Walt Disney Filmmaker Discusses New Animation Book
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Don Hahn will be speaking at Comic-Con this Thursday, July 23rd, 2009, from 3-4 p.m. about Walt Disney animation and his new book, Drawn to Life: 20 Golden Years of Disney Master Classes.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. The 40th annual Comic-Con gets underway in San Diego this week. We'll have a preview of the entire event coming up later this hour but perhaps the best way to begin a discussion on this year's Comic Convention is to talk about the work of one of the most famous and influential animators of his generation. Walt Stanchfield worked for several animation studios but he spent the bulk of his career at the Disney Studio contributing to every full length feature from the 1950s to the mid-eighties. He also held classes for new animators which have become legendary for their insight into the craft of bringing drawn images to life. The lessons from those classes have now been preserved in a beautiful two-volume work by Walt Stanchfield's friend and colleague Don Hahn. The books have been described as a one-of-a-kind tutorials on gesture drawing and animation. It’s my pleasure to welcome my guest Don Hahn. He is the Academy Award nominated animator and the producer of such Disney classics as "Beauty and the Beast" and "The Lion King." The new two volume book he's edited is called "Drawn to Life: 20 Golden Years of Disney Master Classes." Don Hahn, welcome.
DON HAHN (Master Animator): Thanks, Maureen. It's great to be here.
CAVANAUGH: Well, tell us why you wanted to compile these two volumes of the late Walt Stanchfield's lectures on animation.
HAHN: Well, if we're lucky, once in a lifetime we stumble across a mentor or somebody that gives us such rich information about life and, in this case, drawing and animation that you want to share it, and Walt was that kind of guy. He was a amazing artist but he was, more than that, an amazing teacher, and when he passed away in 2000, he left behind this body of work but it was in pieces. It was these little lectures he'd handed out over 20 years and I wanted to pull them all together in one place and so we found them in garages and shoeboxes and under beds and everywhere we could to put them together into this book.
CAVANAUGH: What was Walt Stanchfield's background as an animator?
HAHN: Well, he grew up in the early part of the 20th century and his earliest training was at a place called Chouinard Art Institute and that's really where Walt Disney sent all of his artists to train when they were getting ready for movies like "Pinocchio" and "Snow White." And so Walt really studied with the best of them, you know, at a place where all the Disney greats were trained, so he had a good start. He worked in animation at Disney from movies like "Wind in the Willows" all the way through "Sleeping Beauty." He did those great scenes of Aurora dancing with all the forest animals, pretending to be the prince…
HAHN: …all the way up to movies, the more contemporary aids like "The Little Mermaid" and "Lion King." A great guy and more than a great artist, a great human being. You know, here was a guy who played, you know, five sets of tennis every day at the age of 75 and, you know, slept in his van in the parking lot at Disney because he lived up in central California. And just a real, you know, big – big life, big life.
CAVANAUGH: What did he bring to Disney animation in the terms of his animation skill?
HAHN: Well, I think specifically, there's a couple of things. Certainly, he had a nuts and bolts understanding of animation but the main thing he brought was something called gesture drawing. And when you're an animator, you have to capture life and caricature and you have to capture it fast. And so he would do life drawing classes where you would have a model pose for 30 seconds, 20 seconds. He would go take us all to the zoo or the shopping mall or have us study and draw off of the television during a football game where there's absolutely no chance of stopping the model. You just have to get an impression and put it down on paper. And that's what animators have to do, a quick impression of life and then caricature it for the audience on the screen.
CAVANAUGH: One of the things it says in these books: sketch, sketch, sketch. Sketch everywhere, sketch everything you see.
HAHN: Yeah. Well, it's true. I mean, being a great artist or animator in general is like being a great musician or a great lawyer. You know, you have to put in the time. And there's this misconception that you're born with it and, yes, I mean, some of us have talent and some of us have maybe a little bit less talent in some areas but so much of what Walt put across is it's work. It has to be an obsession and it's work. And you have 10,000 bad drawings in you and the sooner you get them out, the better.
