Please visit Ruben's blog http://maskedavengerstudios.blogspot.com/. You will not be disappointed.
Ruben, my first guestion may seem too traditional but I have to ask it. I'm always interested how one gets to Disney animation. So how you were hooked by animation? Do you remember the first Disney picture which you ever saw? And how long it takes from that event to your decision to do Disney animation on your own?
Ruben: First of all, thank you for the invitation to be interviewed, it’s my pleasure and I hope everyone there in Russia enjoys this conversation.
I remember distinctly the first animated Disney feature movie I saw. When I was about eleven years old, my mother took my little sister and me to a special screening for Disney family employees, at the Disney studio lot's theatre. The movie was ROBIN HOOD and the scene I remember distinctly was when Robin Hood and Little John were singing while walking through the forest, coming right at you on the screen. I couldn't believe my eyes, I didn't know what to think, I didn't know how it was done, was it actors in a suit? But they were drawings, how did they do that? All these guestions swirled in my head wanting to know the process.
Not too long after that, I won a contest doing a portrait of Benito Juarez, the President of Mexico a hundred years ago at that time. This contest was throughout all the Los Angeles school districts and was reported in the local newspaper in Burbank, where we lived and the Disney Studio was located. The head of the Disney animation department saw the article, read that my Dad worked at Disney Imagineering, called him and invited our whole family for a tour of the studio. To my amazement they took us from one artist's office to another and I was stunned, amazed, and excited. I couldn't believe that grown men and women made a living and got paid to draw all day long and create animation. At the time I didn't know who the Nine Old Men were, but I must have gone in and out of their offices without comprehending whose work I was seeing. Obviously, this visit left a lifelong impression and started my journey into wanting to become an animator one day. After many art classes, including Saturday morning local art classes taught by Mr. and Mrs. Samsel, two incredible painters in their own right who taught aspiring young artists all the art mediums, and scholarships to college programs during my high school years, I applied to CalArts, a school founded by Walt Disney, and received a scholarship as well. Around that time Don Bluth had left the studio with a core amount of animators, which left a gap in the animation department. I took a chance after my first semester at CalArts and submitted my portfolio, and sure enough I was picked to do the training program with one of the legendary Nine Old Men, Eric Larson. I learned so much about animation from Eric in two hours one on one, with him explaining to me in detail how the process worked. Two months later I passed the test and got put onto production, which at the time was THE FOX AND THE HOUND.
So in early 80's you acted as animator. What was the main reason for switching to clean up and maquettes?
Ruben: I started out as a Cleanup artist and trained under probably the best , Walt Stanchfield. He was also a amazing animator and had been at the studio for years. He taught many of my generation of animators at Disney's. He wrote many theories and handout on the principles of what to look for and put in the final animation. A very admired and adored artist that made cleanup a respected art form and a wonderful job.
I later became a animator and took on other interests, worked in story, did character designs, layout workbook, maquettes etc... It was when Don Hahn, the Producer of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, asked me to go head up the Clean-up Dept. and train the Florida studio artist that rekindled my interest back into cleanup. He asked because I had just finished the maquettes on that movie and knew the characters in dimension and with my background in cleanup and the animation process he thought I was a good choice for the job, so I said yes. The Florida studio had a wonderful crew and I enjoyed it so much and that I ended up staying a full eight years. They became in my opinion one of the best cleanup depts. in the world. I stayed there until we made our own complete movie in, MULAN, this time using California to help out.
Was it your idea of returning of maquettes to Disney or it was a management's idea? How many maquettes have you done in 80's?
Ruben: My father was a veteran sculptor for 35 yrs. at Walt Disney Imagineering (there is a tribute I put together on my website that you can see some of his work), so I grew up around a Disney family atmosphere and sculpture. When I started at Disney's I went to the Archives and saw these incredible sculptured models that were done back in the thirties and forties. I was shocked to find out that they had stopped doing them throughout the years. So I started sculpting them on my own, the same producer Don Hahn I spoke of earlier saw this and told me to show the Director, Burney Mattinson, who liked what I had done and asked me to do the rest of the characters for the movie THE GREAT MOUSE DETECTIVE. Well everyone was so impressed that we started to do them on every picture since. When it came time for publicity to promote the films and shoot picture of the models they asked me what should we call them, I remembered my Dad referring to the small sculpts they did for the parks as maquettes, so it stuck and they have been called that ever since. I did the maquetees for all movies during the 80's including THE LITTLE MERMAID and BEAUTY AND THE BEAST.
