An Interview With...
Where did you grow up and what were your favorite childhood activities?
I was born in Los Angeles, California and have lived here all my life. I drew and painted as often as I could. I would illustrate my own versions of stories I had heard or seen at the movies. Disney stories were a particular favorite. I was also partial to reading. My place at the dinner table was usually stacked with books (mostly encyclopedia). Most every evening I was asked to stop reading and get back to eating because my meal was getting cold! I also was very much into the art of origami which is Japanese paper folding. First I followed what I found in books then I began creating my own designs.
What were your favorite subjects in school?
Well, obviously anything that had to do with something creative or artistic. I did well in science and history. Languages came easy to me as well. I remember my fourth grade teacher, Sister Charles Marie, being especially supportive and fun to be with. She was always happy and friendly and listened to the students. Everyone enjoyed being around her.
Were any subjects particularly difficult or uninteresting for you?
Yes. I didn't like math at all. Later, when I was in high school, I added physics and chemistry to my "black list". Despite the fact that I didn't enjoy these subjects I knew that it was important for me to pass the courses so that I could graduate. So I just clenched my teeth and did what I was supposed to. I knew that I could do it if I just put my mind to it.
I use math on the job when figuring out budgets for the department and such. On occasion we have to determine proportions but we can use the computer now to do the work. I also need math to know what percentages to use when I am reviewing printed art. For example, if the face of a character looks too pink, I will need to make the call to add "7% yellow" or maybe remove "15% blue" from the background, etc. This is something that comes with lots of practice.
When did you first become interested in art?
I think I was born with the desire to draw. I made a few sculptures out of clay when I was in kindergarten but it was years later before I used clay as a serious medium for art. For Easter we had to make clay rabbits for our parents. We were given a choice of painting our rabbits either blue or yellow. I decided that my rabbit was going to make the best of both colors so that's what I did. However, my teacher reprimanded me for not following her directions and threw my rabbit away. She wasn't in a very good mood that day, I guess. After all these years I still laugh at this because I think my rabbit looked better than anyone else's.
Did your parents save any of your early artwork?
My parents did save quite a few of my early sketches and surprisingly I came across a boxful of them a few months ago in my parents' garage. I hadn't seen them in way too many years. What struck me was that almost every single one of them had a specific story element to it. Also, most of the drawings were very small. My eyes were much newer then!
[See some of the drawings here.]
When you were in elementary school, what did you imagine you would grow up to be?
I always knew I was going to work for Walt Disney. I didn't know when or how. I just knew that someday I would. Even the first word I wrote in handwriting was "Bambi". The first film I recall seeing was Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. I thought Snow White was a real person (especially since I thought she looked just like my first grade teacher, Sister Helena). My father explained to me the process of animation and how an artist creates a series of drawings and when you see them on film they looked like they were moving. This was magic to me and I knew that when I worked for Disney I would " make cartoons". My parents would sometimes bring home for me an inexpensive Disney figurine and sometimes Disney books. If the figurine or book illustration didn't look like what I remembered seeing in the movies I would often repaint them with crayons or watercolors. My parents would shake their heads and tell me that I was ruining my things. I told them that I was " making them better". So I said that in addition to making cartoons for Disney I would also create a line of figurines and books with the characters looking exactly like they were supposed to. And so in my career at Disney, I have done all three of these. I worked in animation for nine years, worked in Disney Publishing for six and a half years, working on hundreds of books, and I created a line of porcelain figurines that has been going on now for 20 years!!!
When did you first visit Disneyland? What are your earliest memories of Disneyland?
I believe I was just a few months old when I first went to Disneyland. Of course I don't remember that since I was probably asleep. My father would take my sister and me to Disneyland rather often, but for us it was never often enough. I did get a chance to meet Walt Disney once. It was a special event that took place on the Disneyland railroad station. He gave me an electric train set, which I still have.
Did your father work for Walt Disney?
No. My father worked for the Santa Fe railroad. The contest was sponsored by the railroad and the festivities held at Disneyland. My father and I were invited to the event because he made one of the prizes (the box car filled with 10,000 pennies). The event was held at the Main Street Station. That's where we were introduced to Walt. As his way of saying thank you to my father for his work, he gave us 18 ticket books for the park and he obviously knew i was coming because he had the train set ready for me when we met.
What is your favorite Disneyland attraction?
I have so many favorite attractions but one that always stands out to me is the original Sleeping Beauty Castle walk though. I could stand in front of the windows for hours just trying to figure out how these artists created those special effects. I was beyond thrilled when Disneyland brought this attraction back last year. It had been more than 30 years since I'd last seen it. I was signing some of my art at Disneyland and mentioned that I really wanted to see the inside of the castle again. As a special gift I went into the castle and no one else was allowed in for 20 minutes just so I could enjoy the windows again all by myself. I felt just like a kid again!
