Working For Disney Animation, What It’s Really Like – Frank Dietz

Film Courage: How good of an artist do you have to be
to work for Disney and how did you get that good? Screenwriter and Artist Frank Dietz: Okay so you have to be a very,
very good artist to work for Disney and that means that you need to have again
done your homework. You need to have taken classes you know you need to –
they what they want to see from you is that you can draw that you can not not
just not just draw cartoons any you know anybody can do that right that you can
draw the human figure correctly that you can push push that figure like plus it
like so if I care if something’s somebody’s leaning over that you can
make it enhance it so they’re leaning over because that’s part of what
animation is all about right when I was there even though we already
had the job had the job right everything’s going great every day at
lunchtime maybe it wasn’t every day but if we least a few times a week at
lunchtime they had a during lab downstairs and and at lunchtime instead
of going to the cafeteria and eating your lunch or eating your lunch at your
you know your cubicle you could go down to the drawing lab take your lunch if
you want and they would have a model there sometimes a nude model sometimes a
model in a elaborate costume right and they they had an instructor there who
was one of the original story guys from you know who worked on you know movies
like Peter Pan and Dumbo and whatever who would who would walk around and see
what you’re doing and Walt Stanchfield was the instructor who was there when I
was there he’s passed on now but he well he terrified us because he would walk
around behind us as we’d have a model and where we’re working and you know and
you’d have a time limit you’d have you’d have they might do okay
these are ten-second sketches go ten seconds
oops top 30 second sketches one-minute sketches and sometimes it’d be 20
minutes but you’re working and you’re working with a charcoal pencil that
you’re you know you’re working very quickly and lightly and so forth gesture
drawings he would walk around behind us circle around behind us and he had this
big black magic marker right and if he if he came up behind you it he saw that
you weren’t pushed doing enough of enhancing it and pushing it he’d go no
no no no no you come in with that big black magic marker and on top of your
drawing you just go would go like this like this support push squash squash you
know and and the more black marker you had on your sketch pad means the more
you were not doing what you were supposed to be doing right and and you
know this was we were volunteering ourselves to do this and they encouraged
it of course because you want especially when you are when you’re when you do I
was a clean up animator so I’m doing the the nice really clean finished line that
you see on the on the screen right working from the original animators
rough drawings so but when you’re drawing like that you can get really
tight you know because you’re very they have to be perfect lines right so at
lunch time going down there and then with a with a model and being really
light and loose really loosen you up and and you know make you relaxed and bring
your bring your bring your shoulders from this down to this and if you roll
exercises really but it’s also to keep you keep you sharp keep you keep keep
keep in mind that this is why you’re here not not because you can draw Mickey
Mouse that’s the reason that you’re they got there so I am thinking in a
documentary about Charles Schulz think he talked about like when he was at his
drawing board if I’m remembering correctly he felt like he was master
his universe it was just a really powerful wonderful feeling for him to
just be there creating and it was just a place of where he wanted to keep going
back to yes similar yeah I mean definitely there’s a there was a sort of
a Zen aspect to it when you’re when you’re when you’re in that zone you know
I all of us at Disney in our cubicles had you know we had CD players and and
you know some of us had little television sets and and that were on but
they were really more it was background noise audiobooks we listened to a lot of
audiobooks is there a long time late at night and but yeah but you need to but
your focus is here even if you have a TV on that’s that’s you know watching some
great movie you know King Kong is on you know and it’s still but you still have
to stay focused on this you can hear it but your eyes are here because your eyes
are telling you no eyes are going to the brain brain just telling the hand what
to do so that part of it and you get B to get used to it you get very used to
it like my wife still can’t understand how when I every once in a while like
when I’m working on animation these days that I can be binge watching
narcos at the same time which is most of the dialog in in in narcosis subtitled
so she was like how can you do that when you’re talking I was like I don’t know I
just do it know the drawings get done so but it’s I mean it’s a it’s a it’s a
it’s a extreme discipline and you know the more you do it you give more the
more you get used to it I think you’re the first person that we’ve talked to
who’s done animation for Disney if people all over the world who watch our
channel who dream of doing the same I’m wondering if you can share what goes
into making a Disney movie like how much effort how much of the stuff behind the
scenes do we not see all the little detail and clearances you know I was a tiny little speck in a
