(March 11, 2003)
After more than two decades at Disney, animator Andreas Deja has become recognized as one of the field’s top talents. From The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast through Aladdin, The Lion King and Lilo & Stitch, Mr. Deja has worked on many of the studio’s most successful films. As part of the promotion for the 15th anniversary of Who Framed Roger Rabbit and the movie’s new DVD re-release, Colin Jacobson chatted with Mr. Deja about his career and other animation-related issues.
CJ: As a big Disney animation fan, it’s a pleasure to get a chance to talk to someone responsible for so many of my favorites!
AD: Oh, thank you so much! It’s very kind of you to say.
CJ: I’m curious to know a little bit about how you came to Disney and how your career got started in that way.
DJ: I started in 1980, so I’m one of the old-timers around here, and I’ve wanted to be a Disney animator since I was 10. Growing up in Germany, Disney was far away, and it seemed impossible to even dream about working there one time. But I’d always drawn Disney characters ever since Kindergarten, and enjoyed in general, and then once I saw The Jungle Book when it came out for the first time – I was about 10, and that just about did it, or did me in. I thought this was it, there’s no other way – I have to find out about this, if they are looking for people, if there is training they recommend, and all of this.
There were no books, or hardly any books – maybe one or two in those days – that talked about animation and how it’s done. I wrote to the studio and asked those questions – what to do if you want to be a Disney animator – and they sent me the answer. It was actually extremely good advice which still holds up today. They said if you’re serious about it then you need to focus not only on cartoon drawings but on the real thing. Meaning becoming an artist in your own right – you need to do life drawing for a long time, you need to know the human figure and how to draw it, and you need to spend a lot of time at the zoo drawing the animals – how they’re put together and how they move.
So it kind of made sense to me even as a kid, because after Jungle Book I saw the other re-releases and I thought that if you wanted to do something like Bambi, you need to know where the bones are, of course. I rolled up my sleeves and I spent days and months at the zoo and I loved it – I loved the whole learning process. I was really motivated having gotten that advice from Disney.
Then I went to art school later on and started graphic design because it gave me the chance to do a lot of life drawing and so forth. But there was no course for animation at the time. In my little student office, I would get Super 8 clips from some of the films and study them frame-by-frame, and I did some experiments with my Super 8 camera.
In that way, I’m pretty much self-taught, but toward the end of my studies, I did put together copies of some of my better drawings and I sent them to Eric Larson, one of the old animators who was training at the time – he was head of the training program. I had a nice exchange of letters with Eric, and when he saw my work, he actually thought I had what it takes. That was the way he put it, and I almost fainted!
He said “Finish art school and come over here, we have these four-week training sessions and we’ll see how you do.” So I went over and did my test with Eric for about four weeks animating little characters and then went on to The Black Cauldron. The fun there was that I worked with Tim Burton for about a year – the two of us would design characters for the producers and directors and sort of came up with all different kinds of ideas for the movie. Unfortunately it went the conventional way. We had a lot of alternative styles for that movie.
But I stuck with it and then animated – Tim went on to other things like stop-motion and live-action.
CJ: Yeah, I think he’s done a couple of things since then – I think I’ve heard the name a few times.
AD: (laughs) Yeah. So that was basically it, how I got in, and I then worked on not all of them, but many of the features ever since.
CJ: How did you get recruited for Roger Rabbit?
AD: It was interesting. I met Richard Williams socially even before he got involved. We sort of became friends and he always looked me up when he was in town and we seemed to have the same sort of taste or judgment in terms of animation – what’s good, what’s bad, we liked the same things.
Then all of a sudden he called me and said “They want me for this Amblin/Disney combo thing, and it sounds like it’s going to be something important – you should consider working on it.” I said that I’d just moved to the States and I didn’t want to go back to Europe.
Anyway, the more he told me about it, the more I realized that this was really going to be an important film, and then I decided to be part of it.
CJ: What specifically did you do on the film? I know you’re a supervising animator, but supervising which elements specifically?
AD: We were four altogether, and I worked on most of the characters except Jessica Rabbit – she was animated by Russell Hall, an English animator. I animated a whole bunch of sequences with Roger, including the one where he’s being held in the sink underwater by Hoskins and the weasel leader Smart-Ass comes in – I did those first scenes with Smart-Ass there too, and did the whole section when Hoskins comes home, pulls down the bed and the rabbit’s in there. That sequence, and many scenes throughout, but I also did many of the Disney cameos – the Fantasia characters, Mickey, whole group shots of them later on at the end of the movie. I did the gorilla at the Ink and Paint Club – I did a few scenes with him.
I kind of jumped around a little bit, but it was fun. It was really fun to do one day an ostrich and the next day do Roger and then you do whatever – cows that are standing around for the cattle call.
CJ: I know you tend to specialize in particular characters. Have you ever done any of that kind of “pick-up” work on films since then? For example, in The Lion King, you did Scar – did you just do Scar or did you touch anybody else as well?
AD: Really just Scar. Occasionally Simba would be in the scene reacting or just listening to what Scar had to say, so if the acting part on the other character would be minor, then I would do that other character too.
CJ: How did working on something like Roger Rabbit differ from a standard animated film?
