This week, Disney Blogs is focusing on a decade that is considered one of Walt Disney Animation Studios’ most enchanted, the 1990s.
Building off of the incredible reception of 1989’s The Little Mermaid, the company launched a series of hit animated films. Among them were Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King, and Hercules, all of which featured the work of talented animator, Andreas Deja. Raised in Germany, Andreas encountered Disney animation as a young boy and became obsessed with the artform. By his twenties, he had made his way onto the staff at Disney, and he soon established himself as a go-to supervising animator for feature films.
If you’re a Disney fan, you’re almost certainly a fan of Andreas, who was supervising animator for the characters Gaston, Jafar, Scar, and Hercules. We recently spoke to Andreas and asked him about this incredible decade and the characters he helped bring to life.
Disney Insider: What was it like working for Walt Disney Animation Studios in the 1990s, now often referred to as a “Renaissance” for the company?
Andreas Deja: It was a fantastic time. The success of The Little Mermaid from 1989 catapulted Disney Animation back into the consciousness of moviegoers. I remember a teenage boy telling me that he thought The Little Mermaid was a great date film. I knew then that our animation could reach not only families and kids, but any age group.
With each film we gained more experience and confidence. During the early 1990s we were given one year to animate a movie. You moved to the next project, and again, 12 months. This schedule became very stressful to the crew, so after meeting with management, it was decided that after Aladdin we would have two teams working side by side on individual films. Each unit would now have 18 months to finish the animation. The Lion King and Pocahontas both benefitted from this relaxed schedule.
We know that picking a favorite character is like picking a favorite child. So… How are each of the characters you’ve worked on your favorites in their own ways?
I was lucky to be handed villain roles for a few years. Gaston, being the first, was a unique assignment, because he was a handsome villain. Usually the bad guys look bad, they are designed to frighten not only the hero but the audience as well. As soon as you are dealing with a handsome, realistic animated character, it becomes difficult to express strong, caricatured emotions. If you overdo a certain expression, the character will look cartoony. If you stay only within the range of realism, there is no life in the performance. So I was walking a fine line by drawing and animating Gaston in subtle ways, yet he also had to be able to articulate emotions like arrogance, anger and evil.
Jafar was a lot of fun to draw, because his design was stylized like the rest of the cast. I was able to play with his facial features much more and invent expressions. I enjoyed doing his dialogue scenes, because Jafar has a face like a mask, and his mouth shapes are very flexible in a weird, fun way. Making him walk was super easy, he would just slide in and out of a scene without any bounce at all. That gave him a kind of theatrical quality.
Animating Scar presented a unique challenge. I couldn’t use any hands for gestures, he and the other lions needed to move like real animals. At one time we even had a few real lions brought to the studio in order to study them up close. Some of us had the chance to touch a big lion’s mane… I cautiously used my non-drawing left hand, just in case.
Jeremy Irons gave Scar an intelligence which made him very dangerous. But the character also had a sarcastic sense of humor, which I played up whenever I could. The voice combined with the fantastic story material provided me with great acting opportunities. I remember when Jeremy first saw some of my pencil animation, he touched his face and said: My goodness…he looks like me! I told him that this was intentional.
After The Lion King I was interested in trying out other character concepts. Esmeralda in The Hunchback of Notre Dame would have been interesting, but she had already been assigned. So I ended up working with our French studio in Paris on the Mickey Mouse short film “Runaway Brain.”
It felt great to shift gears and animate the company’s most iconic character. Not everybody loves drawing Mickey, because he is not as outgoing as Donald or Goofy, but I grew up with Mickey Mouse comic strips, so this assignment was a real joy.
When I was offered the role of Hades in Hercules I asked instead for the part of the title character. I knew he would not get all the laughs from the audience, but I was interested in animating a challenging hero type, because I had not done one before. Hercules was shy and insecure, but he wanted to prove himself. Along the way he falls in love with Megara, but is apprehensive about how to approach her. Subtle, emotional changes were needed to portray this character convincingly. He wasn’t easy to do, but I learned a lot and enjoyed his often introverted acting scenes.
How was the legacy of Walt’s process and the Nine Old Men still a part of Walt Disney Animation Studios while you were working there in the ‘90s?
