Andreas Deja, Disney animator

During his time as a Disney animator, Andreas Deja has brought to life some of the most memorable animated characters of the past two decades. Gaston, Roger Rabbit, King Triton and Jafar all owe their ‘physical’ charisma to Deja’s skills with a pencil. His latest creations are the august Great Prince in Bambi II and Tigger in the forthcoming Winnie the Pooh. Gerard Elson from Readings St Kilda spoke with Andreas about the release of Bambi and Bambi II on blu-ray and DVD.

[missing asset] Andreas Deja, Disney Animator 2011. ©Disney. All right reserved.

What appealed to you about working on Bambi II? Was it the prospect of animating a character like The Great Prince? Having animated Scar in The Lion King as well as Roger Rabbit you have quite a noble history of animating animals.

I like to jump around and take on all kinds of assignments: do villains and heroes, and then do a little Hawaiian girl like Lilo [from Lilo and Stitch]. I tend to like the variety. When it came to Bambi II, to be honest with you, I was a little skeptical. When the director Brian Pimental called me and said ‘Y’know, we could use some help with the animation. You’ve studied anatomy – we could use that sort of expertise,’ I said, ‘Why are you doing a Bambi II? Bambi is perfect! You don’t need to add to it!’ And he said, ‘I know, I know, we get that reaction all the time. We have a screening coming up with our storyboards. Why don’t you come to the screening and take a look at how the story’s going? Then you can decide if you want to help us.’

So I went to the screening and was a bit like, ‘Okay, impress me.’ I was not expecting much. But I have to tell you, I was really taken by their approach to the story. The change that happens within the characters, especially The Great Prince – he was a very stern father at the beginning, who felt responsible for his son, but didn’t seem to be that interested in educating him and raising him. It takes the whole movie for him to really warm up to him and realise, ‘This is my son. I have to be there for him.’ And I thought that change was beautiful.

I also really enjoyed the way they handled the personalities of the characters. They didn’t really change them. They didn’t make them ‘hip’ to a modern audience. I really felt it was the same Bambi and the same Thumper. So then it became about the challenge: can we even animate as complex a character as The Great Prince? I say complex because that’s a character [who’s] based on realism and the anatomy and motion of a real deer.

[missing asset] Bambi and The Great Prince. Copyright © Walt Disney Home Entertainment.

Was Patrick Stewart already cast by the time you decided to become involved?

Yes, he was cast. I thought the voice casting was absolutely perfect. He has that deep authority in his voice, but he can also be very warm and tender. We needed both of those qualities.

You’ve worked on some iconic characters over the years.

I did a series of villains. Gaston was the first one, in Beauty and the Beast. Then Jafar, in Aladdin. Then Scar. I even got offered more villains after that! I was asked to do Hades, the god of the underworld, in Hercules. But when you do three in a row as an animator, you end up repeating yourself with the same expressions, similar mannerisms. So by the time it got to Hercules I actually asked if I could do the lead character and not the villain. Just to have a change. It doesn’t mean that I didn’t enjoy the villains – I love them, each and every one of them. Because the villain motivates the story. The villain wants things his or her way. So in terms of motivation and acting, there’s so much more of a range than other types of characters.

Do you prefer one or the other, villains or heroes?

As an animator, you want to have that range. So villains and really rich sidekicks are the most interesting parts in these movies. The ones that are difficult are the prince and the princess types, because they usually have to be handled in a more subtle way. Their motivations and their range is a little more realistic, so you have to be more careful with the way that you animate [them]. But if you have somebody like Captain Hook in Peter Pan, or Scar from The Lion King, you can go to town!

You’ve just finished animating Tigger for the new Winnie the Pooh movie. What did you enjoy about working on him?

Just to have the chance to animate Tigger and give him a little encore. He was animated so beautifully in the ‘60s. I had a chance to meet the [original] animator of Tigger. His name is Milt Kahl, one of ‘Disney’s Nine Old Men’ and he was still very much around in the 1980s. I saw him once a year in San Francisco and could ask him all these questions. He’s one of my all-time favourite artists – so inspirational. Whether it’s Shere Khan in The Jungle Book or Tigger, there was always something new and fresh about his approach. So [with] an assignment like that, where the character exists already, you need to go back and study what was done. Take the best of that and then put your own spin on it – because you have to put yourself into it as well. It really has been one of my favourite assignments. I love Tigger.

