Here’s the latest from the crossroads of faith, media & culture: 02/22/21
Drawing on experience. With over 25 years in the animation industry, Tom Bancroft brings a lot to the table as he launches his own company called Pencilish, not the least of which is his contribution to Disney’s animated feature resurgence that began with 1991’s Beauty and the Beast and extended through Aladdin (1992), The Lion King (1994), Pocahontas (1995) and Mulan (1998). Bancroft, quite literally, had his hand in all those classic films.
In 2000, he listened to his heart and left Disney to join Big Idea Productions, creators of the popular animated faith-themed television series VeggieTales, helping the company debut its first feature film, Jonah: A VeggieTales Movie, in 2002.
He is also the author of Creating Characters with Personality (2006) and Character Mentor (2012). The very well-regarded character design instruction books on the art of designing memorable cartoon characters for film, television, video games and comic books are now required textbooks at many art schools around the world.
As the legendary cartoonist embarks on his new venture, check out my conversation with him below this retrospective of his work.
JWK: So, tell me about the road to forming Pencilish.
Tom Bancroft: In the nineties I was a part of Disney Feature Animation and worked on a lot of the classic films like Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, Aladdin, Pocohontas and Mulan. While I was there, I enjoyed it and I loved it (but) I also saw the corporate waste and the way that they approached creating new properties. It really did kind of exclude a lot of the artistic creators. They had to own everything. I can understand that from a business standpoint but I also felt like I wanted to create a (different kind of) company. That kind of is what hatched Pencilish Animation. I wanted to create a company that would kind of partner with creative people and create IP (intellectual property) that will, hopefully, live on and become popular and (lead to) licensing deals and things like that (where) everybody benefits, not just the company.
JWK: You’re actually using crowdfunding to get Pencilish off the ground. How’s that going and how much have you raised so far?
I have a fairly large following on Instagram and elsewhere. So, a lot of the fans just kind of come out. Now, we’re getting into real investors – people that do (investing) for a living. That’s the exciting kind of phase that we’re in now. A little bit of the harder questions are popping up too but I think they’re getting excited about it also. I love seeing that people are getting the idea.
JWK: Are you finding that you’re investors are in it more for the money or more for wanting to be a part of making great stories and great animated films?
TB: You know, the minimum that you can put in is $100. A lot of (the investors) – more than half – leave a comment when they put in their investment and I read every single one of them. So, I can tell you that many of them – almost every single one – has an interest in animation. They love it.
JWK: How’d the name Pencilish come to you? