Wednesday 8 February 2012

Tony Bancroft Interview

Hello guys and gals,

Thanks to Eric Swymer, a friend I met through the 11 Second Club, I had the opportunity and privilege to interview Disney's youngest director, Tony Bancroft. When Eric mentioned this opportunity, I feel most embarrassed to say, I had not heard of either Tony or his twin brother Tom. Yet after a look Tony's long credit list and star-gazing at his reel, I now feel blessed to have been introduced to such a wonderful artist and an amazingly beautiful portfolio of work.

I wish to thank Tony for his time and really hope you all enjoy the read!  If you wish to watch his reel first, please click here.

With two very talented twins in the family, what was it like growing up in the Bancroft household?
Pretty normal I guess. Or at least as normal as two tall, skinny twins who only liked to read comics and draw can be in a family. The good thing is that my brother Tom and I knew what we wanted to do since we were 3 years old. We literally grew up drawing. It was the only thing we knew or cared about. We were not into sports like most young boys but we were competitive in our drawing. We would always critique each other and go over each other’s work until we felt it was right. We really sharpened each other.

When did you realize you wanted to become an animator and how did you go about pursuing your dream?
Tom and I grew up tracing and drawing from comic strips and comic books primarily. We really didn’t get into animation until college. Animation was a mystery to me. I didn’t understand the timing aspect or how you made drawings come to life like what I saw in the cartoons. Animation might as well have been rocket science to me. I thought that I would never get it so I settled into thinking of myself as a future comic strip artist like my hero Charles M. Schulz (Peanuts). Tom and I got all the way into a junior college and still planning on making it big with the comic strips we were creating. At least until we met a guy that was doing these strange and wonderful little films out of clay. The animation was crude but it was fun and alive! We got to know this guy and ended up making a clay animated film with him that summer. It is horrible to see it now but at the time we felt like Dr. Frankenstein breathing life into the monster. We were creating life!

So, Tom and I were hooked. We read every book on animation that summer and by the end discovered the college California Institute of the Arts (which had the number one animation program in the world at the time). We were excepted into the character animation and taught by the very best in the industry. It was heaven!

Were you inspired by any characters/films in particular?
I have always been a big fan of the early Warner Brothers shorts. The work of Chuck Jones especially. One of my earliest remembrances of a Disney film was seeing Lady and the Tramp and loving it. I was amazed at how the animators brought such humanistic character and mannerisms to characters that were still very much dogs too.

I also remember being blown away when I saw The Great Mouse Detective. I was in Cal Arts at the time it came out and went to a screening where some of the lead animators where speaking afterwards. I felt like I was meeting rock stars. Of course, it was surreal when just a couple of years later I would be working with them.

How influential was the creative environment at Calarts to your career as an animator?
Hugely! It was at CalArts that my passion for animation and film really developed. My brother Tom and I were there together in a freshman class that included Pete Docter, Ash Brannon, Mark Kennedy, Donovan Cook, Jim Capobianco and many more inspiring arts. We were all just young and on fire for animation. We learned from each other as much as we did from our teachers. But our teachers were awesome too. We had Chris Buck for animation, Joe Ranft for story, Mike Giamo for character design, Dan Hanson for layout and of course, the legendary Bob Winquist for design and leading the program. We could kind of do anything with our films. The only suggestion was that it had to be silent (first year) and around 1-3 minutes in length. We had classes too but our main thing was our film each year. It was an awesome time that I will never forget! 

If you had the opportunity to work on any feature film (doesn't have to be Disney), which would you choose?
That’s a tough one, but since I grew up loving comic books so to do something with superheroes would be a dream come true. I think if The Incredibles was a 2D film that would have been perfect for me. Can you imagine? It was great as it is of course, but to do that move in traditional animation would be cool.

(Domestic Superdad for ToonCow concept challenge)

Lion King was released in 1994, yet witnessing the ''25 days of Pumbaa'', your enthusiasm for the character still seems so alive. Please talk a bit the importance of sustaining passion in your work.
Well, it’s easy for me to sustain that passion with Pumbaa. He was my first character that was my own to create (supervising animator) and I have always had an affection towards him because of that. Also, because The Lion King seems to NEVER go away (3D, DVD, Blu-Ray, Broadway, etc.) he seems to always come back across my drawing board. I have probably drawn Pumbaa twice as many times since the movie came out than when I originally animated him for the film! Most recently, over the last 5 years, I have animated him for a series of “safety smart” Pumbaa and Timon videos that Disney puts out for schools around the world. So, he just kind of lives on….and I’m good with that.
(please click here for a link to Tony and Mark Henn talking about the release of Lion King 3D)

