The term "persistence of vision" describes the optical phenomenon that
makes animation possible. The human eye retains an image for a split
second after the source of the image disappears, so when 24 frames per
second of an animated film zip through a projector, the flow of motion
on the screen looks seamless.
The same phrase could also be applied to the mind-set of a young (or
not quite so young!) person who has his or her heart set on becoming a
Disney animator. For generations, the debut of each Disney animated
feature film has ignited in the minds of thousands of individuals the
desire to be a part of the marvel they see on the screen.
What does it take to be a Disney animator? What spectrums of talent and
elements of training are needed to produce these wonder-working "actors
with pencils" called animators? We recently put these questions to
Frank Gladstone, Manager of Animation Training for Disney, who works
out of the Disney-MGM Studios at Walt Disney World.
Gladstone begins by explaining that natural talent will come out at a
young age. Every parent knows that a child with an artistic bent
considers the family home a vast and inviting canvas. Such children
"draw all the time... everywhere, on everything. They see Mommy and
they try to draw Mommy. They see the dog and they try to draw the dog,"
Children go through different phases as they explore their skills.
Three that Gladstone cites are: 1) The very young child who tries to
render his or her own creative fantasies. Mom or Dad may not be able to
recognize it as such, but according to the child, that blue scribble is
a dinosaur eating an ice-cream cone! (And who is to say it isn't?) 2)
The older child who is fascinated by visuals, who sees cartoons or
illustrations and attempts to copy them as accurately as possible.
(This "draftsman" stage may be difficult and frustrating - more on this
later.) 3) The high school student who goes back to the beginning and
gives free rein to the imagination, rather than adhering to straight
"This is the bridge," Gladstone says. "This is when someone may be a
serious artist. If they draw things they see - the real world - that is
a big jump. The intent to interpret what they see in the
three-dimensional world is, for me, the tell-all that somebody's
interested in art in a serious way."
Getting to that "bridge," that third phase, though, requires passing through phase two - easier said than done.
Gladstone explains, "Most young people who start drawing are trying to
make things as accurate as possible. They work very hard to get the eye
right, and that's where a lot of people get discouraged.
"There's a certain strength in being an artist, he says "in that at
some point every artist I know is trying to draw Mom or Dad and
somebody will come up behind them and say `that doesn't look like
that.' This is when many people's art career ends."
He continues, "The only time they'll draw again is if they can copy
something exactly, which is why many people are good at drawing from a
picture, but they can't do the other [draw from life]. The person who
is strong enough to say `So what? It's my version of this'- that's
Practice is paramount to maturing as an artist. "Go to the zoo and
sketch: draw your friends," Gladstone suggests. "Drawing people and
their animals, trying to capture something that's moving - this kind of
thing comes with time. It's not something that many children do early
on. It comes with experience."
Milton Gray, in his book Cartoon Animation: Introduction to a Career,
recommends studying animated films frame by frame, using a VCR or laser
Gladstone agrees. "I had the opportunity to put an old-time print of
"Pinocchio" on a Moviola and spent an entire night going through the
scenes I like frame by frame and finding out how they created that
"It won't teach you everything," he warns, but, "we still do that. We
still study how [certain segments] were done - how did Frank Thomas
approach this problem. It's a very good way to do things, but it's only
one of the ways."
Hand-in-hand with practice is formal art training. A young person,
brimming with talent though she or he may be, needs structured
schooling to make animation a career.
"They're not going to get a job here when they're fifteen years old,"
Gladstone says. "We recommend not only high school, but additional
schooling as well - hopefully a college degree."
This schooling would, of course, have art as its primary focus - not
merely drawing, but other disciplines as well, such as painting and
sculpting. Milton Gray recommends studying actors and books on acting,
learning something of staging, choreography, and principles of music.
Beyond the fine arts, some background in history, geography, the life
sciences, et al., makes for a more knowledgeable, flexible animator.
"You have to bring things to the table," Gladstone explains. "Half of
doing Disney-style feature animation is the ability to draw, paint, run
a computer, or whatever, but the other half is communication skill. We
find that people who have some post-secondary education are more
well-rounded, more adapted to the needs of our studio.
"We realize," he adds "that not everybody can go to college, but we
seem to see more seasoned players if they have." Can you be an animator
without being able to draw? Gladstone replies, "If a kid wants to do
animation and he or she can't draw, there are ways to do that. There
always have been ways to do that - stop-action, pixilation (which is
stop-action using people instead of objects), things like that. Now
there's another one, the computer. You don't have to learn to draw to
learn how to animate on a computer."
He cautions, however, "Computer animators just have a very fancy
electronic pencil. If they can draw traditionally, they're that much
ahead of the game. In all the computer work that I've seen in my life,
[work] that has really pushed the animation limits - not just the
movement limits, there's a difference - the animators have either come
from traditional areas or had good traditional skills."
These skills, be they traditional or high-tech, can be utilized in a
variety of ways. An animated feature film employs the talents of a wide
variety of artists. Animators make up a fairly small population of the
people that create an animated film. There are also assistant
animators; in-betweeners; breakdown, background and layout artists;
effects animators; storyboard artists; visual development or
inspirational artists; computer animators; and graphic designers - to
name a few!
All these individuals work as a team (hence the importance of
communication) during the long, arduous process of producing an
animated film. Gladstone gives an example of how the artist (in this
case the layout artist), director, and art director work together.
These individuals interpret the storyboard into the various sets,
backgrounds and foregrounds for each shot of an animated film.
"The layout artist has a lot to do with the lighting of the film, the
scope, the way the camera moves through the sets," he explains. "The
layout artist is in a very great way the cinematographer of an animated
film, deciding what the camera is going to see and where the characters
will be blocked in a scene."
The in-betweener has traditionally been looked upon as the first rung
on the ladder of a animation career. Although there are exceptions,
Gladstone says, "Most people come up through the ranks, starting as an
in-betweener and working their way up to an animator. I think that's a
good way to do it. Eventually, if they become an animator, they will
have had the experience of the people that follow them up. They were
So, the path is charted - now, where to go for the all-important formal
instruction? There are many schools that offer good fundamental art
programs and consistently produce graduates with the skills necessary
to become Disney animators. These schools are by no means the only
choices available to the future animator.
Gladstone speaks from experience, "If you need to go to a state school
- great! Find a state school that has an art program and take the best
advantage of it you can. Learn how to draw well. Draw better than
everybody there. If you can only go to trade school, great! Go to trade
school and do it that way."
The various roads to an animation career all demand hard work,
discipline, and patience. We asked Frank Gladstone what crucial advice
he would give animators. He responded, "Keep trying. Don't get too
frustrated. Realize your potential, be honest with yourself, and apply
yourself to whatever that particular goal is you want to reach."
It takes, in a word, persistence!
" RISE WITH THE FALLEN "