Artist Interview: Tom Bancroft

09/03/2012 • Artist Interviews, News

Known for his work on “The Lion King” as well as “Mulan” and other big name Disney films, Tom Bancroft has cemented himself as a highly talented character designer and traditional animator. From his experience at Disney Animation, to working in his own animation company and pursuing the world of freelancing, Tom Bancroft has crafted and animated some of the worlds best known characters. We were fortunate enough to interview him, and this is what he had to say.

Hey there Tom, we’re excited to have you on the site! Tell us what you’ve been up to lately in the world of drawing and animation?

That’s a big question, where to start?  I look at my career in phases- and it feels like I am in phase three.  First phase was animating at Disney Feature Animation (more on that later) for about 11 years, the second phase was co-owning my animation development/illustration company Funnypages Productions for the last 7 years here in Franklin, TN, and now I’m in phase three which (for now) is working from home on a contract gig as Head of Character Design and art direction for the CG animation “SUPERBOOK” TV/DVD series for Christian Broadcasting Network, while doing other things like: market my new character design art book, “Character Mentor” (out in April from Focal Press), creating the corresponding website and all the content for that, and developing a few new projects I’m excited about!  I’ve been very busy this year, also, with developing a stronger web presence to help support the two books I have out and some of the online teaching workshops I have planned.  My Deviant Art page ( ) has broken 10,000 “watchers” and on Facebook, my twin brother, Tony, and I started “The Bancroft Brothers” fan page.  He is also a former Disney animator (more on that later too) and we both have books coming out via Focal Press so that page made a lot of sense.  Also, it has been a lot of fun to do together (though separated by about 2000 miles).  Unfortunately, I don’t get to traditionally animate very often.  There is little call for it these days.  The majority of my work after leaving Disney has been drawing based: character design, animation direction, illustration, children’s books, and comic books.  I’m fine with that, as long as I’m still involved in animation production and/or I am still drawing.  That is what I love.

Let’s talk about your younger years, how did you get into drawing, and what were your earliest influences?

I grew up in Southern California in the 70s.  This was the time when Mad magazine was at its best, Saturday Morning cartoons were still on, comic books were sold on spin racks at 7-Elevens, and comic strips were still bringing in money for the newspapers.  It was a great time to be a “wannabe” cartoonist!  Because I loved all those forms of media, my influences were (and still are) all over the place: Jack Davis, Paul Cocker Jr., Don Martin, Sergio Aragones, Charles Schulz, Disney films, Hanna Barbara shows (especially the superhero ones), Bill Peet, Gil Kane, Frank Frazetta, John Byrne, and so many more.  I will say that the thing that first got me drawing early on (around elementary school) was THE PEANUTS comic strip by Schulz.

Your brother Tony also shares your passion for drawing and animation, did you two draw a lot together in your youth? Did having a family member who loves what you love help in terms of progression of drawing skill?

Yes, Tony and I (partially because we were twins) did everything together growing up.  I can’t even remember which of us started drawing first; it was always a part of our lives very early on.  It started with us copying Peanuts comic strips, as I mentioned.  My brother and I still have drawings we both drew of Snoopy (mine in blue crayon, his in purple- our favorite colors).  We would both show our mom (we were a single parent family) and asking her, “Which one is your favorite?”  She was a good mom and she would always say, “I like them both the same”.  I still don’t know if that was true, but I love her for it.  As innocent as that all sounds, the competition between my brother and I did get to be very negative by the time we hit high school.  We didn’t need to give the pleasantries that you would a friend, we just commented on what needed to be better.  That can sting.  So, the short answer is, yes, our mutual love of drawing made us both better.  The long answer is that it was not always a positive way of doing it.  Tony and I are not (very) competitive anymore so I feel it’s all positive now.  We may still ask for a higher level of each other, but that part of our relationship works toward making each of us the best we can be.  I should list Tony Bancroft as my biggest influence, because I would not be the artist I am without him.  I think he would say the same.

I’m still better though.  Right, Mom?

What age were you when you decided that this is what you wanted to do with your life career-wise, and how did it lead up to you enrolling in the California Institute of the Arts?

