Just after the sad recent passing of Disney legend Joe Grant, Animated-News’ Christian Ziebarth lunched with famed animator Andreas Deja, who over the years has brought to life scores of Disney heroes and villains. Having recently completed overseeing animation on the direct-to-video title Bambi And The Great Prince Of The Forest, Deja reminisced with Animated-News on his long and distinguished career and how he managed to live his dream by animating at the Disney Studios. The discussion, which includes many personal insights and stories of legendary Disney figures, can be read in full here:
Animated-News: How are you?
Andreas Deja: Good, good.
AN: Let’s start with Joe Grant. I had been thinking about trying to arrange an interview with Joe before I even knew about Clay Kaytis starting his Animation Podcast website and everything . . .
AD: Yeah, I wish he would’ve started with Joe, and I think that he was trying but Joe wasn’t available at the moment he wanted to get started, so then he picked me, and again to open something like this up Joe would’ve been more of a “smash.” Nobody thought about Joe passing away because he’d always been around, we all knew he was going to make it past a hundred; that was just a given.
AN: Yeah, he was going to go to a hundred and five . . . a hundred and eight . . .
AD: Oh, absolutely. And he wasn’t ill or anything, so . . . it was a shocker.
AN: From what I heard, he was at work the day before?
AD: Yeah, and people had lunch with him the day before. I hadn’t, but people did, and so he was just as funny as, you know…
AN: No indication that anything was going to happen.
AD: None whatsoever. The only thing I heard was he told his granddaughter, who was staying with him at the time, in the morning, he said, “It’s going to be a big day. It’s going to be a big day,” whatever that means.
AN: That morning?
AD: That morning.
AN: I thought I heard he passed away in his sleep…
AD: No, the way it happened is, he was finishing a beautiful drawing, I’d love to see that drawing, I don’t know what he was drawing, but he was at his drawing desk at home, finished that drawing, put his head down…and died. I had heard it was a heart attack but somebody said that sounds more like a stroke, but I don’t know what it was. But it was peaceful and painless, which is…which is wonderful.
AN: Yeah. I also heard somebody say that they saw him in the early nineties when The Lion King was being worked on… He was at some sort of get-together and somebody said, “Oh, Joe Grant’s here at this thing.” And this guy was like, “Wow! Joe Grant’s here? I have to go meet him.” So he goes up to Joe and finds him and goes up to him and kind of blurts out, “Hi, Joe. I thought you were dead.” And then he thought, “Oops, that probably didn’t come out right.” And apparently Joe just said, “Well, I oughtta be.”
AD: That’s what he would say. That sounds like Joe. He was one of the coolest guys that I’ve ever met.
AN: So did you see him from time to time?
AD: Yeah. I had him up at the house for Christmas parties; Joe would always come and there would be lunch with him and Burny every once in a while. Burny Mattinson is sort of his drawing buddy for the last few years, they shared a room for a few years, did storyboard together, bunch of stuff.
AN: Now, what was he doing, because he was away for about forty years, do you know what he was doing during that time when he was not at Disney?
AD: He was doing all kinds of stuff. He and his wife were operating a greeting card company, actually, because he designed greeting cards and I’ve seen some of them, beautiful graphics job. And he also designed tiles, you know, he burned tiles and designed things. Just all kinds of stuff.
AN: What prompted him to come back to Disney?
AD: His wife had passed away so he was lonely. And then Charlie Fink, Head of Development at Disney at that time, I think he ran into Joe at some function and found out about him and just asked him to come back and Joe came back, and it just clicked. He felt like he was of use and he did beautiful work and inspired everybody . . . an amazing guy.
AN: When the news came out about Joe’s passing, they started giving more information about him and the different things he contributed and stuff . . . like the cricket from Mulan, which I thought was good. Apparently he had to keep convincing people to put it in there. I didn’t think you worked on Mulan because that was in Florida, wasn’t it?
AD: It was Florida.
AN: So did Joe work at the Feature Animation building?
AD: He had an office there. The office is still there. 3rd floor . . . in the corner.
AN: And we have a funeral coming up for him on Saturday.
AD: In Glendale. I’m going to go to that service and then I’m sure the family’s going to invite everybody to the house after and I’m not going to go there because that’s just going to be packed, you know? So then the studio’s doing something, like a life celebration type thing. I believe it’s on June 20th, next month.
AN: Oh, okay.
AD: Diane might be there from up north. Don’t nail me on that date, because they’re doing a big Bambi screening I think the week before.
AN: Oh, I wanna see that.
AD: They’re going to show that restored. Plus they’re going to have the voices there: Bambi, Faline, and Thumper. And I might do a demonstration of drawing . . .
AN: You mean the original Bambi?
AN: When you say ‘demonstration’ of drawing you mean actually sketching stuff right there?