Are there any more hand-drawn animated features currently in development at Disney?

It’s a little slow going right now, but it’s not gone. At the studio at this moment we have the directors from The Princess and the Frog, John Musker and Ron Clements. They’re working on a very unique story that’s based on a British book. It’s still in the early stages, so the animators right now have a little time to experiment, do some experimental animation until that picture is ready.

Are you at liberty to say what the book is?

You know what, I don’t know. It hasn’t been announced yet, so I’m a little hesitant to come forward with that!

[missing asset] Andreas Deja, Disney Animator 2011. ©Disney. All right reserved.

You’ve worked on a few great shorts. The two I’m most fond of are the Mickey Mouse horror movie riff, Runaway Brain, and the Goofy short, How to Hook Up Your Home Theatre. You’ve recently been involved with a new theatrical short, The Ballad of Nessie. What can you tell us about that?

We animated that one a while ago, but then it was put on hold, production-wise, because it was all hands on deck for Princess and the Frog and Winnie and the Pooh!

So this predates both of them?

Yeah. We animated that one before Princess and the Frog even. We had all of the supervising and senior animators—like Mark Henn and Eric Goldberg and myself—who have been doing this for decades. So when you do a short film like this, everyone gets maybe six or seven scenes and the film is done! But it was a lot of fun. It’s the story of the Loch Ness monster – sort of a juvenile retelling of that story. Nessie is actually for the first time a girl. We tried to hook up with the styling of Mary Blair, a development artist that Walt Disney really liked. She did Cinderella, Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland. We tried to look at her work and use that as a springboard for the art direction for Nessie.

One more question before we go: you worked under Richard Williams as one of the lead animators on Who Framed Roger Rabbit. What was that experience like? He’s a bit of a fascinating figure to me. That was obviously quite an atypical film in its day. It set a lot of precedents, especially in terms of live-action/animation amalgams.

It was all animated in London with a group of European artists, mostly. There were only two animators from Disney that were sent out. There was a friend of mine, Phil Nibbelink, and myself. We were the Disney guys. Everybody else was from Europe or Canada. I got on with Richard extremely well. We had been friends before we started on the movie. I remember him calling me from London saying, ‘You know, I think I’m going to work for Disney after all! It looks like I’m going to get involved with this Roger Rabbit project. Steven Spielberg is involved, Robert Zemeckis is directing it…’ He was basically testing the waters to see if I was interested in joining the crew.

But at that time I was settled in America—I’d only been here a few years—and I didn’t really want to go back to Europe. So it took a dinner with Richard Williams and the animation producer, Don Hahn. They took me out to a Mexican dinner, we all had margaritas, and after that I signed on! [Laughs] And I’m glad I did, because it was a very important experience for me. The main reason would probably be that I had a chance to do that kind of animation, which is very 1930s/1940s. The characters were very ‘cartoony,’ where the principles of animation, like squash and stretch, could be applied in a very broad sense. So for me as an animator, it was very good to go through that experience and animate those characters. Dick was incredibly supportive of me and I got on with him super.

Do you know what he’s up to at the moment?

He’s attached to Aardman Studios in Bristol. He lives there with his family. He’s not working on any of Aardman’s films. They gave him some office space and he’s working on his own film. I don’t think it’s a feature, I think it’s more of a half-hour kind of thing. He’s most likely doing it all by himself. We’ll just have to wait and see when it’s finished!

Well thank you for your time, and congratulations on Bambi II. I think you’ve all done quite a job of approximating the look of the original, which is something I don’t think many of these direct-to-DVD sequels ever really manage.

It’s not an easy thing to hook up with a Disney classic! Let’s face it, these guys [back then] were background painters or layout artists. They were masters of their craft. To actually tap into that and do a film that looks that lush is a real challenge. But to me, Bambi II is probably the best looking of all the sequels.

[missing asset] Still from Bambi II. © Copyright Walt Disney Home Entertainment.

This interview was originally posted on Gerard Elson’s blog Celluloid Tongue.