The two revered, legendary Disney animators, featured in Disney+’s recent documentary series, ‘Sketchbook,’ discuss at length how 2D is very much alive and well at the studio, and how bringing life and emotion to a character through a series of drawings still excites and inspires them.
The world of animation is filled with extraordinary talent, countless practitioners of the difficult craft behind some of the world’s most commercially and critically successful entertainment. And while Disney for years was, arguably, home to the world’s most influential animation studio - the legendary Nine Old Men still command respect and admiration – the company now competes globally against countless studios, big and small, led by artists of equally amazing talent and vision, many of whom, coincidentally, were originally inspired to enter the industry after watching one of the countless animated Disney gems.
Now, when you speak of contemporary animation legends, once again, the list runs deep and wide. But two names animation aficionados would agree rightfully adorn that list are Eric Goldberg and Mark Henn. Each has lent their talent to Disney projects far too numerous to share here; Goldberg is probably most well-known for animating the Genie character in the 1992 classic, Aladdin, while Henn, most notably for animating Simba in The Lion King (1994) and supervising the animation of famed Disney characters Ariel, Belle, Jasmine, Mulan and Tiana in The Little Mermaid (1989), Beauty and the Beast (1991), Mulan (1998), and The Princess and the Frog (2009).
Both Goldberg and Henn have won ASIFA-Hollywood’s prestigious Winsor McCay Award; both worked together on the 2D animated tattoos humorously decorating the demigod Maui’s chest in Moana. Both are every bit as passionate, and humble, about their work at Disney, the role of the artist in hand-drawn animation, and what still drives their desire to learn and grow as animators. German-based journalist and INDAC.org publisher Johannes Wolters spoke to the pair soon after Sketchbook’s streaming premiere.
Johannes Wolters: Mr. Goldberg, would you be so kind and sing “Good Night! Sweat Dreams!” for me?
Eric Goldberg: [without hesitation and in a perfect Bugs Bunny voice] Good Night, Sweet Dreams, tomorrow is another day! Till then sweet dreams, sweetheart!
JW: Sketchbook gives us important insight into the magical world of animation. There are artists, real people, at the end of the pencil and not computers. Have you ever been able to define the magic of animation for yourself?
Mark Henn: Well, I would say... it’s kind of what you just described: it’s what comes out of the end of the pencil. I mean, mechanically, just the idea that a series of drawings gets shot consecutively – I mean all the science behind it – all that is one thing. It is an amazing art form, and to see drawings like that coming to life literally through that mechanical process - how do you describe magic? It is magic! It was magic when I was watching as a kid and started to learn how all that happened. I loved to draw and the idea of seeing drawings come to life was magical for me. It is a good question.
JW: Eric how would you respond to that?
EG: You know, I agree with Mark. The idea of creating a character who appears to be living, that people can relate to, that is the magic in animation. I’ll give you a little anecdote. That is not meant to blow my own horn, but it did actually happen. Many years ago, I was in a lecture by Frank (Thomas) and Ollie (Johnston). And they were running “Bare Necessities” [The Jungle Book]. I was watching Ollie´s animation of Baloo. I was sitting next to my wife Susan, and I leaned over to her and said, “And it’s just a pile of drawings...!” It is amazing to me still what he could accomplish, what they could accomplish with a pile of drawings! Many years later when we were working on Aladdin, I showed John [Musker] and Ron [Clements] my sequence of the Genie dancing with his hands and John says with no prompting from me, “And it is just a pile of drawings!” [laughs]. And I almost got choked up, you know. Okay, maybe I am doing something right. But this is the magic of animation. When you’re convinced that the character is alive, that it exists...
MH: Yeah, you forget about that pile of drawings, and you get sucked into that character´s life, their story, their situation. You forget that it is a pile of drawings, painted cels, or computer images - that is just a part of it.
JW: What does it mean to be a character animator?
EG: It means that it’s your job so to speak to create characters with unique personalities. And that just does not happen alone! Okay! You now! That is not just an animator in a room! You have the directors, the voice talents, the story artists, you have all the people that contribute to making a character that is unique. Unique to the other characters in the show. Unique in and of itself. That is what a character animator does. Just the way a character walks is going to be different from the way another character walks because you have to put it through that character´s personality.
MH: Everything Eric says, I agree with. Another way to look at it is being an actor. In a way we are often described as actors with pencils. And I think, as simplistic as it is, it is a very apt description. And being with Disney is… it’s even more special being a Disney character animator. Because I think we would both agree nobody does it better! And to be included in that lineage of people like Frank and Ollie, Milt [Kahl], the generation that came before us, and continuing this legacy of creating unique and believable characters that are memorable, that people talk about... I get comments all the time, people coming up to me and telling me, “You animated my childhood and thank you for that!” That means a lot! I think we both had that opportunity to create characters that live in people´s minds. They are part of their lives now. It’s unique and very special to be a Disney character animator.
JW: I do not understand why you did not win an Academy Award for best actor/actress over the years. You deserved it more than once [laughter from both EG and MH]. You mentioned you are standing on the shoulders of giants. How did you get hooked on animation?
