#38. A Conversation with Tom Bancroft
JA: So let's start with your position as a production designer on the 1988 special This Is America, Charlie Brown, also known as You're on Nickelodeon, Charlie Brown; how did you arrive at this Charles M. Shulz production, and do you remember what first sparked your interest in becoming involved in the animation industry?
TB: I don’t know how all that info gets up on IMDB, but it's not all accurate all the time. I did work on that show, I just wasn’t a "production designer." (Though I like that title, so no one fix it, okay?) It was my first “drawing” job in the animation industry, done in the summer between my freshman and sophomore years at CalArts. “Character Layout” would be the official job, but I’m not sure IMDB has that listing. It was my first “drawing” job because just before that I was working at Bakshi animation on the The New Adventures of Mighty Mouse, second season, as a production assistant with my brother Tony. We dreamed of drawing on it, but we were extremely green. We would get Ralph his cigarettes and take his laundry to the cleaners. Seriously. We would also make photocopies of all the layouts by the artists. I had a month before CalArts started back up again and I was able to do a few scenes of “character layout” for Bill Melendez Productions (they were the studio that did all the Peanuts shows and commercials) on that Charlie Brown special. It was a dream at the time because I grew up loving-and drawing- the Peanuts. I did very little on it, so it was very cool of them to give me a credit at all.
What sparked my interest in animation is a big question, but the short of it was that I loved drawing. That was the start. I also loved movies and special effects like what Ray Harryhausen was doing. When I saw the commercials for The California Raisins done in clay animation by Will Vinton, I knew I had to do that. It seemed to involve
JA: In 1990, you became an assistant animator on the Rob Minkoff short, Roller Coaster Rabbit, a Roger Rabbit short that played in theaters before the feature Dick Tracy, and again in theaters in 1995 in front of Toy Story; tell me about your memories of being involved on this production, the work you did for this short, and what your overall first experience at Disney was like.
TB: In 1989, halfway into my second year at CalArts, Disney came and looked over portfolios for an internship in the LA Disney studio to staff up the Florida studio that was going to open in a couple months. They knew people in LA were not going to move to Florida, so they were concentrating on young, eager art students. That paid off in the long run. Our first assignment was Roller Coaster Rabbit. Out of our internship group of about twenty artists from all over the country, about twelve of us were selected to move to the Florida studio and start there opening day. My twin brother and I were part of that group. Out of our peers, we were the only ones that were selected to be Assistant Animators, a bump up from the usual starting position of inbetweener.
It was an honor for us, but also a decision based on need on Disney's part- they couldn't get enough experienced Disney Assistants to move from LA to Florida, which was the original plan. The (very wise) plan was to pair less experienced assistants with experienced animators. Because of my greeness (I was an assistant animator at Disney after only a nine week internship- it doesn't get any greener than that!) I was paired up with Mark Henn, one of the best animators at Disney, and the most experienced animator to make the move from California to Disney. I was floored and scared to death. Looking back, I got the best training in cleanup any assistant could hope for- taught be an animator! Mark had been trained by Eric Larson and Frank Thomas, and he taught me the way the "nine old men" taught their assistants! I will always be grateful to Mark!
JA: That same year you would also work on The Rescuers Down Under, which was Disney's first animated sequel, the first 100% digital feature film ever made, and the first to use fully rendered CG backgrounds; what work did you do on this film, and what was it like to work on your first feature?
TB: It was exciting working on our first feature in the Florida studio. We were told from the beginning that we were just a "shorts" studio and then Disney got behind on the features and we were thrust into them. I was Mark Henn's clean up assistant, so I always had great scenes to clean up! That was always great. They didn't give Mark the "C" scenes, they gave him the good stuff. So that's what I got from day one. And Mark is fast! He has always been able to do the work of three to four animators! That usually meant I had to keep a fast pace too. It also meant that my unit would always need help. Rescuers Down Under was the first digital film, and that did bring with it some challenges at the beginning. We tried different pencils, different lines, different work-flows, but in the end, the job was pretty much the same. Tried and true almost always wins out.
