15. Duncan Marjoribanks
Animation comes from within and ultimately if you’re going to be great you have to get what is in you out of you. Your emotions, thoughts, intelligence, passion, creativity, and understanding of human nature all come out in animation in a way that they can’t anywhere else. With this in mind oftentimes the best animators are introverted, quiet people who are sensitive and constantly think. Although they may be quiet in real life in there animation you really see what’s going through their head and what they’re feeling inside. Perhaps the best example I can use for this is Duncan Marjoribanks, number 15 in our countdown and the subject of today’s post.
Duncan Marjoribanks is one of the most unique and original animators in the history of the art form. His atypical approach to cartoon acting, unique style, and off-the-charts intellect as well as understanding of archetypes and human emotions changed Disney animation forever when he animated Sebastian the Jamaican crab in the Little Mermaid. Among his best animated performances for Disney are McLeach the poacher in Rescuers Down Under, Abu the monkey in Aladdin, and the evil Governor Ratcliffe in Pocahontas. Duncan in his prime always made sure that he never did the same thing twice and there was nothing formulaic or conventional about his work. He was a key figure as far as animators go in bringing back top character animation to Disney (although Glen Keane, Andreas Deja, Mark Henn, Ruben Aquino, and Hendel Butoy among others also deserve credit in this) and his work was highly influential in the development of many other top talents in Disney history(Nik Ranieri, Will Finn, Mike Show, T. Dan Hofstedt, and Ellen Woodbury among them ). However on the flip side Duncan is very quiet and shy in real life and his sedate personality as well as him being all-but-reclusive to the public eye over his career(he virtually never has done interviews and his public appearances have been few and far between) has caused him to be one of the most underrated and underestimated animators in Disney history. Although it must be mentioned that his introverted nature and intense thinking enables him to be an excellent animator and to have had the great influence he has had on animation.
Duncan Marjoribanks was born on December 29, 1953 in Toronto, Canada, the oldest of three children. He grew up in a shy, liberal family (he was a hippie when in high school) and quickly began to really thoroughly think about intellectual topics and critique things as well as become fascinated by archetypes, human nature, and especially cartoons. Marjoribanks fell in love with the visual humor and rich characterization done in classic cartoons, particularly Warner Brothers cartoons directed by Bob Clampett. He began to take drawing and art very seriously, focusing on it instead of spending lots of time socializing with friends. Duncan’s talent soon brought him into the prestigious animation program at the Sheridan Institute of Technology and Advanced Learning. Located in Oakville, Ontario Sheridan has been an elite school for animation since its formation in the late 1960s and has produced almost all of the great Canadian animators in the American animation industry. Among his teachers at Sheridan was Zach Schwartz, a great animation great who worked as an art director on Fantasia and Bambi at Disney as well as many shorts at UPA. Although in many ways the school felt very isolated from what was going on in animation in the U.S.(I speak about this in more detail in the Nik Ranieri post) there were still any connections to the industry, including a visit in 1976 by Majoribanks’s idol Bob Clampett.
At Sheridan Duncan Marjoribanks’s skill as an animator excelled and his pencil tests, particularly one with melting bones, were given unanimous praise. In 1978 he was one of quite a few Sheridan graduates (among that group was Roger Chaissin, who has had a great career in TV animation and an incredible draftsman) hired by Hanna-Barbera, making him move out to Los Angeles. When Marjoribanks arrived in California his talent and unique style made him overwhelmingly popular at the studio and he quickly became one of the last group of top animators at Hanna-Barbera before the Strike of 1982 made most TV animation done overseas. Among the TV shows he worked on were Scooby and Scrappy Doo, Godzilla, and the World’s Greatest Superfriends. At the time the studio was an interesting mixture of old talent (including honoree #39 Hicks Lokey) and young, promising talent (Tom Sito and Tim Walker being good examples.) Duncan’s last and most ambitious project done at Hanna-Barbera was his animation in the limited-animation feature film Heidi’s Song (1982). Like most of the product done at the studio during that period the musical movie is severely low budget and incredibly forgettable.