I wonder how did clean up artists do their work at Disney studio? Did they completely redraw the animator's rough drawing or just erase the redundant lines?
Ruben: For the most part we completely redrew the rough drawings, so the cleanup artist needs to know animation like the animator. They need to maintain not only the structure of the drawing but the integrity, acting and spirit of the scene that the animator drew. I've seen in the Disney ARL (Animation Research Library, where my sister Vivian Procopio is the head researcher) the actual drawings from 30's and 40's where it looks like some of the animator worked over there animation to make it clean and they were the actual drawings that the inkers used. Then there were animators like Milt Kahl. In his later films all you needed to do was what was called "touch up" not "clean up". In fact you probably know what I mean because in some examples like in ARISTOCATS and THE RESCUERS you can see his rough construction lines in the final animation.
Many guests of my site are artists on themselves and they are wondering what tools were used by animators at Disney? Did they use pencils only or pens or nibs? You see we have spended a lot of time in talks about Disney's contour lines quality.
Ruben: Pencils were used, colored pencils for the underlining drawings which were used to do the construction and any rough drawing before the lead pencil was used over it. When I started we still had the cel animation process, and then the digitally scanned process on the computer. The non-photo blue lead color did not show up in either process, so you were able to do as much underlining as needed. As far as the lead pencils, there were a variety of criteria. If the assistant animator who cleaned up the scene wanted his unit consisting of breakdown artists and in-betweeners to use the same certain lead pencil as he or she did, then everybody followed to imitate the assistant animator's line.
Now, every artist has a different touch and pressure to their stroke, so depending on how hard or how light you press onto the paper, you can use a harder lead or softer lead, obviously softer tends to smear and since you're caressing the paper with your hand all the time it's something to consider. My personal taste was very simple, believe it or not I liked a regular old fashioned No. 2 pencil, not too hard, not too soft. In other words, in letter form it was an HB. But like with any medium, it's the artist behind the tool and the tool is just there to help you create.
How did your crew achieve such amazing stylish and accurate outlines in animated features? With all of this variety of thickness and clearness (here there is an example) one may think that CAPS allow using vector graphics but Randy Cartwright has told me that Disney CAPS used the raster graphics only. The vector was considered but didn't get incorporated.
Ruben: Good old fashion talent and patience, all done by hand, no more, no less. Randy is right, but the cleanup artist is credited in many instances as incorporating the final "look" and art direction of the chosen design for the film in their final drawings. For example, like in ALADDIN, the direction was a thick and thin flowing line inspired by caricaturist Al Hershfield drawings, animated in that design but the thick thin line all done by cleanup artist. In MULAN, which I was the Head of Clean-up, we received the rough drawings from the animators much in the same way as we did in any other movie, but again a lot of if not most of the credit goes to the cleanup artists for incorporating the style in the final drawings. All done by hand with precision and accuracy.
Is it true that at Disney studio there was a term "milage"? If it is a true, then how one can estimate this characteristic? And in your opinion what characters had the lengthiest milage? I heard that Dr.Doppler was very complex from this point of view. And I myself think about Elliot the Dragon from PETE'S DRAGON.
Ruben: Yes, we do refer to the drawing complexity of the design of a character as "milage" in production. Since we are on a very strict week to week quota trying to accomplish a certain amount of footage, the character has to be designed so it's possible to create a attractive design but also a practical one. For example Ursula, a octopus which started out with eight tentacles, ended up with six, because it was to much to draw, funny thing is you don't even notice or miss the other two. The Beast was the same way, he started out with much more hair design etc... It was clear early on that it need to be simplified, it was taking to much time drawing all those shapes. We did that with some of the princesses as well, you'll notice that there are sequences when the hair on them maybe tied up and not down and loose, again to save time and "milage". I didn't work on TREASURE PLANET or PETE'S DRAGON but I wouldn't be surprised that those characters you mentioned were complex to draw.
There is an opinion that so-called full animation requires 24 distinct drawings as a rule. But I have come to conclusion that this is a myth in general and the most of Disney animation was made on 2's instead of 1's. Can you tell me when it is necessary to go with animation on 1's and what Disney feature features biggest percentage of the full animation?
Ruben: You are right, most scenes are planned on "2's" and salt and peppered with "1's" because you can still get a nice illusion of life on "2's". In fact if you do a scene all on 1's it may become to fluid and not look natural. There are several specific cases in which you use "1's", in dialogue, when there is a pan to avoid strobing and as well the animator's preference in any movement or action. Used at the proper time and moment as needed achieves the desired natural timing and effect. We refer to it as "texture in the timing". When the animation interact with a live action character like in MARY POPPINS or ROGER RABBIT then you normally have to put a drawing in every frame especially if they interact and touch each other, again, that's why they look so fluid.
