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The Princess And The Frog‘s Supervising Animator Mark Henn – Part 1: It All Started With A…Mermaid!

Jeremie Noyer begins his multi-part discussion with Mark Henn, presenting a new chapter each fortnight in celebration of the worldwide launch of The Princess And The Frog from the US release to its European debut, and evoking the chronology and different aspects of the veteran animator’s career, from his studies and dreams of working for Disney, to his first assignments and serving as supervising animator on the Studio’s current contemporary classic!


Back during Walt’s time, it was Marc Davis’ specialty. Among the Nine Old Men, he was the one that was regularly chosen to animate Disney’s “leading ladies” such as Cinderella, Alice, Tinker Bell or else Briar Rose/Princess Aurora.

Today, it is Mark Henn’s. As the tremendously talented Disney veteran admits it himself, he carries “a soft spot for princesses in (his) heart”. He certainly does, as he supervised all of the leading ladies from the second golden age of Disney animation up to today. Ariel, Belle, Jasmine, Pocahontas, Mulan, and more recently Gisele and Tiana: he gave all of them that extra something that makes them so special in our hearts, that makes them authentic Disney Princesses.

With The Princess and the Frog heading toward becoming a new classic, we were privileged to talk with Mark for an extensive portrait of the multifaceted artist, from his debuts on The Fox and the Hound to his supervising his first princess and his moving to the Floridian division of Walt Disney Feature Animation.

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Animated Views: How did you decide to become an animator ?

Mark Henn: It was pretty much a boyhood dream for me. I grew up in the Midwest, in Ohio and I’ve always been fascinated by Disney animation since I was a small boy. So, it was really a childhood dream of mine to become a Disney animator.

AV: Do you think of a Disney film in particular?

MH: Two, particularly. I remember Cinderella that was very influential as a young boy and The Reluctant Dragon which showed the animators and went behind the scenes. I remember Ward Kimball drawing a scene of Goofy. He picked up all that paper, started flipping and everything kind of came to life. From then on, the animation bug beats hard for me. That was the beginning of the end, I suppose!

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AV: Then, you began your training in animation. Can you tell me about it?

MH: Well, I finally ended at Cal Arts, the California Institute of the Arts, and I was enrolled in the Disney Character Animation Program over there. When I started, the program was only four years old so I was in its fourth year. The idea was to train up hopefully a new generation of Disney artists and animators. That was in 1978.

AV: Who were your teachers?

MH: All my teachers were former Disney artists, people like Jack Hannah, director of Donald Duck shorts ; in charge of the program, we had Kenneth Connor, who was a top layout artist here at the studio; we had T. Hee, a visual development character designer, Elmer Plumber, who was also a designer, visual development artist, Bob McRay, who was an animator here at the studio. Our design teacher was the only non-Disney artist. His name was Bill Moore but he came from the old Chouinard School. He used to teach a lot of Disney artists in design classes and things like that through his career. So, he was brought in to help develop the Disney program at Cal Arts.

AV: Who were your fellow students?

MH: In my particular class, we had people such as Mark Dindal, Joe Ranft, Tony DeRosa (one of his biggest roles was to do adult Nala in Lion King). Some of the students of the upper class included John Lasseter, who was in fourth year when I started my first year there. So, I knew John at school for a year. Tim Burton was also at school for one year before he was picked up by the Studio. People like that. Quiet a few well-known names today!

AV: To you, what is the art of animation exactly about?

MH: That’s a good question. I would say in general it’s a lot of different disciplines coming together obviously to create a film, a motion picture. But as far the actually art of animation specifically goes, I would categorize it as a hybrid of the art of drawing and the art of acting, performing. It’s the art of bringing inanimate, non-existing characters or objects to life through the ability, the skills of the draftsmanship as well as the sensibility toward acting and performing.

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AV: What was your first assignment after your studies?

MH: I started working on The Fox and the Hound as an inbetweener. I was in Glen Keane’s unit right at the very end of the production. At that time he was finishing up working on the Bear Fight sequence and we worked together on that. Toward the end of the production, everybody was kind of pitching in to help out finishing up whatever work was needed to be done to get the movie finished so once animation was fairly finished I actually helped out doing some inbetweening and things for the effects department. Character animation had finished and the effect department was following up. My first animation assignment at the Walt Disney Studios however though, ironically, was Mickey on Mickey’s Christmas Carol. I fell that as a wonderful opportunity and a unique chance to kind of cut my teeth on one of the standards if not the most important character the studio had created.

AV: What was animating Mickey Mouse like?

