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For over a century, women have influenced generations of animators and audiences and brought their perspectives and dedication to the craft of animation. ACR’s Women in Animation Series follows the work of this generation’s women animators, bringing you their voices.
In the world of great animators, Ellen Woodbury’s place has long been solidified. Throughout her twenty years at Disney Animation during the studio’s renaissance period, she brought beloved characters to life including Zazu from The Lion King and Pegasus from Hercules.
Perhaps nothing defines Woodbury better than her dogged tenacity to perfect her work and her ferocity to embark on new challenges. Rather than shy away from critique, Woodbury enthusiastically solicited feedback and applied what she learned at every turn. Through exhaustive research, a critical mind, and an eye for detail, her work flourished and she became Disney’s first female supervising animator.
A decade ago, Woodbury left the world of animation to pursue sculpting but the same traits she leveraged at Disney remain a hallmark of her creative process today. Her cherished characters- whether drawn on film or cut from stone- celebrate the animals that she ardently advocates for and adores. We recently caught up with Woodbury from her home in Loveland, Colorado, for our latest Q&A. We ask her about her early interest in animation, the steps she took to achieve her dreams, and what keeps her contagiously enthusiastic about her work. We hope you enjoy!
ACR: Long before you became Disney’s first female supervising animator, you were a kid growing up in western New York. Was there a moment when you realized that you could become an animator?
Ellen Woodbury: I always drew and worked with my hands as a child. I loved cartoons, especially Warner Bros. because the humor was so silly as opposed to the more sentimental stuff that Disney did. When I was in highschool, Disney re-released The Sword in the Stone and my best friend insisted we see it. I initially resisted going, but we had just read the The Once and Future King for fun so she dragged me to see it. It swept me away! For the first time it occurred to me that people do this stuff for a living and it struck a responsive chord.
ACR: That was before many colleges and universities offered animation classes let alone full-fledged programs. What steps did you take to learn the craft?
EW: You’re right. Also, there were very few animation books. My mom was a librarian and brought home every animated film in the county library collection along with a 16-mm projector. I got to watch Canadian Film Board animation and things I’d never seen before- both industry and non-industry- which really opened my eyes to the possibilities.
I went to college and took a drawing course- I had forgotten how fun drawing was. Not long after that, I decided to focus on animation so I transferred to Syracuse University which had an animation instructor, an Oxberry, and that was it! I made every one of my film and art classes somehow relate to animation. I wrote about animated films and made them for projects. Whatever I could do, I did it- it was a massive immersion for me. I’m a self-motivated person; when I want something, I go for it. Years later, friends told me their guidance counselors told them they couldn’t do certain things, and they listened to them! No one ever told me that. I’ve always had the feeling that I could do whatever I wanted to do.
ACR: Like another former Disney animator who I recently interviewed, you chose CalArts for your MFA in Experimental Animation. What was that experience like?
EW: The Experimental program was very creative and intellectual. The students were not just Disney devotees, they had experience in lots of different art mediums. A lot of them came to animation from a painting background. We had all read many of the same books. Jules Engel (abstract animator and painter, Fantasia, Bambi, founding director of CalArts’ Experimental Animation program) was a genius and my mentor. CalArts had an Oxberry, an Optical Printer, great teachers, a fantastic film library, and an art library. I was in heaven.
We studied animation in all its forms. Every other week, Jules showed us films designed to spark our imaginations. It was stuff from UPA and other experimental studios and independent animators. The first film I made there (“Liveline”) started as a line that became a figure that became a character. So refreshing!
ACR: Speaking of your mentor, Jules Engel, what was it like learning the craft from one of the great legends?
EW: Jules was an extraordinarily positive person. He only gave you positive feedback. He had us look at all kinds of animation; it was never an either/or sort of thing with him. There was an emphasis on learning and creating art- not just getting a job. That was Jules’ focus. Essentially, here you are, now make a film! Test your creativity. Use your imagination. It was the best place in the universe to me.
