Lucca Comics 2016: the Bancroft Brothers on the “death of 2D”, past and future of Disney animation

At Lucca Comics & Games 2016, thanks to Nemo Academy, we had the opportunity to meet Tom and Tony Bancroft, who flew to Italy to present their artbooks published by La città delle nuvole.

Both the Bancroft Brothers have a remarkable experience in the animation industry. They each spent about 12 years at Disney Animation, where they contributed to the creation of some of the most beloved characters of the studio. Tom was supervising animator for Mushu from Mulan, and he also worked on Iago (Aladdin) and little Simba (The Lion King). Among Tony’s contributions to the Disney legacy: Pumbaa (The Lion King), Kronk (The Emperor’s New Groove) and the feature film Mulan which he co-directed.

While at Lucca, our writers Irene, Giulia and Alessandro sat down with the artists to talk about the disappearance of 2D animation and the past and future of the art of animation at Disney.

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Irene: Aside from being big Disney fans, one of the reasons why we’re here today is that I was listening to your podcast and I actually provided a tiny Italian translation on our blog of the episode where you and Nik Ranieri discuss the death of 2D. That article became very popular on Impero Disney and that made me happy, because nobody really knows what really happened at Disney with 2D animation. And nowadays if you ask someone from Disney, they all say the same things like “It’s up to the director” or “We are willing to try but…”

Tony Bancroft: But that’s not true, that’s kind of a company line that they have to say. I think it started out to be true when John Lasseter first came back and he became president of Disney Animation. He likes 2D, he loves the tradition of it, it’s what he grew up on and he never wanted to be the one to kill it, obviously. So his line was: if it’s right for the project, then we’ll do it. But there was no project that was ever right. So you can’t say that was true when very single project was actually pushed towards CGI. And I don’t see there’s any change in the near future either. Now I think it’s got to the point where directors don’t even ask if they can do a project in 2D. The studio isn’t even set up for it anymore.

Tom Bancroft: At the beginning we felt like: “Ok, 2D can still happen, we can submit an idea and maybe it could be a 2D film”. But I think what we didn’t know for many years was that on the other side there was the business and the marketing people and the executives, and they had made up their minds that they were not gonna do 2D anymore, that it didn’t sell and that the world wanted computer animation. We didn’t know that yet but I think everybody knows it know. They’re still saying things like that because they know that’s what Disney wants them to say, but at this point it’s obvious it’s not true. And also, the other part is: there are no 2D films in the pipeline. And the pipeline is ten years out, they have films slated for at least ten years, so if there’s no 2D planned you basically can say it’s dead.

Irene: And they don’t have the animators anymore. Almost everyone left.

Tom: I’ll tell a secret just for your article. That’s never been said. When Lasseter came back and they were shutting down the Disney Florida Animation Studio – which is where I worked – the rumor was that Lasseter and Catmull were thinking to buy the Florida studio and make a separate studio from Pixar that was a 2D studio. You can say it’s a rumor but I do know there were actual people checking out for Ed Catmull to find out if they could take over the studio and create a separate company that would be a 2D studio. I think it was John’s way to keep 2D alive, but unfortunately it didn’t work out.

Irene: And now they’re making Moana in CGI and it kills me.

Tom: Right. But there is some 2D animation in it, have you seen the trailer? It’s by Eric Goldberg, he did all this beautiful animation of the tattoo character. Mark Henn too, by the way. I had lunch with Mark Henn and he told me that Eric was in charge of the little tattoo character and then they added more footage ‘cause every time they had a screening people were like: “Oh, I love that! We want more!”. And so they added more and added more, and Eric couldn’t do it all so they brought in Mark Henn to help.

Irene: I think they’re the only 2d animators left, right?

Tony: I think there’s more than just them… Randy Haycock is probably still there.

Tom: There’s about five… maybe three. I know, that’s very sad.

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Irene: It’s sad because I feel like people really miss 2D but the company just doesn’t understand that.

Tony: We hear that from so many fans just like you. All the fans that we know are just like you guys. But everything changes. And it’s a big corporation, it’s business first, that’s what we always have to remember. Even though we’re artists and even though you’re fans at the end of the day they’re gonna do what’s right if they think it’s gonna make money. It’s always art vs commerce, right?

Tom: But I will say that it’s great for us to hear and especially here in Europe and from Italians how much you love 2D and how much you want it back. We’ve heard it in the USA but I think there’s probably an even bigger group here in Europe that loves 2D. And I also think it thrives here a little bit more than it does in the USA. You still have Bruno Bozzetto, for example. We don’t have that really. We have some small little studios I guess, but…

Tony: 2D animation in the USA is more about TV animation, TV series and commercials here and there. Nothing on the feature level at all.

Tom: Actually I was excited when I saw that Moana had a little 2D in it. I thought, well that’s something! And what it does is, because people love it so much and they keep asking for more, it does help the executives to remember that maybe it’s not so dead. I mean, look, people are asking for it! But I do think that if it comes back, and even if Disney saw that it had value again, to me what they would do is they would find a studio like Ken Duncan’s and they would hire them to make a film. They just don’t have the means to do that anymore, equipment is gone, all the artists are gone.

Tony: The weird thing is, it would be considered a risk. They would never take that kind of risk to make a full 2D animated feature without trying to outsource it first, ‘cause it would be less expensive. If they tried to do it all in house again – hire everybody back, make some more animation desks, buy paper and pencils – it would be so expensive it would be too much of a risk for their first movie. So it’s cheaper for them to go like “Maybe it would work but we’re not gonna be so invested: we’ll just hire somebody else to do it and make it look like a Disney film”.

