Aaron Belz: Hi, Tony.
Tony Bancroft: Hey Aaron. How are you doing this morning? It’s pretty early for me, I don’t know about you.
AB: It is a gorgeous day here, and I’m happy to be talking to you.
AB: Okay, so, first of all, if you want to tell me how you got started in animation, I’m looking for that moment—I had a moment when I felt called to be a writer—that moment in high school or earlier when you first began to earnestly pursue animation.
TB: Well, I think you know, it starts with my brother, Tom Bancroft, too, and we both grew up artists, and it was what we were competitive about, I guess. You know, a lot of brothers who are close in age tend to be competitive, it’s usually pushing each other, but for us it was drawing. At first it was with comic strips. We drew comic strips all throughout high school. And we loved creating characters and telling stories, and with comic strips it was just kind of a one-day gag, but we wanted to explore making a bigger, fuller story. It wasn’t until I went to City College—my brother and I both went to City College—when we met a guy who was doing these cool clay animated little shorts, and we did one with him, and then somehow we made a movie. We thought, if we could do this, we could bring these characters to life in clay, or particularly in sculpture, we could do it with the characters we loved to draw. So we looked into in the college, and they brought us from California to New York and then to Disney, and that was the thing that ignited the passion that I have for telling stories through animation, making them move, making them free, you know, dealing with performances and characters that come to life off the page. That’s what started it for me.
AB: That’s great. And so it was competition with your brother. That’s wonderful. When you were going through this process did you begin to see a connection between your Christian faith and your passion for animation? Was there a sense that you felt that one could inform the other?
TB: Well, yeah. In the first part of my journey, as a young Christian, I didn’t see that much of a connection. I thought, well, this is my art side that I do, I make these animated movies, and then I have my church/spiritual side that I share with friends and family. But as I developed, and as God developed me spiritually, I found that with true animation and storytelling I could present bigger concepts to the world at large. And through the Disney stuff I did that, but it also spurred me to leave Disney in the year 2000 and pursue my vision and to pursue my own animation studio where we did do family values, Christian value-based entertainment. And we had a series that we called Lenny and Sid that was in the Christian market that had good moral values themes that taught kids the Word of God. And so that’s kind of how I developed in my maturity was understanding that I could use my talents and abilities in animation more for Kingdom purposes.
AB: And that was that, that was with Toonacious, right?
TB: Yeah, correct.
AB: I read about that a little bit.
TB: So while I was doing my own company Toonacious, I think that inspired Tom to leave Disney also and start working with Big Idea on this stuff.
AB: I know you don’t work at Disney now, but what was your most satisfying project there? You don’t have to say Mulan. I know you’ve brought a number of characters to life, so which was the most satisfying on the most levels for you?
TB: Well, you know, it sounds kind of hokey, I guess, but I do think of these characters that I help create as children of mine, it’s kind of hard to pick your favorite, but my two all-time favorite films to have worked on were Lion King and Mulan. And for two different reasons. Lion King was my first time supervising a character—Poomba, the warthog. And I brought him from day one almost wholly through the end of production. I brought him to life and was even involved in drawing him for merchandising elements and toys, things like that, after the movie, which was awesome. It was a great experience. But I was still just one character, that one cog in the greater wheel of creating the movie. And the reason I loved Mulan is that I was a part of the whole thing. Not just one character, but the whole story from the script all the way through final dailies, color output and post-production. I got to be part of making that whole movie, and I worked with some of the best artists in the world, and I got to see day-in and day-out into their creative process, and to me that was just a phenomenal experience, one that I’ll never be able to get again. But with the release of Mulan on Blu-ray on March 12, it’s a great anniversary for me to be able to reminisce about that movie experience.
AB: It’s—it may be hard to believe it’s already been fifteen years.
TB: Yeah. Yeah, it’s aging me for sure, but you know it’s great to look back. I enjoy it.
AB: Yeah. Well, speaking of aging you, you started quite early in your life in the business, and as I recall, I’m not looking at those notes right now, but I think you were one of the youngest directors in Disney’s history. Is that right?
TB: Yeah, that’s true. When I first started, when they offered me the job of directing Mulan I think I was 24 or 25? Something like that—
TB: But yeah, I was pretty young at the time. And I had a big goal, I had big plans. I think my brother and I, our mom instilled in us that feeling of ambition and shooting for very high goals, so when I first started working at Disney, I had this ten-year plan. I’m going to work through the system, and in ten years I’m going to be directing a feature. That was huge. That was a bold, bold plan. And somehow, through God’s grace or gift and blessing to me, I did it in five years, and that was unheard of at the time.
AB: Right. That’s crazy, actually, as you probably know now.
TB: [Laughs] I do. I look back and I think, oh gosh. How did I—how did God prepare me for that? And how did I do that? I don’t—I still don’t get it.
AB: Well, it’s a great movie. We’ve enjoyed watching it. I mean, my kids and I. But it’s not just for kids. You mentioned showing values or people that have values—Mulan is girl that saves her country, and she’s an unlikely hero. It’s just sort of the day of small things. She’s small, she’s a female in a male-dominated society. This seems like a message that has a Christian faith element to it, which is that salvation comes from the unexpected place. Were you conscious of that while you were making it? It’s not exactly like projecting Christian values, but it certainly does have a connection.
