11. Andreas Deja
Nothing is worse in animation than animating a character that is boring. The audience won’t care for it and be affected by it therefore depleting the weight that character has to play in the film. What does work very well, however, is an animator that can make a character very interesting in design, acting, performance, expressions, movement, thought process, emotions, and all the other important aspects in bringing a great animated character to life. This is what the old guys did best and oftentimes newer animators have had trouble following their footsteps in making this come together. There are a few however that do continue to do this in an interesting way and one of if not the best at making interesting characters is Andreas Deja, number 11 on our countdown and the honoree of today’s post.
Andreas Deja is well respected all throughout the animation industry for his flashy stylized sense of design and his ability to animate unique interesting characters as well as his unique way of putting these together with his European sensibilities, superb acting with movement, and his knowledge of the way the old guys at Disney faced challenges and did their craft. While many other animators that want to be like the old guys find a particular idol or two and copy their work he takes inspiration from all of the guys and puts the knowledge he learned from his talks with them to help him make his own work better. Deja will always be remembered for his villain trilogy (Gaston, Jafar, and Scar), which showed people a psychological process and interesting acting skills that had rarely been seen in animation for several years, but also has done lots of other great characters, including Roger Rabbit, Triton, Hercules, and Lilo. He also has been a very important part of the animation industry by sharing his knowledge of Disney history with others and always talking to students and young people in the industry about what’s needed for great character animation. However, Andreas has also been known for refusing to try CG animation and he’s been adamant that hand-drawn is all that should ever be at Disney. “If you take the drawings out of Disney, it’s just not Disney,” he passionately said. Deja is one of the most interesting and accomplished of the new Disney animators and has created work that will stay with people forever.
Andreas Deja was born on April 1, 1957 in Gdansk, Poland but moved to Dinslaken, Germany when he was a year old. Living in a lower middle class family in a town in the middle of nowhere Germany he found himself growing up to be fascinated by the idea of drawing and was particularly fascinated by comic strips and brief clips of Mickey Mouse shorts on the Wonderful World of Disney. Although his family didn’t go to the movies, at the age of 11 he and a friend took their money and went to see the Jungle Book. Seeing the movie changed Andreas’s life forever and he instantly knew that working on animated films was what he wanted to do. “It was just the most beautiful thing I ever saw,” remembered the animator decades later. “It left a very strong impression on me.” Deja in particular was intrigued by the animation of Sher Khan the tiger, which he would later find out was done by his career idol Milt Kahl. He saw the film over and over again and new immediately all he wanted to do was work at Disney, making him decide to send the studio a letter a few years later. He got a response from the studio much to his thrill and got some elusive answers to his questions. “The studio just encouraged you to become an artist in your own right first,’ explained Deja. “To got to art school, to study animals, to study the human figure, anatomy, and just a very solid academic art training was what they recommended.” Around the age of 14 he began to attend several life drawing classes and go to the zoo frequently to study the animals and their movement. Although it was a lot of work Andreas fell in love with doing this and always pushed himself to the next level, knowing that it would be nearly impossible in his mind to achieve the high quality of Disney animation. “I wasn’t naïve like many people who write to Disney and send in little cartoons and say ‘look I can draw this and do you have a job for me?’” he stated. “I was always very critical and always thought the level of quality was so high I wouldn’t fit in anyway but wouldn’t it be nice. You dream along as you train yourself, so I think I was a bit more critical toward my own work and the possibilities of actually getting in.” In his mid to late teens Deja befriended Hans Bacher, another student who was interested in animation and later turned out to be one of Disney’s best visual development artists. At this time he also got access to film prints that showed pencil tests from Disney animated films and began to study them religiously. After a brief stint in the army and around 3 years in art school Andreas began corresponding by mail to Eric Larson, a former great animator at Disney who then was the head of the Disney training program. He and Bacher met Larson when he visited Germany and after seeing the young man’s artwork by mail the old master told him that he thought he had what it takes, basically hiring him. “I nearly fainted,” laughs Deja.
