Is traditional animation a lost art?

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Part 2 of Q&A with Disney animator Brian Ferguson

Brian Ferguson always used to doodle in classes. Raised in St. Albert, he went on to a career as an animator with Walt Disney Studios.

His work in traditional hand-drawn animation can be seen in such blockbusters as Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King. Animation has changed greatly over the years, and Ferguson has successfully made the transition to computer-generated imagery (CGI) that dominates animated films these days. He has had a hand in such CGI releases as Chicken Little, Meet the Robinsons, Bolt and the recently-released Frozen.

The Gazette interviewed Ferguson, now 52, from his home in California to discuss the two forms of animation, and what it all means for both the artists and the viewers.

This is the second of a two-part conversation with Brian Ferguson. The first part was published Dec. 28.

Gazette: You’ve worked on a lot of well-known movies. Do you have one that stands out as your favourite or was the most satisfying with the work that you put into it?

Brian Ferguson: Ah… they were all such different beasts. It’s like trying to pick my favourite boy. I’ve got three boys right now. There’s a handful that each has a special place in my heart. Lion King was fantastic because I was given great opportunities on it. Actually, each of the ones that I like, it would be because of certain opportunities that I was given.

For Lion King … I saw development art for it. I just loved the power and the personality that was in all these drawings. I thought I would enjoy animating that. If I were only allowed to animate that, I would have so much fun.

Aladdin was great because it was my first chance to work with these directors Ron (Clements) and John (Musker). I’d already heard of them from Little Mermaid, which was the first movie that I thought maybe I would like to work at Disney. Up to that point I’d been thinking I was just going to do independent films and National Film Board of Canada type stuff.

G: Has your career worked out as you thought it would? Have there been artistic compromises?

BF: That’s a really interesting question. Originally, going into the arts in general, I was very resistant to being told how to draw. Now, I have a totally different perspective on that. I think I could have gone so much further if I’d allowed myself to be more teachable.

By the same token, I was thinking I would do independent films. I’ll do everything myself. I’m going to have total control. It’ll be better that way. I could see the value in spending some time out in the industry. I’ll work at a big studio for a little bit and then I’ll be exposed to people who know how to do certain things and I’ll learn from them.

My perspective was turned on that. I completely appreciate the value of being in this place where the talent pool is really deep. There are people that I would learn from but we were working as a team with people who are especially good at certain aspects of the work. With that teamwork, you end up with this really magnificent work that just one person alone couldn’t have done. In that sense, I came out much happier than I was expecting. I definitely didn’t feel like I’d sold out.

When I first went into animation, Disney was not in a very good place. I had loved their old stuff. I was completely expecting that I would go into the business and be a starving artist. If I were to work in a studio, the normal process is to work on a project and get laid off and then go with everybody else to do whatever other project is going, and work there until you get laid off.

The whole idea of being at Disney as long as I have been, it’s an anomaly. There aren’t that many people that stay there that long. I went through so many bloodbaths and saw so many really excellent artists being let go. By the end of it, I started feeling that I’ve been in all these battles … I’m the soldier who just had all these bullets whipping by him. It wasn’t that I was a better soldier. It’s just that I wasn’t hit. Until June and then they let me go.

G: You’re also one of these old-school guys – traditional animators – who made the quantum transition to CGI. You still worked on The Princess and the Frog, Disney’s 2009 movie that brought the studio back to hand-drawn work after abandoning it after Home on the Range in 2004.

BF: You have no idea how nice it was to go back to that picture. I was thoroughly enjoying animating in CG. It’s just that we had this regime change and suddenly the people who were the default supervisors were all first timers. You ended up with each one of these people having to give their notes on things. They’d all have to put their hand in on the work. You’d get all these conflicting mandatory notes. A lot of them would come at the 11th hour, which would mean having to redo the work that you were almost ready to turn in.

Then going from that to Princess and the Frog, which was all these veterans. It was half the crew but it was all people who had been in the business many productions. The supervisors were all veterans and all masters. All the animators that were working on it were very good, very experienced. They were able to do it under time, before the deadline and under budget, and still came out with this work that was, I think, really good. It was such a refreshing change to go from one to the other.

G: Is all of your work CGI or do you still have traditional animation work on your desk?

BF: The last bits of work that I have been doing were all traditional. My last couple of years at the company were doing visual development type work. They would have me animate certain characters in the way that I would animate them hand-drawn, so that the riggers and the modelers could see what I’d done with them and adjust the rigs accordingly. When the CG animators got on, they could move the rigs to do what I was able to do when I was drawing it. That’s how I ended up with a credit on Frozen.

I was invited to help development. They hadn’t had any animation yet. They had some early design work on the characters. What they wanted was refinement where people like me could look at the design drawings that others had done and then animate scenes. I took some scratch dialogue that the actor (that was going to play Olaf the snowman) had done and do with him what I wanted that would fit the dialogue. It wasn’t necessarily going to be part of the movie. It was just something that would show his character.

I did this animation and they ended up using it as reference for designing how the rig could move. The animators saw it as well so it could inspire them on things they could do, jumping off points for their creativity. They came up with really great stuff.

G: Would you say that the end product of a totally CGI movie comes across as effectively or as authentically as traditional animation?

BF: I still love hand-drawn and I love CG. I think that it’s very possible to do great work with CG.

G: How would you characterize the state of animated movies today? Is traditional animation at this point now a lost art?

BF: It’s feeling like a lost artform as far as the Disney movies go. To be fair to the company, they made a special effort to hang onto us for a lot longer than they really needed to. It just reached a point where it became clear that they were not going to be making hand-drawn movies.

It’s hard for me to argue the money on it. The big thing is that the producers are going to make movies where they think the money is going to be the biggest. The whole impression is that everybody wants to see CG movies. The hand-drawn movies just aren’t the box office draw.

The thing I do know is that they were able to make Princess and the Frog a lot cheaper. The budget for that was quite a bit lower than it was for Tangled. They were able to do it with half the animators and do it in less time. Had Tangled been managed as more of a teamwork then it might have cost quite a bit less.

It’s a really hard thing to judge. Is it really what the public wants or is what the producers think that the public wants?

G: Is it a natural progression toward computers being the wave of the future or is tradition being pushed out?

BF: I draw the parallel like in the relationship between photography and painting. There’s a place for both. There definitely aren’t as many people painting per capita as there were before photography. It’s a tough call. It feels like [hand-drawn animation] is on its way out. My inclination is that is, at least at the Disney level. There are all these TV shows that keep it going. They could not be done CG. In that sense, it won’t die.

Two-part series

Part one of this series was published Dec. 28

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Scott Hayes

Scott Hayes joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2008. Scott writes about the arts, entertainment, movies, culture, community groups, and charities. He also writes general news, features, columns and profiles on people.