New York Times - May 19, 1996
The Heart and Soul of a New Animator
By Betsy Sharkey
WHEN A RAGTAG street urchin named Aladdin took Princess Jasmine on a magic carpet ride, crooning "It's a whole new world" in Walt Disney's animated hit "Aladdin," he could have been predicting the future that lay ahead for film animators.
Ever since 1988, when Disney released "Who Framed Roger Rabbit," with its blend of live action and animation, a new generation of Disney artists have had an extraordinarily successful run of films. Nearly all of the studio's animated films have landed on Variety's top 100 list of box-office moneymakers. "The Lion King," from 1994, ranks No. 5 and remains Disney's most successful film, animated or otherwise, with nearly \\$315 million in American ticket sales. "Aladdin," at No. 16, made \\$217 million; "Roger Rabbit," at No. 42, earned \\$154 million, and "Beauty and the Beast" (No. 49), released in 1991, earned \\$145 million.
Animation on this scale is a highly collaborative art form, and still a largely hand-drawn medium. About 600 people are ultimately involved in making a Disney film like "Beauty and the Beast." But among these legions of specialists is an elite group of animators who embody the artistic soul of the studio's animated films. Peter Schneider, the president of Walt Disney feature animation, calls these artists performing at the top of their craft "gods." What they really are are great character actors who use pencil and paper instead of face and body.
One is Andreas Deja, a 39-year-old Polish-born artist who is the new archetype of the traditional animator. It is Mr. Deja (pronounced DAY-zha) who has given Disney most of its contemporary animated villains, like Scar, the evil uncle of "The Lion King."
Indeed, Mr. Deja was to "The Lion King" what Anthony Hopkins was to "The Silence of the Lambs." Although the blueprint for the look of the sinister, aging lion had already been sketched out by other artists and the actor Jeremy Irons gave Scar his voice, Mr. Deja was the one who gave Scar the stealth of his walk, the evil curl of a lip, the bony hunch of his shoulders and a dozen other physical expressions of years of hatred and resentment that brought Scar to life.
Others in Mr. Schneider's pantheon are Glen Keane, who was responsible for the Beast in "Beauty and the Beast"; Eric Goldberg, who created the Genie in "Aladdin"; Mark Henn, the man behind Simba in "The Lion King," and James Baxter, who did Quasimodo in "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," which opens next month. (Mr. Baxter has just moved to Dreamworks SKG, the new studio founded by Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen.)
While Disney remains the standard-bearer in feature animation, competitors have begun to cherry-pick Disney's top talent. Mr. Katzenberg, formerly the chairman of Walt Disney Studios, was famous for taking an interest in revitalizing Disney's moribund animation operation. Now, as head of the rival studio Dreamworks, he has in fact wooed away a number of important Disney animators.
What happens to artists like Mr. Deja will ultimately determine what happens to the art form of animation itself. Though there may be high-speed computers to do much of the trench work -- and Disney, along with other studios, is certainly experimenting in those directions -- what elevates a cartoon to art is the ability of an animator to create characters that touch an audience.
Just as all the filters and Dolby enhancements in the world cannot a singer make, computers and other new technologies cannot make an animator. What is left to Disney as the leader in feature animation, and to Disney's ever-expanding list of competitors, is to preserve an environment that nurtures these artists in the face of a technology-driven world -- to insure that the master does not become the slave.
A Full-Time Devotion
Like most creative people, Andreas Deja is a man obsessed. He works virtually all the time, mostly in his office, in the new Disney animation building designed by Robert A. M. Stern in Burbank, but also at his large, eclectically decorated house in the Hollywood Hills. Mr. Deja, who is single, says he has virtually no personal life; the long, intensive hours involved in animation make it difficult for him to cultivate one.
There are occasional dinners with friends and colleagues, evenings at the theater and four-mile runs around the Lake Hollywood reservoir in the hills near his home. But most of what spare time he has tends to be absorbed communing with past masters of his craft or immersed in animation research.
He spends hours analyzing early animated films or the pencil drawings for characters like Peter Pan -- he keeps a series of such drawings near his desk at home -- studying the styles, the expressions, the colors. He sketches always, often at the Los Angeles Zoo, about a mile from his office. During a three-month sabbatical last year, he sketched his way through Italy. All of this is in pursuit of the animator's alchemy: to turn flat lines and colors into living creatures.
"There are two ingredients that make these people gods," says Mr. Schneider, the Disney executive. "One is their ability to draw -- the physical craftsmanship of the quality of their line. The other is their ability to express emotion through the acting."
"Andreas," he adds, "can be cast any way you want to cast him." Mr. Deja, though known for his villains, is drawing the hero in his current Disney project, "Hercules," which is due next summer.
Marc Davis, one of Disney's legendary Nine Old Men, that core group of artists who created such classics as "Bambi," "Peter Pan" and "101 Dalmatians," sees Mr. Deja as an heir to that hallowed Disney tradition.