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Irene: What I think it’s funny is that I feel like CGI at the moment is trying to imitate 2D animation. At Disney, for example, they do a lot of pencil tests and stuff to make it look like 2D. And I really don’t get why… can’t you just make it in 2D?

Tom: Oh yeah, you look at the pencil tests and they’re beautiful, right? Did you ever see the King Candy one by Eric Goldberg? I was like: “That looks great, why can’t they just make it look like that?” And the CG version was great too, I can’t say it wasn’t good… but it was already done, they already had it on paper.

Irene: I met the supervising animator for Blue Sky’s Peanuts movie and he was giving a talk about how much money and time they spent on trying to imitate the 2D feel of Schulz’s line. And I was like… why?

Tony: My feeling is just like yours: why don’t just do it in 2D? Why even try to do it in 3D? They had those couple little thought-baloon moments where it was all 2D and that was great! Do the whole movie like that!

Tom: I will say, artistically, they did such an incredible job that to me had value. But was it worth the effort? I don’t know, probably not.

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Giulia: So let’s go back to Mulan, probably your best known work for Disney. Can you talk about the development of the movie and how you created this incredible feminist heroine who is so different from all the previous Disney princesses?

Tony: I have three daughters, Tom has four daughters and that was one of the things I was attracted to when the film first came my way. I came on to the project a little later in its development, it had been in development for a good year a least, and I had just come off working on The Lion King and was working on The Hunchback of Notre Dame. So I got a call one day, and they asked me to come on board as a co-director. I knew about the project already ‘cause Tom and other friends in Florida were working on it, but I knew that they were struggling with the story. When I first read the material, it was much more serious than I had anticipated and I thought: “We’ve got to make this fun!”. In fact, that was one of the main things I think I’ve brought into the film – the humor. But above that I was attracted to this woman, this girl that would do anything for her father’s love and for her family. That was there from the beginning, it was the seed of the whole story. And at the time I only had one child and my wife was pregnant with our second daughter. I wanted to be able to give back to my daughters a heroine that they could look up to for the next generation.You know, things had changed even from Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid where the heroine was more traditional and based on fairytales. With Mulan we really had a chance to develop a character that would inspire the next generation. Also, Mulan is not sexy. She’s not supposed to be sexy. We had a lot of conversations and did a lot of drawings of the character design to understand how womanly she had to look. Obviously we had a problem because she has to look like a man at a certain point, but the nice thing about 2D – and this is why 2D animation rocks – is that we could cheat. Literally if you see the models for her as a girl and her as a boy they’re different. As a boy she has harder jaws, the lips are drawn differently, the eyes are different, the jawline is different. It works in the movie but if you looked at it side by side you’ll see the cheats we did.

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Tom: I’ll tell you a story. Before Mulan came out, I went to a convention in Boston. At the time I was working on Mushu and we were about halfway through the film, so people had heard that the movie was gonna come out. I was signing autographs and I think I showed a little clip of Mushu and a Chinese man came into my line with his little girl. He told me that, being a super Disney fan, he wanted to share his love for Disney with his daughter and he had got so excited when he heard that we were doing Mulan, because he grew up hearing that story as a little boy and it was the only story he’d ever heard that was about a woman. This was the only Chinese story that he knew growing up that was about a female that was powerful and strong. And he talked about how he could not wait to share his love of Disney and of this powerful woman with his daughter. He started crying as he was telling me this and it was the most moving thing. I’ll never forget that. I came home and told Tony, because we were right in middle of figuring out who she was, and to hear this story really affected the film. I was doing Mushu, and he’s funny, it wasn’t really the feminist side of the film at all, but this made me look at the movie in a different way.

Irene: And now they’re making a live action Mulan. Are you excited about that?

Tony: I don’t really care. To me that’s just another business choice that Disney made. They took all the old movies and now they’re making the live action version of all their movies.

Giulia: Like the Lion King live action…

Tony: That’s the one that angers me the most. The Lion King being all CGI… it doesn’t make sense. They’re gonna go super realistic that it’s just like, why don’t do mouth replacing on real lions? But anyway, we interviewed for our podcast Ming-Na Wen and she cared more about the Mulan live action for sure. She was, I think, hoping to get a part in it. And she even said that maybe her daughter, who is now an actress, could play Mulan.

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Giulia: Our last question is about the artbook you’re presenting here at Lucca Comics & Games. Can you talk about how the idea of the book was born and how did you select the artwork? 

Tony: Tom has always done sketchbooks from years past and we would always go to Comic-Con in San Diego and usually it was just Tom signing his artbooks and I would just be there saying hi to people. And so he suggested I should get a sketchbook too. I don’t draw as much anymore as Tom does, ‘cause I do more directing and producing, but I would have been happy to do it. So Nemo Academy came to me, and they had produced one for Tom already, like two years ago. They asked if I would be happy to do a sketchbook of my work too, and since I loved what they did for Tom and Sandro Cleuzo and Andreas Deja I said absolutely! Then I put together all the artwork. Some of it is new, some of it is older. I wanted it to have some Disney stuff in there and then a lot of personal drawings, cartoony stuff that I like to do, funny creatures… So there’s a lot of variety in there, from cute Disney stuff to weird zombies. It kinda represents everything that I like.

Click here to listen to the Bancroft Brothers podcast or get it on ITunes!

Click here to buy The Art of Tom Bancroft and the Tony Bancroft Sketchbook

Check out this blog again in a few days for a full video review of the two books as part of our recommended Christmas gifts video tag!

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