huge process the animated movies I’m not sure how long they take now but it’s
probably pretty close to the same the from beginning to end from from you know
the start you know script to you know final final sound mix or music mix or
whatever I kick it as I recall it was about five years for one move from one
you know feature animated movie I think that’s still pretty accurate it can
sometimes be longer if the movies troubled and sometimes the movie won’t
get beat basically they’ll they’ll kill it if it’s taking too long they might
have they might have three years invested in and if it’s just not working
I mean when John Lasseter was was still at Disney he he I know that he killed a
couple of projects or at least one that I know of that they had been working on
and working on and working on they kept trying to fix it trying to fix it and in
the end it just it obviously wasn’t gonna work so it’s like okay we cut our
losses now rather than continue if I don’t think that happens often but it
does happen but you know realize I mean like you know you’re starting with the
script and there’s usually research but even before that so once it’s decided
that the you know this is a project that we’re gonna do so for for for a Tarzan
well the first thing that has to happen is everybody’s got to read the books and
then they get out and they got a look at this is all the reference materials I
got to look at all the Johnny Weiss Miller movies and you know Gordon Scott
movies and TV series and comic books and and all that and and take it all in and
see what what can you know what what elements of that character and those
that that mythos are going to work with in this version which is not going to be
like all the other versions I mean obviously there’s going to be
some similarities because it’s all based on the same source material but you know
what it what is what is what is Disney gonna bring to that property that makes
it special so here’s all that and then once you know they then the production
designers you know I know for Tarzan they took a whole group of people the
producers the directors the production designers so some of the artists a lot
more I’m sure and they all went to Africa and they all went and saw real
gorillas you know in the jungle it spent a lot of time you know sometimes the
artist sketching them and and just observing observing them and seeing what
their behavior is like and you know that’s all part of the process too and
then then there’s the visual development or they have you know the all these
different kinds of artists come in and do different different scenes just in in
their style and those and those paintings which are almost always
beautiful would be would be put up in the halls of the area that quad where
they’re making that particular movie so you’re constantly surrounded by the the
the imagery and and helps spark the imagination and helps you you know
really get an understanding of what what kind of movie you’re making there’s all
of that thing and then you know when you finally got the script exactly where you
wanted then you’ve got it then comes casting and you’re gonna bring in your
actors and the actors have to have to record all of their dialogue before they
can start the animation because you need the actors
I need the actors voices too to be able to animate to so I mean it’s just this
process is a long process with with many many many different elements and you
know and you know at Disney of course they have you know they can have two or
three movies all going at the same time that might be in different stages so it
was always interesting it was always something new to see in the hallways it
seemed did you see Steve Jobs okay anyway third floor okay all right
so I understood he was traveling back and forth for a little bit but um from
his famous book yeah anybody anybody of that stature would you might see them
coming in and though I see in the hallway but you didn’t approach what
what would be some of the reasons that a project you don’t have to get specifics
but that it would be squashed even if you were three years in if it well what
they would do is as they as they move along in the process especially once
that they have animation to show they do the story real which basically would be
the entire movie and either would be done at like an animatic where it would
be the storyboards right and sometimes it wouldn’t be the real of the final
actors it would just be people doing scratch avoid what they call scratch
voices which is temporary voices fact my likely and does scratch for them a lot
on the feature movies but but it would be the entire movie and you would get it
so you could get a sense of is this story working is it is the pace working
is it are the jokes working etc and so they would have these things every every
couple of weeks or maybe once a month or something like that where everybody sits
down in the auditorium and we watch all the people that are qualified to watch
it at that point to see how it’s working and everybody will give notes and boy
sometimes no matter what you do it’s just it’s it’s not hitting hitting those
marks that it needs to hit to work home on the range was the last movies I
talked about before and and that was a movie that had a lot of problems we were
it was changing the whole movie was changing constant
I mean the basic premise was still there was about three cows who are trying to
save their their owners farm but the the villain changed the the motivations
