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"Characters are the ultimate actors. They never fluff their lines, they don't age, and the only attitude they have, is script edited"
"Character Mentor", by Tom Bancroft
CE: Tom Bancroft, could you tell us a little bit about your professional background?
TOM: I went to California Institute of the Arts back in 1988, but only for a year and a half since it was so expensive and then got accepted into the Disney Internship. That internship was specifically to staff what was to become Walt Disney Feature Animation, Florida. I worked there for about 11 years and animated on about 10 features, including: The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Pocahontas, and Mulan. For Mulan, I designed and supervised the animation of “Mushu, the dragon” voiced by Eddie Murphy.
In this issue:
I left Disney in 2000 to help Chicago based Big Idea Productions with their first “Veggietales” feature film and also developed and directed a “Larryboy” TV direct to video TV series. That ended in 2002 when they went bankrupt, so I went back to Disney for a year to help animate “Rutt and Tuke” (the funny moose characters) in Brother Bear.
In late 2003, I started my own company called Funnypages Productions, just outside of Nashville, TN, which created all kinds of character designs, animation, storyboards, comic books, and children’s book illustrations for many companies. I personally illustrated over 50 books. During that time I also wrote and illustrated the popular character design instruction book, “Creating Characters with Personality” for Watson-Guptill publishing.
Soon after that, I discovered animation and my passion changed to wanting to just be an animator at Disney. Once there, I was content with the challenge of making their characters come to life and have appeal. I worked my way up the ladder, eventually becoming a supervising animator. In that position, you were expected to help design the character you were going to animate. In my case, it was “Mushu” for the film Mulan.
Designing him for almost a year got my character design juices going and also made me remember the character design classes I took at CalArts. I discovered that while animation was fun, designing characters was something I wanted to do more and more of!
I finally started creating that book two years ago and quickly decided that my theme would be “now that you have a character designed, what do you do with it”? I then came up with the three subjects that I felt any character artist needs to know, to bring their character to life in all forms of animation and print media: expressions, posing, and staging your character in an environment.
Once I decided on those three subjects, I wrote the book. That was year one. Then I hit a wall. I thought about how I was taught by my instructors at CalArts. They would look at our character designs and then place a paper over it and resketch things on the drawing, while giving verbal instructions. I realized that that was old-school mentorship.
I knew what I needed to do for my book, then. On the website DeviantArt, I have a large following of friends that I posted 6 or 7 “assignments” to. I picked two of each assignment and went over them just like my instructors had. I did sketches and gave written notes about how the work could be improved through posing, expressions or staging. Those examples form the heart of the book.
Last summer I left Funnypages to my former business partner and broke out on my own. I am busy as a character designer and animation director on an international TV series.
CE: What made you become interested in the educational aspects of character design/creation?
TOM: Growing up, my twin brother Tony and I wanted to be comic strip artists. Drawing and creating characters was a passion of mine, but I didn’t know it at the time.
CE: Your book “Creating Characters with Personality” is a "go to book" for industry professionals and educational institutions the world over. Tell us how this book came about.
TOM: Just after I left Disney, a comic book friend of mine emailed me, saying that an editor he knew at Watson-Guptill was looking to make more books about animation. I contacted her and she asked me about creating an animation book for them.
Between Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston’s “The Illusion of Life” and Richard William’s "The Animator’s Survival Guide”, there was not much more to say in animation, I thought. But then it hit me that there really wasn’t a book out there solely on the subject of character design.
I realized that this subject could easily fill a book. The interesting part of writing a "how to" book on any subject is that you have to analyze how you do something first. As artists we can make the outcome of our art less random, by learning how to define our goals and knowing what we want to achieve.
I looked at popular art books of the last 40 years, and found that many of those were broken. What I mean is, they teach a process that does not work properly. Think of the traditional 'step by step': you start with a circle, then you draw some cross hair lines on the face for some reason, then a line down the back, another curved line for the front, some ovals at the bottom, a triangle for the nose and, 'viola', you drew an owl!
Now, in the real world, you will be asked to draw that owl from the side, acting drunk, or running away from camera. Dead. Fail. Good bye job. You need to know why you do what you do, so you can repeat, or change it.
CE: You have just released the follow up to “Creating Characters with Personality”. Tell us about your new book “Character Mentor”. What can our readers expect from your latest title.
TOM: “Character Mentor” is what I call the “unofficial” follow up to “Creating Characters with Personality”. By unofficial, I mean, I can’t really refer to it as a sequel since they are both through different publishers.
I went with Focal Press for “Character Mentor”, so they are probably not too keen on me ‘selling’ the first book. That said, when I wrote “Creating Characters with Personality”, I purposefully left out many of the lessons on posing your character or expressions. I knew back then that those two subjects could fill another book.
CE: You have launched a new website called “Character Mentor Studio” to coincide with the release of “Character Mentor”. What was this site set up for?
TOM: The site www.charactermentorstudio.com is a place for people to find more information about “Character Mentor”, my first book, and other educational products, as well as some personal sketchbooks and comic books I’ve illustrated.
In the future, I’d like CharacterMentorStudio.com to be a place that offers online workshops and character mentorship.
CE: Where can people buy “Character Mentor”?
TOM: You can go to CharacterMentorStudio.com and purchase it using the 'buy' button, or you can go directly to Amazon.com to buy it at: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0240820711/ref=olp_product_details?ie=UTF8&me=&seller=