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The creator of Roger Rabbit, Scar and Jafar helped curate this Arlington animation exhibit

Disney art private collection graphic
The Walt Disney Company
Courtesy of the Arlington Museum of Art

Andreas Deja shares what to look for at "Disney Art From Private Collections," on view at Arlington Museum of Art.

Traditional animation is a seemingly magical procedure, giving still images life and bringing us into a world outside of our own. No company on the planet houses more "magic" than Disney.

"Disney Art from Private Exhibitions" runs until September 4th at the Arlington Museum of Art. It showcases hundreds of cels and sketches from countless Disney classics.

The exhibition was created with the help of Disney legend Andreas Deja. Deja is a longtime Disney animator who designed and animated several classic characters in his thirty-plus years with the company.

I spoke with Deja on a video call. Here are some excerpts from our conversation:

One of Deja’s first films was Who Framed Roger Rabbit, which pioneered combining live action and animation.

"It was very difficult because it had to work. When Roger Rabbit, who is a drawing, lifts up a live action glass of water, the contact with the real thing, the glass of water and his hand, had to be perfect.

"That kind of detail, and attention to detail, was unique. It's tough enough to do a regular animated feature, you know, where the camera is locked, for example, so you don't have that kind of problem. But in this case, where they had to film the whole live action part first before we could animate our scenes, the cameramen were told.

"Real actors were filmed performing their parts, and each animator got stacks of photos of each frame in the scene.

"So what Bob Hoskins or the other actors would do, they were acting into thin air and we would have to plug in Roger or whoever. Not only did you have to animate the characters emoting and acting, you also had to tilt the character's whole body according to the camera move and do all these little subtle things that the camera did. So that took a while to master that.

"And the rule was if you just blow it by two or three frames and the contact is not right, you just blow the illusion. So it had to be perfect. But what a unique experience to do something that really, really hadn't been done.

"I mean, animation had been mixed with live action on Mary Poppins and a few other films, but not like this. When those two worlds really become one world, that was a first. So when you feel like you're doing pioneering work, it gives it that extra boost of energy and joy."

Deja, who is gay, animated several Disney villains, including Scar, from The Lion King, and Jafar from Aladdin. While those characters’ sexuality is never explicit, some critics have read them as queer coded.

"It makes me smile and laugh because I wasn't thinking about those characters in those terms at all.

"I mean, [for Scar] you have to also blame Jeremy Irons. He was campy in his delivery and he had fun being evil, you know, doing that. What was that song called with the Hyenas? Be Prepared? you know, the way he would even sing that, "be prepare-DUH!" And of course, I'm going to animate that -DUH, you know, and use all that. And he comes off as theatrical and special kind of evil. So if people want to call it queer coded, so be it. I'm fine with that. But I never thought of Scar being a gay character.

"Same with Jafar, because in the early storyboards he was kind of into Jasmine as Gaston [from Beauty and the Beast] pursued Belle. So it's up to people how they want to call this. The fact that people enjoyed my characters and those villains, that that is the most important thing to me. Gay people or queer people or straight people, whatever people, seem to enjoy it. And that is a huge satisfaction for me."

Deja got some great advice very early.

"I remember when I wrote a letter to the Disney studio, I was still in high school. I wrote them a letter just asking basically, how can I prepare myself to work for you guys?

"And they said, when you apply here at the studio, please don't show us any copies of Mickey Mouse and Pluto and Donald Duck, because we can teach you that. You really have to become an artist in your own right first, meaning going to an art school, learning how to draw. You have to know the human figure like really well. So you have to do life drawing when you're a little bit older, and then go to the zoo and sketch the animals like a lot and fill up sketchbooks and watch them. Not just how they are built, these different animals, but also how they move and find some character in that.

"So I just took that super, super seriously and I thought, okay, this is what they want. This kind of makes sense to me. So I was unstoppable. I think I started life drawing when I was 13.

"I also began spending so much time at zoos and studying animals. I’m so fascinated with the world of animals. So that's a great resource for, for just, just animated joy for me."

Deja's advice on what to look for at "Disney Art from Private Collections":

Freddie Moore: "He was like the Mozart of Disney Animation. The reason why I say Mozart because is he didn't have to learn anything. He just had it. So he started when he was 21 years old. And he could just do it and he was better than anybody else in terms of improving the animation, making it fluid, you know. So he redesigned Mickey Mouse and was responsible for all the seven dwarves in Snow White. So we do have some of his work included."

Bill Tytla: "A Ukrainian-American animator with a lot of power and also great sensitivity. He did he did the devil on Bald Mountain in Fantasia, something very raw and scary. And he could also do Dumbo, a very sweet, sensitive character."

Rough animation drawings: "Those are the things that really fascinate me because the drawings that I would see at the museum are really done by the animators. And they are like their first draft, like very raw emotions on the paper. And that to me is their handwriting. And also how they work, how they struggled, how much it was, how much was erased. That's all on those sheets of paper.

"Once they draw a scene that way, which we call a rough animation, you have an assistant coming in, a cleanup person, and they would take another sheet of paper and clean up that rough drawing very, very, very tightly with one line almost around it. And those drawings are then inked and painted, and that's what you see on the screen.

"But it's so much more fascinating to see the animators drawings, which are raw and emotional. And we have we have a lot of those in the exhibition."

"Disney Art from Private Exhibitions" runs until September 4th at the Arlington Museum of Art.

Max Chow-Gillette is the Fall 2022 Art&Seek intern.