CAVANAUGH: There are so many beautiful drawings in these two volumes, "Drawn to Life." He also talks about drawing a gesture by not thinking first about the movement but about the emotion, like a gesture that shows joy or fright. How does that influence an animator to think that way?
HAHN: Well, animation's all storytelling and so you're really – every frame and every gesture has to tell a story. So instead of worrying about drawing a hand or a neck, it's what story is that hand telling? What's that character doing? Is that character happy or sad or pensive or stressed out? And how can you use the limited lines you have to express that drawing to tell that story? So that's what was really unique here. It's not a anatomy drawing book, although that type of thing is in the book; it's really about drawing and storytelling and – and that's, you know, whether you're a comic artist or whether you're an animator, that's what drawing's all about.
CAVANAUGH: And there's a story where Walt Stanchfield helped the animation on the film "Roger Rabbit" in a very unusual way. I wonder if you could tell us the story behind that?
HAHN: Yeah, well, I had known Walt for years before I went over to London to do "Roger Rabbit" and so we needed trainers over there because we had a fairly young crew. They were really enthusiastic. And so I brought Walt over with his wife Dee, and he came to the studio and trained for us. And we would bring in these beautiful leggy, supermodels to model for Jessica.
CAVANAUGH: Jessica Rabbit, right.
HAHN: And we all thought, oh, this is going to be great. We can draw this model all day. And it eventually became clear that the more interesting person to draw was Walt himself and he finally got frustrated with the model and just had her go sit down and he was the one that was posing and showing how to turn and how to sit down and kind of mimicking all these great things. So there's a lot of Walt in Jessica Rabbit, and I just think it's funny. And he didn't do it in a punitive way. He did it in a way that brought just so much excitement and passion. He couldn't stand it, he had to get up and he had to be Jessica.
CAVANAUGH: And the way you describe Walt Stanchfield, he sounds like a bit of an eccentric. He wore shorts, he carried fruit around with him. You already said he slept in his van. What else – what kind of a person was he?
HAHN: Well, he was probably just this side of a bag lady. He lived up in central California, Solvang area. And just took in life in big gulps. Aside from his obsession with tennis, he would come in on Monday mornings with driftwood he had collected on the beach or he would have done baskets in the style of Chumash Indians the night before and brought those in for us to see. He would do watercolors on his steering wheel at 70 miles an hour while he was driving down the highway.
CAVANAUGH: Oh, my gosh.
HAHN: Or a lot of times I'd be having coffee with him, like breakfast in the morning, and he'd pull out his sketch pad and start painting with his coffee and at first I thought this is insane and then I thought, no, he just absolutely is in love with art and expressing himself. He had this great saying: Impression without expression equals depression. And it's so true. We take on so many impressions in our life that without getting them out on a piece of paper or as a musician or whatever our form of expression is, it can be really depressing. So here's a guy who had all of these outlets. He was a musician, he was a singer, he was a – a amazing guy.
CAVANAUGH: Now in the two volumes "Drawn to Life," you decided to leave most of Walt's lectures intact. Why did you think that was important to do?
HAHN: Well, it was all about Walt's personal voice. We had editors that wanted to go in and maybe change some of the verbage or make the English language make more sense because Walt speaks in a very conversational way. And it was important for me to preserve that because then you get a sense of the man and the human being behind it all. And I was very lucky to have the publisher who wanted to do it all and when we finally collected everything, it was 850 pages. They couldn't fit it into one book and instead of asking me to cut it down, they actually stepped up and did the entire work in two volumes and I'm really grateful they did.
CAVANAUGH: Now why did Walt Stanchfield start giving these lectures at Disney?