AD: No, I would actually show drawings, Frank and Ollie drawings, Milt’s, I have a few Milt Kahl drawings from the characters and show the model sheets and just talk about them a little bit.
AN: You have to check that out from like the archives and everything, right?
AD: No, I have a lot of work. The interesting thing about the archives is, the Animation Research Library, is they kept all the cleanup drawings. So all the scenes are there in their cleaned up stage but they didn’t keep the roughs.
AD: That was the first thing I was looking for when I started here, I said, “Where, where are the rough drawings? I wanna see, look at Frank and Ollie’s rough drawings.” They weren’t kept. Gone. Only kept the cleanups.
AN: Is that just because they didn’t think there was any value to it?
AD: It was considered, if you can imagine such a thing, a by-product. Then they were either shredded or they were encouraged to be taken out of there; usually assistants and sometimes animators would take them home and now, they surface with art dealers, because people might need some money in their old age, some assistance, and that’s where I come in and have contact with a lot of art dealers, and they know the kind of work I’m looking for, so they call me. I have quite a few treasures, and I learn so much from them, you know?
AN: Well if you had those they would be a perfect resource for that new Bambi that you were working on.
AD: Yeah . . . it was. It worked out and it was just so inspirational to study that work. Just amazing. So, yeah, that’s been a passion of mine. I know a lot of people, they call you and make a deal, and sometimes you buy a whole bunch, sometimes just one drawing. I just found on eBay a drawing of the Prince from Sleeping Beauty that Milt Kahl did and somebody had cut that out, and it was part of a board I guess, sort of a model sheet, although I’d never seen that drawing, but he was like fighting the dragon. It was just a gorgeous, gorgeous drawing. So, happy to get that.
AN: Did you ever know Milt Kahl?
AD: I knew him quite well. I thought to myself, “If I’m going to move here I’ll be damned if I’m not going to meet Milt Kahl,” even though he’s not working here, but he was in San Francisco, he had retired there and had just gotten remarried. And when I met him and went up there, oh, he was just so in love with Julie, his wife; they were just like lovebirds, those two, he was so happy, in sharp contrast to what he felt about the studio, because he left kind of in a huff. He got into politics . . .
AN: Was that back in the late seventies?
AD: Milt left in ’76. When he finished Medusa on Rescuers it was his last character and he didn’t like what was going on at the studio, he didn’t like the standard of the animation anymore, he didn’t like the storytelling, he got into arguments with Frank and Ollie and with Woolie . . .
AN: That was that whole period when people felt sort of lost without Walt around.
AD: Yeah, he thought his animation was wasted on movies like Robin Hood, AristoCats, you know, didn’t think they were anything good. And he thought that Rescuers was marginally better, but not really what it should be. He had just really high standards. I loved hanging out with h . . . he got a little softer over the years. I saw him about five or six times. Then each year, 1980, ’81, ‘2, ‘3, ‘4, ‘5, I would fly up there for an afternoon and spend a few hours with him and . . . talk. He’d always ask what’s going on at the studio and I told him about this Black Cauldron thing that we were working on, and he didn’t see The Black Cauldron, I remember, ’cause he saw some review and then they panned it, you know. But he saw Mouse Detective, which I just worked a little bit on, and he liked it. And it shocked me. I said, “Milt Kahl liked The Mouse Detective?”
AN: You did Ratigan on that, right?
AD: No, Glen Keane did Ratigan. I just helped out a little bit on that. I did some of the Mouse Queen and that was about it actually. I asked him, I said, “Did you like the animation in it?” He said, “Well, no, of course not. But the story was good. It had me going, you know.” So I was floored. Again, that man’s standards were somewhere in the stratosphere. He liked nobody’s work but his own. I mean, he liked to work with Frank and Ollie and Ward Kimball and all them, because he respected them. But in the end he thought he was the best animator, pretty much.
AN: Well, I was at a screening of The Incredibles that Brad Bird was at . . .
AD: Yeah, Brad is a Milt Kahl nut.
AN: He said that. I think he even knew him when he was like growing up as a little kid or something?
AD: He lived close by, so he saw him often.
AN: He talked about how even when he would talk with Milt, when he was just a kid, that Milt would be kind of demanding about what Brad was showing him, even then. And he would say . . . I remember Brad said that Milt said to him, “You haven’t explored the possibilities!”
AD: That sounds like Milt . . . sounds very much like Milt. Socially he was wonderful. All the stories he had to tell, and I remember his condo that he had up there in Sausalito and there were all these wire sculptures that he did. A lot of them you can see in the episode of the Disney Family Album. You know that series that came out in the eighties, mid-eighties? On the Disney Channel. They did a half an hour show for the channel, one on Ollie, one on Marc Davis, they did some on the Disney voices, but mostly animators . . . and so there’s a half hour on Milt. It’s a great show. So they actually shot that at his place. So then you can see these, these beautiful wire sculptures that he did, like dancing poses, dancers and stuff; they’re all gorgeous masterpieces. But then he got bored with them and one time he stopped doing them.
