St. Albert-raised animator discusses his craft
Q&A with Disney animator Brian Ferguson
By: Scott Hayes
| Posted: Wednesday, Dec 25, 2013 06:00 am
Part one of two
The state of animated movies has seen a quantum shift over the last 20 years, with traditional hand-drawn work losing out to computer-generated imagery, or CGI. One St. Albert-raised man, Brian Ferguson, has seen it all.
Now 52, he’s been with Disney Studios since the early 1990s, having had a hand in such notable films as Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King. He’s also contributed to the studio’s more modern CGI fare such as Chicken Little, Meet the Robinsons, Bolt and the recently-released Frozen.
The Gazette interviewed Ferguson from his home in California to discuss the two forms of animation, and what it all means for both the artists and the viewers.
In starting off, he said that he originally went to post-secondary education at the University of Alberta, getting his bachelor of science degree majoring in zoology. He said that background definitely helped him to draw characters in a lot of these animal-based Disney movies. That was before he went off to Sheridan College, a renowned Toronto animation incubator.
This is part one of the conversation. Part two will run Wednesday, Jan. 1.
Gazette: When did you graduate from Sheridan?
Brian Ferguson: It was ’86 but I did an extra year of study there because I wanted to complete a film. Then I was recruited from there to work in New York at the Computer Graphics Lab Inc. I could spend a week telling you stories about working there.
It was originally run by a guy who loves animation. He bought up half of what used to be the world’s largest mental institution and converted chunks of it into a college: the New York Institute of Technology. He had this lab – the computer graphics lab – where they did experiments or developed computer animation. Ed Catmull, who is one of the top three people at Pixar, came out of there.
G: I’m looking at your IMDb page with all of your filmography. The first entry is for your work on the TV series called the Care Bears family.
BF: Yeah, the Care Bears… it was one of the deciding factors in ‘I will not work in TV’ sort of thing. All of the stuff that I had just learned, these principles of animation, putting life into the drawings and all that …
There was one assignment I had there, this character who was supposed to be really sleepy, falling asleep standing against a wall. I was told you have to have the template drawing of the character. It’s off model if you squash him in any way. I thought, ‘OK, that’s it. I’m done.’
G: After that, there was the Prince and the Pauper, a short film, and then 1991 you’re working for Disney and Beauty and the Beast. You had a good string of Disney movies in the early 1990s that also included Aladdin and The Lion King, and on and on from there.
BF: When I was in New York, I was recruited there to work on a movie that will never be released. It was supposed to be a sequel to Yellow Submarine.
G: That died in the water? Not to make a pun out of it …
BF: The guy that ran the animation and owned everything out there ended up giving the college to one son and the computer graphics lab to another. The one who was running the computer graphics lab… the whole time I was there it felt like a money-laundering project. He was continually chasing after investors. Each time he’d get an investor for this movie, they would invest so many million dollars with the condition that they would have to change the story somewhat just to suit them. The movie was continually being blown like a reed in the breeze. That’s what that whole thing was like.
Starting at Disney, Prince and the Pauper was the first project. It was Mickey Mouse, a short that came in front of Rescuers Down Under.
G: In regard to the feature length movies, even starting with Beauty and the Beast, that movie still had some pretty strong elements of CGI in it, especially that ballroom scene that had hand-drawn characters on a CG background. That was a watershed moment for the future of animation. Did you know from the beginning that you were involved in an artform on the way out?
BF: I wouldn’t say that I knew that I was. I was interested in an art that could have any number of media to deliver it, hand-drawn being one way and various technical ways of putting it out going from pencil and paper to actually drawing on tablets and screen, that kind of thing, to actual computer animation which I had a taste of in New York.
I was always interested in getting involved in computer animation but wanted to do hand-drawn first to get the foundations of the whole performance down. Whenever people would say that computer animation is going to take over, ‘do you worry that hand-drawn is going to be gone?’ my answer was always, ‘I don’t see why it couldn’t just be two different media that necessarily have to compete with each other.’
Little did I know…
There was always that possibility but my thinking was that my priority is the performance. I would be just as happy to animate with a computer.
G: What got you into animation? Were you always the doodler in class?
BF: Definitely. Everybody always thought I was an amazing artist. When I was in third grade, my mom taught me to do flip decks. All my scribblers from that point through high school and university would have animation in the margins. You could flip the books and all around the margins, there would be stick figures doing stuff.
By the time I was in high school, I had always been thinking I would be doing some sort of science as a profession but I was also thinking I’d be doing animation as a hobby. When I finished university, I was thinking ‘I’m not sure that I’m interested in what’s available as work in the sciences. I’d have to think maybe for a year and then decide what I might do for a masters.’ I had very specific interests but you can’t study octopus behaviour on the Prairies. The work that was available at that time would probably set my course for life. That means I could end up counting ticks on artificially infested moose for the rest of my life.
Instead, I thought for a time, clued in to the existence of Sheridan and the possibility that I could actually make a living doing animation.