31. Ellen Woodbury

The jobof an animator is by many regarded as a job unappealing towards women. It’s probably a combination of sexism, tradition, and lack of history that makes people feel this way. Hopefully this is on the rise of change as many animation schools around the country are starting to have tons of women students. A hero that’s a good role model for them is a woman who works just as hard if not harder on her work than most male animators and feels completely confident as well as equal to them. If anyone meets the description of this hero it’s Ellen Woodbury.


     Ellen Woodbury jumped into the record books as the first woman supervising character animator in Disney history when she did a marvelous performance as one on Zazu the hornbill in the Lion King. A New York native Woodbury became interested in animation after seeing the Sword in the Stone and went to the highly intellectual film program at Syracuse University in the late 1970s and early 1980s. She credits the program for teaching her to analyze and for stretching her mind. In 1982 Ellen enrolled in the experimental animation program at Calarts where she was mentored by the great animation teacher Jules Engel. “Where my mind was stretched, Jules filled it up with all these different ways of animating and all these different mediums and ideas,” reflects Woodbury on the teacher. She started her animation career at the uninspiring Filmation before being hired at Disney in October 1985. Woodbury started doing clean-up for the Great Mouse Detective but then went on to work as an assistant to Mike Gabriel and Hendel Butoy on Oliver and Company.  Here she describes how Butoy taught her how to plan a scene: “He’s an avid thumbnailer. I had this scene where Oliver’s stuck in the street and there’s all these cars going by all over the place. So I had to choreograph the cars to make them look dangerous. I had to map out all the cats and know what frame they were coming into and what Oliver was doing, how he got across the street. And I mean I thumbnailed it down to the last move. The thumbnails were very long and it was like a wallpaper of thumbnails. And Hendel went through it with me and he was like ‘You should drop this drawing and replace it with this one’ and he was right there with me. I never worked with anyone who could plan it like he could. I saved the thumbnails because it was like a monument to planning!” After Oliver Ellen Woodbury was promoted to the position of animator on Mermaid before becoming the leader animator on the koala in the Rescuers Down Under and the footstool in Beauty and the Beauty. After this  she worked under the one and only Duncan Marjoribanks on Abu the monkey in Aladdin and did some of the best scenes with that character. “Something Duncan taught me on Aladdin, and I don’t remember which scene it was, but he was talking about one scene and trying to figure out what business he was going to use because he had already done a brow whip or something,” she stated in an interview. “He’d already done that and wanted to find something new to do and I was like ‘never do the same thing twice.’”  After that is when Ellen Woodbury was promoted to supervise Zazu on the Lion King. “Initially they offered me the mother (Sarabi) and I though ‘Well, I don’t have the understanding of what a mother does and I just don’t particularly want to be a mother. I don’t have children and I’m not drawn to the character.’”, she said in an interview. “So I turned it down and for a long time that was it. And then to my delight they offered me Zazu.” Following Lion King she supervised Pegasus in Hercules and the crew in Treasure Planet. When the Mouse House began to go digital Ellen was one of the animators more excited for the change and indulged the new medium. “It’s actually pretty cool! It simulates your creativity,” she commented in a 2003 interview. After animating on Chicken Little and Meet the Robinsons Ellen Woodbury resigned from Disney and left animation to work as a sculptor in Colorado. She is currently sculpting animals at your Loveland studio and participates in sculpture shows.


     By far the most defining thing in Ellen Woodbury’s approach to animation is research. She does tons of research for her chracters in how they move, their anatomy, their character traits, and pretty much everything else you can think of.  “To animate Zazu I first needed to know how hornbills behave and fly,” once wrote Woodbury. “I studied bird anatomy. I learned everything I could about all birds. I looked at every video I could find about birds and thumbnailed their movements. I had to learn how to fly and how to behave like a bird. I read and re-read the script for the film to understand Zazu and his relationships to the other characters. Then I needed to learn more about the acting of Rowan Aktinson and studied all the Black Adder and Bean episodes for little mannerism and expressions that would help Zazu come alive.” Her philosophy is that you’ve got to research to answer questions about the character and that you’ve got to be proud about what you do. She also is a very hard worker and always tries to make her work the best it can be. “I always asked myself “how can I do this better?’” wrote Ellen. “I never settled for my first idea about a scene. Thought, imagination, brainstorming, and a critical mind make great animation.”


     Ellen Woodbury is very significant in that she’s the first woman supervising animator in studio history. Yes Kathy Zielinski was originally going to be the supervisor of Lefou but she left the production and Woodbury beat her to it. This is quite a marvelous achievement since for decades women almost exclusively worked in ink and paint or parts of the animation process unrelated to the actual animation such as story and color styling. It was believed back then that women couldn’t even manage a laborious task like animation. Despite the fact that many people like to say there’s tons of women artists in animation and that the issue is in the realm of respect the truth is with the exception of DreamWorks there aren’t that many women in the artistic side of the industry. Most of the women working in the field are in the realm of administration and aren’t artists. However the future looks brighter now that more girls are starting to go to animation schools. Also I think Ellen’s impact is significant in that she is one of the hardest workers and best researchers that’s ever worked in the field. She is a very strong woman and a solid role model to anybody who wants to improve their animation.


     Ellen Woodbury is an inspiration to me because of the amount of effort and research she puts into her work. She never does the same thing twice and always goes deeper and deeper to know and understand as much about her characters as you possibly can. This isn’t just being a great animator it’s being a great method actor. Also I love studying her scenes because you see how much the extra work and research pays off. The character’s movements, behaviors, personality, and expressions are always very believable because of that extra mile Woodbury takes in her animation. This approach and dedication as well as Ellen’s confidence and passion are all very influential to me personally. Thank you Ellen Woodbury for your hard work and dedication as well as for being an inspiration to so many people.

Woodbury’s Work

Great Mouse Detective- Assistant Animator

Oliver and Co.- Animator on Oliver

Little Mermaid- Animator

Rescuers Down Under- Animator on Mice and Lead Animator on Koala

Beauty and the Beast- Animator on Maurice and Lead Animator on Footstool

Aladdin- Animator on Abu

Lion King- Supervising Animator on Zazu

Hunchback of Notre Dame- Additional Animator

Hercules- Supervising Animator on Pegasus

Tarzan- Additional Animator

Treasure Planet- Supervising Animator on Silver’s Crew

Home on the Range- Animator on Mrs. Calloway

Chicken Little- Animator

2 Responses to “31. Ellen Woodbury”

  1. Thanks for a lovely write-up, Grayson. I have carried over my propensities for research and hard work to my career as a stone sculptor. It’s not worth doing if you can’t make it sing!

  2. Extremely informative. I learned a good deal, post more within the future.
    astonished to have discovered a web log the great.

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