changed every time we went to see it it was like look almost the whole new movie
and I mean I worked on the villain character in that and every every time
we could we start working on him as looking well I mean you pretty much look
the same but the motivations would change for the character every time we
went to another another screening like what I’m just carrying I like I just
like why he wanted to to get that farm like why he needed to get the farm and
you know they would it would come up with different reasons and of course
when you change the motivation it affects it’s a domino effect to the rest
of the movie you know anytime you change anything it’s it’s it’s it’s going to
impact everything else so so that was that was a tough one that was a real
tough one and he did they didn’t kill it they went they go went all the way
through in the movie did come out but I it’s not my favorite by any means it’s
still for me doesn’t really work so and it was also the last get lost there was
the last one that they did except for Princess and the Frog several years
later it was the it was the last of that era you know well how did it feel the
last day that you left I mean I’m just I did you really have like your stuff in a
box or I mean believe me we filled those cubicles with stuff so it wasn’t it
wasn’t just a box okay with the plants right it was a lot of stuff because you
know especially when you’ve been there for eight years seven and a half eight
years you know you accumulate things so we know because there was enough warning
it was like little by little and take it out so but I think I’m not on the last
my last day I don’t even think I had any work to do and probably was mostly
cleaned out so it was basically just probably saying goodbye which was you
know it was bittersweet really because at some point
at that point I think be luckily it wasn’t a surprise and we knew it was
coming for a long time and I think I was ready I think I was like okay I’m ready
because of the stages of of death thing acceptance sure you’ve been through the
anger and the depression right already a lotta very similar though you think
about it but I’m sure for some people though maybe they didn’t want to go it’s
great to learn at a job and you don’t want to be there anymore and you’re
leaving you’re like this is great I could feel the energy pushing me out the
door but when you don’t want to go that’s when it’s yeah I you know I don’t
think any of us really wanted to go but when when it the there was there was no
other way you know then you had to accept it so sure you know because you
mean what you said for most of the time I was there ah that was a great place to
work yeah well you hear stories about people complaining about Disney you know
doing this and doing that and everything with that will that was not my
experience I got to tell you I loved it I loved there I mean like any job there
were some days when especially in crunch time
why sure oh god I just you know I only got four hours sleep I don’t want to go
back in you know alright Mary in the cubicle a couple that was on a loud call
to our family or something but uh wait but for the Messiah heard people that
they absolutely loved working there and go there yeah especially when I first
got there especially because I came in in what I call the post Lion King boom
because you know these things are cyclical like there’s they have a big
hit movie and it does great and you’ve got a couple of successes and then not
so much there’s an era where it’s movies aren’t that good and so forth and
Hercules we were still riding that high from from Lion King and so and also
Geoffrey had started DreamWorks down the street and he was looking to to poach us
so the the studio was doing everything they could
to keep us there so three times throwing money at us parties and it was a it was
a fun place to work her for quite a while but you know everything changes
things change evolution and so I’m just happy I had the opportunity to to work
there and you know those movies that I worked on are gonna be around long after
I’m gone they’re still gonna be people watching
them so you know that’s nice to know and last question about Disney and that
is just the evolution of the screenwriting in terms of the emotion
that they started putting in and maybe some of the topics that they touched on
how did you see that evolve from your time there well I what I saw you know
the my first movie was Hercules which was very funny and slapstick II and and
big and wild and and but I saw what they were they were they were definitely
experimenting with what else they could do with with the medium and and not just
you know not just make movies with princesses and heroes and princesses and
so forth and and I think maybe it wasn’t a great idea
I loved I loved Atlantis I think I didn’t I didn’t love it by the time we
were finished working on it because it was a very very challenging movie to
work on but since then um it came out on blu-ray I i watched again and I was I
really actually liked it a lot but I can understand how at the time I don’t think
audiences were maybe ready for that ready for that kind of change in a
Disney movie I think that they really just they they like their little
mermaids and their Beauty and the beasts and you know and even even I mean even
Tarzan I mean Jane isn’t a princess but she’s still that kind of spunky
character that that I think resonates with audiences
yeah you


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