Aaron Belz: Tom, nice to meet you. As the 15th-anniversary Blu-ray release of Mulan and Mulan 2 is about to come out, and you led the team that invented one of its most memorable characters, Mushu, you’re a person we’d like to hear from. Would you begin by telling me how you got started at Disney?
Tom Bancroft: Haha, thanks. Nice to meet you too, Aaron. It was through a nine-week internship. Disney was going to all the major art schools in the country, and Cal Arts, where my brother Tony and I were enrolled, was always sort of their feeder for new artists. They were reaching out even wider for that internship because they wanted to see other art schools and see if they were up to par. So they ended up getting all these interns—there were about twenty of us that were chosen from different art schools across the country. Tony and I were in that group. It was during the time that they were making The Little Mermaid, so it was an exciting time to be at Disney. And then we both did get accepted—or given the jobs once the internship was over—so then we flew to Florida. I lived there for the next twelve years of my life. Most of my Disney career was there.
AB: Great. As you know, many writers and readers of The Curator are Christians, so I’m coming at this discussion with that in mind. When did you first become aware of a connection between your faith and your work as an animator? And, if you can elaborate, what’s the connection?
TB: I’ve been a believer and a Christian since I was about fifteen. So for most of my artistic career, or all of it, really—especially professionally—I have been a Christian. But I guess because I worked on n family-friendly stuff for Disney for so many years I never really thought there would be a sort of a moral dilemma to what I was doing. Every job that anybody can have is going to have some kind of a—you know, a thing in it where at times you’re going to go. “You know, I don’t know if I agree with this,” or, “I’m not sure this is something I should work on.” In my case I started realizing that while I loved the films I was working on at Disney— I loved the time and the people—towards the end I was just so focused on my career and my love of the films that I ended up climbing the corporate ladder. But I was putting in too many hours. I got so exhausted after Mulan, and then I was working on Tarzan and then a short film at night. I was basically saying yes to everything because I was so enamored with moving up and all those things that professionals get into…you know. But then I got sick. I got viral meningitis and I really feel like this was something directly from God. I was in the hospital for a week and could’ve died. When I came out of that experience and was healthy again I went back to Disney. I went back to work.I didn’t have quite the same passion anymore. Going back, I looked at everything differently and it was an awakening that I needed. Because I realized, you know what? My relationship with God and with my family need to be the two most important things. Everything else is second and third to that. Within a month of that experience and being back at Disney, out of a fluke kind of a situation, someone told me, “Oh yeah, there’s this little company called Big Idea Productions that makes VeggieTales, and they’re looking for people because they want to make their very first feature film.” The job that they were looking for was a programmer. It didn’t apply to me at all but I just got obsessed with it. I looked them up online—I wanted to know more about this company—I wanted to be a part of this company and was even willing to leave the company that I loved and this dream job that I had to do it. So I quit my job with Disney. I went a new direction. That was a huge, huge life change for me. Now I do all kinds of quiet work in Nashville, still with Big Idea, and still with Disney and other clients, too. I’ve even illustrated a children’s Bible and things like that through these last ten to twelve years.
AB: I wish—I would love to talk to you again at some point where we can really get into the VeggieTales side of things. But I want to come back to Mulan, since its Blu-ray release is the occasion for this discussion. So let’s talk for a second, about,particularly, your contribution to the making of Mushu. I understand there was a lot of flux in that process and the character kept morphing until you finally arrived at the tiny dragon. Want to tell that story?