JA: In 1991 you were an animation assistant for Beauty and the Beast, which was the first full length animated feature to win the Golden Globe for Best Picture; what was it like being involved on such a big project, to work with directors like Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise, and to be involved with Disney's 30th animated feature, the only animated film to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture?
TB: Ask anyone how it was to work on Beauty and the Beast and they'll all give you a dreamy response. As corny as it sounds, it was a magical time for animation and a huge move forward for Disney. It was my first feature to animate on. I had moved up to Animating Assistant. Still under Mark Henn, but now I was getting my own scenes to animate and showing him my work. That was great and extremely exciting. The hard part was that I was the most junior animator in the Florida studio, so I got all the "left overs". That means crowd scenes. I did a ton of the "Kill the Beast" song where all the villagers are marching to the castle with their torches and pitchforks! Insanity! I was desperate for a close up dialogue scene to prove what I could do, but it didn't come on that picture. Still, a great film and something to be proud of!
JA: Tell me about Off His Rockers, a part-CGI animated short film directed by Barry Cook that accompanied the release of Honey, I Blew Up the Kid; also, do you have an all-time favorite piece of animation?
TB: Off His Rockers started up as an after-hours short that Barry Cook had brought with him when he moved to Florida from Disney California. He pitched it to all of us eager, young animators in training, and wham- he had an entire staff at his disposal! As usual, as the months went by, the crew got smaller and smaller. I was an animator in training and Rockers was my first "test" as an animator. Barry was great to work with and really just wanted to make a great short. I co-animated the little boy (traditionally) with Alex Kupershmidt (who did all the best scenes), while Rob Behkurs handled the 3D animation of his pet toy horse. It was pretty groundbreaking at the time. It ended up getting the attention of Disney management who, sensing a good buy, ended up releasing the short in front of a live action movie I can't remember.
All time favorite animation? That's a big question with lots of answers. One of the first that comes to mind is the animation in Song of the South. It's a perfect example of the "level" of animation that I like to do myself- part cartoony, but still with plenty of strong drawing, poses, and character acting. For that reason, I like Ward Kimball animation a lot. He always got the fun stuff. A more modern-day version of that kind of animation is Eric Goldberg's Genie in Aladdin. The first time I saw his rough animation, it just blew my mind!
JA: In 1992 you animated the character of Iago for Aladdin, one of Disney's most successful films; with all of the stories surrounding the project, from Steven Spielberg's calls to Robin Williams from the set of Schindler's List, to what Aladdin animators referred to as Black Friday- what are your memories of being involved on this feature, and what challenges did you face animating a main character?
TB: Aladdin was an animators film. It was pure, fun animation with plenty of great character and fun movement. My credit on the film is for "Iago" but I actually animated Jafar, usually scenes with both of them together, and Abu also. Animating Jafar was the hardest part because he was such an unusual- and tricky- design. It was an honor working with Andreas Deja on that character. There is more "heat" on your scenes when you have main characters in them. I did meet comedian Gilbert Gottfried, the actor who did Iago's voice.
JA: In 1993 you returned to both Roger Rabbit and director Barry Cook for the final installmen t of the Maroon Cartoon shorts, Trail Mix-Up; this short was released theatrically with A Far Off Place, and you are credited with character animator- tell me about what work you did for Trail Mix-Up, and what it was like being involved in the final Roger Rabbit short.
TB: Trail Mix-Up was a blast! I had done clean up on Roller Coaster Rabbit a couple years before, but now I was an animator! It was great going onto the short already knowing how to draw the character! It was pure cartoony, fun animation in the Warner Brothers style, but with the Disney drawing. You couldn't get a better combination. And because I had helped out on Off His Rockers so much, I think Barry was extra nice to me and gave me good scenes of Roger. The best I had had in my career up to that time. It was pure creative fun and something I still like looking at!