AN: I know Brad, at that same screening, you know people have always got to bring up this thing about computer animation and hand-drawn animation; of course somebody had to bring it up there, and he said, “I love hand-drawn animation and I hope people keep making it,” . . .
AD: Pixar are the biggest supporters for hand-drawn. They just love it.
AN: Yeah, he said that, “All of us at Pixar love it. We all want to see more made. We all hope that other people make it and we don’t think that if a movie fails that it’s because it wasn’t computer-generated.”
AN: Now, tell me about that old Disney hangout, the Tam O’Shanter Inn? I think they mention that Walt used to go there a lot.
AD: He did, he did. When I met Diane Disney for the first time a few years ago over at Marc Davis and Alice’s place, she came by with a couple of her kids and we were all going to have lunch afterwards so Diane asked where we were going and Alice said “Tam O’Shanter.” And she says, “Oh . . . the Tam O’Shanter. Dad and I used to go there all the time.” And I just got goosebumps because this is the only person who can say that: “Dad,” you know? I mean, it’s just amazing.
AN: That’s funny. So you heard it right from a Disney.
AD: From her, yeah. And she looks like her dad so much now…you can see Walt’s face in Diane most definitely.
AN: Have you seen Ollie lately?
AD: I saw him yesterday. Going to see him again tomorrow too.
AN: You’ve already mentioned several of the Nine Old Men that you’ve met. Are there any that you didn’t?
AD: The only two I didn’t meet were the two that had passed away when I started, so that was Les Clark and John Lounsberry. But all the others, actually seven, I met. Eric Larson hired me. And, then of course at that time Frank and Ollie were still there. They weren’t animating anymore but they were working on their first book.
AN: The Illusion of Life?
AD: Yeah. And there was all this artwork on the walls…it was just fantastic to go up there and visit. It was great. And Woolie was playing with some ideas still for a year or two. I remember they were trying to do another sequel to Fantasia, something that at that time was called temporarily ‘Musicana.’ And it was going to be something like music from different countries of the world.
AN: When was this?
AD: In the early eighties they worked on that. It was Mel Shaw and Woolie Reitherman.
AN: That sounds kind of like what they talking about doing for Fantasia 2006, with the thing to focus on world music.
AD: It was a little bit like that.
AN: But then that whole project fell through.
AD: Yeah, unfortunately. Woolie had these things, there was a piece with jazz, and I remember they had frogs on the river and this boat coming by with Louis Armstrong . . . it was beautiful stuff. They had a South American piece, I can’t remember the name of the singer. I think she’s dead now but she had this very unique voice, this high-pitched voice. It’s really haunting, haunting stuff.
AN: That kind of makes me think of The Three Caballeros . . . set in South America . . .
AD: Yeah. There was also a story that they worked on based on an English children’s book called The Little Broomstick, which I don’t think was that known, but it was a little story about a little girl who gets involved with magic . . . meets this sorcerer. So Woolie was working on that, storyboarded the whole thing . . .
AN: Sounds like The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.
AD: A little bit, but it was all set in England, in the Forties, I think. Interesting story, beautiful artwork, of course. There were lots of things going. Another one had swamp characters, like frogs and raccoons, and those kind of animals that I remember. So, yeah, the Nine Old Men . . . I got to know Frank and Ollie. I got to know Marc Davis. During the Olympic Arts Festival, when the Olympic games were in town, in Los Angeles, the studio sent Marc Davis and myself.
AD: Yeah. The studio wanted some Disney artists to go and sketch for the athletes, so I was called to that, and met Marc and we became friends and it was really a fun time. Who else am I leaving out from the Nine Old Men? Kimball, yeah, I met Kimball . . . I went to his home, saw the trains and the toy collection and all that.
AN: He was a character, huh?
AD: Oh my God . . .
AN: Seems like the type of guy you couldn’t keep up with.
AD: He was so funny, and when you met with Ward Kimball you listened to Ward Kimball, you know, he was the guy who told stories. And I remember a friend of mine, Doug Frankel, he’s at Pixar now but he was with us then, years ago, and Ward Kimball was at the studio and it was the opening of some Disney art I put on the walls, poster-sized. So Ward Kimball’s sitting there and Doug Frankel goes up to Ward Kimball and he wanted to entertain him . . . to make him laugh. So he told Kimball a joke, and I don’t even know what it was but he didn’t get the punch line right . . . and Ward . . . stone-faced . . . just looked at Doug and said, very sarcastically, “HAR HAR HAR!!!” Doug was just sneaking away, because it was so embarrassing, and I said, “Doug, you don’t tell Ward Kimball funny stories; he will tell them to you. That’s how it works.”
