A few strokes of a pencil. That's usually all it takes to separate an artist from a doodler. Confident lines. Sweeping curves. Perfect proportions. Tony Bancroft is just such an artist. For more than a decade, he brought sketch pads and movie screens to life as an animator with the Walt Disney Studios, working on modern classics such as Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King and The Emperor's New Groove. That experience eventually earned him the chance to co-direct the 1998 hit Mulan. On that film's 15th anniversary, I spoke with Tony about his Disney roots, his Christian faith, advice for young animators, and how it felt to see Pixar change his industry forever.
Mulan got great reviews and grossed over $300 million worldwide. A decade and a half later, when you think back to that experience, what do you remember most about working on that film?
It was my first time directing. I was actually one of the youngest directors in Disney's history. I think I started when I was 25 or 26 years old. Sometimes God puts you in situations where you don't really feel prepared, and this was definitely one of those. When you're talking about a $100 million film, which is about what Mulan's budget was, stress is part of the day-to-day life there. I'd go to a lot of meetings. In that roller-coaster ride of making the film, there were good days and bad days, but the best days were the ones where I could sit at my drawing board and remember what it was that I loved. Why I was passionate about making animation. Sitting there and drawing the characters was the highlight of my days, not always the meetings and stresses and stuff.
In its second season, ABC's Once Upon a Time added a few key characters, including Mulan. Have you watched that show?
Yeah, my family and I watch it all the time. When Mulan came on, I was pretty floored by it. Of course, they've now added her as one of the Disney princesses, and it's pretty surprising to see how she's just taken off as an icon for the company. She means so much to me, and I can remember when I was working on the film, I had very young daughters. I had two at the time and one who I didn't know was yet to come. So with three girls in my household, Mulan was an iconic role model, and I knew she would be. I was creating this Disney heroine for the next generation.
One of the creative decisions you made was having Mulan save the "prince" rather than the other way around, which I believe was the original ending to that Chinese legend. Lately we've seen that more often. What inspired you to go that route back then?
Yeah, it was kind of ahead of its time when we did it, to have that strong Disney heroine. But I think that's what I liked about the story, and what drew me to it. It was a different kind of Disney heroine. She was a girl who was true to herself. That was the theme of the movie, as a matter of fact, that from frame one to frame 2,025 her story doesn't change at all. She really is consistently who she is and believes what she believes. She changes everybody else around her and how society views the role of a woman in that ancient Chinese culture.
Is it true that Mulan was the first-ever Disney film to feature warfare?
That's a good question. I guess in some ways Pocahontas had some warfare. Indians against the settlers. But yeah, to have a military where she was part of an army and that sort of thing, absolutely.
Dealing with violence and realizing you were making a G-rated kids movie, was that tricky?
It was. I remember there was one shot in the film in particular that we went back and forth on quite a bit. When Shang and his troops, including Mulan, come over the rise where they're supposed to meet his general's army, they come over this hillside and we kind of pan along this background of all these troops and see the devastation. That army was wiped out by Shan-Yu, the villain, and his men. We went back and forth on that background about how much detail do we see. Do we see gore? Is it really clear that there was a massacre here? Do we see bodies strewn all over and blood? We must've painted that background three or four times just to get the right amount of tone so that, in a G-rated film for kids, the story would tell there was a massacre here and they were all wiped out without going overboard. And I think we found just the right level there.
It's a powerful moment. I remember one Christian film critic being really harsh with Mulan because of the Eastern spirituality. But I've always felt that, while it's definitely something parents should be aware of, it's also a chance to show children another culture and explain what a missionary to China would encounter. Did your Christian faith make you any more sensitive to how you depicted those spiritual issues in the film?
Yeah, it did. And I was very blessed and fortunate that my co-director, Barry Cook, was also a believer. It was something I didn't know about him when I joined the film, but one of the first conversations we had was about our faith. When he said he was a believer, we kind of made a pact up front about how far we would go with certain content and certain elements. … Of course, Buddhism and ancestor worship was a big part of that original story, and very culturally relevant in that historical time period. So Barry and I really struggled with how to represent that and be true to Mulan's story and the Chinese culture without becoming preachy about it. Because it wasn't something we believed in. It wasn't something we wanted to put out there in a big way, in a preachy way. We found different ways of handling tone. One of them was that the ancestors are kind of a raucous group [in] a crazy family reunion. So when the ghosts rise up out of the bays, it's a comic sequence. It's not reverential. That was one of the things we felt strongly about that we infused in there.
You worked on a number of animated features at Disney. What are some other highlights from your career there?