By the end of high school, it was getting very clear that Tony and I could do nothing else BUT draw.  I had had a few non-creative jobs (a security guard, a file clerk, working at a donut shop) and was fired at all of them!  I tried, I just couldn’t get my head into anything (for long) that was not creatively based.  I’m still that way a little bit. We went to a community college and took art classes there while we tried to figure out what was next. During that time, we heard about two great, local art schools: Art Center and California Institute of the Arts.  By this time, we had figured out that maybe animation was the way to go instead of comic strips, so when we visited Art Center with my mom, she asked them do they teach animation?  The instructor got a little snobbish and said, “Oh, we don’t do that here (at the time), you want the little art school up in the hills- Cal Arts.”  Art Center and Cal Arts could not have been more different in their viewpoints and approaches-  Art Center was all about industrial design, commercial art, product design and clean portfolios with mats around each piece of artwork.  Cal Arts, on the other hand, was the school where they didn’t give out grades, the pool and dorms were ‘clothing optional’, and the fine art department would burn the US flag and call it a “performance art.”  Still, it was the school that Walt Disney founded and had one of the only programs in the world (at the time) that taught Character Animation.  We were sold!  We both got accepted into the Character Animation program in 1988.

Let’s talk Disney. How did you come to working for Walt Disney Animation after Cal Arts? Did it beat or meet your expectations being a part of one of the worlds most beloved animation companies?

Well, “after Cal Arts” is only part right.  Tony and I only went there for a year and a half.  We had a single mother putting both of us through a very expensive art school, so we just didn’t have the money to keep going there.  By the beginning of our second year at Cal Arts it was looking grim.  Our mother told us we could go the first semester, but the second one didn’t look possible.  We heard that Disney was coming to Cal Arts in a few weeks (this was before Christmas) and that they wanted interns for an internship that was being created to help staff the new (soon to be opened) Disney/MGM Studios in Walt Disney World, Florida.  (Its now called “Hollywood Studios”.)  This was an all-or-nothing opportunity for Tony and I so we put our all into getting our portfolios ready- extra life drawing classes, trips to the zoo for animal sketches, selecting assignments, and putting together our reel of animation from the year before.  Disney reviewed all the portfolios (most of which were from upper classman- juniors and seniors.  We were told they were not interested in sophomores, they would be considered last.)  and called each student in for a one-on-one review of their work- and if they liked them, offer them the internship.  We waited for hours before they got to the sophomores.  Then, they called “Tom and Tony Bancroft” to go into the room.  What?  Both of us?  When we got in the room, they said that they couldn’t tell our work apart.  They were different drawings of different subjects but the STYLE was the same- as if by the same person.  Because of that, they were going to tell us the same thing- we were in!

To answer the second part of your question, YES, it definitely exceeded my expectations working for Disney animation.  I was blessed to be a part of Disney animation during a period of time that they call the “Second Golden Age” of Disney.  I was at Cal Arts when “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” came out (what many consider the official start of the “Second Golden Age”) , a intern at the California studio during the making of “The Little Mermaid” and helped start the Florida studio during the time of films like “Beauty and the Beast,” “The Lion King”, “Aladdin,” “Pocahontas,” “Mulan,” and more.   But even with those great films I got a chance to be a part of, the best part about my Disney experience was the other incredible artists I worked with.   I was inspired daily, learned from the best, and made friends for life.

Moving on to your time at Disney. You were an animator at Walt Disney Studios for many years. Can you tell our animation-loving readers a bit about your journey from being an inbetweener to becoming a supervising animator? What challenges were unique to animating another’s characters and to animating your own characters, both story and design wise?

Disney is like many other big companies, it can be very competitive.  It starts at the beginning of each film with the “casting” process.  Each animator (and clean up person too) is “cast” on a character, much like in a live action film.  In traditional animation, casting artists to a character is important because you (for the most part) ONLY draw that character for the length of the film (usually about a year and a half to animate each film), so you get to know their thought process and how to draw them well.  So, getting on a main character was for the top animators and artists, the comedy characters were also good animators but more suited for cartoony work, and on down till you get to crowd scenes which were usually reserved for new people.  Moving up within the studio is hard and the age-old- Disney adage was: You are only as good as your last scene.  That means you may have done some great work on a film like “The Lion King”, but you were “cast” on a character in “Aladdin” that didn’t give you as much juicy scenes, so when “Pocahontas” casting rolled around, they just remember what you did last and maybe you got Meeko when you really wanted Pocahontas or John Smith.  (Note: I’m not saying anything negative about any artists or those characters’ animation, just throwing out random examples.)  With about 200-250 artists in the building there may only be 20-30 animators on a film.  That makes for a lot of competition to get one of those animation spots.  (Some of those artists and technicians are, for example, background painters, so they are not interested in becoming an animator, but you get the idea.)