We most definitely applied ourselves to Walt’s process of filmmaking, and we tried to approach our character animation the way some of the Nine Old Men had taught us. For example, a character needs to be animated from the inside out. To deeply understand the emotions and motivations is more important than fancy-looking drawings. At Disney, animation means acting, and you are asked to put a performance on the screen.
Technically we followed all the steps that were developed by Walt and his crew. Storyboarding, voice recording, pencil layouts showing sceneries, color background paintings, then rough animation followed by clean up animation. Snow White was made that way, and so was The Lion King. The only category where we differed had to do with coloring the characters. The Little Mermaid was the last animated film which used hand painted cels. After that our character drawings could be given color by using the computer, but the end result still looked the same.
One more thing, most of the directing animators were proudly working on vintage animation desks, the ones used by the Nine Old Men. I think secretly we were hoping that some of their pixie dust would transfer over to us.
When you work on a hero, how is it different than a villain and how is it the same?
The villain usually motivates the story; he wants a change from what is going on at the beginning of a film. Villains want things their way, and feel that they are entitled to power, a girl, or a kingdom.
They often feel misunderstood and feel sorry for themselves. From an animation point of view, the expressiveness of a villain is a lot of fun to portray. The emotions are strong and exaggerated. The acting usually has a wide range with eccentric possibilities.
A hero type or a princess needs to be handled in a completely different way. They are the ones who want justice and peace, and are often in charge of cleaning up the villain’s mess. Because of the fact that they need to come across as believable and real to an audience, their design as well as their motion is more realistic and earthbound. Subtleties and careful drawing play a much greater part in bringing heroes to life than in portraying villains.
What are the primary visual cues that separate heroic and villainous characters, in your experience?
The character design usually tells an audience what type of character they are dealing with, the exception being Gaston. The expressions also signal what the thought process might be, good or evil. To be a bit more specific, when a character schemes an evil plan, the eyebrows are pointing downward toward the center of the face. The eyelids are lowered covering up most of the eye unit, and there could be a smile.
A hero type would not use such an expression, but there are exceptions. When the hero is about to win the battle over the villain, he could show a confident, gleeful but somewhat malicious smile. But that depends on the personality.
What is your favorite 90s Disney memorabilia from your personal collection?
A French student friend gave me a 9″ sculpture of Jafar way back. She made it out of scrap metal, like nails, door knobs and screws. It is fantastic.
Now that so many fans of your work are growing up, can you tell us about any fun experiences you’ve had meeting someone you have inspired or influenced with your work?
Alexis Loizon is a French actor who just finished playing Gaston on stage in the French stage version of Beauty and the Beast. I saw his performance earlier this year, and he was great in it. He told me that ever since he saw the animated film as a child, he became obsessed with the personality of Gaston. When Disney last year auditioned to find the French Gaston for the musical, Alexis was so well prepared and convincing, they just had to hire him.
Another memorable encounter happened in 2010, when I was presented with a special award from the International Family Film Festival. During the little party afterwards a shy female student approached me and said: “Mr. Deja, I just want to say, thank you for drawing my childhood!” How about that?! I was deeply touched.
Your work is the entranceway into Disney for so many people who were enjoying Disney films of the 1990s. What are the films that introduced you to Disney and made you want to be an animator and artist?
I can only point to one Disney film, The Jungle Book. It happened to be the first Disney film I ever saw–in Germany, age 11–and all of a sudden my life had a mission. I had to at least try to work for Disney in the future. Of course, living in Germany at that time, my family thought I was nuts and that I would eventually come to my senses. I never did. At age 12 I wrote to the studio, asking about what kind of schooling and training might be necessary in order to apply. Disney replied and gave me very valuable information about going to art school and becoming an artist first. I took all that very seriously, and by the late 1970s I contacted Eric Larson, one of Walt’s Nine Old Men, who was heading up an animation program for newcomers. After finishing art school in Germany, Eric hired me, and I started at Disney in August of 1980. The Jungle Book is still my favorite animated movie.
Andreas Deja continues to work on personal projects and frequently writes about the art of animation on his own blog, Deja View. An expert on the legacy of Walt’s Nine Old Men, Andreas has composed hundreds of articles on Disney animation that deserve the attention of any animation fan.
Were you a fan of Walt Disney Animation Studios’ ‘90s films? Let us know about your favorite moments from Disney animated films in the comments!