In your brother's Animschool webcast, Tom began speaking about the need to find a balance between family life and artwork. Please may you expand on this idea.
Yes, I couldn’t agree with my bro more. This career of animation can be all-consuming if you let it. There is never enough that you can learn, study, draw and animate to make yourself better. Which is good! We should always be growing and improving as artists. But we also have to have BALANCE in our lives. It’s the experiences and emotions learned from human relationships and doing other things that can also help in your work. It’s the other things in life (friends, family, church, travel, etc.) that will bring you true joy in life so don’t short change them. I hate to put it this way but, most likely, it will be time spent with family and not alone at the drawing table that you will desire in your last moments of life on this earth.

You have worked on many films with your brother Tom. Please talk a bit about working on the feature film Mulan. I would be interested to know if being family allowed for further support or pressures while listening to each others' ideas?
Mulan was an incredible experience for Tom and I. But it was a tough one too. Between the two of us, Tom was first on the film because he was already down at the Florida studio helping to develop some of the characters for a good 6- 8 months before I came on. He and the group down there (lead by my co-director on the film Barry Cook) where developing the story and experimenting with characters and design. I was finishing up press stuff for The Lion King and had gone onto supervising the animation of the gargoyles on The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Tom would tell me about the film all the time as we talked long distance almost every day. I was at the CA studio and he in Florida but because we had Disney phone connections between the studios we took advantage of the free calls! I knew that he was excited about the film being Florida’s first on their own without the CA groups involvement. Tom and several of the animators down there really wanted to animate Mushu. This was Tom’s first go at having his own character on a major film and he was really competing to get it. But the studio didn’t want to do any final casting choices until the second director came on.

When I was asked to co-direct the film with Barry it was a surprise not only to me but to all of the animators in Florida. The Florida studio is where I got my start at Disney as a low ranking clean-up artist and that’s how I left it. Then I went to CA and got into animation and rose up the ranks pretty quick. Now, I was coming back as all of these guys boss- including my brother! You can imagine that was a very difficult transition for me and them. I learned very quickly that respect is earned and doesn’t automatically come with the title given. But in regards to Tom, I really did think that he was the best choice for Mushu but it was tough to give him a star character like that without it looking like nepotism. The good thing is that Tom was Barry’s first choice too.

After the casting was done there was still the difficulty of developing a boss/ employee type relationship with your brother. I think a lot of the onus fell on Tom’s shoulders to see the difference between when I spoke to him as a director or as a brother. To Tom’s credit he dealt far better with it than I think I would have. There were still challenges but we came through the process closer and happy for the experience. I don’t think Tom would want to work for me ever again though!

Again focusing upon Mulan, the feature landed you the title of Disney's youngest director. Was having the opportunity to direct an early ambition of yours?
Yes, it was. My mother always taught us to dream big and go after those dreams. So, when I first started at Disney, I first wanted to be an animator and then a director. The only thing is, back then, it took a good 10-15 year process to become a director- if you were lucky. It was just that there were not too many films going on at once and there were already a lot of director talent occupying those positions and even more that wanted to transition into them. The competition was huge. Besides, being a man of prayer and faith, the only other thing that I credit was me telling the right person at the right time that I aspired to directing.

It was late one evening in Florida when I was there working on an animation test to move out of clean-up that I struck up a conversation with Rob Minkoff. Rob was down at the Florida studio directing the first project we produced there, a Roger Rabbit short called Roller Coaster Rabbit. He asked me what I was doing there so late and I told him I was animating a test scene in hopes of getting promoted one day to animator. He asked what did I ultimately want to do at Disney and I replied, “to be a director like you one day”.

Now, fast-forward 5 years later, after I had become a supervising animator, and Rob had just finished directing the blockbuster The Lion King. He was walking out to the garage one night with the Vice President of Development Tom Schumacher when he asked Rob, “do you have any ‘out-of–the-box’ ideas of a director that could be a good partner to Barry Cook in Florida for the new movie Mulan?”. And Rob remembered our conversation from years before and mentioned my name! Coincidence or divine intervention? You decide.

Once more on Mulan, the film introduced the world to the beautiful songs I'll make a man out of you and Reflection. Please talk a bit about how you feel music contributes to animation.
I actually love the songs in Mulan and think music has been very key for animation over the years, but Barry and I did not want any songs in Mulan. It’s true!