After the strike ended most domestically produced animation Duncan Marjoribanks changed his career to that as a character designer and for the next 5 years worked on many various projects for different studios. “I was known back in the day for having many one year stints,” reflects the animator on these days. However the vast majority of his work and employment came from Ruby- Spears, a studio ran by the talented but infamous John Dorman. Dorman was notorious in the industry for his behavior as well as work habits and with his crew was oftentimes referred to simply as the “bastards”. He and Duncan were personal friends for many years and John’s recent death was shocking and sad to the animator. However in 1986 Marjoribanks was hired onto his first gig as an animator since Heidi’s Song and the project that changed the course of his career forever: Family Dog, directed by Brad Bird. Released in 1987 his animation on the film made his work at the other studios seem like nothing and two scenes really showed a glimpse into the future for him: a scene of the mother throwing a fit of having to constantly feed the dog and another were on the way home from Attack Dog School the father gives a bewildered face at the dog as he licks his chops. Because of his great work on the film Brad Bird personally recommended Duncan to his Cal arts-classmate and Disney feature director John Musker. After this endorsement Musker and his directing partner Ron Clements brought him on as the first animator to join the production of their film the Little Mermaid.
By the time Duncan Marjoribanks came on to Mermaid what had originally been conceived as being an English, stuffy crab had after the suggestion from Howard Ashman evolved into a lively Jamaican crab to be named Sebastian. Taking the ideas of Ashman as well as the storyboards done by Ed Gombert, designs by Chris Buck and Will Finn, and the outstanding vocal performance by Samuel Wright Duncan took this new direction of the character to the hilt and came up with the design that audiences feel in love with. “Samuel Wright’s vocal performance, the way he held the microphone, and the way he performed was really inspirational to me on Sebastian,” the animator said. The animation of Sebastian in the film is genius: the drawings done of him really think and show inside his thought process. Also he is significant in that there is no difference between his inner and outer emotions. Sebastian shows how he’s feeling and acts on his emotions. Last the crab is noteworthy because he was the first Disney character in decades to be a comic sidekick but still have sincerity and have real feelings towards the protagonist. This is particularly prevalent in the scene when Sebastian realizes that Ariel will never be truly happy unless she’s with Eric and lives on land making him decide to help her find that dream. “When I think of good animation I think of Mermaid and Duncan Marjoribanks’s animation on Sebastian,” praises the great Glen Keane. “Here’s a guy that his own expressions and his own personality came out in that character. You could ask Duncan to make an expression on his own face and you saw it was the exact same thing that the crab was doing. I mean, his whole way of thinking was translating from his head through his hand and into that character. The timing, his thought, everything, he transferred into that character. I thought that the character was completely Duncan. You get another animator and the character would’ve been completely different. There was no formula to it, and that’s a good sign.” Two Sebastian scenes that are must on your freeze-frame list are the one where he nervously and hesitatingly is talking with Triton about the changes in Ariel and all of the animation of him in the Under the Sea sequence. Both these scenes are rich in character, expression, and acting as well as too many other virtues to name.
