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TOONZ Studio Founder Bill Dennis Passes at 80

The longtime industry leader and ASIFA India chapter founder was a key player in building the animation production industry in India, including the setup of the Toonz Academy in Kerala and The Week of the Masters Animation Festival.

The animation industry lost a giant last week with the January 22 passing of Bill Dennis at the age of 80. During his 30-year career, Bill was a key player in the Los Angeles animation scene as well as being a founding cornerstone in the development of Indian animation.

TOONZ, founded in Trivandrum, India by Bill in 1999, was originally involved in producing work outsourced from the United States and Europe. Under Bill’s leadership as CEO, the studio also began to produce its own original work such as the award-winning television series The Adventures of Tenali Raman.

Training Indians who had little or no experience in animation was the first problem Bill faced. To this end he enlisted friends such as Bill Plympton, Jimmy Murakami, and Paul Driessen to come to the studio and improve the skills of the local animators.

Bill was also the founder of The Week with the Masters Animation Festival, which gave local Indian animators the opportunity to meet one-on-one with international guests, watch screenings of their works and attend masterclasses. There was also a competition open to Asian animators.

The Toonz – Webel Academy in Kerala, set up under Bill’s watch, is designed to train students in the specific needs of studios in India. Over the years, the Academy has become a state-of-the-art institution teaching classes in areas such as visual effects, digital graphics and motion graphics as well as basic animation courses.

Bill was the founder of ASIFA India and remained President Emeritus of the Indian chapter after his retirement from Toonz. He was also the former Executive Director of ASIFA. In 2000, Bill received the prestigious Rashtriya Rattan Award given by India’s Global Economic Council, which recognizes individuals who have contributed to India’s industrial and economic growth.

Bill began his career at Walt Disney in several different positions and was affiliated with the studio for over 20 years. As Vice President of Feature Animation, he arranged the talent and resources for such hit films as Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, The Little Mermaid, and Aladdin. He also developed and carried out the manpower and strategies for EPCOT Center for Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida.

Former Disney animator and venerable animation historian Tom Sito remembers that “Bill was head of HR at Disney in the 1990’s. At the Mouse Factory Bill did that unenviable job of being the one that swung the axe on the orders of others. He did the hiring, firing, and told you if you got your raise or not. As a result, he was not always the most popular guy on Flower Street, but I always got along with him.”

After leaving Disney, Bill was president of Fil-Cartoons in Manila. The studio was primarily responsible for producing work for Turner Broadcasting’s Hanna Barbera Studios. Among their productions were Dexter’s Lab, The Smurfs, and Duck Tails.

Bill also founded Zantmation Associates, a boutique animation studio with operations in the United States and Germany. He was also a founding partner in the Los Angeles based International Animation Consulting Group.

*** Editor’s Note – Bill, along with his IACG partners Max Howard and Frank M. Lunn, wrote numerous pieces for AWN a decade ago, which you can find via this link.

Bill Dennis passed away at his home in Washington, Utah surrounded by his family. He is survived by his wife of 58 years Rhonda, and his three children, Tiersa, William Jr., and Mireille, along with his three grandchildren Nora Dennis, Alex Evans, and Grayce Dennis. He is also survived by his sister Jackie Hetler of Warren, Indiana.

I had the pleasure to call Bill my friend and he will be missed by so many of us in the animation community. I served on the ASIFA International Board with him as well as on several festival juries and he was always a voice of calm and reason. He was also great fun to be with and loved to laugh. He lived a full, productive wonderful life, which is the best that can be said about anyone.

Rest in peace my friend.