"Sometimes I look at the animals done in 'The Lion King,' for example, and compare them to the animals in 'Bambi,'" says Mr. Davis. "The animals in 'Bambi' had bones and muscles in them; their faces work." Although he does not find that same elegance in "The Lion King," "there is a learning process going on," he admits. And he adds, "There are a few very, very good young animators, and one I enjoy particularly is Andreas Deja."
Over coffee in one of his favorite spots, Chez Nous, an ivy-covered clapboard restaurant at the foot of the Hollywood Hills, Mr. Deja talks in an emotional rush about animation. His voice still carries echoes of his youth as a Polish child growing up in Germany, and his hands trace the images he is describing in the air.
He has the intensity of his villains but virtually none of their darkness. Mr. Deja's is an open face, with piercing eyes, curly dark-blond hair, a quick smile. He is compact and spare with his emotions, except when it comes to animation. He exhibits untempered joy when the subject is art and pain when conversation veers toward the death, in 1988, of one of his mentors, the animator Milton Kahl.
Mr. Deja is working on a biography of Kahl, who took him under his wing after Mr. Deja came to Disney. And it was written into one of Mr. Deja's contracts years ago that if Disney could find Kahl's old animation desk, Mr. Deja could have it.
That desk, an ordinary wooden draftsman's table, now sits in Mr. Deja's home studio. Sometimes, when he has a problem, he leaves a sketch on the desk at night in case Kahl's spirit is tempted to solve it.
From Oberhausen To Burbank
Young Andreas grew up in Oberhausen, not far from Cologne, one of three children of working-class parents. He cannot remember a time when he wasn't drawing. By the time he was 4 and in kindergarten, he had pencil and paper in hand almost constantly. After a friend started lending him comic books, he began drawing Disney characters. Then his family got a black-and-white television set, and he saw characters move on "The Wonderful World of Disney."
"There was a magnetism or connection," he says. "I was just gone." At 10 Mr. Deja saw his first Disney movie, "The Jungle Book." It changed his life.
"For me it was just like a calling, like when a priest knows he's going to become a priest," he says. "You're hypnotized. You wonder, 'How is this possible, with these drawings? They think and they move.' I couldn't believe it."
When he was 12, Mr. Deja composed a letter and addressed it to "Walt Disney Studios, America." In it he asked what he had to do to become a Disney animator. Within weeks, he got a form letter back outlining some suggestions.
"They said, 'Don't send us any drawings of Mickey or Donald; we can teach you that,'" he recalls. "They said, 'Go to art school, become an artist in your own right, learn about anatomy, learn about animals, go to the zoo and sketch and observe.'" And he did.
He tried to get into a life drawing class, but the professor told him he was too young at 13 to see nude models. At 16 he came back and the professor let him in. In his last year of college, an art school in Germany, Mr. Deja wrote to Disney again.
He began corresponding with Eric Larson, one of the Nine Old Men, who had been put in charge of establishing a training program for Disney. Mr. Deja soon won a two-month tryout and bought a one-way ticket to Los Angeles, arriving in 1980.
He began his life as a Disney animator working on "The Black Cauldron" on one floor of the studio's animation building. Upstairs, Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston -- two more of the Nine Old Men -- were working on their first book, "Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life."
At Disney, seeing the illusion of life behind the characters was always the ultimate test of the material. But finding that illusion is often a long and difficult journey, one that Mr. Deja feels only experience can shorten. In rapid succession he worked on "The Great Mouse Detective," "Oliver and Company," "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" and "The Little Mermaid."
"What you do with a character is an open field," Mr. Deja says. "When I came onto 'Aladdin' after 'Beauty and the Beast,' a lot of work had been done by story artists, and there were some voice recordings by Jonathan Freeman, who was the voice of Jafar, to listen to."
But what he heard and what he saw didn't mesh. In some story boards, Mr. Deja thought Jafar was too much like Cruella de Vil, a very physical character in "101 Dalmatians." In other scenes, Jafar was just standing there. The voice had menace, but Mr. Deja had to figure out how to meld voice and action.
"I talked to the directors and then animated a few scenes," Mr. Deja says. "And the more I animated, the more I found that the less I move Jafar, the more menacing and the more of a presence he becomes. All of the other characters in 'Aladdin' are so bouncy, I decided if I just created this guy who watches everything from a distance, it created this dark cloud over all that bounciness. Whenever I could, I would do things with an eyebrow, or a little head tilt, and he became so much more evil."
For Mr. Deja, the emotional dimensions of a character combine with the physical ones to form the starting point. Gaston in "Beauty and the Beast" was a particular challenge.
"I didn't understand the character," Mr. Deja admitted. "In the story boards, Gaston was very crude, like a villain -- crooked nose, big jaw and very caricatured. So that's how I perceived him, like a Captain Hook."
But when Mr. Katzenberg saw the early animation of Gaston, he was not satisfied.
"He called me into his office on the main lot, this big beautiful white office, and put his feet on the table and just talked," Mr. Deja says. "He said the theme of the movie was 'Don't judge a book by the cover.' My job was to do something with Gaston so that he looked like a hero but was conniving and evil."