Well, definitely Lion King. That movie holds a special place in my heart with Mulan because it was the first time I was the supervising animator. That means I had a character I was responsible for through the whole film, and in Lion King's case it was Pumbaa the warthog. I remember when they told me I was going to get that character. It was a huge day for me, and I felt so blessed with that opportunity. And again, I was a pretty young animator, so it really caught me by surprise because I knew early on that was a standout character. Pumbaa and Timon from an early moment in the inception of the film were already the scene-stealers. And then for the movie to go on and become such an iconic film in the history of film has meant all the more to me.
Another character you worked on that's a favorite in my home is from The Emperor's New Groove, and that's Kronk. In fact, he went on to get his own sequel, so you must have done something right there.
Yeah, and actually a TV show, too! That was cool. It's amazing to see things I've worked on kinda have a life of their own. After I've birthed them creatively, they go on and blossom into whatever they're going to blossom into. It always surprises me, and I guess I do connect with it like a father in a way, seeing your kids go off. But it is exciting. I'm really proud of that character and a lot of the films I worked on at Disney.
Did working at Disney help you create special memories with your daughters?
Y'know, it's funny because my kids are spread out quite a bit, age-wise, so each of them claims a Disney film as theirs because they were born when I was working on it. So I've got my Lion King girl, my Mulan girl and my Emperor's New Groove girl. My Mulan girl really does claim that movie as her own. I remember for the premiere my daughter was 3 or 4 at the time—because it takes about that long to make a movie—and I bought her a beautiful little Chinese gown that she wore to the premiere. And I remember her sitting there watching the movie, looking like and pretending that she was Mulan herself. That's one of those images I'll never forget, and I know she won't either.
What a special moment. Speaking of our kids, a lot of parents have artistically talented children, and they want to encourage them and help them take the next step. You studied at CalArts. But as a boy, what fueled your passion, and how would you advise young people wanting to become animators today?
I have a twin brother who's also an animator who worked at Disney. Growing up we always had that "iron sharpens iron" thing. We were always competitive as children. Instead of soccer or football, it was drawing. I was drawing all the time. And I always encourage parents that, if they have a young one who wants to get into the arts, or animation in particular, draw all the time. It's something you've got to practice just like a football player has to practice throwing the winning pass. And then pursue anything you can find. Nowadays, with the Internet, there's so much in the way of education. There's so much in the way of resources that are available to kids. I'm just amazed by it. I mean, the stuff I learned in college is now all online. Not to say that they still shouldn't go to college of course, because there's something about that one-on-one instruction, but the resources are out there. … I always encourage parents to go after that and support their kids in that.
When Mulan came out in 1998, Pixar had already released Toy Story, and all of us sensed that the world of animation was about to change. Can you give us a view from the inside? What were you feeling, and what was it like working at Disney as traditional animation was giving way to CGI?
I remember being in the middle of one of the animated features I was working on at the time. Maybe it was Lion King or Hunchback of Notre Dame, but the executives invited all the heads of departments, all the 2-D guys—the traditional animators—to a big screening. They showed us just one sequence that was completed by Pixar for Toy Story. It was the sequence when the little army guys go down and do their reconnaissance at the birthday party and report back to Woody via walkie-talkie and stuff. It was just mind-blowing. It was one of those moments when I felt like I saw the future in a big way. And I remember leaving there telling the other animators, "We just saw the future of animation. Why would they want to make a movie any other way?" That's how strongly I felt about it. And yet it took years and years for it to pan out that way. Now traditional animation, which is why I got into animation, to draw cartoons, is kind of defunct. So it's a bittersweet thing for me. Now I direct and supervise a lot of CG or computer-animated projects. I've gotta say, I kind of miss it. But I'm also really happy to have a new set of tools to make animation with.
How have you been able to share your faith through your craft?
I get a lot of opportunities because we tell stories, and I'm able to draw from biblical stories during many of those creative meetings. Particularly the Christ story. For example, if we're talking about a character making a sacrifice, maybe it can reflect more of Christ's story, symbolically. I know many stories from the Bible that others don't, which gives me a chance—in a loose, creative way—to share them with people.
Since leaving Disney, Tony has directed animation for Sony Pictures' Stuart Little 2, and founded his own studio, Toonacious Family Entertainment. He now supervises young animators at Duck Studios, which creates commercials and short films for clients ranging from McDonald's and T-Mobile to Mercedes Benz and … Disney. Oh, and if you ever have lunch with Tony, don't be surprised if he brings along his sketch pad. Expect confident lines, sweeping curves and perfect proportions.
Published April 2013
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