HAHN: Well, I actually started with him back in the mid-eighties with something called the Disney School of Animation. And it was some of Walt Disney's nine old men, like Eric Larson and Marc Davis, and it was clear that some of Walt Disney's animators were retiring and aging out and leaving the studio, so there was this press to bring in new students and, you know, train a new generation. And that new generation was people like John Lasseter and Tim Burton and Brad Bird and Glen Keane and Ron Clements and John Musker. And animation is such a, you know, intense artform that it was clear from the beginning we needed somebody to train. And Walt didn't step forward and volunteer, he just was that guy. It was really clear that that's something he had a passion for. And so he started these classes, a very traditional Disney thing to do. Walt Disney did it back in the thirties when they were getting ready for their big movies. Another cool thing about this book is in it you see samples from "Beauty and the Beast" and "The Lion King" and "The Little Mermaid" because he was training specifically how to draw, you know, mermaids or animals or lions or whatever. So it's a mini-animation history through the pages of the book while he's teaching drawing.
CAVANAUGH: And it really is amazing to see the progression of how these characters, these drawn characters come to life in the different ways that he draws them, the different ways that he's showing how to express certain emotions. I'm wondering, we all know that animators today rely on computer graphics.
CAVANAUGH: And I'm wondering, are you sort of nostalgic for the old school? Do you think that there's something in these featured animated films of the Disney classic era that are – just can't be replicated?
HAHN: Well, no. I feel like there's room for everybody. There's room, you know, in the arts for watercolors and oils, you know, it really doesn't matter, it's so much about storytelling. So I'm just as happy to sit down and watch, you know, "Little Mermaid" or "Lion King" or there's a hand drawn animated film coming up from Disney called "The Princess and the Frog" that's exquisite, as I am watching "Up" or "Ratatouille." And, really, the principles apply. If you're animating with a c.g. character on the screen, all the principles of gesture and communication and composition and how those characters interact with each other apply whether you're dealing with a rig and a character that's moved around with pixels and phosphor or a character…
HAHN: …that's moved around with a 79 cent pencil.
CAVANAUGH: Now, I'm wondering, in reading some of Walt's Stanchfield's lectures, he didn't just talk about animation. I mean, he talked about all aspects of life.
CAVANAUGH: What were some of the most poignant things that you learned from him that stick with you?
HAHN: Well, a couple of things. I think variety was something that was really important to him in a very fundamental way. You know, take a different route to work every day. You know, try to eat at different restaurants. Shop at different stores. Watch television programs you never would normally watch. Travel constantly to places that might be interesting to you. And then the other thing, which was kind of a surprise in this book when I looked at it, but he has several times and a whole chapter devoted to taking care of yourself physically and mentally. So often we think of ourselves as just this machine that can crank out great drawings and express ourselves but he talks about, you know, the importance of simple things, sleeping, eating well, preparing yourself mentally for the next day and the task ahead. So on those levels, which border on being spiritual almost, he's able to communicate what the life of an artist is. And that was just amazing to me.
CAVANAUGH: You are hosting a panel at Comic-Con about Walt Stanchfield. I get the feeling from talking to you that this is a name that's already extremely well known and revered among people who are familiar with animation.
HAHN: You know, it's true. If you're in animation, you probably have a partial stack of Walt Stanchfield's sketches in your garage already. His chapters and his legacy were pretty well known and people would pass his work around on the internet or, you know, informally within a studio. I think what's fun about this is it's everything. Nobody has ever had everything together and Walt's wife Dee was really helpful in helping us pull it all together. And when we go to Comic-Con later this week, we have great people like Glen Keane, one of the master animators at Disney, Eric Goldberg, who animated the Genie in "Aladdin," Tom Sito, one of the great directors of our time and Ruben Procopio, a great sculptor, so we have four different artists talking about how Walt Stanchfield influenced them. I think it'll be really a fun panel.
CAVANAUGH: I hope it is a fun panel. It sounds fascinating, and thank you so much for talking with us today.
HAHN: You're welcome. It's my pleasure.
CAVANAUGH: I've been speaking with Don Hahn. He will be speaking at Comic-Con this Thursday from 3:00 to 4:00 p.m. about animation and about his new book, two volume book, "Drawn to Life: 20 Golden Years of Disney Master Classes." We will continue to talk about Comic-Con when These Days returns in just a few moments.