In August 1980 Andreas Deja moved to America and started at the training program at the Disney studio. With the help of Eric he did a pencil test of a witch on her broom that went very well. In addition to Larson, Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston were still at the studio writing their book so oftentimes Andreas would go visit them and soon they became mentors. Outside of the studio he was able to get in touch with his idol Milt Kahl and got to see him on an annual basis until his death in 1987. Immediately Deja’s entrance portfolio was getting unanimous praise and all over the studio he was dubbed a future all-time great. “Me and Andreas started the same day and I remember seeing his portfolio and saying to myself there is no way I could ever possibly be that good,” reflects great animator Barry Temple. “I thought everybody’s portfolio was that good but soon learned it was an exception.” Even uptight members from the old guard such as Ed Hansen and Joe Hale were intrigued by his drawings. Impressed by Andreas’s drawings that were in the Disney style Hale assigned him to work on the Black Cauldron when it was in its preproduction stage although he would remain on the feature until the end. For his first year on the feature he shared a room with future Hollywood live-action director Tim Burton, who he was supposed to help bring the other artist’s drawings into the Disney style. However, Burton’s style and sensibilities didn’t match up with what the old guard wanted and refusing to go against his vision he quit. On Cauldron Deja had to animate over 1,000 feet of footage, primarily animating Taran and Princess Eilonwy as well as the old man and some of the witches. While I think his animation of the two leads shows great draftsmanship that reflects his unique European-flaired style and shows some seeds of the picture I think the fact that it’s a poor film as a whole (and a big flop as well) and that it seems like he’s trying to duplicate Milt Kahl’s work (many of the expressions and acting in the characters reminds me a lot of Kahl’s animation) makes the animator’s work on the film not come together as well as it could. With that aside the problems that show in Andreas’s work on Cauldron would soon be fixed and the film was a great learning experience for him.
After finishing his duties on the Black Cauldron, Andreas Deja contributed a little to the Great Mouse Detective by animating the Queen in the film, which shows great sculptural, three-dimensional drawing and understanding of movement. After that he worked with the late Pete Young (a very underrated storyman who tragically passed away from asthma and from what I’ve heard was destined to have done great work in the Disney Renaissance if he had lived) on developing and designing characters for Oliver and Company but after Young’s death and the tone of the story moved from sincere and touching to more hip the animator didn’t feel the same enthusiasm for the project. At the same time a lot of studio politics was going on making Deja feel a little uneasy. This made him decide to take the opportunity to work with his friend Dick Williams in London on the animation of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, a Disney live-action animation combination film that was being produced by Steven Spielberg and directed by Robert Zemeckis. On the film Andreas worked as a supervising animator and got to animate on almost all the characters except Jessica Rabbit. “The type of animation that was needed was beyond what we would do at Disney normally,” he stated in an interview. “This was to be much broader and Roger Rabbit was to be a much more physical character, expressing himself more physically. He’s put together in a very surreal way too- he could squash and stretch a lot more. That part was actually fun because I think it loosened me up- my animation got a lot looser after Roger Rabbit. Before that I was very into the drawing and making sure the arc’s just right and into the technicalities.” Andreas said it very well and in many ways this film was the one where he came into his own. The scene I’ve personally think he transcended to the next level was the one where Hoskins is hiding Roger in the sink and Smartass and the weasels come in looking for something suspicious. On Roger it is the first time people really saw Deja’s true achievement of solid, phenomenal cartoon acting and performance that was completely driven by the emotions and feelings of the character rather than by draftsmanship. On Smartass we really see a glimpse of the great psychological process and thinking poses that he would later become famous for. On the film he also did a lot of the Disney cameos, including the Fantasia ostrich and hippo, as well as the gorilla baller at the Ink and Paint Club. The later is a particularly great one to study frame by frame because it is very loosely animated but the drawing is very solid, giving an interesting combination. The expressions on the gorilla and his poses are also worth paying attention to.