ACR: After graduating with your Masters from CalArts, you went to work for a TV production house best known for quantity over quality. What was that transition like and how did you end up shortly thereafter working for Disney?
EW: My films at CalArts won many awards but the film festival cycle was actually months after graduation so I started working for Filmation before entering the festivals. My Masters Thesis film, “I Want to be Like You,” won a national student FOCUS film award. Part of the prize was a week of seminars with professionals in the industry in LA. During this seminar week I was introduced to the VP of Disney Feature Animation, Ed Hansen. I told him I was an animator and that I wanted to work for him. I gave his office my portfolio and when I went to pick it up some time later, they said they didn’t have a chance to look at my films. The brassy kid in me came out and I suggested they keep it until they had time to look at the films. I guess my films impressed them because they offered me a job.
ACR: Great story. Over the course of some twenty years at Disney, your animated characters proved to be so beloved to fans- from your work on The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast to Hercules and The Lion King. What was it like working there?
EW: At Filmation no one really taught me the art of animation, but at Disney they cared. I asked for critiques of my personal tests from a lot of animators and received great feedback. I learned to exaggerate movement… to bend those knees! One of the first things I was taught at Disney was how to flip properly. During my first three years there, I must have spent a full year standing behind someone drawing over my animation… what an education it was!
I rarely encountered people there who said “no” either. An example of that was when I was fairly new and we had a lot of down-time at the beginning of Oliver and Company. Kathleen Gavin was the production manager on the film and I told her I wanted to become an animator and asked if I could apprentice by being an animating assistant. She thought it was a great idea and let me do it - though I had to submit tests to demonstrate desire and potential to the artistic review board.
ACR: And who did you apprentice under?
EW: Mike Gabriel was my first assigned mentor and he was fantastic. He drew crazy good and conveyed a feeling in his drawings and animation that is difficult to articulate. I also apprenticed with Hendel Butoy and Mark Henn. I worked with Duncan Marjoribanks in the Sebastian unit on The Little Mermaid and did lots of micro-animation- a thankless task but I did the best I could on it. I took my work to the directors and asked how I could make it better. I was inspired by the old guys- Frank, Ollie, Eric, Mark. They were my heroes. I wanted my animation to be good- I didn’t want to drag the quality of a Disney feature animation down; I wanted to uphold the legacy.
ACR: Coming from a hand-drawn background, what was your gut reaction when CGI started to catch fire in the industry?
EW: I was all over it- I knew I had to learn it. I worked with our business rep from the animators’ union to create classes specifically for Disney animators in the Disney computer lab. We had really basic Maya back then but it was exciting. We had a couple of rigs- a universal mannequin and a Donald Duck that had squash and stretch. I didn’t like the way the rigs had the tendency to make animation stiff. One of my first assignments for myself was to try to put the organic squashy-stretchiness of traditional animation into computer animation. I did personal tests over the course of two years and helped design a training program based on how I learned. I spent two years training before Chicken Little.
On production, the computers we used had a 2.5 second lag time for the cursor to catch up with my move with the stylus. You never knew where the body part would go specifically because of this lag time, so it was tremendously frustrating. Halfway through Chicken Little we were given faster computers and I was so happy until i realized the lag time had been cut to 1.5 seconds- not a great improvement. I was a fairly fast hand-drawn animator- if it took me three days thumbnailing then it was three days animating. If it was two weeks thumbnailing then it was two weeks animating. I animated as fast as I could draw. So here I was with this 1.5 second lag time computer and it just got too frustrating.
ACR: I can only imagine. What did you do to cope with this new 3D beast?
EW: Disney was fabulous because every day of the week they had a drawing class from 12 to 2. I went to draw four days a week to get my freedom again… no lag time! Ron Pekar, the instructor of one of those classes, was also an incredibly good bronze sculptor and he brought in some clay one day and told us to create something that would fit into a coffee can. And that’s when I started to sculpt.
ACR: So ironically, working at Disney ultimately closed the chapter of your animating life and opened a new chapter devoted to sculpture. How did that all coalesce?