MH: It was very natural for me. I can’t say that it was very intimidating. I actually felt very comfortable stepping in the Mickey shoes and the Christmas Carol project was so very exciting. For me, being my first big assignment, it was chance to shine so I was very eager to do the very best I could. I did everything that I could on that film so I worked not only on Mickey but I did Goofy, some Jiminy Cricket and a lot of different characters. It was a very enjoyable project so it was very nice to start my career with that character.

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AV: Did you make some research on the way former Mickey animators worked on him in the past?

MH: Yes, I did some. You know, Mickey had changed over the years in design. We looked at a lot of different types of Mickeys and tried to decide which Mickey we thought would be the style we’d like. I finally looked at some of the animation that I though was the strongest on Mickey which would be animators such as Freddy Moore, Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas particularly who were, I think, some of the best Mickey animators at the studio. So I looked at a lot of their work. But I also kind of felt very comfortable stepping in the Mickey. He was an easy character to get, for me at least. Putting him in the role of Bob Cratchit was a perfect match as far as casting goes.

AV: When you think of some of the best Mickey animation, do you think about cartoons like The Brave Little Tailor?

MH: Yes, in which Frank, Freddy Moore and Ollie, all three of them, worked on Mickey. It’s a great short!

AV: Then, you came on The Black Cauldron.

MH: Yes. Black Cauldron was my first feature animation. That was exciting. It was a new challenge. But in the end, it was a little bit of a rough production for me. I didn’t end up working on it too long, certainly not contributing a lot to it. I think I only animated a couple hundred feet. It was of a good news/bad news production for me.

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AV: On what characters did you work for that film?

MH: I worked on Fflewddur, the minstrel, as well as some Gurgi. But I initially started with Creeper, the henchman to the Horned King.

AV: Then, you came to The Great Mouse Detective.

MH: Well, we did a little of everything on this film but I was primarily on Basil, Dawson and Olivia. I also got several good sequences with Ratigan, when he and Basil are confronting each other and that was a lot of fun.

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AV: At that time, you became supervising animator. What did that mean?

MH: At that point, that didn’t mean I had a specific unit. Things weren’t divided up by character units as we eventually got to be on later films. But other animators that had battle scenes or Olivia scenes were told to come to see as they needed somebody to go over their drawings or things of that nature. So I worked with other animators but we didn’t have specific character units at that time. Our work as a supervising animator was kind of set the lead and the pattern for all the other animators working on the film to have a guideline of how these characters moved and acted and things.

AV: Your next film was Oliver & Company.

MH: On this film, I balanced around from primarily Oliver the Cat to the little girl, Jenny, predominantly. I did a few Fagans and Dodgers.

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AV: Did the differences between visual styles from Black Cauldron to Oliver affect your way of animating?

MH: It really didn’t change that much. The differences primarily apply to the backgrounds and how the environment looked. But the characters themselves weren’t really approached too differently from what we did with Great Mouse Detective in terms of the type of line that we did. Obviously, the designs changed but mostly, the artistic look that was so noticeable was primarily in the backgrounds and the layouts. So, I don’t remember that we approached the animation any differently. We were just trying to come up with a very appropriate design that fit to the environment but it was pretty much what we were used to, what we all thought was the Disney approach to the character design at that point. For me, it was all about creating new characters and their performances. That was the most important to me.

AV: Just after Oliver & Company began the new golden age of the Disney studios with The Little Mermaid.

MH: Yes. I was co-supervisor of Ariel. I was one of the earlier animators brought on the picture. They had already had some artists that were playing with some designs so I started playing with them. And when Glen came on, he helped pull all the designs together and come up with the final design.

AV: One of the characteristics of Ariel is her big hair. Was it difficult to animate?

MH: No, it was not too difficult. We just tried to keep it in large, simple shapes and it didn’t get too complicated.

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AV: What did you draw your inspiration from for Ariel?

MH: Just in terms of looking at the fact that I was dealing with a mermaid, I tended to look at a lot of footage of how seals swim around and that. Facewise, I just tried to find something that was very appealing and the directors told us what they liked and what they didn’t like. I don’t recall for me that I had a specific model in mind. We wanted to do something different. We didn’t want to draw a Daryl Hannah who had just finished doing Splash for the studio, a year or so ahead. That was a concern. She worked fine for Splash and all that but we had to make our mermaid a little different. She was a little younger. Jodi Benson, I’m sure, with Glen, played her part in the design a little bit. I think we just worked until we’d fell we had a face, a design we all felt was appealing and was easy for everybody to animate.

