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Andreas Deja shares the lessons he learned from those animation masters, Disney's Nine Old Men

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Andreas Deja shares the lessons he learned from those animation masters, Disney's Nine Old Men

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When Andreas Deja was a little boy growing up in Germany, he loved going to the movies. He especially enjoyed catching the theatrical re-releases of classic Disney animated features like "Lady & the Tramp" and "The Jungle Book."

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

"And as I watching the credits for these films, I couldn't help but notice that the same names kept appearing over & over," Andreas recalled during a recent phone interview. "Given that the stuff that they drew for these movies was unbelievably perfect, I became genuinely curious about who these guys were."

Now jump ahead to 1980. The now-23 year-old Deja is a new hire at the Mouse Factory. And those men whose name appeared in the credits of his favorite Disney films? A good number of them were still working at the Studio at that time.

"There was Woolie Reitherman. He was still on the Lot consulting. Likewise Frank Thomas & Ollie Johnston. They were working on their first book, 'The Illusion of Life,' on the second floor of the Animation building. And Eric Larson was in charge of making sure that all of us new animators were properly trained," Andreas continued.

The entrance to the old Animation building on the Disney Lot in Burbank, CA.

And though Deja is - by nature - a fairly shy guy ("I have to admit that I'm easily star-struck when it comes to animation royalty," he sheepishly admitted), given that he was now surrounded by the surviving members of the Nine Old Men (i.e., That's the name that Walt gave to a select group of veteran Disney animators. FYI: The Old Mousetro borrowed that particular turn-of-phrase from Franklin Delano Roosevelt. It was our 32nd President's not-so-affectionate nickname for the Justices of the U.S. Supreme Court) ... Andreas decided to make their acquaintance.

"Mind you, this was harder to do than it sounded. Take - for example - Milt Kahl. By the time I started working at Disney, Milt had quit in a huff and then moved up to San Francisco," Deja remembered. "Luckily while I was in school back in Germany, I had written him a fan letter and Milt had responded. So I used this previous exchange as an excuse to re-establish communication with him."

"So I called Milt up and explained that I was now living in the States and working at Disney. And his response was 'Well, the next time you're up in San Francisco, please look me up,' " Andreas continued. "And that's exactly what I did. Each year, I'd go up to San Francisco and spend some time with Milt Kahl. I'd take him out to dinner or visit with him at his home. And over the course of those visits, I'd then ask Milt about the various animated films that he worked on. How he'd handled a specific character or figured out how to animate a particularly challenging sequence in a movie."

Milt Kahl animates Sir Kay for Walt Disney Animation Studios' 1963 release,
"The Sword in the Stone." Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc.
All rights reserved 

"What was funny about Milt was - while I was asking him about the old days at the Studio - he was pumping me for information on what the new guys were up to, how production of Disney's newest animated features were going," Deja laughed.

Some of the Nine Old Men were extremely generous with their time / easy to befriend. Andreas has especially fond memories of the late Disney Legend Marc Davis and his lovely wife Alice. Who regularly opened their home to him.

"I think - because they didn't have children of their own - that Marc & Alice made a conscious decision that they were going to do everything that they could to help young people," Deja reflected. "I had many wonderful conversations with them."

On the other end of the spectrum was Ward Kimball, the master animator who was legendary for the various pranks that he pulled on other members of the Nine Old Men. When he retired from the Mouse Factory, Ward became ... Well, I'll let Andreas explain.

Ward Kimball holds the Oscar for "It's Tough to Be a Bird," the Disney-produced 
featurette that won "Best Short Subject, Cartoons" category at the 1970
Academy Awards. Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc.
All rights reserved 

"The really challenging one to get to know was Ward Kimball. As long as you understood that he always had to be the center of attention - that Ward was going to be the guy telling all the stories, making all the jokes, not you - things were fine," Deja said.

And Kimball did have some hilarious stories to share. Take - for example - Ward's call to Frank & Ollie after Disney's animated version of "Robin Hood" first opened in theaters in November of 1973.

"Now Ward didn't work on that movie. But Frank & Ollie had. So right after he sees 'Robin Hood,' Kimball calls up his old co-workers and just gives them Hell," Andreas recounted. "Ward said to Frank & Ollie 'How can you tell the story of Robin Hood and have Robin save Maid Marion? That's in the story!"

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

Over the next 35 years, Deja collected thousands of behind-the-scenes stories like these. Not to mention amassing a huge collection of rough animation drawings that the Nine Old Men did in their prime. And after joining forces with the folks at Focal Press, Andreas recently created a book that pays tribute to the lasting legacy & artistry of these Disney Legends.

