Working at Disneytoon studios in Sydney had a lot of great things going for it, one of the big ones was on-the-job training: life drawing, acting, commedia dell’arte, trust and leadership, senior animators leaching us trick and tips, training for specific departments: FX, layouts, backgrounds, cleanup.
I began my time at Disney in 1999, as a trainee inbetweener. I spent 6 months training on the job, learning how to assist the key animator in keying a scene.
…no wait. Back up a year.
At the start of 1998 I had graduated from a Graphic design degree and heard about the traineeship program at Disney. I applied and they called me in for an interview. I needed to complete an inbetween test- and I had never animated anything in my life. But they sat me down at the light table and quickly explained how to do it. So I guess that’s when the training really began.
But it took another 6 months to really get the hang of it. There were 8 of us in the January 1999 training intake. We had to learn how to interpret the animator’s rough inbetweens (sometimes called breakdowns), especially if the cleanup artist had radically changed the key drawings to put them back on model.
Using the rough inbetween we make clean lines on fresh sheets of paper. We also had to make extra drawings by interpolating the between drawings from the keys either side of them. Sometimes we made a rough in blue pencil first, but more often we went straight to clean line.
It was a bit of a learning curve, but we were constantly getting feedback and encouragement on our work.
While we were training, the studio finished on the goofy movie and started on the Little Mermaid sequel. We went to the Sydney aquarium for a field trip as part of the preparation for the project. This was completely unnecessary. As mere inbetweeners, we didn’t really need to be analysing the movement of the fish, noting how bubbles moved or how the water coloured the environment. Our work was far to menial and prescriptive to need any of this input. But it was fun! And I guess that was the point, it was a morale-booster. We felt like we were part of the action, going to to ‘research’ on the company time and money.
As trainees, we were also obliged to go to life drawing classes at the studio. This was to be a corner stone of my development: I latched onto these sessions and wrung them for all their worth! They were compulsory for trainees, but anyone in the studio was encouraged to go.
I have to admit, it took a couple of months to get to the stage where the classes were useful: we had a couple of teachers who told us to just ‘express ourselves’ and ‘loosen up’. This was nice for a while, but we weren’t being pushed to learn anything new.
Finally we got on board a genuine art teacher, David Briggs, who taught anatomy and drawing. His lessons changed the way I thought about drawing the figure. I’ve talked more about the benefits of his approach in this blog post on drawing.
At the beginning of each new project we were split up into teams, consisting of a main character and some secondary characters. For instance on The Little Mermaid 2 I was on the Ariel team, which included Sebastian the crab. We had a week or so of learning to draw our characters. We had chalk talks: the lead animator drew the character from different angles and explained the proportions and construction. We were given model sheets and time to practice drawing the characters.
Again, not so critical for inbetweeners (although it was nice to get that training ). The chalk talks became more important later when I was animating.
Qualifying for Character Animation training
There was an intake of 3 people, twice a year into the Animation training program.
To get there, we had to submit a short ‘reel’ of test animation. We got the chance to develop this reel in a sort of ‘after-hours’ training program where once a week we met with our trainer (animator Bob Baxter).
How did we find the time to do this extra animation reel development on top of our regular work? (We were on weekly quotas) There was after work and weekends (this was in the days before I was married or had children) and there was… down-time!
Down-time! That magical space between projects that meant we were still being paid, but had no production work to do. This was the time when field trips and other morale-building happened. As a studio, Disneytoon Sydney was a rarity, as we were kept on from film-to-film.
Remember, this was in the days of Michael Eisner’s notorious sequel-boom. We were handed film after spin-off film for the direct-to-video market. This meant we were almost always working on something derivative and poorly-scripted. On the other hand, we had job security! Something of a rarity in the animation world. There were animators there who had been around since the early 80s.
So during these down-times some people complained that they were bored without any production work. I thought they were crazy. This was precious time to be working on our own projects (occasionally I made storyboards for short animated films or comic strips) and working on that demo reel.
Aside from the guidance from Bob, I also got feedback from other animators. I shot my scenes on the mounted digital cameras and timed the drawings using the custom-made software on the Apple Macs. Each page was held in place with pegs so each frame registered with the others.
Eventually I submitted my reel and waited for the result. I’ll never forget the day I was called in to get the news: I’d been accepted for 6 months of animation training, and after that, I’d be on production animation.
Character Animation training
Me and 2 other trainees began our training with Bob beginning of 2002 until mid year. We were taken off production and given test scenes to work with. Bob made sure our work was on-model and animating well. We often had to go back several times to correct mistakes in our scenes.
Bob took us through the training material, drawing from workbooks developed by Eric Goldberg and others. We watched and analysed scenes from Iron Giant, Sword in the Stone and other classics.
Other departments had the same 6-month training programs: background painting, layout, special fx and clean-up. If I couldn’t be in animation I would have loved to work in the layout department. They created the environment shots for backgrounds to paint, they interpreted the storyboards and decided where the characters would be placed in the frame, and where the camera moves should go.
Pre-production was not handled at our studio: story boarding, scripting, character design and voice recording was all done in Burbank, CA.
Every now and then, we had a visiting drama teacher come and give short acting, improv and characterisation classes.
One of these was a guy who ran classes from a warehouse in eastern Sydney, across the road from NIDA. So you knew he was good. His speciality was commedia dell’arte. He made us get up and act a bunch of different characters from the pantheon of comedic characters. It was enlightening to realise that there were some types the crop up over different TV shows: Mr Burns, Newman from Seinfeld and rabbit from Winnie the Pooh are the scheming (Pantalone) type. Eeyore and Millhouse are the melancholy (Pulcinella) type. Tigger and Kramer are the excitable type.
He made us feel the characters in our body and identify where their power centre is. This is a term you’ll find in Ed Hook’s book, Acting for Animators. The power centre is where the focus is, that’s what draws the character forward when he walks and talks and goes about his daily life. Woody Allen’s is just above his forehead. Eeyore’s is down on the ground below him. Kramer’s is out in front of his chest.
Our acting instructor assigned 2 or 3 people a character, gave them masks and told them to interact, like theatresports with no dialogue. It was scary how well people fell into the roles.
So these workshops were insightful and fun, and got people interacting and talking about the concepts.
So there’s a sample of the kinds of training we got at Disney. I haven’t even talked about the workshops by lead animators. The dog trainer who came in for Lady and the Tramp II. The newspaper caricature artist, and on and on.
This post was kind of a brain-dump for me, but I thought I’d put it up here, just in case anyone was interested. I guess this is a little like journaling for me: the years I spent at Disney (1999-2006) were some pretty significant years in my life. It’s been good for me to look back and remember them. Let me know if there’s anything I missed or that’s confusing and I’ll try to fill it out a little.
Till next time!