AD: The type of animation that was needed was beyond what we would do at Disney normally. This was to be much broader, and Roger Rabbit was to be a much more physical character, expressing himself more physically. He’s put together in a very surreal way too – he could squash and stretch a lot more. That part was actually fun, because I think it loosened me up – my animation got a lot looser after Roger Rabbit. Before that I was very much into the drawing and making sure the arc’s just right and into the technicalities.
But when I saw the rabbit, the one that Dick designed, I thought this doesn’t look like it’s going to be any drawing problems, which it really wasn’t. Even though there are different Rogers in the movie because every animator draws a little differently, with a broad character like that, it’s really not that visible unlike any kind of human character.
Drawing-wise it was easy – you could just go to town and use your animation principle to the fullest and really loosen up. Just plugging that into the live-action and making sure that’s perfect was sometimes a pain.
CJ: How do they cast animators for films? I’ve always been curious to know how much leeway you have for what projects you take and what you don’t, and how that whole process happens.
AD: I think they look at people’s reels and see what they’ve done and also what they’re leaning toward. I think some people might like action a little bit more, or more acting, so you tend to get a few more close-ups. I think that’s the case for me. They tried to give me the scenes where Roger is not just jumping up and down and being crazy but maybe he would interact with other characters and there would be a bit more acting involved.
Because I came from Disney and I know Disney characters – I’ve drawn them all my life – it was obvious to give me those Disney cameos. So that’s kind of how it happens. Russell – who did Jessica – he’s a terrific draftsman and very solid, so it was decided Russell should just focus on Jessica and not do anything else.
CJ: For a while there you became known as the guy who did all the Disney villains. How did that happen?
AD: It was just one of those things. When you work for a company like this, if you do something that they like, you almost get labeled as the guy who does this thing. So when I came onto Aladdin, they liked what I’d done with Gaston, so they said, “Would you like to do the villain again?” I said sure, villains are great, and they’re very juicy, so I did that.
The same thing happened with Lion King. I’d wondered about Lion King and thought maybe I just ask to do Simba or another character, but once I heard that Jeremy Irons was going to do the voice, I thought oh! I really want to do this, though! That kind of voice would be so much fun, and then I talked to the directors and said that I know I just did two villains, but what do you think? And they said no, no – we actually had you in mind for Scar anyway.
But then it really was time to change. When Ron and John asked me to do Hades in Hercules - no, wait a minute, the first one before that was… on Hunchback… what was the villain’s name?
AD: Frollo, that’s right. I actually said, you know, I really would like to do another character, because I start noticing that I repeat myself with certain expressions. I said “What about the gypsy girl, Esmerelda?” But they said that unfortunately, we had come up with Tony Fucile months ago and he really wanted to do that character.
In that case I ended up not even working on the movie. I went to France and ended up working on Runaway Brain, so doing Mickey Mouse again and then coming back and doing Hercules.
CJ: Did you have to actively lobby to get a hero character when you did Hercules, or did they give it to you pretty easily?
AD: They understood where I was coming from, because again, they’d asked me if I was interested in Hades. I said that it would be a great role, he would get all the laughs, but I should probably try to tackle a hero-type character. I knew if would be more difficult and more challenging, but I just needed that experience to have that in your repertoire. They understood that and then gave me adult Hercules to animate.
CJ: Last year you got an even more unusual character in a little girl. How did you end up on Lilo & Stitch?
AD: I was actually on… not Kingdom of the Sun… The Emperor’s New Groove. It started out being called Kingdom of the Sun. We had done a little work, and they realized that the story needed to be plussed, so it kind of started over again.
During that time, I was on the floor where they have the development work for the features, and I saw these drawings that Chris Sanders had done of a little Hawaiian girl. She was holding a fish, and it immediately looked extremely appealing to me – the style and the situations. They found out that I was interested in the project so they said, “Let’s pitch you the whole story.”
So a week later they pitched me the outline and I just loved it because it was so different, so unusual and quirky, yet there was personality and heart. I thought that I really wanted to work on this. I was the first animator that jumped productions, because Kingdom was starting over and becoming Emperor’s New Groove. I switched over to Lilo & Stitch and I did pretty much development work on all the characters, because Chris and Dean the directors wanted to see which character I would feel the closest to. After seeing sketches of Nani and Stitch and the social worker and David and all of them, they said, “You know, there’s something in these Lilo drawings that you connect with that character.” So I was very happy to take over that assignment.
I would have enjoyed doing Stitch too – don’t get me wrong, I think he’s a great character. But Lilo became a really fun character – she is so unusual and yet real, in many ways like a real kid. I really had a chance to crawl into that little character and animate her from the inside-out – that’s what I tried anyway, to really feel her pain and her loneliness and all of that.
CJ: Lilo & Stitch was a nice moment for Disney because it was the first time since Tarzan that you’ve had a cel-animated film that’s done really well. What do you think the future is of cel animation versus CG?
AD: You know, Colin, I don’t know. I wish I could say there’d always be cel animation, because that’s where my heart is. That’s also aesthetically what I like to see on the screen. I’m learning computer animation right now just to see if I can plus it. I’m not too thrilled with a lot of the acting going on and the way things move – they still look a little bit like high-tech puppets to me. I need to find out if I can change that, if I can help make it better, so I’m taking classes right now. I wouldn’t mind doing a CG film at all, but giving up the pencil, I don’t think that’s possible.
CJ: Thanks a lot for the chance to chat, and I look forward to whatever else comes out from you!
AD: Thanks, Colin!