After the production of Roger Rabbit was finished at the Richard Williams Studio (Baer animation finished the film back in California) Andreas Deja returned to the studio in Glendale to be able to come on to the production of Little Mermaid as a supervising animator. “I was very pleased with this new form of musical,” he praised in an interview. “It was the first one that looked like a cohesive story. The thing united the whole studio and the politics immediately went away.” Originally Deja was intended to supervise the animation of Eric the prince because of his skill at drawing the figure and draftsmanship but instead replaced Ruben Aquino as the supervising animator on Triton, Ariel’s father (Aquino transferred over to Ursula the villain.) Triton is a lot looser and has more unique acting than any of Andreas’s pre-Roger Rabbit work and the character ultimately is a winner for the animator. For the design Andreas took inspiration from a lot of European artwork and gave the character a very sculpted feel but he’s Americanized and caricatured enough he’s appealing to look at. I love the squash and stretch that he used as well as the stern expressions and strong, bold design. Study and analyze the scene where Triton is arguing with Ariel at the beginning as well as the one where he is trying to get Sebastian to speak up to see what makes Deja stand out as an animator and has all his virtues in full tact. Triton is interesting because there’s great balance in him both in the way he’s animated and his characterization: he’s not comic but isn’t realistic to the point he’s stiff and he’s serious enough to make his role in the plot convincing but is lovable because of the fact that all of his actions are done because he wants what’s best for his daughter. I love the combination of the character relationship and contrast as well. Instead of going on to the Rescuers Down Under like most of the Disney animators did after Mermaid the animator was farmed out to Baer Animation where he was a supervising animator and did some very believable, subtle animation of Mickey Mouse, particularly in the scene where he’s looking in the mirror (he’s stated in an interview before that this would be the one scene he did he’d select to show Frank and Ollie.) The next film, Beauty and the Beast, was a significant one for Andreas because it was the beginning of what has been regarded as his signature body of work, the “Villain Trilogy.” The first one of the three proved to be a good challenge for him because he was the supervising animator of Gaston, a character whose a villain but unlike most other villains is very good looking and had to be animated and handled pretty “straight.” While in most Disney films the heroes are drawn in a way that’s very straight and the designs include no physical flaws for the most part (has changed a bit over the years) while the villains are usually handled pretty archetypically and more loosely, Beauty had the opposite design wise but had to still have the positions the same way: the Beast had to seem ugly, mean, and violent but really turn out to have a heart of gold and had to be a loving, compassionate person with a lot of emotional turmoil while Gaston had to seem like a lady’s man and be charming in terms of appearance but in reality is very arrogant, selfish, mean, cold, and insincere. Deja solved this by while making Gaston very buff, manly, and good looking in appearance but gave him expressions that show someone who isn’t warm-hearted and is pretty cocky as well as insincere. I particularly love the way he shows character, personality, and motivation through walks, gestures, and poses. I’m sure most people reading this blog are reminded by Gaston of someone who in high school who was popular and everybody say as perfect but in reality wasn’t that good in school, was a jerk to everyone, and pretty self-centered. He wants Belle because she’s pretty and will make him look good, not because he cares about her and likes her interests and qualities. “It was a character who’s a villain but look like a hero and that’s an odd thing in itself,” explained Andreas in an interview. “ Of course that was the them of the movie, don’t judge a book by its cover. But it made it very hard because he had to be portrayed realistically but yet there are things he did, whether in a thought process or physical action, that seems to be cartoony in the boards- but how could I go with something like this? How much can I distort him- well not very much. So I tried to find the fine line of keeping him handsome looking and not making a cartoon character out of him but also give him some expressions that were required for the material.”