JA: In 1994 you went to work as an animator on the feature film The Lion King, animating Young Simba; did you join the animators on the trip to Africa to study the animals? Also, tell me about your memories of working for the animation department at the Disney-MGM Studios in Orlando, Florida.
TB: No, I didn't get to go to Africa. It's usually a very small group that goes and the people invited usually consists of the directors, art director, head of story, and maybe a supervising animator or two. Those trips became known as the "Research Trip Curse." If you look back at the groups that have gone on those trips, usually around half of them don't end up working on the actual film for some reason or another! I really enjoyed working on Young Simba, especially because it meant teaming up with Mark Henn again. The other fun part was working with my twin brother, Tony, long distance (he was in Disney California and I was 3000 miles away in Florida) and his friend Mike Surrey, who animated Pumbaa and Timon, respectively. I remember going out to California to work on the sequence where Simba wakes up and first meets Pumbaa and Timon in the desert. My time there was busy and short, but we had committed as a group to rough out our thumbnails most of the sequence that week. It ended up that we barely had started by Thursday because of changes we had to address from scenes the week before, and our meeting with the directors was the next day. We stayed up all night and posed out almost the whole sequence- about two weeks worth of work in one night! It was great fun and terrifying at the same time!
The Florida studio was a blast to work in and a great place to start out an animation career. When we started the studio in 1989, probably 75% of the studio was young and green. It created a work place where we worked hard and were constantly trying to improve. We were a bunch of anal perfectionists, to be blunt. We'd stare at the monitors analyzing every frame, arc, and inbetween- it was great. We were also a family. We went to each other's weddings, kid's births, and birthday parties. Even a few funerals of people I'll never forget.
JA: In 1995 you were an animator on the film Pocahontas, animating the lead character of Pocahontas; tell me about Irene Bedard, who served as not only the voice of the character, but the physical model as well, and why animators referred to this as being one of the hardest films ever to be produced by the studio.
TB: Maybe the hardest of our second generation, but the hardest ever would still have to be Sleeping Beauty. Now that's hard! Irene Bedard wasn't the live action model, just the voice. We actually had two live action models for Pocahontas, the first was an African American girl (I never knew her name) and the second was at least part American Indian. She looked almost exactly like the Pocahontas we were drawing already! I was actually instrumental in her getting hired. I had seen a movie she was in and could not believe how much she looked like Glen Keane's design of Pocahontas. It was uncanny. And Glen had designed her a good year or two before this! I called Glen up and told him he had to see this movie, I can't remember what it was now, and check her out. He did, and she was hired soon after that. Working with Glen was a huge honor. To even be considered to be a part of his animation team animating Pocahontas, each animator had to submit a life drawing portfolio! That has never been done before at Disney! Usually, animation assignments are decided upon based on viewing your past animation work. Glen knew this was going to be a huge drawing challenge, so he wanted to see how people knew the human form before he would consider them.
Working with Glen is one of the highlights of my career. Everything animation fans reading this have heard about him is true! He is equally inspirational, talented and giving. All that said, Pocahontas was not my cup of tea, and using the live action so closely was not a "growing" experience for me as an animator. I grew as a draftsman though, so that was good. Just a boring picture to work on, unfortunately.
JA: In 1998 you became a supervising animator on Mulan, overseeing the character of Mushu; this film was animated only at the Florida studio, and was Disney's 36th animated feature. Tell me about the challenges you faced as a team bringing this story to life, the first Disney animated film to openly deal with warfare, as well as featuring an Asian heroine.
TB: Mulan will always be a very special film for me, and the memory of the Florida studio. It was our first "all on our own" feature and gave all of us a chance to shine. Some of us even got a chance to Supervise or Lead a character or department. I was given the chance of Supervising the animation and finalizing the character design of "Mushu" the dragon that Eddie Murphy did the voice of. It was a huge challenge with tons of pressure. Early in the storyboading process, Mushu's part grew and then doubled. I went from doing a smaller supporting character, to one of the stars of the film. With that came more scenes to animate and more animators to supervise- and lots more pressure. I did quite a few all-nighters on that film. I had six to seven animators working in the Mushu unit, which included many good friends and my best friend and future business partner, Rob Corley. Even with the pressures, it was a great experience and something I am very proud of.