To back up, I started at Disney (out of the internship) as an Assistant Animator, which means I was in the clean up department and I would work with an animator closely, cleaning up just the KEY drawings (on average every 4th to 5th drawing) within the animation scene.  I was fortunate that the animator I was teamed with was the great Mark Henn.  Mark created characters like Young Simba, Jasmine, Tiara, and created some of the most memorable moments of Ariel, Pochahontas, Winnie the Pooh and others.  I worked as Mark’s Assistant Animator for about a year and a half, then moved up into animation as an Animating Assistant (I know, that’s the same two words, just switched but a totally different job.)  As an Animating Assistant I was basically a junior animator.  I was mentored by Mark Henn and learning the art of animation while working on the scenes in the film that no one else wanted to do.  Remember all those mobs with torches that were singing about how much they wanted to kill the Beast?  That was me.  Not fun work, but it was a stepping-stone to better scenes.  I kept working and doing my best during “Aladdin” also and eventually became a full-fledged animator on “The Lion King”.  For that film, I worked as one of the animators under Mark on the character “Young Simba.”  It was great getting my own scenes but I still felt like Mark was mentoring me.  That changed when I worked on Pocahontas and was cast on the Lead character herself, working under the legendary Glen Keane.  He was a great leader, artist, and mentor and through some of the great scenes I got to do through him, I could be considered for a Supervising animator position on the next film: “Mulan”.   I thought I would be cast on a smaller character (one that is not in the film as much) but the directors offered me “Mushu” the dragon.  At the time, he was a medium-sized character but as the story changed, he was included more and more in the film till he grew to be one of the main characters in Mulan.  That got scary for a first time supervising animator.  I worked very hard on that film and produced more animation than I did on the four films I animated on before that- combined!  It was a dream to design Mushu (for about a year!) and have so much freedom on creating his performance.  The directors really leaned on the Supervising animators to find the elements in the performance that would show the character’s  personality.  That means thinking about every line that (in this case) Eddie Murphy says and figuring out how and what Mushu would do while saying that line.  What pose works best, what expression should he have?  That was a challenge I put in front of myself on every scene.  Working as animator under a Supervising animator is different because they usually have strong opinions on how they think “their” character should act/move.  I found that the freedom of creation also brought the curse of having to tell other animators- many that were my closest friends- how to change/ redraw/ or improve their animation of Mushu.  That is always hard when you have been in that “hot seat” yourself.  I didn’t always have the answer and would have to try and throw out suggestions or talk it out.  I did try and give each of the Mushu animators the freedom to surprise me.  IF it worked, great, they just needed to know that if it didn’t they would have to start all over again.  That’s the challenge we all have as artists every day.  To take the safe route or try something new.

I still look to Mushu as my favorite of all the characters I have worked on.

In traditional animation, the supervising animator has the duty to keep all his or her animators on model. Are there any particular challenges to this task that stand out to you?

This is one of the hardest parts of the job as a Supervising animator.  You become the last word on how to draw your character.  That sounds great, but if you haven’t figured the design out completely, then you can look bad.  I was still refining Mushu’s design when the Directors wanted me to start giving drawing lectures on Mushu to the other animators.  They were about to start animating him and needed to know the dos and don’ts to his design.  I didn’t want to do it because I had done very little animation of him myself at that point.  It really takes a few scenes to get to know your character and make those last few refinements to how you draw them.  Feeling pressured, I did it and started explaining Mushu’s nose shape as a triangle shape.  One of the animators pointed to the modelsheet I had passed out and said, “Yeah, but right here on this view, he has an upside-down triangle shape…isn’t that the opposite of what you just said?”  He was right.  I was still drawing his nose differently from one drawing to the next.  I quickly collected all of the modelsheets and threw them away.  The lecture shut down soon after that.   I redid the lecture , later, once I had cemented Mushu’s design.