That is what Mr. Deja did. He made Gaston beautiful and let his arrogance reveal his unsavory side.
Before he draws each scene, Mr. Deja sits down with the director. "You talk not about how it's to be drawn," he says. "You talk about who the character is, what's going on in his mind, how he relates to other characters, what's going on in the scene before and after. You talk movie stuff."
Even when he begins working, the drawing itself, the medium for the emotions, becomes secondary. The first time he relied on his own experience to make a character real was when he was working on the King Triton character in "The Little Mermaid."
In the scene, the king was angry at his willful daughter. "I thought, 'This is like my own dad when my older sister started to date,'" Mr. Deja says. "My dad was really freaking and going after these guys: 'You leave my daughter alone!' And there was King Triton: 'Don't use that tone of voice with me, young lady.'"
Sometimes inspiration comes from a source closer to home. Jafar, for example, was loosely based on a former Disney executive whom Mr. Deja will not identify. "There was something about the elegance of his lies," Mr. Deja says, "the smoothness, the oiliness, that I got into Jafar. You've got to find a way to self-express. Otherwise you're just doing a mechanical job."
That need for self-expression is in part why computer animation does not interest Mr. Deja. He does the main character drawings on his films.
And while computer animation may come in to manipulate Aladdin's carpet in intricate scenes, for example, that doesn't involve him. He was surprised, therefore, to find himself a great admirer of Disney's computer-animated "Toy Story."
"Once I saw the movie, I was one of the biggest fans," he says. "The characters are so rich, the technique became secondary. After 10 minutes, people forget it's all computer images."
For Mr. Deja, who is only now becoming comfortable with E-mail, animation will always be a deeply personal medium.
"Drawing seems an easier way of going about it -- and I know that sounds crazy because you're talking about 24 drawings per second," he says. "But that's why it's so alive and personal, if it's done well. We have this unlimited range of possibilities."
An Old Conflict: Money vs. Art
On a simple sketch pad that he bends over for hours each day, Mr. Deja and a handful of colleagues will literally draw Disney into the 21st century. "Hercules" will be Disney's big animated movie this time next year. Mr. Deja's philosophy will help shape the film, and his artistic talent will help define it.
But Disney almost lost Andreas Deja. Late last winter he was negotiating with a number of studios to determine where he would go. For the first time in the 15 years that he had been a working animator, all of them at Disney, he had an agent and a wide range of options.
It is no small irony that artists like Mr. Deja, who have been so critical in the financial success of animated films, were among the lowest-paid craftsmen in Hollywood. But competition has changed that. Salaries for top animators have jumped from an average of \\$57,000 in 1988 to $104,000, with the most sought-after animators earning twice that, according to the Motion Picture Screen Cartoonists union.
When Mr. Katzenberg left Disney, one of his first calls was to Mr. Deja, who was in Paris working on "Runaway Brain," an animated Mickey Mouse short that was nominated for an Academy Award this year. (Mr. Katzenberg, who remains a close friend of Mr. Deja's, declined to be interviewed.) Later, when Mr. Katzenberg formed Dreamworks, he talked to Mr. Deja about joining him there.
Mr. Deja stayed with Disney. The history of the place is in some measure what held him -- that and a horizon brimming with seductive new projects.
Explaining why he stayed, Mr. Deja mentions an evening a few months ago when he was in a theater watching "Frank and Ollie." The documentary examines the enduring friendship between Mr. Thomas and Mr. Johnston.
"Frank and Ollie start reminiscing about their art, and you see their drawing and their passion," Mr. Deja says. "I've known those guys for years. They've been my heroes. And I sat in the theater and thought, 'Oh, my God, to hell with all this contract stuff. This is what it's all about.' It's the passion. It's the art."
It's the state of the passion as much as the art that worries Jules Engel, a professor of experimental animation at the California Institute for the Arts (Cal Arts) in Valencia, which has been the training ground for many Disney animators. (Walt Disney helped start the school in 1961.)
"Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, they fell in love with the medium so desperately that they could hardly wait to get up in the morning and go and do it," says Mr. Engel, who worked with them at Disney before leaving to help form United Productions of America, the rival animation house that created Mr. Magoo and other figures.
"They worked at it like dogs because they wanted to," he says. "Those guys wouldn't think of working any other place that would make them more money. For them, it was the art of it, and the falling in love with it."
Such passion, Mr. Engel believes, will be harder to sustain in a world where money hijacks talent from one studio to another -- often overnight. Which is why Mr. Deja seems like a throwback.
On Christmas and on his birthday he can usually be found in his studio, slowly making his way through a set of 150 raw pencil drawings by Milton Kahl from "Sleeping Beauty." It is his touchstone.
"That piece of animation is so beautifully conceived," Mr. Deja says of the scene that portrays the prince just as he is telling his father he has met the girl he's going to marry. "Each one of Milt's scribbly drawings was a triumph over brainpower. Everything about his search for form, for expression, is there."
The drawings represent just a sliver of screen time. For Mr. Deja, they represent the world.
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