Did you grow up watching Disney films?
Yes, every time a film came out, either a new film or a re-release, we went to the movies [theater] to see it. Snow White is my favorite. Fantasia and Bambi are next. I did try animation when I was young but, as I still didn't know the entire process, I would usually just draw the characters on the corners of my schoolbooks (mostly in math class). I still have some of these books. We also watched the Disney television show on Sunday nights and, of course, any specials that would be on.
Was your art talent natural or did it require a lot of work and training?
Artistic ability runs on my father's side of the family. Most everyone could draw. I was the only one who had a focus and made a career of it. I took an extended course that amounted to three years of high school and two years of college. I specialized in Photolithography Technology, which is just a big word for "printing". I was awarded a degree in this field. After that I knew that if I wanted to get into the Disney Studios I had to learn all I could. I have a rather determined nature so I literally went to four different schools at the same time. Every day of the week I went to classes at a different school. I wanted to learn all I could in the shortest time possible because I couldn't wait to get to Disney.
What was your career path to where you are today?
I worked at the Los Angeles Times in the accounting department (more math!!!) which I knew wasn't for me so I went back to college. While I was in college I did teach art history for a while. After I left school I still didn't have enough self-confidence to work for Disney so I contacted a former teacher of mine who worked at the studios where they made the Charlie Brown TV specials. He suggested that I drive over to the Hanna-Barbera Studios (Flintstones, Scooby Doo, Yogi Bear, Super Friends, etc.) and try out for their training program. Well, I made my appointment but I didn't get into the program. They hired me full time instead! This came as a real surprise to me as a professional job was not what I had expected. I was there for two years learning the craft and technical aspects of animation. Then I decided to try out for Disney. I drove down to see if they were hiring but the guards wouldn't even let me in the gate. I had my portfolio with me so I left it with the guard and drove home. The next day they called me. I started work at the Disney Studios on my birthday. It was the best present I could have given myself!! That was almost 30 years ago.
What is the best part of working as an animator in a Disney film?
For me the best part was being part of a large team of dedicated artists working towards a common goal all trying to do our best. Every day we reviewed our work on small monitors. That was part of the daily process but when we all went into the larger theater to see the work in progress on the large screen I would be so excited to see my work. Especially when the audience would react to my work as planned. My work in Roger Rabbit got lots of laughs.
What were your favorite projects or characters?
Snow White is my favorite Disney film and the first film I remember seeing as a child so it holds a very special place for me. I had the Snow White Little Golden book and a comic book and was confused when I saw drawings of scenes that weren't in the film. My father explained that the film was maybe too long so they cut them out. When I had the honor of working on the 50th anniversary of Snow White and was allowed to "find whatever I could find on the film" I didn't know where to begin. I reconstructed the missing sequences from the film including those in the storybooks I used to have. Some of the drawings were found at the bottom of an elevator shaft and some had fallen behind some shelves. We also located some of the original dialog recordings of the dwarfs for the scenes we put together. It was a six-month project that has been one of the best projects of my career.
How does work in Publishing or Consumer Products compare to animation?
Disney Publishing is part of Disney Consumer Products so I was learning the ins and outs of business and marketing as well as learning how to illustrate books. Illustrating books and creating a product is a lot different from animation. In animation there are 24 frames of film for every one second. That's 1,440 for one minute. The animators draw 24 drawings of the character for each second. If there are two characters then it might be 2 times 24 drawings. Some animated films take over 2 million drawings!!! So if a drawing looks funny, like the character is covering his face with his hand, it's ok because it's part of one movement. In books and product design we have only one chance for the viewer to take a look at the drawing and understand right away what's happening. It's a completely different discipline. I was able to bring my drawing ability, and ability to tell stories in my art, from animation to publishing and now to Consumer Products.
Do you create your Disney art as a side job or is it part of your Disney assignments?
My boss assigns most all of my work. Occasionally I will do a drawing for another department when I'm at home simply because I didn't have time during the day. When I was given the assignment to create the Small World figurines it was just an idea my boss had. I then had to go back to my office and decide what the look of the product would be, the size of the product, the color palettes... Should I follow the same designs as we see in the attraction or could I use my own imagination to make them different and unique and still look like what you see at Disneyland? How many? When would they be sold? How much would they cost? How long will this take? What will the packaging look like? These were all questions I had to ask myself before anything could get started. This took about six months. It was just one assignment out of many I was working on.
How did working in Publications lead to your work in Consumer Products?