It was, however, the second character in the villain trilogy where Andreas Deja brought out a side of his abilities as an animator that had never been seen before that proved to work in a very effective way. The film was Aladdin and the character was Jafar, the Grand Vizier of Agrabah who is determined to have full power. With Jafar Andreas made one of the most brilliant and important decisions of character handling and conception done by a supervising animator ever. Originally in the storyboards Jafar was portrayed as more of an irritable, short-tempered villain, much like the typical Disney villain would be. However most of the characters in Aladdin were very cartoony, flamboyant, and outgoing. This made Deja feel that it would be better if he made Jafar more restrained and calm in characterization, giving a good sense of contrast between him and the other characters. In terms of design not only does Jafar have very read clothing and a fiery look that represents evil in comparison to the blue clothing worn by most of the good characters but his design is very angular and stylized contrasted to the roundness of the other characters. What makes him so scary in the film is that Deja animates him in a way that has him very restrained both in movement and in emotion shown and giving him a very psychological thought process as well as using subtle gestures and menacing expressions to communicate his true feelings and thoughts to the audience. I recommend that you study as many Jafar scenes that Andreas actually animated frame by frame as possible because they are a textbook example in showing the character’s thought process in a very subtle way, acting in animation in a way that’s not over the top and is believable, using subtle actions and gestures, and making a character that is both interesting and effective to the story. A classic is the one where Jafar is talking to Jasmine and he very menacingly but calmly explains that the boy from the market was executed (or so we think.) actually Mark Henn (who animated almost all of Jasmine in the film) actually animated the scene first even though in my cases she’s reacting to him making Deja have to make the acting work against what Mark had already done. This is a great one that shows the subtle movements: the way he touches his chin, the restrained posture he has, and the way he leans down on Jasmine in a threatening way putting his hands on her shoulders. One of his biggest inspirations when animating Jafar was Marc Davis’s animation of Maleficent. “What I took from Maleficent for Jafar was the understatement of the acting,” explained Andreas. He actually knew Davis very well for many years and the respect was mutual. “There is a lot of learning process going on there,” said Marc Davis in a 1996 interview. “There are a few very, very good young animators and one I particularly enjoy is Andreas Deja.”
Andreas Deja actually became an oddball in that he was one of only three top experienced animators(Ruben Aquino and Mark Henn being the others) that decided to go on the then-described B-movie Lion King over the then-consider A-movie Pocahontas. “We didn’t know if it was going to be a good movie,” he confessed. “To be honest what happened is right after Aladdin the studio decided to split the crew into two. And so the options were Lion King or Pocahontas and each production had an open house where you could look at the artwork and have a little wine and cheese talk to the directors and Pocahontas had beautiful stuff while Lion King just had some realistic renderings of lions. However I wanted to do something with animals and this was my chance to do a very cool animal. We had a few weak story screenings but things changed when Elton John became involved and then Han Zimmer, that beautiful score, and…it just picked up, and all of the sudden it was really about something, all these big things.” On this film Andreas animated the last character of his villain trilogy, Scar. Scar proved to be a challenge in two distinct ways. One was the he was a lion which made it so Deja couldn’t use hands and had to act more using body posture and expressions. Also in comparison to Jafar Scar had to have a lot of acting range. Unlike Jafar he is very reserved and speaks more through subtle actions Scar is a true liar and not only does he cover up his emotions but he pretends like he has ones that are the complete opposite of the ones he has. At other times his true evil needed to come out to make it convincing to the audience that he would kill his own brother and convince his nephew that he was the one to blame. “I designed Jafar and really enjoyed drawing him because he was a little bit stylized and bizarre looking, which was intriguing to draw- in comparison to Scar, who was not so interesting in terms of design,” explained Andreas. “However Scar, as a piece of acting and personality, was much stronger than Jafar. There was more range to his personality, there was a lot of levels to Scar.” Indeed Scar very well could be said to be the most complex villain in Disney history psychologically. The animator deals with a lot of very real, powerful emotions he put into the character: resentment, jealousy, a desire for power and attention, a completely lack of sensitivity and honest, and most of all a full embrace for being evil. Study frame by frame the walks and movements Deja used both in the Be Prepared sequence and in the opening sequence in the cave. They make it clear to the audience that this character is very menacing, stealthy, and creepy. However in the scenes where he’s talking to young Simba he is more restrained and constantly tells lies but appears very bored and insincere, making the story very believable. I also love Andreas’s understanding and research of the way lions move and walk that he applied to the animation of Scar. Another particularly helpful component of Scar is Jeremy Irons’s vocal performance, which proved to be a great inspiration for the animator. “I just recognized some of Jeremy’s facial features that I found interesting- even though it’s a lion, you can give him baggy eyes and that crisp, sharp lip he has,” explained Deja. “Then combined with the British accent, it just made a certain graphic shape in the mouth shapes, so I tried to do that with scar. His hair was always combed backward as if there was some grease or mousse in it and I used that for Scar.”