There is a Russian animation studio in St Petersburg which produces the hand drawn animation. They are doing fine since have produced three animated features within the last four years. At that the production flow on that studio has special feature. They decided not to use the inbetweeners and to assign their duties on clean up assistants. In your opinion is it right? Is it careful or whether they are doing a mistake?
Ruben: First of all, bravo to the animation studio in St. Petersburg for continuing to do hand drawn traditional animation. I personally think that is wonderful. If I understand your guestion correctly, I'll answer it in this way: if an artist is on production, in my opinion it is because each artist has a degree of talent and their aspiration and love is to learn, in this case, the animation profession. I assume that after three pictures, they look good enough and the studio is comfortable with that process. I think that it is okay to have that level of trust which makes the artist rise to the occasion, to fill in the gaps.
On the other hand, the Disney formula, style, and approach at the studio was very structured. We had a very good training program and a system in place where each artist had a responsibility, each equally important in the process, no matter how high or low on the totem pole. Without the rough animator, you wouldn't have the acting and without the cleanup in-betweener you wouldn't have all the necessary drawings needed that eventually end up on the screen. So everybody's contribution is important. With that said, when I was a supervisor many times I recognized the degrees of talent from one artist to another, and those who showed an interest and wanted to progress and had the talent, I gave them opportunities where they rose to the occasion with eventual promotion to the next level. So it's all relevant to what's best for the production. Many times depending how big or small the crew is, we all have to chip in and do and help out where we can. I remember also doing animation checking on THE BLACK CAULDRON when the crew was much smaller, and after our drawing duties were done, we helped out the next department in the process.
Ruben, there is some form of disagreement here about the order of actions in traditional animation process at Disney. And I think you are that person who knows the right answer. I'll try to ask precisely as much as possible. So, assume we have a sequence of rough key animation and had to do the inbetween drawings and clean up. What the right order of tasks? What is carried out earlier? Some of my friends believe that cleaning up of KEY drawings is making firstly and THEN inbetweeners create new already clean drawings between cleaned key drawings. But other friends assure that there is no way to do that since it is very difficult to draw clean at once. They believe that when the rough animation is done the inbetweeners do the rough inbetween drawings and after that assistants did clean up of all drawings successively. How it was done at Disney? Obviously I express my guestion chaotically but it is very important for me.
Ruben: To answer your guestion, which to anyone else may sound confusing, but I believe I followed exactly what you were trying to ask. If I may, let me explain it this way: The reason the Disney process works so smoothly is because many years ago they created what is called the unit system. In other words, each character, each supervising animator, and cleanup supervisors had their own units. Let me describe the rough animator's unit, because obviously the scene needs to be animated first in rough, of course.
Rarely were there animators that drew so clean that you were able to use their final drawings on the screen. I can only think of a couple of examples, but the main animator whose drawings were used on the screen in the latter years of his animation career was Milt Kahl. For example, his work on the pictures ARISTOCATS and THE RESCUERS. Needless to say, I'm sure you know which characters, but just in case, for example, the butler, the lawyer, Medusa and any other characters he did in those films went straight from his drawing board onto the screen. As sketchy as they were, he pulled it off. He did have assistants that would fill in the gaps in between his extreme drawings that imitated his line work, but again this was a rare and very isolated occurrence. Now let me describe to you the norm.
Most animators draw their scene in a rough format. Their main focus being the acting, the construction of the character, and keeping it on model. The animator's unit usually consisted of a rough inbetweener who does the inbetweens for him, again in a rough format, usually this rough inbetweener, who is basically the animator's assistant, is on his way to becoming an animator one day and is in a unique position to learn from the animator and train to one day do the same thing the animator does. That's it for rough animation.
Now for cleanup, this is where the unit system works the best. The cleanup department is the biggest department in the whole process because of the intricacy and detail that needs to be put into every drawing of every scene that obviously the animator doesn't need to. As long as the animator puts enough information, the cleanup artist can take it from there. Now here is the totem pole, if you will, of the levels in a cleanup unit: the highest position is a supervising cleanup animator, assistant cleanup animator, breakdown artist, and then last but not least the inbetweener, who has the least experience and each level as you go up gathers more experience in hopes to one day be promoted to the next level, and so on. The job of a cleanup artist is so respected because in essence he or she has to know the same fundamentals as the rough animator, so they don't lose the acting, emotion, purpose for the scene, and bottom line the proportions in keeping the character on model. The reason there are so many cleanup artists and it's the biggest department is because to add all that and keep the details consistent is very time consuming.