Can you tell us a bit about the animator’s perspective on the relationship between the animators and the clean-up department?

That’s a good question.  Because I was in clean-up first, I think I had a respect for the job that some animators that came into Disney and started as an animator right off the bat, did not.  Animators start with a blank piece of paper and roughly draw out the scene, planning out the movement, secondary movements (like hair, whiskers, tails), all the way down to little details like eye blinks.  That’s a lot to think about and plan while producing a stack of drawings on a schedule.  Because of this, the clean up department is very important because they lay a clean piece of paper over your drawing and redraw it with a single, clean line while adding some of the details the animator may have left out.  Usually, that may mean stripes on a shirt, or counting all the tuffs of hair on an animal’s cheek, making sure that the whiskers don’t pop off from one drawing to the next, correcting a wobbly nose on Pocahontas, etc.  It’s really endless.  That’s why the clean up department is usually twice the size (if not more) of the animation department.  We may only spend 10 minutes on the drawing that they spent an hour on.  It’s a slower, more meticulous process, but it’s also the one that ends up on the screen.  The animator’s drawings are thrown out (in the old days) or put in the archives (during my time),it’s the clean ups that move on to get colored digitally.  There is a lot of trust that animators need to have with the clean up artists.  They can make a good scene look weak, and a weak scene look stronger.  It’s not much different than the penciller and inker teams in comic books- just much bigger groups of people.

Moving into the digital age, many young and aspiring animators will never know what it feels like to sit at an animator’s desk and pump out the pencil drawings. (To our readers: the guys over at Disney literally threw out all of their animator’s desks until they needed them back for The Princess and the Frog.) Can you tell us your thoughts on this?

Tom:  Without getting too political about the leadership of Disney in those days, I will say it was a shame that traditional animation ended at Disney so quickly.  They did bring it back for THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG and the newest WINNIE THE POOH, but they literally had to start over from scratch- not just with the staff but also all that equipment and furniture they got rid of.  Very short sighted.   I will say, traditional animation is hard.  Its probably one of the hardest things you can do as an artist.  I have always believed that the best traditional animators in the world could have thrown down with any of the Master painters of the past.  The talents don’t all translate the same, but the level of ability is just as strong.  Unless you try it, you have no idea how much thought goes into every line you lay down.  And there is always something you should have done or could make better.  Always.  For some of us, that can drive you crazy.  All that said, there is no better feeling than putting all that work into something, shooting it, and seeing those drawings come to life!  Anything truly great takes a Herculean effort.   Every scene has that potential in animation.  Mark Henn always used to say to me: “There are no easy animation scenes- just less hard ones.”  I believe that.

Have you come across any computer applications that best mimic the traditional animation experience?

Not really.  I guess Toonboom is the closest.  I haven’t used it a bunch, but the little I have I think you can use it in much the same way we worked.  Disney used it on Winnie the Pooh, I believe.  Most hand drawn programs are vector based, which doesn’t mimic the drawing experience well at all.    Flash is like that.  Many talented animators use flash and you CAN create some very nice work on it.  But, it means putting more drawings into the scenes-, which gets you closer to “old school” traditional animation.  I just think that Flash, as a program, was developed by programmers, not animators and therefore is not very artist friendly.

Having worked on The Lion King’s Simba, you had to sit in a room with live lions to study them. Were there any research activities and expeditions for animated features that you participated in that stand out to you? Can you tell our readers a bit more about the importance of such research before diving into a project?

I must admit, I used to consider those trips as “luxury” trips for the directors and a few key artists.  A vacation disguised as a “tax write-off”.  Then, for Lion King, they brought in real lion cubs, and a hyena, and huge lizards, and more!  The vision of seeing them move in real life is something you never forget.  I would remember seeing the lion cubs while I was animating Simba.  We actually got to touch the hindquarters of an adult lion and I was shocked by the muscles you could feel and the lion was just lying there.  That inspires you to try and get some of that into your drawings and movement.  Our Florida studio also went to the Miami zoo and we were able to take behind the scenes tours and sketch up close.   Disney was great about giving us a few months (if not more) to really dive into researching whatever we were going to animate next.  Lion King was more extensive then some films (like Pocahontas, for example) because of all the animal anatomy and movement we needed to learn and analyze.  That kind of research really paid off in that film, we couldn’t have made it with out it.  I still research whatever I’m drawing because of what I learned from Disney’s example.