AV: From Bambi on, Disney is well-know for their using of live references. Didn’t you find any mermaids?

MH: (laughing) Well, we didn’t find any mermaids. But we did have a girl by the name of Sherry Stoner, who was our live actress who we had come in and act out a lot of the scenes with Ariel. She was very good. That was the first time I had really worked with live action but that worked out very well. So, she would come in and we would shoot the scene on videotape. She would act it out using very minimal sets. We talked with her about different ideas that she acted out. So, we had this video reference to use as we started developing our animation for a scene.

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AV: How was the work divided?

MH: Well, at that time, animation was divided up by sequences. So, the directors listened to what was interesting to us. I know Glen was very interested in doing the song that Ariel sings, Part of Your World, so he kind of took that whole sequence. I pretty much let the directors decide where they wanted me to go. So, I was all over the movie from the beginning to the end. I was very interested in the parts when she was on land and didn’t have a voice. I always thought that was a unique challenge. Apart from that, the directors pretty much decided where they wanted Glen and me, what sequences they wanted us to focus on. So, I introduced Ariel in the movie and did Ariel’s last kiss with the Prince at the end. I was kind spread out from beginning to end on the movie!

AV: The Rescuers Down Under marked a big change in your career.

MH: Yes. At that point, I decided to take a move to Florida with the Florida studio, but I was definitely interested in the Rescuers projects. They were among my favorite characters and it was just a great opportunity to work with them. So, I worked on that film when I was at the Florida studio, down there.

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AV: Can you tell me about the creation of the Floridian division of Disney Feature Animation?

MH: When the company decided to build this movie-based theme park down there, somewhere along the line it was decided that you couldn’t open a Disney movie-themed park and not have animation as part of the park at some level. So, when it was first announced that they were going to open a small animation studio down there, I actually wasn’t crazy about the idea. I thought it was not a good idea, that it would water down or dilute the specialness of the Disney studios here in Burbank. So I wasn’t very excited about it first. But I spent a lot of time thinking about it, I prayed about it until I got the thinking: if they feel that they need to have an animation studio in this park in Florida, then it needs to be of the same quality and have the same ideals than the studio here in Burbank.

I spent about a year, really, wrestling with whether or not I should go, because at the time they were basically asking for volunteers, people interested in relocating and moving down there to help staff and be kind of a nucleus of artists that could staff this animation studio with. I spent over a year agonizing, thinking, praying about my decision before I finally realized that maybe, instead of complaining about it, I should do something about it. So I decided that I’d like to go down and make sure that that studio that had the Disney name on it is a Disney quality studio. So, I went down.

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AV: What was your role down there?

MH: I was primarily there as an animator, as a supervising animation, as kind of a mentor, as somebody there to hopefully help, like I said, kind of be part of a nucleus of experienced Disney artists that the new people that came in, that we taught them the Disney way of doing things and they understood the traditions and all that kind of stuff.

AV: How did you teach the newcomers?

MH: We did classes, we had intern programs, Disney artists, animators would be assigned, trainees would be assigned to us, so I worked with a lot of young animators coming in. That was primarily what I did, outside of doing my own work. I was fortunate to be trained and mentored by Eric Larson who was one of the Nine Old Men as well as over the years, I’ve got to know Frank and Ollie and most of the Nine Old Men. So, it was part of our responsibility to teach, to hopefully pass along from them to myself and to new people coming into the animation business.

AV: Speaking of Eric Larson. What are your memories of this great artist? What is the most important thing he taught you?

MH: I think the most important thing he taught me was sincerity and how that applies to not only just animation but in all aspect of what Disney did. So, sincerity was critical in his mind, and everybody that I know that did work with Eric would agree with that, that sincerity would have been their word.

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AV: It is within that frame that you participated in different short subjects such as Roller Coaster Rabbit and The Prince and the Pauper.

MH: Yes. Initially, the studio in Florida was supposed to do shorts and things. We started with two Roger Rabbit shorts, Roller Coaster was the first one and we ended up doing Trail Mix-Up which was the last one. We also helped work on the Prince and the Pauper project that they did. That was the idea primarily for the Florida studio. But we saw that it was becoming very successful and it was very long after we opened it that we felt that everybody wanted to see the studio grow to where we could do a feature film. And we eventually did on Mulan, our first feature entirely created in Florida.


In Part 2, we’ll evoke the so-called Disney Decade, from Belle to Pocahontas.




The Art of Princess and the Frog
is available to order now from Amazon.com

art-princessfrog


 


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