AN: That’s funny because that sounds exactly like how you would think he would be. I heard that back in the Forties, Fifties, or whatever, Walt Disney would call to Ward’s office and Ward would pick up the phone and hear, “Hi, this is Walt,” and Ward would fire back with, “Walt who?”
AD: Yeah, I think I heard that too.
AN: I guess they had enough camaraderie where he could kind of put Walt in his place, where few other people could.
AD: I think Ward could do that and Milt could do that too. He wouldn’t be afraid to disagree with Walt. Milt was not a “Yes” man . . . and Walt would actually listen to Milt; and I actually remember Ollie telling the story about the last meeting that that he and Milt had with Walt, on Jungle Book; Walt came down to Ollie’s office and saw the drawing of the little girl, that Milt had done also, and I think Ollie had made an animation test, and it was a big deal for Ollie because Walt had to approve this character, and he says, “Wouldn’t you know, Milt and Walt got into an argument over the question whether tigers can climb trees. And Walt said, ‘Yes, they can,’ and Milt said, ‘No, they can’t.'” So they got into this argument, and, Ollie goes like, “My God, when Walt is ready to look at my girl drawings he is going to be all upset, you know, because of the argument.” And, anyways, so they stopped the argument and went on, but Ollie said, “Of course, Milt was right, you know, tigers don’t climb trees.” But Milt was smart, because he had done all the research on tigers.
AN: I have a Jungle Book CD where I think it’s Robert Sherman, they were going to present a song to Walt for his approval, and I think it might’ve been the song that the vultures sing, and they had in, one of the words in the lyrics was the word ‘hover;’ and where Walt came from was back East, he said, ‘hoover.’
AD: Yeah, that’s right.
AN: So when he got to that part in the song he’s like, “Hov . . . Hover . . . Hoo . . . Hoover . . . ” He didn’t want to say something that would offend Walt, make him have to correct him or whatever. He didn’t say how it ended up; he just said he was nervous about how he was going to present it.
AD: You know…I think Walt would have been an intimidating guy to some people. He was the authority, of course, at the studio, but from my experience everybody I’ve talked to who worked with Walt just worshipped the guy; the greatest, everybody just loved him, everybody. And I talked to Imagineers, I talked to animators, story people, they just had nothing but respect. Fantastic things to say about him.
AN: Well it seems like he was just so sure of himself. He just knew what he wanted, and a lot of times people couldn’t see the wisdom of what his choices until later on. I guess it was Roy Disney who said that Walt was always telling him stories when they were little kids, and that just the way he would do it was just so entertaining. He said it was even more entertaining to watch Walt performing Pinocchio than to watch the movie.
AD: I remember Roy saying that, yeah. Must’ve been amazing, those story meetings, him getting up and acting out characters. Must’ve been just amazing. Frank and Ollie talk a lot about that, and they said, “You just got it after he acted something out for you; you just went to run back to your room and animate that, because it was so clear.”
AN: I heard that even when he was like seven, eight, nine, something like that, he would go to school and he would, I guess maybe for like Abraham Lincoln’s birthday or something, he would dress up as Abraham Lincoln and deliver the Gettysburg Address. And his teachers were almost shocked at how well he got the character down. And it was this little kid; nobody even prompted him to be this Abraham Lincoln impersonator, it was just him, it just came naturally to him.
AD: It did. It’s so funny to hear Walt talk about when he became a TV personality, and how shy he was early on to be in front of the cameras. He didn’t like that.
AN: Oh . . .
AD: Because he had to be very self conscious about what he said and how he said it, you know, but then later on he did a few shows . . . the first one was the Christmas show, of course. And then he did more, and then he got really into it.
AN: The Christmas show, is that the one that they have on the Alice In Wonderland DVD?
AD: That was the first show. That was Walt’s first TV show.
AN: Wow, he didn’t seem nervous.
AD: He said he was. I don’t have the tape but he said he was.
AN: He was really hamming it up. Now, one of the things you must be asked a lot is about where you came from. It sounds like you’re Polish, but you grew up in Germany, and your name is French.
AD: Right, exactly. That’s basically it.
AN: So your native language is German?
AD: That’s my first language, yeah.
AN: You said you watched Walt on TV, so was it in German, was somebody speaking for him?
AD: It was dubbed.
AN: And now you’re here in America, in Los Angeles, because of Walt.
AD: Yeah. Otherwise I would not be here.
AN: Isn’t it amazing to think how much he’s affected people’s lives? And his influence just keeps going, it doesn’t stop.