 Can you tell us the highlights of having a family member around when the stress starts to pile up? Any anecdotes to share about working with your brother?

To put it into context, Tony and I only worked together (as in the same studio) for a couple years of our 11 or so years with Disney.  Our first year at Disney in Florida was together, but then he moved back to California Disney for the next 10 or so years (except for a year and a half he spent in Florida while directing MULAN) while I stayed at the Disney Florida studio.  We would often talk on the phone about the frustrations or goings-on at each of our studios.  Through some work trips back and forth, I got to know his Disney friends and he got to know mine.   Again, there were times of competition, when we were both trying to get the same character on a film or something, but for the most part, our careers at Disney were very different.  I tended to be all over the place animating serious and comedy characters while Tony stayed with the comic characters throughout his career.    One memorable time was during “The Lion King” and I was animating Young Simba and Tony was the Supervising Animator of Pumbaa.  We both were cast on the section where Simba has run away from the pride (after his father dies) and Pumbaa and Timon awaken him in the desert.  The bit of dialogue they share as they introduce themselves that leads into the “Hakuna Matata” song is the section we did together.  To brainstorm that section, Disney flew me out for a week in California to work with Tony and his best friend, Mike Surrey the supervising animator of Timon.  We all decided we would impress the directors and rough animate the whole sequence in a week and show them on Friday.  The mistake we made is in telling them that at the beginning of the week.  As soon as I landed Disney had me finishing up other Simba scenes that had changes.  The same happened to Tony and Mike.  Before we knew it it was Thursday and we hadn’t even started our sequence that I had flown out to work on with them!  We decided we were going to do it anyway!  All that day and all night long, we animated like the wind!  This was a complex sequence because some scenes had all three characters interacting.  That meant Tony, Mike, and myself taking turns and throwing drawings back and forth for reference.  We didn’t sleep that night and by the time the director’s meeting came the next day, we had the sequence roughed out.  They were shocked.  They still had changes, but they were minor and we were able to wrap them up quickly- much more quickly than doing one scene at a time.  It was a night I won’t forget but never want to do again!

A Disney job certainly is the very definition of a high profile job. Can you tell us about the challenges you faced (and still face) having worked at Disney during its most recent animation boom in the 90’s? Is there any prejudice associated with having such a job? And what about the perks?

Besides feeling like I peeked too early?  That’s supposed to be a joke!  It really was a heady time to be a Disney animator.  The salaries of all of us sky rocketed when two things happened: 1) The Lion King ignited into a worldwide phenomenon and 2) Disney Animation president Jeffery Katzenberg quit and started DreamWorks animation.  Even before he left, he was calling animators and offering them jobs at DreamWorks.  I got a call early one morning (early in Florida meant he was up VERY early in California) from the office of Jeffrey Katzenberg and when he clicked through, he congratulated me on my work on the film Pocahontas.  Jeffery had already left Disney, but felt strongly about Pocahontas, since he was a large part of its development.   It was a classy thing to do and many animators got similar congratulation calls.  Hundreds of personal phone calls from Jeffery, I would guess.  He wanted to hurt Disney and he knew it was going to happen by taking the best artists employed there and putting them to work on his film, The Prince of Egypt.  Animators and clean up artists were starting to hire lawyers to renegotiate our contracts!  By the end of the next year there were million dollar animators!  (Not me, but some of the top 5 animators.) Honestly, it was overblown.  Still, none of us thought it wouldn’t last.  People were buying new houses, new cars, making families, and attending more and more lavish wrap parties.  Disney and DreamWorks started “selling”’ the key animators in trailers for the films, having us talk to radio and TV stations, and in general showing us off.  For a bunch of introverted people that were used to working in little rooms until the wee hours it was a strange and wonderful time.  When the ceiling caved in, it happened just as fast.  Within a few years, our traditional films weren’t making what they once were (still, not bad money) and, meanwhile, Pixar was making mega-hit after mega-hit.  With traditional animation now costing a fortune to make, the decision became easier and easier for Disney and DreamWorks to turn to CG animation.  To be honest, we had helped it happen.  We got greedy.  Business is business and we had priced ourselves out of jobs.  I don’t place all the blame on the artists’ heads, by any means, but I can’t help but feel we had a part in the chain of events.  To point to one example of how the animation studios have “leveled things out”, I ask these two questions: How many superstar traditional animators can you name from the past 20 years?  Ever heard of Glen Keane?  Eric Goldberg?  James Baxter?  Don Bluth?  I’m guessing you’ve heard of one of them, right?  Now how many legendary CG animators can you name?  Uh.  Brad Bird?  No, he works at Pixar, but he’s not a computer animator, he’s a director.  And he started as a traditional animator, actually.  Pete Doctor?  Okay, there’s one.  The point is that Pixar, DreamWorks, and Disney all hire young, eager CG animators out of school and brings them up in the ranks, but they are very careful to not “sell” them too much.  They don’t ever want to have their arms tied in negotiations again.  From now on, anyone is replaceable.  You feel that at the studios since those days.