After the huge success of Mermaid Duncan Marjoribanks next did a different kind of character: a villain! The assignment was McLeach, the crafty and evil poacher in the Rescuers Down Under. My favorite scene Duncan did on the film is the one where McLeach is getting in Joanna’s case about her temptation to eat the eggs. The great subtlety, precision, and understated acting in that scene is incredible (also recommended for freeze-frame list.) I’m also a big nut for the caricatured but menacing design of the character (also done by Marjoribanks.) However the production of the film was a hard, exhausting one for him as well as many other crewmembers and that along with the pressures, demands, and management of Disney made him leave the studio in 1990 to live in England for a year. While in England Duncan did freelance character design work for shorted-live TV show Pirates of Dark Water (also with Ruby-Spears.) Soon enough though he was back at Disney as one of the supervising animators on Aladdin. Old-timer Joe Grant (he returned to the studio in 1989 at the age of 81) had during preproduction drawn an inspirational design sketch of a monkey sidekick that was then dropped in favor of a human sidekick. However when Ron and John redid the script and story they decided to go for a more comical, cartoony approach and the mischievous monkey was back with the name Abu to be supervised by Marjoribanks. This proved to be a perfect animator-character fit and the monkey turned out to be one of the most memorable and entertaining aspects of the film. In comparison to Sebastian, who talks constantly and expresses his emotions directly, Abu is mute and is thinks very thoroughly before he acts. This psychological precision as well as believable movement (both for the character when he’s in monkey form and in elephant form), strong poses, and clear expressions make Abu one of the absolute highlights of Duncan’s career. Among the scenes the animator himself did were Abu mimicking Jasmine while they’re in the jail cell, Abu sneaking around the market looking for food, and Abu as an elephant taking off his cap and giving a huge grin. “Something Duncan taught me when working on ALADDIN, and I can’t even remember what scene it was in, but he was talking about this one scene and trying to figure out what business he was going to use because he had already done a brow wipe or something,” remembers Ellen Woodbury, who was in animator in the Abu unit. “He’d already done that and wanted to find something new to do, and that stuck with me as something like ˜Oh, okay, don’t do the same thing twice.’ Always keep it fresh. Always look for another way to do something. Find another gesture that supports the same idea; still the same personality but a different gesture – still their gesture, but new.” After finishing his work on Abu, Marjoribanks animated the narrator of Aladdin in his sole appearance in the film.
After Aladdin, Duncan Marjoribanks was immediately brought onto Pocahontas (animators Glen Keane, Chris Buck, and John Pomeroy also joined the crew around the same time) to work on storyboards and character designs for the film. When animation came he was given another juicy assignment: Governor Ratcliffe, the villain of the film who only cares about the wealth he’ll get from finding gold in the New Land and who quickly develops fierce animosity with the Native Americans. “Ratcliffe was more of an archetype than the other characters,” explained Duncan. “He had to carry the greed and racism in the picture.” In contrast to the more reserved McLeach the governor is short-tempered, selfish, commanding, extremely racist, and most of all greedy. Marjoribanks’s performance differs from those of most of the other human characters in that he is caricatured and has great acting that adds to the dialogue, making him more appealing and believable. Most of the others were animated more straightly and realistically, the blame mostly coming from the self-important, overly serious nature of the story and the fact the writers used dialogue to describe how the characters are feeling (suicide for great character animation.) I love the balance Duncan gave to Ratcliffe’s performance: he isn’t very reserved and openly displays his emotions but avoids becoming too flamboyant and being a comic villain all the time, which adds a great amount of emotional range for the character. Following the completion of Pocahontas he moved onto the production Hercules in its development stages and due to personal request was originally supposed to be the supervising animator on Megera, the leading lady in the film( to this day I’ve wanted to see the designs he did to get a glimpse into the performance that never happened.) However Marjoribanks accepted a huge offer from Jeffry Katzenberg to become one of the first big Disney animators to come to DreamWorks and left the production.
Along with Disney veteran James Baxter Duncan Marjoribanks was one of the two top animators that DreamWorks used to lure animators to the studio and to build the staff around for the Prince of Egypt, the studio’s first film. Originally intended to be the supervising animator on Moses and doing what Jasen Strong remembers as “clear, amazing thumbnails” of the character the animator eventually began to struggle on the film and found the character hard to do. In the end Duncan only gets credited as an animator on the film. After Prince of Egypt he did some scenes of Tzekel Kan in Road to El Dorado and additional story work for Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron before leaving the studio in 1998. Marjoribanks next went to supervise Thrax in Osmosis Jones, which turned out to be the best animation he did post-Pocahontas. His scenes of the character are a great reflection back to the brilliance and spark that was present in Sebastian and Ratcliffe but after becoming unhappy with story changes he left the film in April 2000 to return to Disney. Back at Disney Duncan supervised the stuffy, uptight Mrs. Calloway in the critical and commercial flop Home on the Range. While the design and expressions of the character show his greatness, the richness of character, original acting, thought process, and creativity that dominated the animator’s best work are just not there. Also some of the facial expressions and gestures are very similar to the ones Marjoribanks had done in past projects such as Abu and Family Dog. After Home on the Range he was trained in CG animation and animated several scenes of the Bowler Hat Guy in Meet the Robinsons (my favorite being him talking to Gooper and saying, “Don’t let it go” while swishing his cape and raising his eyebrows. Thanks Steve Anderson for pointing out that scene.) Although Duncan didn’t love or feel comfortable with CG the way he did with 2d his work on the computer is actually pretty good and he was one of the more successful crossovers from hand-drawn on the film. After Robinsons he moved on top Princess and the Frog, where he animated all of Big Daddy La Buff. Already a poorly conceived and one dimensional character Marjoribanks had a most difficult time on the character and never really connected with him in the way he so well did in most of his other films. In Spring 2009 Duncan Marjoribanks and Disney went separate ways and since he has been virtually absent from the public eye and the animation industry, with the notable exception of freelancing with Duncan Studio on a Kun Fu Panda hand-drawn featurette.
