconic animated films are part of the story of the famous “Disney Renaissance,” which propelled the studio back to commercial success and critical acclaim in the ’80s and ’90s.

Tom Bancroft played a role in that story too — the artist has 30 years of experience in the animation industry, much of which was spent with Walt Disney Feature Animation. He was an animator on four animated shorts and eight feature films (the films named above are part of that list). He has also worked with Big Idea Productions, creators of the popular Veggie Tales animated series.

During Dragon Con 2018, ESO Network reporters Mary Ogle and Ashley Pauls chatted with Bancroft about his love for art, his favorite Disney project, and the industry shift from hand-drawn to computer animation. Read an excerpt from our interview below and listen to the full interview on Earth Station One podcast episode 437: https://esonetwork.com/the-earth-station-one-podcast-437-the-big-lebowski-live-from-dragon-con/

ESO: Tell us a little bit about your career and how you got started. What was that initial spark? What motivated you to get involved in this and pursue your art as a career?

I think I grew up in a golden age of comic strips. So this is a little tangent-y, but it was not the golden age of animation, unfortunately. When I grew up, mostly in the ’70s, I had a twin brother and we would draw together and what we would draw was comic strips. “Peanuts” was really big with Charles Schulz, and then soon came “Bloom County” and then soon after that “Calvin and Hobbes.” And of course the peak of Mad magazine.

It was all that sort of illustration and comic strips that really fascinated us. But then we had sort of a sub love of live action film, but especially Ray Harryhausen movies, which is stop motion. And we didn’t put it all together to go, “well, we like to draw, we like stop motion — animation seems like a good fit.” It still took a while till just after high school that we really realized [that].

Simultaneous to all that, we were watching Saturday morning cartoons all the time. But the love for Saturday morning cartoons wasn’t really artistic, I would say; it wasn’t like we were drawing “Scooby-Doo” or the “Super Friends.” We also liked comic books too. But kind of both of us looked at that as the impossible dream, because anatomy and things like that — it looked too hard.

But like I said, on the animation side of things, it was kind of a dead time. Those Saturday morning cartoons were pretty popular, but really, it was all about getting it out cheap, right? You look at “Super Friends,” and limited animation and Hanna-Barbera stuff. It was kind of a bad time to want to be an animator, I would say say. Even though there’s a lot of nostalgia for “He-Man” and things like that, it’s just not really well animated. (laughter) I think we can admit that.

[Then] Disney films started to get a little bit better and better. They were on the cusp of having a resurgence. “The Great Mouse Detective” had come out; that’s a fun, cartoon-y, well-animated film. And it was films like that, that really kind of made us go, “Oh, wait a second, you know, this might be the path. It combines a lot of our loves.”

And so we just kind of fell into animation, really. Did a little stop motion animated film for our church youth group, got together a couple friends that also wanted to try animation. And we just sort of taught ourselves. This is before the internet, so we’d go to the library and try and find books on even exposure because we’re literally using a Super 8 camera and shooting these clay animated figures one frame at a time. And so we just needed to learn, but that was close to Ray Harryhausen, so it was within our wheelhouse. We were researching him quite a bit.

Then that love translated to “well, we already like to draw, why don’t we try drawn animation?” And then we found out about CalArts (California Institute of the Arts). We already were living in California, and CalArts is like the animation school in the U.S. It still is, but at the time it was one of the only ones and it was founded by Walt Disney. So we tried for it and got it in, miraculously. And after a year and a half, got an internship at Disney. And that’s what started our career.

Have you done mostly traditional animation? Or have you also delved into computer animation?

Later on in my career, pretty much toward the end of my Disney days, I ended up following my heart in 2000 and joining Big Idea Productions, and they do Veggie Tales. While I was there, I learned CG animation and learned how to do Bob and Larry in the computer. And fortunately, it was simpler; they didn’t have arms and legs.