AD: No, it doesn’t stop. Frank . . . or Ollie, they keep thinking about Walt as a force of nature . . . and he was. If that man had only done Snow White, and nothing else, he would’ve spent his whole life living as a master filmmaker, you know. But, my God, that was only the beginning. I mean, there aren’t people like this.
AN: He was really going against the flow when he made that.
AD: Driven. He saw things that people didn’t see, that people couldn’t get. He had this high concept of high quality things that didn’t exist yet that he saw, and he just went for them, and he could’ve lost his shirt and his reputation! Everyone told him, “Disney, man, come on.” He just saw it, he just knew.
AN: Like with Disneyland. He had his vision and nothing stopped him.
AD: They don’t make them like that anymore. Unbelievably driven man.
AN: But I think people now, since they know what he was like, they can maybe have a little bit of that rub off on them so they can continue what he started, you know what I mean?
AD: It’s good to inspired by Walt and what he did, and his standards. He just had these high standards, he would just give the audience something that they didn’t expect, that was beyond what they thought they would get, always aiming higher. And that’s one of his traits, that’s something to really shoot for, to go the extra mile, do even better than people would expect of you. I think it goes along with being a good artist, you’re never satisfied. It’s never good enough. That’s just the way it is. I think with that attitude you learn.
AN: That brings up another question I was going to ask you. I think you said when you started on Black Cauldron that you were not completely satisfied with what you did.
AD: Well . . . I was like a kid out of art school, you know, twenty-three when I started, and I’d done some animation and some tests and things like that at home, but I didn’t have control over what I was doing, I didn’t have any experience, so all of us were sort of floundering with that, and it shows in the film, of course. Toward the end of the film I didn’t feel so helpless anymore, I had that experience. I could build on that and get that over, hopefully.
AN: Do you ever look at anything that you did before and say, “I should’ve done ‘such-and-such’ instead of what I did”?
AD: All the time.
AN: Because you’re hard on yourself?
AD: All the time. When I give lectures at schools or something like that, I sometimes pick from sequences that I’ve worked on. There are a few, there are just a few, that I feel okay about. Most of it I would like to do over again, most definitely. Like the first, the first scenes of Scar…are just horrible. Where he’s with Simba . . .
AN: When Simba first goes to tell him that he’s about to become king, right?
AD: Yeah, and he’s trying to lead him to go to the elephant graveyard and he says, “Oops! I’ve said too much.” The acting is okay, but my drawing really sucks on that, I mean that is just not right.
AN: I didn’t notice. It might be you.
AD: Yeah, well, you have to see what you turn out; but it usually takes five, six, seven scenes to find the character. And these were cleaned up too early, so the cleanup wasn’t very good yet because you didn’t know. A little frustrating, but there it is on the screen, can’t change it anymore.
AN: Did you animate the scenes in the order that they appear in the movie?
AD: I started, I think, with that sequence, and then I did the section with Simba and Scar; and then later on I did the opening where he’s holding up the mouse, you know, “Life’s not fair” . . . that actually came later. You kind of jump around a little bit on these things.
AN: Did you ever think what Scar might’ve looked like if he was a cub or anything?
AD: I never drew him as a cub because he couldn’t have a mane, of course. As a cub, I think that would take the whole look all away from him.
AN: When I first saw The Lion King, as it was about to come out, I heard it was going to be the first big Disney movie that wasn’t based on an old fairy tale or book or anything, it was a new story, and I was like, “That doesn’t sound so good. Sounds like they ran out of ideas and now they’re going to try to fool people into thinking they can do as good of a job as the old classics, legends, and fairy tales and stuff.” But, for some reason, as it got closer and closer to the release date I had this overwhelming urge to go see it as soon as possible.
AD: Well, there was a good word of mouth. They had some test screenings and word was that this is going to be great.
AN: And then, when I saw it there on that opening day, the very first showing of the day…and that scene when Simba goes to talk to Scar and I heard Jeremy Irons’ voice and just all of the visuals of it all, and I heard just the power of his voice, I thought, “This is going to be a good movie.” And I was hooked.
Ad: Yeah, and we didn’t know that it was going to be a good movie. To be honest with you, what happened is right after Aladdin the studio decided to split up the crew into two. And so the options were Lion King or Pocahontas and each production had an open house where you could look at the artwork and have a little wine and cheese, talk to the directors, and Pocahontas had beautiful stuff . . . oh, it was gorgeous, Mike Gabriel’s drawings.
AN: I noticed the backgrounds are very Mary Blair-like.
AD: And Sleeping Beauty too. Sort of a mix. But they had beautiful pre-production artwork, all about the leaves, the Indians, and the spirits, and water and trees, you know, it was very magical. It kind of changed after that a little bit, but Lion King didn’t have much to show, just some realistic renderings of lions. “What’s that going to be?” Most people wanted to work on Pocahontas. Most of the top guys.