MH: I had two moments, which I talk about in the Sketchbook series. Seeing Cinderella for the first time for me as well as the Disney film, a kind of “Behind the Scenes” film, called The Reluctant Dragon. You got to pull back the curtain and see animators. You go on the Burbank studio lot, which had just opened. And it was a film showing basically how Disney’s animated films were made. When you got to the animator´s room and you had Ward Kimball, Freddy Moore, Norm Ferguson there - drawing and working and showing how that all happens, that was it for me, I was hooked!
EG: I had something similar - not quite the same films. but a similar experience. When I was a kid, all the great theatrical cartoons were starting to run on television. The cartoons on the Mickey Mouse Club, you had the cartoons on the Disneyland program, the Looney Tunes, Merry Melodies, the Fleischer cartoons, the MGM cartoons, all that stuff! Blam! All out on television for the first time. And I was immediately hooked by the energy, the verve, the joy that these characters had. And not unlike The Reluctant Dragon, there were programs that explained the animation process! I used to be a Woody Woodpecker fan because every week, Walter Lantz would explain the animation process. Also, Woody Woodpecker was insane and that appealed to me very much. [Everyone laughs].
But also, all the programs hosted by Walt. You know, “The Plausible Impossible” [a 1956 episode of The Disneyland program], “The Story of the Animated Drawing” [a 1955 episode of the same series] – all those things were hugely informative and interesting to me. When I was about six, a toy came on the market called Flipshows, where you would take the frames of an already established cartoon and it would be printed on perforated sheets - you pull it apart, you put it together with a paper fastener and you had a flipbook. And from that point, no memo pad in the house was safe. I started making flipbooks. At an early age that hooked me. I really knew I wanted to do that.
JW: When did you know you were really good? How do you deal with self-doubt? When did you know you were great! And you are really great, do not deny it! [everyone laughs]
EG: That is a toughie...
MH: That is really a toughie... I know Eric will agree, I am always looking to get better. That’s never-ending. And I looked at my heroes, their careers, Frank & Ollie, Milt... they had a consistent level of quality and commitment to the art form that I take encouragement from. Now that I am kind of reaching the end of my career probably in the next few years, I am still looking to get better, trying different things, trying to improve. Hopefully, others have learned from us. But I do not know. I will let other people determine [whether or not I’m really good]. I just wanted to be remembered hopefully for the work I did. I hope that’s a nice way to put it.
EG: I don´t know that there is ever a moment when you go “Click! Okay, I made it now!”
EG: As Mark said, you are constantly trying to improve. You constantly have new challenges. And maybe at some point you can look back on your body of work and say, “Okay, maybe, I did Okay!” But there are always challenges, things you haven´t done before. I like to use Louis the Alligator [from The Princess and the Frog] as an example. I had never animated an alligator before, let alone an alligator playing the trumpet. I had to learn. That was not in my wheelhouse to start with. So, everything has its own interesting challenges that make you grow as an artist.
MH: You get to a level where there is a comfortableness that you have confidence into your abilities. But then, you want to keep going to that next level. Building on that foundation. Certainly, it is easier now then it was 40 plus years ago when I started... but then, and now, you always want to get better. Like Eric said, there are new challenges all the time.
JW: You can't teach talent, but can you put your enthusiasm about the art of animation into the heads of the next generation of animators?
EG: I have an easy answer to that one! I am a complete geek! So, I loooove, I really love this medium! People keep telling me, when I speak about animation, it’s infectious for them because I just have so much joy and passion for it, that I can´t contain it inside. When I am describing how a particular animator might work on a particular scene, when I am showing them Milt Kahl´s Shere Khan and Kaa’s interrogation scene in The Jungle Book, I am just as enthusiastic about it the 28th time I show it to my students as when I first discovered it. And to think I could keep that alive, that pleasant geekery, that continues to fuel me.
MH: Yeah, the easy part is the fact that most of the young people that are here now come into the studio with the same enthusiasm and energy – it’s just kind of kindred spirits talking and sharing ideas. They come in with a lot of questions. They may be new to the studio but their enthusiasm, their love of the medium is where ours was when we started. And it just a matter of sharing your experience, your successes, your failures, what you learned from them, that is just fun! I enjoy talking to the younger artists.
JW: CGI animated feature films are getting more and more cartoony these days. I have to ask, do you see in the foreseeable future a new renaissance of hand-drawn animated features?
EG: Well, we have projects lined up that all involve hand-drawn animation. We can´t tell you what they are [laughs] but we do have projects lined up and have continuously been looking into that. And the other thing I have to say too with a tip of the hat to our CG animators is that they all love the 2D stuff too and they all trying, more and more, to get those kind of hand-drawn elements into the CG animation. To the point where they have people like Mark, Randy Haycock, and me doing drawovers for them to push things more towards the kind approach we would have. You can see it in the timing, you can see it in the facial expression, you can see it in the stronger posing. And I think, at a studio like Disney, it’s absolutely appropriate for the animation to reflect those kinds of animation values, that started with hand-drawn.
MH: It’s like Eric said. Hand-drawn has never gone away from the studio. It has always been here. Certainly, if we get another feature to do... there are things out there, we do not know for sure yet. It would be great. But we are busy doing lots of things for the parks and other projects. Eric and I both worked both on Moana, the little tattooed Mini Maui, an all hand-drawn element, which was a lot of fun. I did some stuff for Wreck-it Ralph 2. It has never gone away, and I don´t think it will go away. There are things on the horizon we can´t share yet. We are very busy.