When I was in Publishing a new department opened up at the Studio: The Collectibles Division, which specialized in higher-end figurines. This was the beginning of the Walt Disney Classics Collection. They had asked my boss to recommend someone who really knew the characters. That was me. I began as a consultant on the project helping to decide which characters we would begin with, what the entire line would look like, etc., etc. I was initially told that I was to only spend three hours with them and that was all. Those three hours have now been 20 years!!! In Publishing I went from artist to Creative Director. My friends, who I worked with then, now work for me! This was in the mornings. In the afternoons, the Company allowed me to work for the new Collectibles department. I worked this way for about two years before I had to decide which way to go. After 6 years with Disney Publishing I left to go to Consumer Products full time as Creative Director.
What did you like most about the intense balancing act between your work in Disney Publications and Consumer Products?
What I enjoyed most about that experience (and still do to this day) was the variety of projects I was able to work on. Building a new product line from the very beginning was intensely rewarding especially as it became successful.
Are you a sculptor or do you create the drawings for someone else to sculpt?
I used to sculpt but I don't feel that I'm very good at it. I prefer to do the design work and then leave the rest to the expert sculptors who I work with. Sometimes it turns out that they can't quite understand what I want in terms of an expression or pose. If that's the case I ask their permission to work on their sculpture myself. That way we save time and I get the pose or expression I want. Some people consider me as being "tough" on them because the characters have a specific design and it's my job to ensure that that they look the way they're supposed to. On some products I give in a bit. I enjoy the "newer" looks to some of the characters and appreciate the craftsmanship of the artists. As long as the character retains its appeal and integrity I'm always willing to work things out. I always feel that the focus is about getting a high quality end result first and then, of course, giving credit where credit is due. I'm able to work both sides of the fence when it comes to our character integrity.
What is it like working with other artists who produce merchandise for Disney?
Actually it's a great experience for me because I get to learn new formats and ways of manufacturing products. When I began in consumer products I knew absolutely nothing about the porcelain industry. I had to quickly learn what my limitations were and how I might look to breaking out of them. For example, I didn't know that when porcelain is baked in the kiln it shrinks around 20% so our original sculpt size had to compensate for that shrink rate. Also, you really can't achieve very sharp edges in porcelain and some of the detail tends to smooth out. So you compensate by sculpting in the details a little deeper so that in the final figurine they are exactly the depth they should be. For close detail you might want to use resin instead. I'm always learning something new. One thing I always let the licensee know is that I'm here to be their guide on how to use our characters and not tell them how to change the look of their product. That's very reassuring to them. My job requires that I work with many licensees and types of product from 2D to 3D. In addition I work with many divisions within the Disney Company.
When you work with someone like Robert Olszewski, who sees the final product in his mind, how difficult is it for you to see that vision and go along with the artist's wishes?
The licensee is asked to submit a concept drawing of what they envision. I will approve it to go ahead or make any suggestions to make their idea more successful. In the case with Bob O, his concepts are made up of a conglomeration of lumps of clay and wire usually balanced precariously on a paper cup or block of foam. However, for me it's like shorthand. Bob is able, in this very primitive way, to capture the "essence" of the scene he wants to build. I can see the poses, the basic details, etc. It's really fun to watch the final product emerge. Bob and I work very well together. We're both very detail-oriented and want to get all the details just right. I really enjoy his work and I have a great many of his pieces in my personal collection including all of the Disneyland buildings. I want MORE!!!
When you are working with many different artists, with very different styles, how do you separate your personal preferences from any decisions you have to make?
It wasn't always easy to separate my personal tastes from art that I oversee. For example, my least favorite color is orange. Even when I painted, I never used the orange paint from the bottle or tube. I always mixed my own. However, as a Creative Director there are times when I have to work with orange because it might be the color that is currently trending in the market. So, in that case, I think of it more in terms of "flavors" or "textures" like "salmon", "vermilion", "rust" or "pumpkin". These are all various shades and values of orange that make it easier for me to work with it. Also, and more importantly, I have to remember that the product I'm looking at is not being designed specifically for me but for those consumers who would enjoy it.
How many people do you work with?
The number of people I work with depends on the department and the product. I have only one designer working for me, Suzy Hutchinson. She's an amazing talent and I'm very lucky to have her as part of my team.
How were you selected to design The Art of Disney United States Postal Service postage stamps?
I used to work with John Gong, who headed up the program so he knew my work. When I came into the meeting I remember I had a very hectic day ahead of me so I sat there, listened, took my notes on which characters they wanted, format, art size, etc., thanked them and went back to my office. A whole week later I was sitting at the drawing board working on the stamp concepts when it FINALLY hit me that I'd been selected to design a set of four United States postage stamps! Eventually it turned out to be 20 stamps but I had to laugh at how I let my own schedule overshadow the great honor that I was given. I designed the stamps and was the Art Director on the project. Another artist, Peter Emmerich, created the actual paintings for me.