AN: So what steered you?
AD: I wanted to do something with animals because I loved Jungle Book so much. And this was my chance to do a real cool animal. And then we had some pretty weak story screenings of Lion King, and it was sort of labelled as the B-picture, Pocahontas was going to be the ‘A’ one and we were going to be the ‘B’ one, and then things changed and Elton John got involved, and then Hans Zimmer, that beautiful score and…it just picked up, and all of a sudden it was really about something, it was about big things. I thought, “It was supposed to be a cartoon,” you know, but look how you get sucked into the story, this big, epic story. So that was kind of a nice feeling . . . that it turned out in the end. Even though a lot of things should be better in it, as usual. But overall it’s a really engaging film, I think. Really important film.
AN: Well it’s one of my favorites.
AD: Did you ever have a chance to see the stage show of The Lion King?
AN: Yeah, I saw it three times in Hollywood and one time in Orange County.
AD: I love that stage show. Magnificent.
AN: Very innovative. I like how the stage itself is almost its own character with all the tricks they do, like when they have the bugs go across the stage and everything…
AD: So inventive. And I tell people sometimes that I actually like it more than the movie because there’s no bad drawings . . . It’s all beautiful.
AN: One other thing I’m interested in was Runaway Brain. How did that come about?
AD: That came about for two reasons. The first one, they wanted to fold the French studio, which was with TV animation at the time, they wanted to fold that into Feature Animation, but they realized they had some really qualified people working there that could do feature animation, but we weren’t going to throw a feature at them right away. So we sort of pulled them in doing a short. And they were again trying to bring Mickey back, trying to do something with Mickey Mouse and there were all kinds of concepts, different story ideas, for that particular project. And then somebody in a story meeting did a doodle of a mean Mickey Mouse . . . just out of boredom or something. And that’s how that got started. Somebody said, “That’s funny. Why don’t we do a satire on Frankenstein?,” and so it was really fun to work on. I loved working on that. But I love the character of Mickey Mouse; a lot of animators don’t . . .
AN: But you draw him well.
AD: That’s because I love him so much. I mean, how can you not love animating Mickey Mouse? When you grow up with him as a kid, there’s this thing on TV, and you’re just so mesmerized by it and now you have a chance to animate it. I mean, it’s just a thrill, an absolute thrill. And I love studying subtleties, you know, ’cause basically he seems simple: one big circle, two small circles and it’s already Mickey Mouse. You recognize him very easily but then you need to study the animation subtleties.
AN: When you animate him you have to figure out all the ways he’s going to turn and everything, right?
AD: He’s full of cheats and there’s all these things that don’t make sense. From the front his nose is flat; when he turns his nose just goes up. The ears never turn, they just float on his head that is always this flat, round thing that doesn’t turn at all and why that works nobody knows, but you just buy it. So all these things you have to find out about, like his hands, the beautiful, expressiveness of his hands, then the doughy feeling of his feet and the softness. All that has to be there.
AN: Did you do Minnie Mouse on it or did somebody else do Minnie?
AD: I did some animation with Pluto, Mickey, and Minnie in the opening of Runaway Brain where Mickey’s playing the videogame.
AN: That came out in ’94 and I remember thinking that there hasn’t been any Mickey short or anything in decades, so how does like the financing of something like that work, because they can’t get money back on a short since they don’t know if people are going to see the movie because of that, right?
AD: Yeah, I think they used it as a testing tool for the French studio, to sort of establish a pipeline with Burbank and the communications system and all of those things. And then, what was it they were doing next? Part of a feature . . . I think it was Hercules. They did a good chunk of Hercules.
AN: But you animated Hercules yourself, right?
AD: Yeah, and I had a couple animators over there who did beautiful work on the characters.
AN: And that closed down too, huh? Now Joe Grant was saying that he really likes the shorts, but that the economics don’t work out.
AD: You know why Joe likes them and I do too for that reason, because you can experiment more with shorts, you’re not . . . I don’t want to say ‘bogged down,’ but you’re going to have this storyline where everything has to connect and hook up, and the story has to be established. In a short you can just do more . . . it’s freeing almost, you can do a different style, you can do a different type of storytelling. Like Lorenzo. I mean that, I just love that thing. I just love it. It’s so inventive.
AN: Yeah, I saw that in the theater. They had it with some Touchstone movie, but I went to see it so I could see Lorenzo, you know?
AD: I think it’s brilliant. What a nice blend of 2D animation and 3D. Looked like something completely new.
AN: I really like shorts too, but I think that maybe if they can’t tell that they made money, it’s harder for them to want to pay money to do them.
AD: Yeah. I guess the only thing you could do is do like three or four and then put them together on a DVD later. But, yeah, theatrically you’re not going to be making money on shorts.