But it was still tough. I mean, it was a huge learning curve. I’ve always heard, “Oh yeah, computers are just, you know, just a tool.” But it’s a radically different way to animate for someone like me, who had really finally figured out how to do 2D animation after about 10 years at Disney. It felt like I was starting all over again, and it was a tough year.

And I can’t say I loved it; I missed drawing. And so I immediately switched over, even while I was at Big Idea. After animating a little bit, I switched over to storyboarding and then ultimately directed and created the 2D “Larryboy Adventures” show. That was much more a better fit for me.

I left and came back to Disney and did “Brother Bear” traditional animation, and worked on Rutt and Tuke, the two moose characters. And then after that, I started my own company. And so I’ve been pretty much independent for what I call the second phase of my career. And a lot of that has been character design and children’s book illustration, some directing, some 2D animation still too, but a variety of different things. Comic books, even.

You’ve gotten to see both sides, with the hand-drawn animation and the computer. How is the creative process different and what are some of the advantages and disadvantages you feel are in each form?

It’s funny, because a lot of people think that the switch and kind of the death of 2D animation in feature films — here in the U.S., especially — is because CG animation is cheaper. It’s not; it’s the same or more, really, and you almost need as many people too. It’s not like we even save a lot of money in CG animation on how many people you hire, and you certainly have higher equipment costs than ever before. And it’s not even necessarily faster.

The biggest difference between 2D and CG is that there’s a lot more upfront work in CG, and then 2D has more time at the end. Because in CG once they model the characters and get all that figured out, the animation process goes a lot quicker than in 2D, because now they have the model, it’s not going to change. It’s not like it’s going to get revised. And some of that happens, obviously, but they kind of stick to it. And then also, at certain point, once they put the lights in, there’s a lot more automated, what I would call “the ink and paint phase” in 2D. There’s the rendering process that goes a lot quicker, because once they model it, they know the colors and they’re already set.

We can get going a lot quicker [with 2D]; we can get into the animation phase, we can design the characters and all that and jump into animation a little sooner. But then the back end is a lot of cleanup and color background painting. All that is on the back end, and it can take a lot more time.

What was your favorite Disney film to work on, if you can narrow it down?

Oh, it’s pretty easy. It was “Mulan.”

I got to design and develop Mushu the dragon. And so because I was the supervising animator for Mushu on that film, I really got onto the film very early and put a lot of heart and soul into that film, more so than what I was able to on other films.

I did young Simba; I’m very proud of animating young Simba on “The Lion King,” but I worked under Mark Henn who was the supervisor of that. And he had designed Simba and was issuing me scenes and stuff. So I didn’t get to have as much of a say, I guess you could say, in defining his character, just in the scenes that I had, not like the whole character.

How do you approach putting personality into your characters? What things do you use to show a visual representation of that personality?

Some of that is in the character design. There’s certain things like when I was designing Mushu, we knew right off the bat that he was going to be a thin, snake-like dragon because I found out really quickly in my research, in Asian dragons, they’re usually based on snakes and things like that. The dragon in [“Sleeping Beauty”] is a European dragon, and they’re more like a crocodile or something like that. They’re very thick and massive. But the Asian ones usually are skimming across the water or they’re fire dragons. They also are elemental, and Mushu is a fire dragon, which we never mentioned in the movie. But it was part of his design.

I have flame-like shapes on him, and they oftentimes have fish scales. And he’s got a little mustache, kind of a fuzzy upper lip, which is based on a camel. They’re made up of different pieces: his cow ears and horns like an elk or something, although I shrunk them. He’s got kind of a pig’s nose; they’re usually made up of a lot of different animals. And so all of that research went into the design, even a very simplified form. If you look at Mushu, you don’t really guess those things as much. But every single thing on him is there for a reason, even his claws that are like an eagle’s claws. They’re just very simplified and stylized.

Learn more about Bancroft, his artwork and his podcast at www.tombancroftstudio.com.

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