Let me describe what happens when the supervising cleanup animator receives a rough scene. They go through it and pick out the main key drawings because it's their responsibility to make sure this character is consistent throughout the whole film, like as if one hand from one artist drew it. Since there is so much footage to be completed, this supervising cleanup animator at times will put in several drawings, maybe one drawing, or if the scene is what we call way off model, meaning the rough animator's proportions are way off, then he or she may do all the key extreme drawings in all the scene. To alleviate so much burden and work on one person, and to speed up the process, and to complete a certain amount of footage for the quota that one has on a film, this is where the other artists come in. The supervising animator will give it to his assistant, who will then put drawings in between those, who in turn gives it to a breakdown artist who puts drawings between the assistant's, and then the breakdown artist gives it to the inbetweener who puts drawings between that batch of drawings. If what I'm describing is clear, you can see now why the system is simple and works so well, as complicated as it sounds.
Why is the number of breakdown artists in some cases more than number of inbetweeners while in other cases there are no breakdown artists at all?
Ruben: This guestion is a good one. I guess I can simply answer it by saying sometimes an assistant or an inbetweener can accomplish what a breakdown artist does. In cases where there is a main character and so much footage is involved, it is ideal to have the breakdown position in the unit. When it is a third tier or miscellaneous character, that particular unit may not need a breakdown artist. Also, the breakdown position is a good training ground to go to the next level, and as well it is a way to show recognition to those talented inbetweeners who are ready to move up.
And still I can't understand one major issue. Once upon a time I saw how some the Russian inbetweeners worked. While the animators and assistants used pencils and paper the inbetweeners draw the in-between drawings directly on cels! They didn't use any rough drawings but just next and previous cels as samples. Thus the number of cels exceeded the number of source animator's drawings. Therefore I wanted to know how Disney's inbetweeners worked. Whether they did a rough in-between drawing which later was improved by clean up artists or put on paper already clean drawing?
Ruben: For the sake of keeping this simple, let me just say that no drawings are done directly onto a cel. Every drawing has been drawn with a pencil and paper first and all actions figured out before it gets cleaned up on pencil and paper and goes to the cel process which actually Disney and most companies don't use the cel animation process anymore, all drawings are scanned and put into a computer.
One of your last jobs for Disney was the Mike Gabriel's LORENZO. Sadly we didn't see this short here in Russia. But I know that is was nominated on Oscar and I heard that it feature some very unique way of integration of 3D and 2D graphics. Ruben, please tell us more about this cartoon.
Ruben: The final effect that was achieved on LORENCO looked beautiful, like a moving watercolor painting. Mike Gabriel color keyed every single scene and I think we achieved his vision in the final product. Mike is an extremely talented artist and I'm glad he pushed the animation to a new level. The process was one never used and created at Disney, which was very very tedious and complex. You would have to see it to understand it better, but the only way I can describe it is that each brush stroke was like a connect the dot drawing. I can't get into much of the detail, all I can tell you is I would have preferred brush painting each cel than doing that again (laughing)! The final drawing looked like a grid map on the computer screen that you were working on, but what ended up on the theater screen looked absolutely spectacular. I assume there are simpler methods to achieve that look nowadays, but I don't know if the studio will ever do anything like it ever again. I hope one day you get a chance to see it, it's well worth tracking down and I'm sure it will be an inspiration to everyone. In addition, I felt very close to the project because the story goes to the beat of an Argentinian tango, which I grew up with since my family were Italian immigres to Argentina where I was born in Buenos Aires and then came to America.
Ruben, do you have any idea how Disney's THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG will look?
Ruben: I don't know much about this production other than I am so happy to hear that they are returning to doing 2D animation finally, the foundation and heart of the Disney company. It does all us traditional animators' hearts good that they've opened a doorway back to this beautiful medium which can be done in computer and as we all know in the drawing format as well, they can both live side by side. I won't bore you with the mantra that you hear all the time but let me say it just once again, it's all about the STORY! You may or may not have heard that they've decided for the first time to make the princess an African-American, and that John Musker and Ron Clements, the two directors who directed movies like THE LITTLE MERMAID and ALADDIN, were brought back to the studio to direct this movie. That's about as much as I know and I wish them all the best of luck in anticipation that this is the beginning of a new renaissance and future for 2D animation at Disney.
With all respect to you too and to all my fellow comrades and animation colleagues, I send you all my best wishes.
Thank you very much for your kindness and understanding!