AN: Have you ever thought about directing a film?
AD: I don’t think I’m quite ready to direct a feature film because you’re so involved in storytelling. I know you have the story crew who is working with you, but I will be doing a short film for the studio.
AN: Which one?
AD: It’s my own . . . it’s going to be 2D.
AN: Is it too early to tell what it is?
AD: Yeah, a little too early. It’s in those early stages. It’s going to be a personal film. It’s going to be inspired by the work of T. S. Sullivant. It’s going to be spontaneous, and something fresh, something character-driven. Totally character-driven.
AN: And that’ll probably just be released to theaters with another movie.
AD: That’s what I understand, yeah. I would like to animate the whole thing, have two assistants maybe to help me with the follow up, and just make it really fun.
AN: So is it based on any existing characters or all new?
AD: It’s all new.
AN: I always wondered about the people that become directors. How do the executives know that so-and-so could be directing now?
AD: A lot of times the directors came through story. They were story artists first and then became directors. In the case of Chris Sanders, Dean DeBlois . . . Ron and John were story artists, I think Ron was. I know he was also an animator. But John Musker most certainly was a story artist. So that seems like a natural, if you’re a good storyteller, if you know story structure, develop characters within the story, then you might be able to take on a whole project. Animators don’t often make good directors because they are too much involved in the business of things and the acting.
AN: Well, that’s what I was wondering about, the progression . . . It seems like animating and directing are two pretty different things.
AD: I’m not saying it’s impossible but animators are actors, that’s what they are. I see myself as that.
AN: And the Feature Animation building . . . is it almost empty?
AD: Not, not really. Chicken Little is almost finished. They’re doing that and then the next crew is already ramping up for A Day with Wilbur Robinson.
AN: Have you seen Chicken Little? Any parts?
AD: I haven’t seen it lately. It looks good. I mean it looks like the animators made funny characters.
AN: I like watching a lot of the computer-generated movies but I think I would have a hard time working with it. Have you ever even thought about doing computer animation?
AD: I tried it. And then I got to a point where I thought, “I can certainly learn this.” Then you ask yourself, “Okay, once you learn this how much fun would it really be?” And I thought, “Probably not that much, really.” You know, it’s not much . . .
AN: It seems more grinding and arduous.
AD: Drawing is just a way of expressing yourself. It’s just wonderful, more direct, and it’s more spontaneous. I’m not saying that Pixar films or whatever are not spontaneous but I think you can only respond in terms of how it hits you, you know? When I see a really good, well drawn, animated scene it hits me right here, and if I see a computer animated scene: I like it, it’s great, but it’s fine for others to do.
AN: Well, have you finished everything you needed to do for Bambi and the Great Prince of the Forest?
AD: I’m done, yeah. I actually finished last year. I went down to Sydney twice, for six weeks each time. It was a fun experience.
AN: I remember you telling me that it looks like it’s going to turn out pretty good and I hadn’t seen anything of it at that point but later on I saw some stills from it and then I saw the trailer and thought, “That does look pretty good.”
AD: Yeah. I was getting e-mails from down there and they all think it’s their best project yet.
AN: Does the Great Prince get to retain some of his mystery?
AD: Yeah, I think so. He’s definitely in character. He’s very dignified.
AN: I notice with some of the other direct-to-video sequels recently that the animation does look a little better than what had come out several years ago.
AD: They’re getting better too.
AN: I saw one or two things that were direct-to-video things, like Mulan II . . . I went to the Frank G. Wells Screening Room for that, also Lion King 1½ and The Three Musketeers. And I think they looked much better on the big screen. I’m kind of hoping they’ll have something like that for this Bambi.
AD: Yeah, I’m sure. It has a really theatrical quality to it; I don’t know if the word for it is “epic,” but it looks theatrical and doesn’t really show any shortcuts in the styling of the backgrounds or whatever, it looks really lush.
AN: Of course now a lot of people around here are starting to get home theaters.
AD: I know, then it’s big after all. I sure enjoy mine. Sixty inch flat screen, which I love. I just love it.
AN: So, what kind of non-Disney animation do you like?
AD: I like anything . . .
AN: Like the Looney Tunes stuff?
AD: I like all of that old stuff, all of it. I mean…nobody did bad work in the Forties. Whether it’s Tom and Jerry, whether it’s Popeye or whether it’s the Disney stuff. They were all great. And I really love studying all that stuff. But I also like recent things. One of the best short films that I think really has a non-Disney, non-Hollywood look is The Man Who Planted Trees. That is one astonishing, beautiful, beautiful film. Frédéric Back is the director, plus he won two Academy Awards, including one for The Man Who Planted Trees. Beautiful, beautiful work. So his stuff I love. Richard Williams’ stuff I love. I love his commercials that he did in the Seventies in England. Dick is great.