EW: Around 2004, I experienced a huge amount of loss in my life. I lost my dad, I lost my hero Frank Thomas and my mentor Jules Engel. I lost my cat. I’m a horse person and my horse went permanently lame. I lost my artform- traditional animation. Of course, I still had my friends, my husband, my house. But all of this loss made me reconsider my life and I decided I didn’t want to continue working on the computer. Disney was my dream but that dream didn’t exist anymore… it was a tough thing to face.
I like working with my hands, and I discovered that sculpture is very related to animation! In animation, you think three dimensionally even though you draw two dimensionally. Characters are composed of dimensional forms like spheres, cones, and cubes. We were creating the illusion of a dimensional reality. Working with the computer, we had the Z-axis and I gained a better understanding of depth from that. I loved making the bronze sculptures in Ron’s drawing class... I could hold them in my hand. They were real.
ACR: What ultimately convinced you to leave Disney and pursue sculpting?
EW: Ron Pekar suggested I go to the annual sculpture shows in Loveland, Colorado, where 500 sculptors come to town for two huge shows- one juried and the other unjuried. My sister lived in Colorado and she met me in Loveland. We did three massive days of sculpture shows and I was tremendously impressed. I was walking around with tears in my eyes. I went home and made clay figures. I had eight little figures cast into bronze and was accepted into the non-juried Loveland show. The next year, my husband and I went to the show, bought a house, and that was that!
ACR: You work with stone in your sculptures. Do you know ahead of time what any given piece will become or do you start carving and then figure it out?
EW: I always start with an idea- an inspiration from something I’ve read or heard or seen. I plan what I’m going to make including the details about the type of stone and what it can and can’t do. Planning is huge to me- I did extensive thumbnails to plan my animated scenes, and I do extensive planning for each of my stone sculptures.
ACR: What are the comparisons you’ve found between creating animation and sculptures?
EW: There are so many ways sculpture relates to animation. My sculptural forms are composed of simple shapes, poses combine straights and bends/squashes and stretches. I try to guide the viewer’s eye through the sculpture just as the character follows a path of action through a scene, or a layout directs the eye to the character and movement. Speaking of which, movement is something I try to capture in the pose by creating a rhythm with the body parts or putting the figure off balance.
ACR: What are some trials and errors you’ve made animating and sculpting which enabled you to better understand the artforms?
EW: We did so much creative problem solving with animation. Treasure Planet was 2D characters on paper with 3-D camera moves. I got really good at animating characters who were also changing in perspective as they moved matching the camera move. It’s the same creative problem solving that I implement in sculpting. I get an idea for what I want to do and then figure out how to do it. Texture is huge when it comes to stone. I happen to like bunnies and wanted to create a fluffy bunny. Well how do you make stone ‘fluffy’ and ‘soft’? I remembered the female bunny from Bambi. She has very few interior lines such that the anatomy is just barely articulated. That’s why she looks soft, unlike Thumper who has tons of interior lines. So I tried that in my sculpture- making something soft by having form but no line, and curve but no edge.
ACR: As your career attests, following your passion in the visual arts takes tremendous effort, determination and grit. How have you been able to stay true to your creative voice and continue to do what you love?
EW: Absolutely. The focus is always on what I’m making. At Disney, I grew a thick skin because the environment was very competitive, and you never really knew what would happen. We had a saying there, ‘good things happen badly’. Meaning, you’ll probably get what you want but it will have a disappointing way of coming to fruition.
In sculpture, there isn’t a big fan-base like animation but I don’t let that stop me. I sell my work to patrons. There are people who like what I do and those that don’t like what I do, but I don’t let it bother me. Just as it was in animation, it’s about the making process- my voice, my character, my work, my creativity. I want it to shine. If it does, I’ve done the best I can. Passion allows me to do what I do. If it was another motivator like money or food, it wouldn’t work for me. It’s the quest for satisfaction, the passion for perfection.
Check out more interviews at The Animation Career Review Interview Series.