Not to sound too negative, I will say that the perks of being a part of those new, classic Disney films is that I can get a phone call or email returned from a new client.  Listing “former Disney animator” on my resume still means something in certain places and in certain studios.  One place it does NOT, is in TV animation- at places like Nickelodeon or Cartoon Network.  Feature film animation and TV animation are very different art styles and formats.  You have to have worked on a TV show (hopefully a popular one) to really have creds in the TV world.

What do you think the future is for 2D animation? The recent 3D conversions have certainly seemed to garner more interest in them, despite the overwhelming popularity of today’s 3D animated films.

The success of Beauty and Lion King in 3D has been a pleasant surprise.  Disney has been smart to make a big deal out of them coming back to the big screen in this (slightly) newer format.  It’s paid off, even though I’m not sure I totally understand it.  I think it’s a timing thing: Young parents remember the films when they were kids and they want to take their young children to see them as a “family event”.  Will this translate into NEW traditional animated films being made by Disney?  I kind of doubt it.  If it does, it will be one new one every 2 or 4 years.  They will make it an event.  They won’t need to have a very large staff of traditional animators, painters, and clean up people because they can work longer on the film.  That’s what I can see.  I must admit, I’m a doubting Thomas when it comes to the resurgence of traditional animation.  We 2D animators need a new way to make these films.  It’s not Flash though.  It’s a way to make them that keeps the rough line on the screen, I think.  Make them more like moving art, but with a story.  The other perk is that we wouldn’t have to clean up each drawing.  Maybe that’s just one film, not a new way of making 2D films.  I don’t know.

In short: the success of the 3d rereleases will mean we see many of the old 2D films in 3D, but not necessarily new content.

In terms of your future, we know you’re freelancing and doing contract work at the moment, do you have any major goals you want to achieve in the world of animation?

I do.  As I mentioned earlier, I feel like I’m in “phase 3” of my career.  How long that lasts, if there is a phase 4, or what it will include is a mystery to me but an exciting one.  I am filled with ideas right now and just need more hours in the day to accomplish some of them.  I have a family of four girls, so job 1 is taking care of them.  Second is my dreaming.  I will be bold and mention a few of my goals and things I’m working on right now.  1) I am developing a comic strip.  I’ve illustrated about 7 strips so far and have many more written.  It’s kind of a “bucket list” goal to at least show it to a syndicate, even though I know that newspaper strips are dying on the vine.  2) I have a 2D  TV show I am developing.  I recently went to Costa Rica for a convention and met many of the animation studio heads there.  It’s an exciting community of very talented artists that just want their chance!  I would love to work with some of those studios to get an international TV show going.  I’m looking into funding for that now.  3) Even bigger picture, I would like to create and/or work on a feature film, hopefully centered from Nashville.  Again, it sounds like a pipe dream, but it is very doable.  A virtual studio and partnerships with other studios would be needed but these days it is very possible.

Whether I do all of these, some, none, or something else- I feel like I have my “best” still in me.  I’m not sure I’ve done that one project that I feel was my best work.  I hope I keep that feeling for a long while; it drives me.