How does having your artwork circling the globe on mail compare with some of your other accomplishments?
This project was a singular honor for me and I am grateful to having been able to contribute to the success of the program. It turns out that the five stamp sets are the number one selling stamp sets in US postage history. Elvis comes in second! I worked with the postal service on the special book which was written about these Disney stamps.
Of all your accomplishments to date, what makes you the most proud?
This is probably the most difficult question. I've worked on so very many projects here of all kinds: from film and television, both animated and live action to books, figurines, furniture, jewelry and postage stamps. I think my passion for keeping alive the great Disney heritage and legacy is most important to me. When I mentor the newer artists I sometimes find that I might have become momentarily jaded. When I invite them to a screening of one of our films I give a brief talk on the making of the film and share some brief insights. Then as the lights go down I look at my watch and think, "OK, this will run about 80 minutes" then I can get back to work. Before I know it, I'm caught up in the story and characters just like the rest of the audience. Once again, I'm inspired. The enthusiasm of the new artists inspires me as well. I love to share what I've learned with them and also take them to those secret archives where we keep our artwork and history.
What do you like to do in your spare time?
As my work hours take up so much of my time I try to make the most of what spare time I do have. If I can sleep in late I do. I like to spend the evenings with friends. We go to and give lots of cocktail and dinner parties. Just about every summer weekend we have a BBQ either with neighbors or our close friends. We also go out dancing now and again. Beginning in May, till September, we put on what we call the "Backyard Bijou". We have a large 10 X 22 foot screen we hang on the back of the house. We invite about 60 of our close friends over and we set up a program around one of the film genres, e.g. sci-fi, film noir, romance, musical or comedy. Everyone brings their own picnic and seating arrangements. We socialize from 7:00 till around 8:30 when the program starts. At intermission we serve fresh popcorn and when the film program is over we party until the last person leaves around 2:00 AM. It's the hit of the summer season. The day after Thanksgiving we have an additional outdoor movie night. We invite everyone to bring their leftovers from the day before and we have a potluck feast. Then we all put on our coats and blankets and watch a Christmas themed film.
I don't really draw or paint much when I'm home. However, when I do it's very therapeutic. I also am a collector at heart. I limit myself to what I collect but can be obsessive about it. For example I have a collection of around 1200 books on origami.
What languages were you exposed to as a child? Do you speak, read or write, any languages besides English?
I grew up speaking English. I can understand Spanish better than I can speak it as my grandparents occasionally spoke to us in Spanish. I wish I was more fluent. I do travel quite extensively in my job across the States and to Europe and Asia. Having knowledge of Spanish has certainly helped me with understanding French and Italian. Though I'm afraid I don't speak those beautiful languages very well either but would truly love to be able to do so.
It's been important for me to acquaint myself with the basics of the customs of most cultures I visit with. For example, in Japan, everyone bows to each other in greeting or thanks. However, men bow differently than women. There are things that are not acceptable at the table in Japan and I need to be aware of these rules. There is a hierarchy in the workplace. The more seasoned craftsmen are the "masters" of their craft and most everyone aspires to grow to that level. Once when I was working in Japan I was explaining to the Master Painter the lighting effect I envisioned on a particular sculpture. I had to speak through his translator. After a while he still wasn't quite getting what I wanted. Typically, I would ask for a brush and paint the sculpture myself; however, I was not allowed to touch the Master's brushes without his expressed permission. Our translator had to formally ask him if he would then allow me to paint over his work to show him the effect I looked for. The paint master agreed, stood up and we bowed to each other in agreement. Then he motioned for me to sit in his own chair and he then handed me his personal paint brush. I then had to bow to him in thanks and he bowed in welcome. I noticed that the rest of the younger painters in the room were all standing looking over at us. Apparently, as I was later informed this had never happened before and they were awestruck that I was allowed this honor.
What advice do you have for readers who would like to make a career in art or become an animator?
Keep a sketch book with you. Draw as often as you can. Try some very detailed sketches and some very quick sketches that you do in a few seconds. Try to capture the "essence" or "movement" of who or what you're drawing. Don't be afraid to try new styles. Study the history of art from the cave paintings of primitive man to the paintings of the ancient Egyptians and the illuminated manuscripts of the Renaissance. Take a look at the paintings of the old masters and the contemporary artists of today. Be inspired!
Is there anything you would like to say directly to the young students who are reading this interview?
If you have a dream like I did you can obtain it if you try. Sometimes things can get frustrating. I know because I've been there wondering if I'll ever get to where I want to be. Be patient, persevere and never give up.
Do you have a favorite quote?
I have several but I'll look to Walt Disney who said, "If you can dream it, you can do it!"
- 17 July 2010
24 July 2010
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