Immediately after completing the animation on Scar Andreas Deja moved to Paris for a couple of months to supervise animation on the Mickey Mouse short, the Runaway Brain, and help mentor the young talent at the satellite studio. When he returned to America he found that the demand for animators of his caliber was pretty high in the animation industry and he took interest in offers at other studios, including one from the new studio DreamWorks. Remembering the great legacy and meaning behind the Disney name, he decided to stay at Disney. Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale offered him the character of Frollo but he decided it was time to end the villain string and requested Esmeralda, making him not work on the film since Tony Fucile had already been promised to do her. Next came an offer to supervise Hades in Hercules but Andreas got his wish to have him switched to supervising Hercules, a hero. “I thought I would want to do a hero, sometime, a hero character- somebody who the movie is about,” he said. “Also I hadn’t been too happy with the male characters, the heroes whether it was the old classics or the new ones- they always look funky, they don’t look right.” The casting actually worked well and Hercules is one of the liveliest and most proactive male leads in Disney history. Instead of being stiff and boring like so many other heroes he’s charming, very likeable, sincere, warm, honest, and determined to do something he truly cares about. After Hercules Deja was originally supposed to return to animating villains by supervising Yzma in the Emperor’s New Groove but the production halted after director Roger Allers left the studio making all the animation crew go to other projects. At first he went on to animate on Eric Goldberg’s Rhapsody in Blue for Fantasia 2000, where he animated a beautiful, stylized scene where the man imitates a monkey. I absolutely love the strong movement he used and the precise steps in the dance section. Instead of going back to Emperor’s New Groove Andreas decided to move to Florida because he had totally fallen in love with Chris Sanders and Dean Debouis’s story for the upcoming Lilo and Stitch and feeling like he had to work on the movie moved to Florida for two years to be the supervising animator on Lilo on the film. “I told them they could send me to Moscow to work on this movie because I just had to work on it,” laughs the animator. “I love the story of it. Unlike the prince and princess stories where you know they’re going to fall in love the whole time you have no idea how this movie is going to end.” Deja’s animation of Lilo is an absolute highlight of his career and shows that he could animate with an intuitiveness and warmth not seen in most of his other work. “Lilo is the most subtle character I’ve ever done,” he explains. “She looks like a Freddy Moore-esque girl but she’s not. She also was the one who I could most easily climb into their shoes. I thought back to the way my sisters used to argue with each other and put that into Lilo.” Study frame by frame the scene where she’s arguing with Nani and you’ll see first hand how intuitive, sincere animation should be done. I like Lilo a lot because she is a very alternative girl who stands up for herself, is very passionate about what she believes in, and isn’t as picture-perfect beautiful as most Disney heroines giving her more depth and inner beauty.
After Lilo and Stich Andreas Deja returned to Burbank to find things had significantly changed. Studio politics and management had turned for the most and there were a lot of problems related to the quality of the Disney films. Many films were being pushed into production before their story problems were fixed and the narrative had become cohesive and management didn’t seem to care a ton about Disney animation. While doing he did some minor work on Home on the Range many animators (not including Deja) were laid off from the studio and eventually it became official that the decision at the time was to end hand-drawn animation, which he reflects back on as one of the darkest days in his life. Unlike many other animators who switched over to CG animation Andreas refused to take any classes related to CG and was on the verge of leaving the animation industry entirely when his employment at Disney was saved by being asked to help out on Bambi 2 at the Disneytoons studio in Australia, where he spent 6 months at. There he got to do a lot of animation of the characters as well as mentor the animators and supervise their work. When he returned Deja was farmed out again this time to James Baxter animation for Enchanted, where he animated most of Queen Narissa, which was his first villain since the villain trilogy. However soon management changed and they made the decision to revive hand-drawn animation with the film the Princess and the Frog. Andreas quickly jumped at the opportunity and supervised Mama Odie, a voodoo priestess who is a fairy godmother to the characters, and her snake Jub Jub. A great Deja scene to study frame by frame is the one where Mama Odie is introduced and where she dances, because they demonstrate his expertise at character movement to the maximum extent. After Frog he supervised Tigger in Winnie the Pooh. At this present time Andreas is on a leave of absence from the Disney studio, although he is still technically an employee and plans to return to full-time when Ron and John’s hand-drawn feature is ready, and is working at home on two personal films (which so far look beautiful) as well as consulting with Disney to promote the classics and posting original Disney artwork from his extensive personal collection on his blog Deja View (highly recommended.)
