36. Bruce W. Smith
Bruce W. Smith is one of the coolest, hippest personalities you’ll find in animation today. He’s got great taste and really knows how to make his animation interest and connect with people who aren’t usually normal Disney movie audience fare. Smith also is one of the greatest African-American artists in the history of the medium and shows great pride in his heritage. Many of the projects he’s worked on include black characters and if you listen to an interview with him he’s not uptight about the subject either. A California native Smith was born around 1960 and went to school at Calarts, with classmates including Beauty and the Beast directors Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise. He broke into the business working for Bill Melendez on Garfield specials and on shows for Filmation in the twilight years of the studio. Bruce first worked with Disney when he animated at Baer Animation on Roger Rabbit and when he was brought in to freelance on Back to Neverland and Michael & Mickey. He followed this by directing the obscure and controversial film, Bebe’s Kids, a film with characters based off those in Robin Harris’s stand-up act. After this Bruce Smith lent his talents to Warner Brothers on the Michael Jordan- Looney Tunes film Space Jam, which turned out to be a huge hit. He even got to play basketball against M.J. (I’m sure I’m not the only person whose jealous of that.) In 1996 Smith finally went on staff at Disney to do an excellent job as the supervising animator of Kerchak the gorilla in Tarzan. He followed this by supervising Pacha in the Emperor’s New Groove and working on Home on the Range for half the production before leaving the studio. Bruce then worked in Disney television on the Proud Family, a show he co-created. Fortunately the slum of Disney animation ended when Ron Clements and John Musker started work on the Princess and the Frog. Bruce Smith hopped on as the supervising animator of Dr. Facilier, making him the first African-American animator in Disney history to supervise an African-American character. He has recently completed supervising Piglet in Winnie the Pooh and is currently one of the top talents in animation at the Hat Building.
Bruce Smith is a master at two crucial goals in animation: reaching perfection in the essence of your character and in making each of your characters completely different from what you’ve done before as well as what others have animated. He is also a brilliant draftsman and has great movement in his characters that really communicate both their personality as well as their essence. Smith combines what he learns from studying from life and the work of past animators with what he imagines the character to be like. When animating on Kerchak he studied gorillas frequently at zoos and noticed that not only they usually didn’t move much at all but also that they usually were staring at the people. When you study the Kerchak animation he is very restrained in his movements except when anger or emotion overtakes him. In an interview Bruce stated that he himself had to imagine how a gorilla would act in different kinds of situations and what movements would communicate this. The staring is also an element that he observed that makes it into the final film. In the case of Dr. Facilier Smith has said that although he took inspiration from animated performances such as Frank Thomas’s Captain Hook and Marc Davis’s Cruella de Vill he worked hard to give him movements and aspects of performance that hadn’t been done by anyone at the studio before. The result looks great and although I think there are some story flaws related to the character his walks and poses are masterfully animated. You feel the essence of Facilier and really feel his menace. On the contrary Smith actually animated mostly goofball, comic characters in his pre-Disney career.
Since the entirety of Smith’s career is more recent than most of the people on the list it’s a bit of a challenge to say what all of his long-term impact will be. However he is already significant in the history books for the achievements he has achieved as an animator as well as the many barriers he has broken in African-American animators being superstar animators at Disney. Personally I think the later is due to his comfort with who he is and his confidence in what he is capable of as an animator. If you take a look at the credits of the Princess and the Frog you’ll see that many of the animators are veterans who have accomplished much in their careers. However when watching the film only three styles and personalities really stand out of all those people. In my book they’re Mark Henn for his great sincerity, heart and richness of character that he gave to Tiana, Eric Goldberg for his great use of cartoony animation in Louis and his great stylized animation in the Almost There Song, and last Bruce W. Smith for his genius animated performance and essence of Dr. Facilier. True the great Andreas Deja, great Duncan Marjoribanks, and great Ruben Aquino only got to do minor characters but still it says a lot that Smith could be one of three to stand out in the Dream Team of modern hand-drawn animation excluding Glen Keane, James Baxter, Tony Fucile, David Pruiksma, and a few others.
Bruce W. Smith’s work and animation has influenced me in a variety of ways. First is his animation really tells me to always find what’s unique about the character you’re working on and to find unique ways to communicate who that character is through a performance. I think everyone should agree that individuality and creativity are important goals when putting a performance on paper and/or on a computer screen. We are who we are based off of what makes us different and how we act differently to everybody else. Smith’s animation really tells you to do that. Also it inspires me how much of a perfectionist he is and how strong of a work ethic he has. Bruce works hard on every character he does, no matter which character he may be animating. Last Smith is incredibly inspirational in that he is very confident in who he is and really puts a lot of care into making his characters the best they can possibly be. Thank you Bruce Smith for inspiring so many people and for animating such high-quality work.
Who Framed Roger Rabbit- Animator on Toon Town Sequence
Tarzan- Supervising Animator on Kercheck
Emperor’s New Groove- Supervising Animator on Pacha
Home on the Range- Lead Animator on Pearl
Princess and the Frog- Supervising Animator on Dr. Facille
Winnie the Pooh- Supervising Animator on Piglet, Kanga, and Roo