AN: What kind of commercials did he do?
AD: He did all kinds of different styles, but all fully animated. Something that looks like an oil painting, something that looks like an etching, something that looks like a newspaper print, ash, all these different styles and it’s done absolutely beautifully. It was really groundbreaking work. And of course the stuff he did for his own film, before they took it from him, The Thief and the Cobbler, his own stuff was wonderful.
AN: I know a month or two ago ASIFA-Hollywood did a screening of commercials from the Fifties and Sixties. I went to that and a few of them are actually from the Seventies, and there were so many people there that there were even people sitting in like the aisles and stuff. And they said, “We have a lot more. We could probably do another one.” So I was thinking of writing to Jerry Beck and saying, “Throw in some more from the Seventies,” and maybe even some Richard Williams commercials.
AD: Yeah. If they could find them, if somebody has them. I had some.
AN: He said they had like 300 more they could show. He said, “We could do twenty more shows like this of two hours each.”
AD: Wow, somebody has archives . . . I was actually planning on going to that one as well but I didn’t make it.
AN: Well, they said sometime before the end of the year they’re hoping to do another one. At the prior one they showed the original Peanuts commercials for Ford Motorcars, and those were interesting.
AD: Yeah. I like to see unique styles.
AN: Sometime I want to get that sketch from you that we talked about before, remember of Lilo and Scar? I was saying you should do a sketch of Lilo talking to Scar and have Lilo saying that they need to work on his badness level or something.
AD: You know, that inspired a sketch that is actually done and up for auction at Chad Frye’s Illustrator Society Auction. You know Chad Frye?
AN: I’ve heard the name.
AD: He was at Disney for a while and then he was let go. He had this illustrator society. Great people come in there and give talks. I gave a talk there once and so he’s inviting people like Jack Davis and I did a drawing. It’s Lilo putting a flower in Scar’s mane.
AN: Oh, that’s funny. How would I be able to at least see that?
AD: There’s a catalog out, I think. There’s a really nice piece by Jack Davis, and there’s Charles Schulz sketches, all kinds of artists.
AN: One last question – you mentioned previously that you had acquired Milt Kahl’s drawing desk. Can you tell us more about how that happened?
AD: Yes, in the mid-Eighties, I don’t know the exact year, we were starting on Little Mermaid. Was that ’86?
AN: Well, it came out in ’89 so I believe production began in ’86.
AD: So it was ’86, maybe ’87, at that time we still had a whole bunch of vintage animation desks around, and I spoke to management and said, “I would really like to have that desk. If I find it can I have it?” And the initial response was that they didn’t quite know what to make of it. They said, “We’ll have to check and get back with you.” So then the answer did come back, “Well, if you do find it then, yes, as part of your contract, you can have it.” And so I had photographs of Milt sitting at his desk throughout the years and then I found it one evening after people were gone I just walked around and saw the desk because my pictures were very clear, sharp press photographs with lots of detail so I could see the wood grain. And when Milt opened the drawer there was a serial number printed on the side which was the exact number on the desk I’d found.
AN: That almost sounds like a detective story.
AD: Yeah, it kind of was. But I did find it with the help of these photographs. Has having the desk helped me? Not really. I mean it is inspirational but I couldn’t really say that Milt’s spirit is helping me. I think his attitude would be, “Do your own damn thing.” That’s what he would say. But it’s nice and I know he used this desk on Lady and the Tramp, Sleeping Beauty . . . all the way through Jungle Book. I think he was using a different desk on The AristoCats and Robin Hood.
AN: And you’re taking a trip back to Germany soon?
AD: Yep, in September . . . October. My hometown is holding a Disney celebration month. They’re going to have an exhibition of my artwork which is I think being shipped today from the Animation Research Library. It’ll be mostly animation drawings, but also posters and maquettes and they’re recreating a work station with an animation desk and some paper and pencils and there’ll be some large poster-sized model sheets of the characters I’ve done. And some of my wire sculptures will be shown there.
AN: Wire sculptures? Were you inspired by your visits up to see Milt?
AD: I was, but at first I thought I could never do it. Years later I realized I could do it in my own way, in my own style. So I did a little horse and this whole idea clicked of treating the line in a three-dimensional way. Not just on paper up and down but really drawing in the air and understanding that and I just loved it. I’ve had a couple shows so far and they made a charity event out of one of them. It’s fun.
This interview took place at the Chez Nous restaurant in Toluca Lake on May 12, 2005. Thank you to Andreas for his cordiality in agreeing to and participating in the interview and to my Animated News colleague, Ben Simon, for editing the raw transcript of the conversation into a more readable and presentable form. We hope to bring you more such interviews here at Animated News.