Andreas Deja style wise is unique in that he has an interesting combination of two inspirational sources. One is his European background and sensibilities while the other is his knowledge and extended studies of Disney animation done by the old guys. Even though he has lived in America for several years there are many aspects of his style that are very European compared to most American animators: he uses thicker lines, has more angular and less round, appealing shapes, a great knowledge of anatomy and fine art, etc. As for the Disney influences Deja learned and studied a ton from the old guys and oftentimes he uses their work as inspiration in his own. For example some of Triton’s expressions echo Milt Kahl, the control and understatement of Jafar reflects some of Marc Davis’s work, and Lilo’s warmth has a bit of Ollie Johnston in it. Although he does utilize things he’s learned from the great of the past it works in Andreas’s work because he is determined to be an artist in his own right instead of one who wants to be just like their idols. He’s made a lot of intelligent decisions in making his characters and roles unique, which has only helped his reputation as an animator. When conceiving characters Deja thinks a lot about how the character is and what is interesting about them. When designing the character he takes what he sees as unique qualities that define the character and make him original and puts them in the design to make one that’s believable and true to the character. When animating the character Andreas focuses a lot on finding a unique acting style and using gestures and movements that show what the character is thinking and feeling as well as bring gout what is important about that character. I particularly love his use of movement because it makes his characters feel so alive, believable, and convincing. In terms of drawing style Deja leans a bit towards the flashy, stylized draftsman, which makes his characters very intriguing to the audience. Last in my mind the biggest asset Andreas has, as an animator, is his ability to make a character very interesting. All of his characters stand on their own very much and have personalities as well as designs that aren’t like any other he’s done or anyone else has done. Even in his villain trilogy all of them are very unique in different ways.
Andreas Deja is one of the most influential figures in modern day Disney history. His style, acting, unique draftsmanship, and interesting characters have inspired animators at the studio to try to do the same. Deja has influenced them into trying hard to make their characters interesting and unique as well as appreciate the importance of being an artist in their own right. His respect for himself artistically and concern about always doing something original but is still true to Disney animation and its principles as well as storytelling is something that has tickled the intellect of many animators as well as animation students. Last I feel that Andreas’s respect and devotion to the Disney legacy and what he feels is important in following it has had a real impact. If it weren’t for people like him hand-drawn animation could very well still have been dead at Disney today and it would be less likely for high quality Disney films with true heart and soul to still be made. Fortunately there are people like him and the future of Disney looks bright largely because of him.
Andreas Deja personally is a great inspiration to me artistically. I’m fascinated by his flashy stylized drawing, excellent utilization of lessons learned in the films of the past, emphasis on making a character unique and interesting, and his great, intriguing designs. He’s influenced me into trying to when I create a character and draw and/or animate them try to find the qualities and aspects that make them interesting and apply them to the character. Deja also has influenced me in that I try to honor and learn from the Disney greats of the past but I try not and don’t have a desire to repeat what they did and only want to emulate them. Last I feel that his passion, knowledge, hard work, devotion, and drive to be a great artist have really had a long-lasting impact on me. I don’t know Andreas as well as I know many of the living honorees but I have spoke to him a few times via his website Deja View. From the brief communication I can tell he really cares deeply about his work and feels very strongly about what he feels is what is needed for the quality that Disney animation should be at. I love his website and constantly study the different pieces of artwork he puts up there. Thank you Andreas Deja for your contributions to the art of Disney animation and for being a big hero and inspiration for me and several other people!