Comic-Con Report: An Inspiring Tribute to Walt Stanchfield

Animation fans attending Comic-Con on Thursday afternoon had the heart-breaking task of choosing between a Bill Plympton event (in-person appearance with a screening of his latest short Horn Dog), a panel showcasing Robot Chicken and the new adult swim series Titan Maximus with Seth Green and Matthew Senreich, and a much-hyped preview of James Cameron’s 3-D spectacular, Avatar.

We were happy to take in a wonderful tribute to Disney animator and brilliant mentor and teacher Walt Stanchfield, moderated by the amazing Don Hahn, who recently edited two must-have books about the subject titled Drawn to Life: 20 Golden Years of Disney Master Classes (Focal Press).

From left: Don Hahn, Eric Goldberg, Tom Sito, Ruben Procopio and Glen Keane, Photo by Jodi Bluth

Hahn, whose producing credits include The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast and The Nightmare Before Christmas, had invited four of the industry’s top animation talents’Glen Keane (Tarzan, The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Rapunzel), Eric Goldberg (Aladdin, Hercules, Fantasia 2000), Tom Sito (Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, Shrek, Looney Tunes: Back in Action) and Ruben Procopio (sculptor and animator on Beauty and the Beast, Mulan) to share anecdotes about working with the legendary teacher.

Showing many of Stanchfield’s sketches, Hahn also shared various sketches by the panelists to demonstrate how they were influenced by their great teacher. He also talked about the animator’s famous Xeroxed lectures and drawings, in which he pointed out the do’s and don’ts of animation. ‘Besides being a great artist, he dedicated 20 years of his life to training the young artists at Disney,’ said Hahn, who was attending Comic-Con for the first time.

Goldberg talked about the legacy of hand-drawn animation at Disney. ‘All of us who are working on The Princess and the Frog feel fortunate that we’re part of what we hope will be the rebirth of hand-drawn animation,’ he noted. ‘We feel like we’re standing on the shoulders of giants. Stanchfield always stressed feeling over anatomy. You have to draw verbs, not nouns.’

Gestural sketches by Stanchfield

Sito praised Stanchfield’s ability to convey valuable information in his Xeroxed missives. ‘We would be on production, working eight hours a day, and we really looked forward to Walt’s classes. At the end of day, all the animators would be vying to be includes in the ‘draw like this’ parts of the notes.’

Sito also brought up how the approach to training animators was different back then. ‘Our generation grew up with the masters from the Golden Age of animation, we were sitting at their knees’and it was a master and apprentice system’Today, the modern system is so much more about learning the software, it’s more calculated and analytic. Stanchfield represented a different approach to art education: It was about feeling and expressing opinions with your drawing.’

Tigger Sketch

Keane recalled his early years at Disney, where people like Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston’Disney legends’were working at the studio and sharing their knowledge with a new generation of animators. ‘Stanchfield was a great river of life’he understood what it meant to be an artist. He always had his sketchbook with him and encouraged you to think more and put more of yourself in your work.’

Words to Live By

The panelists also shared some of Stanchfield’s wonderful wisdom that had inspired them through the years. ‘Don’t be afraid of the details,’ said Keane. ‘Tell a story and don’t be precious with your art. Everyone has 10,000 bad drawings in them, it’s better to get them out sooner than later! The real test of a mentor is how their teachings come out at some point in our own work.’

Keane said he had stopped drawing for six months to recharge his batteries and attack his work with new joy and enthusiasm. He said he had bought a sketchbook recently and wanted to draw ‘all the weird people at Comic-Con!’ On the train to San Diego, he looked out of the window and began to sketch again. ‘I started thinking about Walt again’that’s exactly what happened,’ he said. ‘A great teacher plants something in you, and you discover it later.’

Sito got a lot of appreciative laughs when he recalled a conversation he had had with Joe Grant. Years ago, he asked the legendary Disney artist to be brutally honest and tell him what the big difference was between working as an animator in the 1940s and today. Grant told him, ‘It was the same baloney, the same deadlines, the same politics, the same problems’but people drew better back then!’

You can learn more about Walt Stanchfield and order his book Drawn to Life at www.donhahn.com.