Character Design We produced Mulan during a time when the studio gave us a mandate that it had to be a musical. This was during the time of Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Hercules, Hunchback, etc. and everyone of them was successful, most executives thought, because they were musicals. So, when we first started to develop Mulan it was planned early on for it to be one too. But just as some stories benefit from the addition of songs in their storytelling, some stories don’t. We worked hard to integrate the music into the telling of Mulan’s story but part of me still thinks that it would have been just as powerful (and perhaps more so) without them.

If you had to choose one or two shots that you are most proud to have animated, which would you choose and why?
Talk about picking your favorite children… That’s a tough one.

''You walked in and Oops-a-Daisy!!''
I think of three off the top of my head. First, in Beauty and the Beast I animated the scene of Cogsworth the clock as he falls into the jello in the “Be Our Guest” song. It was one of my first scenes as a full-fledged animator and I really got into the dynamics of movement between him and the jello. I even had my wife make me some real jello which I took to work and dropped under the camera to study the movement frame by frame.

Secondly, in The Lion King when Pumbaa describes the stars above as “ balls of gas burning billions of miles away”. That scene was pivotal for me in understanding that Pumbaa was not stupid as much as he was an innocent. Something that helped me in cracking the nut of his character and helped for the rest of the film. And thirdly, animating Kronk discussing his problems with his shoulder Angel and Devil in The Emperor’s New Groove. That was just plain fun!

(To watch Tony's reel, please click here)

I simply must ask your thoughts on Beauty and the Beast. I particularly love the scene of Cogsworth, where he tries to save himself by laying blame upon his friends. Please talk a bit about your experience animating Cogsworth.
Thanks! Cogsworth was a real fun and challenging assignment for me. I was promoted to animator on that film and working in Will Finn’s Cogsworth unit. The great thing about working with Will was that he was very supportive and generous as a mentor and a supervisor.

That scene you mentioned should have been done by him really. It was a single character personality shot that new animators never get. Up until that scene I had mostly, animated shots of Cogsworth where he was in a group not talking, small in a scene, or running up the stairs. It was a great opportunity and really helped my career to work with such a generous supervisor.

The other thing about Cogsworth was figuring how out to pose him and make him humanistic while still having him feel like an object made of wood and metal. I looked at the doorknob character in Alice in Wonderland for reference. I loved how Ollie Johnston solved dialogue problems of this key hole that has to also be a mouth. Just genius stuff! The toughest thing to solve for Cogsworth was getting his stand to operate like legs when he had to walk or run. That’s the kind of fun problems we animators have though.

(To see some beautiful concept art by Will Finn, please click here)

As well as animating new characters, your reel includes animation on Mickey Mouse. Please talk a bit about your own values towards Mickey and your experience of working with him.
Yes, I was privileged to animate Mickey Mouse in a commercial for the Disneyland parks last year. I animated almost the whole commercial myself and it was awesome! I think every Disney animator wishes for an opportunity to animate the mouse and mine finally came after I left Disney! My goal for that commercial was to echo the drawing and acting style of Freddie Moore. He was the animator that really created the child-like and appealing version of Mickey that most people know and love today. Mickey is so much tougher to draw and animated than you would think and I worked hard at him since this was my first time. I felt pretty good with most of my scenes though.

Please talk a bit about how you believe traditional animation has developed in modern times.
I am one that still thinks there is a place for traditional animation in this world but I do think it needs some reinvention. I think traditional animation will have to involve many of the new digital software to make it seem fresh again. Things like After Effects and Flash to give it new looks and stylized presentation. I think the old Disney way of doing traditional is a thing of the past just like musicals and princess stories seem out of date.

What advice would you give to help people find character when approaching a new project?
Do your research first. Spend time thinking about who the character is in the story. Ask yourself, What makes them tick? What is the subtext, if any, behind the lines you may be animating? How does their movement and acting differ from other characters in the story and therefore make them unique? Then spend time thumbnailing (small quick drawings) unique poses and acting that fills “real” or believable for that character. Believability is the key. If you don’t believe that this character is living and breathing then the audience won’t either.

The animation industry can be tough and challenging. In times of trouble, Pumbaa would advise to ''put your behind in your past''. What advice would you give?
It’s going to sound simple and contrite but, “work hard and keep trying”. That is what will separate you from the rest. We were all born with differing degrees of God-given talent, but it’s what we do with it that will set us apart from the crowd. Also, set your goals high. I didn’t just want to be a Disney animator one day, I wanted to be a supervising animator and then director. I never let up on my dreams and worked hard to achieve them. You can do anything you put your mind and determination towards. I really believe that. Animation still has a long way to go. There are stories yet to be told and characters needing to be created. Go for it!