One story that I will never forget about Mulan happened toward the beginning of the production. I was asked to be a guest speaker at a Disneyana convention in Boston and I mentioned that our studio was bringing the Mulan fable to life. Afterward, a Chinese American man came up to me with his two daughters. He was very excited and told me that he wants his girls to grow up being strong, independent women, but that his home country doesn't promote that. Mulan is the only story that he can proudly share his family's culture with his little girls and, with tears in his eyes, he told me he couldn't wait to watch this film with them! It really made me realize the power of this story and the effect it could have on people. I'll never forget it.
JA: One year later you would lend your talents as an additional animator on Tarzan, and doing the same for Atlantis: The Lost Empire; do you have a moment in your career at Disney that stands out as being the most memorable?
TB: Funny you should put it that way, because that time was definitely the "most memorable". I had just finished working hard for over a year on Mulan (with almost 5 months of overtime) with little time off afterward. Disney asked me to help out on Tarzan to animate the "elephant family" sequence, where the adult elephants get into an argument about piranhas, while also being asked to do a Roger Rabbit animation test for a possible sequel, while also working as Supervising animator on the short John Henry (directed by friend/mentor Mark Henn). In there somewhere was a few Atlantis scenes too. I ended up animating John Henry during the day and Tarzan at night. Because I didn't want to say "no" to anything, I went from Mushu overtime to overtime on Tarzan. I ended up getting viral meningitis and was in the hospital for a week with a few more weeks of recovery. The doctors said stress could have been a primary reason. It was a huge eye opener and made me look at my work and Disney differently. My family and my God was more important than climbing the Disney ladder, and that experience led to me deciding to leave Disney to use my abilities for a small company in Chicago called Big Idea, makers of the DVD series Veggietales. This was around 2000 that I left and started a whole new adventure. Long story.
JA: In 2003 you worked on Brother Bear, directed by Aaron Blaise and Robert Walker; why was this your last project to work on at Disney?
TB: In late 2002, after almost two years at Big Idea, they were going bankrupt and had massive lay-offs, of which I was one. I was able to come back to Florida and get onto Brother Bear mid-way through the production to help with the animation of Rutt and Tuke, the two moose characters. It was a limited deal, because Disney was tightening up at the time. I knew it was only for about six to eight months. After that, I stayed in Florida and started doing freelance out of our house for about a year. During this time, I pitched a book concept to a NY publisher, Watson-Guptill, and began working on my book that came out a year or so later, Creating Characters with Personality.
JA: And finally, tell me about Funnypages Productions.
TB: Around late 2003 Disney decided (with very little forethought, in my opinion) that they would shut down the Florida studio and put around 250 animation staff on the streets. As I mentioned above, I was already gone from Disney and working from home, but still very rooted in the goings on at Disney via my friends there. During that year, I started looking at moving and working elsewhere. I started talking to buddy and animator, Rob Corley, about us starting our own company elsewhere. So, when Disney did make the announcement to shut the studio, we were already well on our way toward a plan. We decided (through a God-led chain of events) to move our families to Franklin, Tennessee, just outside of Nashville. We love it here!
As Funnypages Productions, we've been busy ever since! We've made a couple publishing deals based on a few of our original properties and characters. One as a girl's chapter book series called Andi's Journal and another as an eight book manga series called Tomo. We do a bunch of work-for-hire character design, storyboarding, direction and illustration for clients like Disney, CBN, Scholastic, Big Idea, Universal, and many more. Our company really focuses on Pre-production artwork for film, TV, video games and more. At this moment, we are developing a live-action educational TV show and we are designing a range of things from sets, to puppets, to costume design. It's been a blast! We work out of a four-room office condo in a space we love. Rob and I work on our own web, TV and film ideas at night, or inbetween projects. We hope to have some of those move forward very shortly.