Let’s talk about your first book, Creating Characters with Personality. It’s a great book, and an excellent resource for character artists – what drove you to wanting to create the book, and what can we expect in your upcoming book “Character Mentor”, coming out around April?

Thank you.  It’s important to me to have a goal or purpose to most everything I do.  For Creating Characters with Personality, that goal was to try and explain the basics of character design not as a step-by-step “start with a circle and in seven easy steps you have a wonderful owl”-style  but to try and explain the THOUGHT PROCESS behind creating a SPECIFIC character.  We don’t usually just draw a character (except for in our sketchbooks maybe), we usually have a REASON to create a character- as part of a cast for a film, for a client, for a comic book, etc.  What the personality of that character is needs to be thought about while we are also fighting with the design challenges.  For my second book, CHARACTER MENTOR, my approach was, “now that you have a character designed, what do you do with it.”  This book explores the thought process on how to strengthen your character through three subjects: Posing, Expressions and Staging.  Each can make your appealing character either more or less appealing.  All three done right can make your character come to life (even in a still drawing)!  The way I decided to address those three concepts was through a “mentorship” style of teaching.  I posted assignments to the up-and-coming artists on DeviantArt and asked them to submit drawings.  I then selected one or two from those submissions to “draw over” and give notes on ways to make them stronger.  Those assignments are also a part of the book.  I feel that as artists, we learn best by seeing.  Seeing an experienced artist accomplish the same challenge we are going through and seeing choices they make is how we have those “Aha!” moments that open a new door in our development.  That’s mentorship in a nutshell.

We’re certain that many artists will read this interview now and in the future, seeking to glean some golden nuggets of information – what would you say is the key to becoming good at drawing?

I get asked the how can I become a professional animator/artist/ character designer/etc question often.  My question back to them is, “Do you draw every day?”  If they don’t, then they won’t become a professional.  I can’t become an Olympic swimmer if I don’t get into the pool, right?  Why do we think that creative arts are any different?  This “it will come to me, if I dream it” mentality runs rampant in all forms of the arts.  We think we are “creative”,” crafty”, or because we like to doodle while on the phone; we are artists.   Many of my old instructors would say that if you wanted to learn how to draw something- say, hands- then you had to draw 1,000 hands before you can START learning how to draw hands.  They didn’t want to see anything until you had done that.  They would say that we all had 1,000s of bad drawings in us and we should start working toward getting them out of us now.  It’s old school, but it works.  I am in the same boat as everyone else, I still have 1000s of bad drawings in me and I get out a few more everyday!

Thanks for your time Tom, we’ve been thrilled to have had this opportunity! We wish you the best in the future!

Thank you for asking me.  It has been fun and I appreciate you taking the time to ask me these questions.

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One Response to Artist Interview: Tom Bancroft

  1. Great interview ! Thanks for posting this . I had the privilege of working with Tom at Disney and he’s a very fine animator . I wish there were more traditional animation projects around that would take advantage of showcasing the kind of animation chops he has.

    One thing I’d like to comment about is when Tom mentions digital animation apps like Flash or Toonboom he says: “Most hand drawn programs are vector based, which doesn’t mimic the drawing experience well at all.” I agree with that when it comes to those vector programs, but I wanted to mention a great animation program that I have used called TVPaint Animation which DOES mimic the drawing experience fairly well. A Cintiq combined with the drawing tools in TVPaint is the closest thing I’ve found to animating on paper. Here are some projects made using TVPaint:

    Paperless animation examples using TVPaint Animation

    Many of these examples come from the famous Gobelins School in France, which uses TVPaint , along with a number of other notable European animation schools such as The Animation Workshop in Viborg, Denmark . Also , the equally famous Cal Arts school has recently started using TVPaint. So it is getting better known in North America now.

    Well, I didn’t mean to make my comment sound like a “commercial” for TVPaint, but I’m enthusiastic about this software and it’s potential for digital hand-drawn animation , so Tom’s comment about how most (vector) animation apps don’t do a good job at replicating the drawing experience is something I strongly agree with , which is why I’m so enthused about sharing information about TVPaint Animation with my fellow hand-drawn animation artists.