TB: Yeah, you know when I came onto the film they said that I’d be the supervising animator for the character Mushu, but even then they hadn’t quite decided what Mushu was going to be, because it was so early in the process. So what that meant was that while other people were working on another film, I was put on Mulan very early, almost a year before production. During that time the script was changing almost daily and Mushu at one point was going to be two characters—like two different dragons called Yin and Yang—and they would maybe meld together at the end and become a whole character. At one point it was going to be a phoenix and a dragon, so again two characters. But then as the film developed they started realizing—and this was well before Eddie Murphy was the voice — they didn’t know who the voice was going to be, so as they were trying to decide who that character was going to be I was doing character designs of an Asian dragon, you know, a Chinese dragon. I was doing my research on what kind of things the Chinese dragons had about them that was different than, say, a European dragon. To me it was very different. The Chinese dragons were very thin and snake-like while the European dragons were more heavy, thicker like a lizard or an alligator. And Disney had donethose kinds of dragons. They’d done the one in Sleeping Beauty and a few shorts and things. This was going to be the first time Disney had done a Chinese dragon so that was a part of my research and beyond even before we knew his personality. Once we started realizing his personality then I started nailing myself on what facial expressions and poses were going to make up his personality. We were looking at Joe Pesci and Richard Dreyfuss, and Michael Eisner made the final choice, Eddie Murphy, so that kind of set everything in place. We had a direction, and we knew what his personality was going to be—a smart aleck, a more urban kind of a character. So that was kind of the adventure that went on for Mushu.
AB: It just struck me—this isn’t in my questions—did that character of Mushu eventually help DreamWorks come up with the donkey in Shrek? I mean, Eddie Murphy really knocked it out of the park with Mushu, I think. What do you think?
TB: Well, I mean, would they have thought of Eddie Murphy doing the voice for Donkey without him having already done Mushu? I doubt it. We were the first ever to use Eddie as an animated voice for anything. He wasn’t somebody you normally would have thought for that, especially at that time.
AB: Right. He’s the small sidekick in both films.
TB: You can really look at the personality and the acting and everything in both characters. They are very similar. It’s just their outward appearance that isn’t. And you know, I did hear from some of my friends over at Dreamworks that they did look at the Mushu animations when they were making Donkey—probably just to see what facial expressions and actions we did. They definitely didn’t copy it—it wouldn’t translate at all. But you know, I think that’s an honor. I’ll take that as compliment.
AB: Did you get a chance to work with Eddie Murphy directly?
TB: I got to see him do the voice—I went to two different voice recordings and watched him you know. That was good for me to see him act full on in character. I would be at my desk and have an audio tape, listening to Murphy over and over again, trying to figure figure out how Mushu was going to act this out, that out. I could actually see Murphy say those lines and see how he acted them out. That was a great learning experience. He was shown the character designs—he didn’t really have an opinion on what the character looked like, though. I mean I’m sure he just trusted Disney to that. He wasn’t a huge part of the process, I guess you could say. He just came in and did the voice recordings. But he certainly influenced me more than he’ll ever know. I had watched all of his SNL stuff and Trading Places and all his other movies and really tried to put a lot of him into the character.
AB: One final question. Since your experience at Disney—and you’ve already started to talk about this—you worked with Big Idea. You’ve also written art instruction books. Would you care to tell our younger artists who are interested in animation how to pursue a professional calling because it probably seems like such a dream to many of them?
TB: Well, I mean, it is. For those who get the opportunity, it’s a dream come true. I think that’s still true today because so few get that opportunity. It’s such a hard thing to get into, so the thing that I suggest to people who are wanting to get into it is to treat it like—Tony and I, when we were young, we asked ourselves, “How do I compare to people doing it?” Not to our peers, other high school students. We compared ourselves to the pros. At the time, we wanted to be comic book strip artists, so we would look at Peanuts and Garfield and all the strips that were out at the time and say, “How does my comic strip look next to theirs?” And you need to do that even at a young age, and it can be devastating when you’re first starting out and still learning how to draw. But if you’re not really being honest with yourself and accepting how far you really have to go, or hopefully even celebrating how close you are, then you’re really not on that track. So I tell people, if you’re not drawing every day, yet you want to be an artist, then you’re not going to be a professional artist. Because that’s what it takes, a daily dedication to the work you want to do. And they say writers write, and I couldn’t be an Olympic swimmer unless I got into the pool every day, and those are kind of equivalents.
You know you hear the odd story of this actor, this famous actor, who was in his first play and discovered and made it, but that is super rare, and I would say that doesn’t happen in the art world. You don’t become a good artist accidentally, you really work at it. So even for computer animators it’s the same thing—even today. They need to be animating, and I think even computer animators still need to draw well. They need to communicate. You learn from drawing what you can apply to each computer animation.
AB: Sage words. I hope my kids read this. Thanks for your time, Tom.
TB: Thanks for the opportunity. It’s been a pleasure.