In terms of style Duncan Marjoribanks’s animated drawings are very expressive, have excellent construction, show great movement of mass, and most of all are really well thought out. I always love, too, his bold eyebrows, emphasized lip sync, and mask-like teeth that are prevalent in his characters. Like I said before when Duncan animates a scene he first very intensely thinks it through and visualizes it in his head. Among the things he thinks about are what is the character’s archetype and personality, how do they feel in this scene, and how to show both of these elements through their movements and expressions. Then he will go use the mirror and look at himself doing the expressions he has very carefully planned out in his head. If you freeze-frame his scenes you’ll notice that instead of having key poses that move together like a comic strip he use very fluid movement that moves in a way that shows how the character feels. Even though the expressions and poses are very strong in Marjoribanks’s scenes it’s really the COMBINATION of how the movement and the expressions FEEL that really matters in his animation. Look at any Sebastian, Abu, or Ratcliffe scene he animated frame by frame and you’ll see what I mean. In terms of character conception Duncan Marjoribanks has always worked best and flourished most when working with more archetypical characters, meaning ones that aren’t very realistic but feel real because of the fact they represent emotions and feelings that are real. For example you’ll never meet someone as lively and flamboyant as Sebastian or someone as cruel and greedy as Ratcliffe but since the character traits and feelings they represent and caricature are so real we believe in them and they feel more real in a way that a more straight, realistic character might not. Last I think that Duncan’s intelligence and constant effort to make something new are crucial in the development of his art and really make his animation go above and beyond as well as make his work very well done and believable.
In terms of influence Duncan Marjoribank’s unique style and original acting skills literally turned the studio upside down. The guys there were so used to trying to emulate what the greats of the past has done and would constantly ask themselves how they would have done the scene. Also they mostly worked in the traditional, sincere but contained Disney style. However suddenly here came this great animator who didn’t think that way at all and wasn’t trying to live in the past but do something completely new and different, inspiring the animators to be more creative and loosen up. Duncan’s approach made other animators have the initiative to find their own style and animate in a way that was completely their own, which really led to some amazing results. Also Marjoribanks’s emphasis on archetypes and really thinking through the scenes was really influential. They began to conceive characters thoroughly and try to visualize the scenes in their head. Last Duncan Marjoribanks is influential because he brought great, innovative animated performances to Disney and made contributions to the studio that have changed it forever.
Duncan Marjoribanks is an incredibly inspirational figure and hero to me personally. My jaw drops when I study his scenes frame by frame and I’m blown away by his original, atypical approach to animating, cartoon acting, and character conception. I oftentimes think about Duncan when I draw characters from my mind, typically when it’s ones that are archetypical and satirical. This inspires me to not only really think through the character in my mind but to try to do something personal and different instead of the conventional way. Also when I do flipbooks or animate I try really hard to get that combination of how both the movement and expressions feel. Through my experiences talking to Marjoribanks personally I’ve seen the really genius mind he has and how his intellect as well as passion made him able to get to the high place he went to. Thank you so much Duncan Marjoribanks for being a great inspiration to me and for your contributions to Disney animation that will live on forever!
(Last picture is from Rhett Wickham from Laughingplace.com)