TB: Yeah. Yeah, there are a lot of connections on a spiritual level with Mulan’s journey and story. The fortunate thing for me was that it was another one of the God-blessing-things that I just did not expect, was that I found out when I came on the film that my co-director, Barry Cook, was also a believer. And I had known Barry for years and didn’t know that about him. I didn’t know that he—he was kind of a quiet believer at the time. When we first joined together and started talking about working together, we quickly discovered that we were both believers in Christ, and then we agreed early on that we would work together to try and make sure that Mulan had good core values and we didn’t overstep the bounds in our own belief system of, of elements of a story that could have gone dramatically different. We still had to be true to the culture and the era that we were presenting in the story of Mulan, which was generally Buddhist, and they worshiped their ancestors, things like that. They weren’t walking around as Christians in that day and environment Mulan would have been in. So, we couldn’t go to that level, but within that element and that structure of the story, it being historically accurate, we felt that those things that we could do we could stay with. It was those kinds of choices that Barry and I working together that we made we played with the element of ancestor worship. Glorifying in some kind of way because otherwise it made it more like a family reunion when the folks come up, and they’re hilarious, you know, they’re like this fighting family at a reunion, you know this dysfunctional family that we wanted to kind of have fun with.
TB: So those were some of the choices where our spiritual side helped to steer the direction of the story and the choices that we made. But then above that, you know, I wanted to present a character who loved her family, who respected her family. That’s the motivation for she does what she does in her journey. And Mulan loves her father so much that she’s willing to sacrifice herself, because she doesn’t want to see him die, and she knows that he will if he goes off to war, so she takes his place and dresses as a man in a man-centered world and journeys as a girl to fight in the war. For me that was a great value to be able communicate to Western culture, this story and this character that did not change who she was. She did not need a prince to come in, she didn’t need a man to come in and tell her “I’m going to save you from your plight” and pull her up. It was all about her being true to who she was, who she was in her belief system, and doing it out of love for her father and her parents and her ancestors. That’s what I was passionate about getting across and sharing with my girls, a Disney girl that my girls could look up to. That’s what I felt passionate about.
AB: Good. That’s very helpful. Thank you so much, TB. I have couple more que—we only have a couple more minutes—but the fun quest—
TB: You’re my last interview. It’s okay if it goes over a little bit.
AB: Okay, good. Well, then, you could fill these questions up as much as you want. I would if I were you. [Both laugh] What animated movies do you love most that you’ve had no part in making or directing? I mean, what are your core texts?
TB: Well, we love, well, animation? I guess I’m a huge fan of Lady and the Tramp. The classic Disney film Lady and the Tramp is one of my favorites, because I love what those animators did in creating unique personalities that are animals—they’re dogs—but they also speak to people that you would see in the mall or at church. They feel like human personalities within these dog characteristics. So I love how they anthropomorphized those dogs and created personalities for them from an animation standpoint. Now from the comic book geek and adventure fan in me, I just love Pixar’s The Incredibles. And I love that too because it’s such a family story. You know, not only is it superheroes, it’s about action. But I love that the core-based theme of it is about family and unity and always sticking together and you know those core values that are just so important to me and my kids, too. So those are a couple that I can think of off the top of my head, yeah.
AB: Okay, great. I’d like you to send us off with some advice for young people. You’ve been through this and you had an unusual experience in getting in so early in your life, but a couple of years ago my daughter Natalie and I visited Buddy Systems, which makes Robot Chicken, among other things.
TB: Oh, yeah.
AB: So we got to see stop motion in process, and we got to see their craftmaking studios and so forth and how it all works. She left those stages with a strong desire to get into animation. She’s already an artist, but she specifically wanted to get into stop motion. But in a general sense, if you have a gifted kid who isn’t rushed into the system the way you were, what advice would you give her? How would you tell her to continue to pursue her passion?
TB: Well one is, never give up. Never give up on that passion, because I believe strongly that God puts passion into our hearts and into our souls. It drives us for a reason and if we have a passion for art, we have a passion for entertainment or storytelling or whatever that is, that passion is there to be a fire to keep us going, and God wants us to pursue that. So there’s a definite reason that she has that passion. That comes from somewhere and it comes from God above. I believe that. And use it and to never give up on that. Now another thing that I tell kids all the time, kids that I talk to about animation and about art in general—is that it’s a skillset that needs to be fostered just like and practiced just like a sport. So a football player doesn’t get to be a better football player or throw the ball farther or more accurately by just doing it in the game. He has to practice and practice and practice the art of throwing that ball and the skillset that’s involved with that every single day, every single, just all the time, continually. And it’s the same with drawing, it’s the same with animation, it’s something that you have to do continually and perfect yourself and be critical about. How can I do this better? I want to do this better, so what do I need to learn? How do I do it better, better, better every single time? And that takes practice. So, practice makes perfect.
AB: That’s great. That’s a great word to end on, I appreciate your time, Tony, and I wish you the best. I look forward to speaking to your brother this afternoon.
TB: Yeah! Tell him I said hi, okay?
AB: I sure will. Thank you so much.
TB: You bet, man. Take care.
[The Curator thanks Marissa Branson for her help in preparing this interview.]