27. James Baxter
James Baxter became the youngest supervising animator of a major role in Disney history when he animated Belle in Beauty and the Beast. Very few people in the history of the medium have grown artistically and propelled to the top as quickly and successfully as he did during his time at Disney. Baxter is an expert of all things technique and artistically has many similarities to his idol Milt Kahl. James is number 27 on our countdown and today I’ll tell you his story.
James Baxter was born in May 1967 i n Bristol, England. He became fascinated with the art of animation as a teenager and was inspired by such artists as Richard Williams. After completing an art fundamental course at Cambridge Tech Baxter entered the experimental animation program at the West Surrey College of Art and Design where he didn’t feel like he fit in because he preferred to do more solid, tied down animation. This inspired him and a few friends to study and do tests on their own. At the age of 20 James became aware that Disney and Richard Williams were collaborating in London on the ambitious project Who Framed Roger Rabbit and he jumped on the crew where he worked under the great Andreas Deja. On that film there was no elbow room and lots of footage needed to be done in a very limited time span. This gave Baxter the opportunity to do animation even though he was so young. He advanced very fast and became a full-fledged animator by the end of the production. Many of his coworkers are still blown away and amazed a “kid” could do the stuff he did. In 1988 James Baxter along with Nik Ranieri moved toAmericawhere the jumped into the in-production Little Mermaid. Baxter did scenes under Deja on Triton as well as some of Ariel under Glen Keane. The animator doesn’t feel too fondly about the animation he did and even went as far as to apologize to Glen when on Animation Podcast for not drawing Ariel right. While doing mice and Joanna in the Rescuers Down Under James really began to work on finding his technique and workflow. He went to the morgue and religiously studied scenes and charts done by animators, particular Milt Kahl’s. This earned him the assignment of supervising Belle on Beauty and the Beast. This means a 23 year old for the first time ever was supervising the main character in a movie! Although his scenes and work in the film were groundbreaking and impressive Baxter got green for quite a bit of the film and it was a rather exhausting experience for the rookie supervisor. This made him quit for a year, where he spent some time doing commercials both inEnglandand in northernCalifornia. However Disney was able to convince James back to be a supervisor on the Lion King. Originally assigned to Timon, they eventually decided to put him on Rafiki the mandrill. Compared to Belle Baxter found working on a character that was small enough for him to do himself a very fun and enjoyable experience. After Lion King James Baxter went on to supervise Quasimodo in the Hunchback of Notre Dame. However during Hunchback he started to become nervous about the direction management was going and decided to leave for DreamWorks because of that combined with a desire to work with some of the European guys there. Some of the highlights in James’s DreamWorks career include the burning bush sequence in Prince of Egypt and supervising Spirit in Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron. In 2005 after becoming anxious to return to hand-drawn animation Baxter started his own studio Baxter Animation which most notably did the animation in Enchanted and the dream sequence in Kung Fu Panda. In 2008 he closed down the studio and returned to DreamWorks where he currently resides.
A big part of James Baxter’s style is his technique and the structure he puts in his scenes. Planning is a must do for him in his mind and he takes that part of the process very seriously. “The more you get to the place where you have a good idea with where you’re going the better,” comments Baxter on planning. He puts a lot of thought into what drawings are important and how to structure them together. Study any of his Quasimodo or Rafiki scenes and you’ll notice that he’s very good at putting key poses together by fluid movement and analytical sequence. On Animation Podcast James remarked that he can tell a person easier by the way they walk than he can by identifying them by face. The movement in his animation is masterfully done and has a great flow. It’s almost as if there was a fluid straight line going through it. Believe me virtually nobody else would be able to do the Ballroom sequence dance to an acceptable level. They would have slouched and had it moving all over in the wrong places. Also spacing is one of the areas Baxter specializes in. “I emphasize it because a lot of people don’t pay attention to it,” he says about the subject. Like Milt Kahl James Baxter is also great at moving a pose around to make it communicate. Look at the scene where Rafiki is talking to Simba about how Mufasa lives in him. The poses don’t feel mechanical at all but organically communicate the intent as well as the acting in an affective way. The technical side also is well coordinated with the acting. One of the biggest problems I usually have with technique-oriented animators is that they don’t think much about sincerity and that the acting is completely out of line with how the technique is moving. Not the cases in James Baxter’s work. He always puts acting at a high place and works hard to make sure it shines through in his scenes. I’m particularly a nut for how he moves around the body and his hand gestures. Classic animation genius!
Probably the area James Baxter has most impacted Disney animation is by proving that someone who advances quickly and is a supervising animator at a very young age can be a good thing. Oftentimes the older guys are so used to what they’ve done for so many years it’s hard for them to be completely original and creative as a supervisor. On the flipside someone who starts around the time James started can continue to develop extensively with each film they do as a supervisor and really do something great as well as fresh. Since his time Disney has really looked hard for young talent and has tried to give them more opportunities at a younger age. This has really contributed to the freshness of many of the newer pictures. The old ones by the 1960s seemed to be pretty unoriginal and frozen in time in terms of inventiveness and creativity. Also Baxter helped bring back the master control technique of animators such as Milt Kahl. He was one of the first in the second generation to really try to solve the challenges that can easily come by not planning well and apply the technique to his animation in the best possible way.
In terms of how I’ve been influenced and inspired by James Baxter probably his intellectual process and expert technique have affected me the most. Seeing his stuff really taught me to see the beauty of not just planning but also being intelligent in how you use your materials and how to stay focused in the different technical aspects of animation. I learned that you need to have control over the scenes you’re doing and be firm about the intent as well as communication behind it. This was really eye-opening to me and has influenced me as well as so many other people greatly. Thank you James Baxter for what you’ve contributed to animation and for being a great inspiration to so many people.
Who Framed Roger Rabbit- Animator on Roger and Wessels
Little Mermaid- Animator on Triton and Ariel
Rescuers Down Under- Animator on Mice in UN, Insects, and Joanna
Beauty and the Beast- Supervising Animator on Belle and Animator(uncredited) on Beast in Ballroom Dance sequence
Lion King- Supervising Animator on Rafiki and Animator(uncredited) on Simba and Scar in Leadup to Battle Sequence
Hunchback of Notre Dame- Supervising Animator on Quasimodo
Enchanted- Supervising Animator