"Over the past year or so, I've done key notes about 'The Nine Old Men: Lessons, Techniques and Inspiration from Disney's Great Animators' at the Walt Disney Family Museum, Walt Disney Animation Studios, even DreamWorks Animation," Deja continued. "I've also given talks and done books signings at places like the Woodbury School in the Valley and CalArts. But this is really the first time I've done something related to 'The Nine Old Men' that members of the general public can easily get to."

What Andreas is referring to is the talk / signing that he'll be taking part in tonight beginning at 7 p.m. PT at LA's Barnes & Noble at The Grove at Farmers Market. And while Deja will mostly be there to talk about his "Nine Old Men" book ... Given that Andreas is the modern animation master behind such memorable Disney characters as Gaston in "Beauty & the Beast," Jafar in "Aladdin," Scar in "The Lion King," not to mention King Triton in "The Little Mermaid," the adult version of the title character in "Hercules," Lilo in "Lilo & Stitch" ... Deja has finally come to accept that some animation fans would rather hear him talk about the modern animation classics that he worked on, rather than those movies that the Nine Old Men made for Disney back in the day.

"It used to be - when someone said to me 'I just saw 'The Little Mermaid.' I thought it was absolutely wonderful. It's one of my favorite films. Or 'Beauty & the Beast.' Or 'The Lion King' - that my automatic response would be to say 'But have you seen 'Bambi' or 'Lady & the Tramp' lately? That's the really good stuff,' " Andreas said. "It took me a while to put myself in their heads and realize that these people were being genuinely sincere. That maybe 'The Little Mermaid' was the first movie that they saw when they were a kid. Or that maybe a particular Disney film just spoke to them for some reason. I guess it just talk me a long time to learn how to properly take a compliment."

What's also going on here is that - while Deja is perfectly happy to look back at the Nine Old Men and discuss their importance - he isn't all that fond at looking back at his own older work. Andreas would much prefer to talk about the future. To be specific: "Mushka," the 25-to-26 minute-long hand-drawn featurette that he's been working on for the past few years which is built around a young girl and a tiger.

'I just had an update screening last night for my tiny story crew, 'Mushka' 's composer and the Shermans. Richard Sherman and his wife were at my house yesterday afternoon. Richard contributed a song to this film," Deja enthused. " "Mushka' 's about 40% animated at this point. At this pace, I think that I can have all of the animation done on this project by the end of this year. Then - come January - I'll focus on color, post-production and sound. 'Mushka' should be ready to start screening by the second half of next year."

So between 'The Nine Old Men' and 'Mushka,' Andreas has obviously been keeping busy since he left Walt Disney Animation Studios after Deja finished supervising the animation of Tigger in 2011's "Winnie the Pooh."

"I especially enjoyed working on projects where I got to animate classic Disney characters like Tigger, Mickey Mouse & Goofy. Some of the very same characters that the Nine Old Men worked on," Andreas concluded. "Though - to be honest - sometimes when I look at my own work - I have to admit that I cringe a little. But there are also sometimes sequences that I've worked on that - when I'm sharing it with an animation student - I say 'This seems to be working.' "

Given that Deja is now meeting with kids who are just starting out their careers in animation, answering their questions about how he handled a particular character and/or figured out how to make an especially difficult sequence ... It seems like this story has now come full circle.

This article was originally published by the Huffington Post on Thursday, July 28, 2016

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  • Good work as usual, Jim. But I'm afraid I don't get the anecdote about Robin Hood. Is there something I'm missing?

    EDITOR'S NOTE: I guess the point that Andreas was trying to get across with that "Robin Hood" story is that while he -- and the rest of us animation buffs -- may have revered Disney's Nine Old Men, these guys certainly didn't revere each other. They were actually incredibly competitive and would regularly snipe at one another. Marc Davis once told me how he genuinely resented Frank Thomas' practice of getting into the room where the Studio's next animated feature was being developed earlier than all of the other Nine Old Men so that he could then claim the high-profile / fun-to-animate characters like Captain Hook in "Peter Pan," Lady Tremaine in "Cinderella," and the Queen of Hearts in "Alice in Wonderland" in advance. Which meant that Davis was then stuck animating the female leads in all three of these late 1940s / early 1950s era Walt Disney Animation Studios releases. 

    But then again, great art often comes of tense collaborations. So maybe the Ol' Mousetro actually knew what he was doing when Walt set up situations like this where the Nine Old Men would regularly compete for the very best characters to animate (Not to mention competing for Walt's attention).

  • I was not aware of Mushka; it is great to hear Deja is active in the world of traditional animation. Do you know who will distribute the short film and/if it will be released theatrically or on video?

  • Hi Jim, I am learning animation and trying to get as much information about this field as I can. This article has provided really valueable information. I hope to apply it in my life. Thanks!

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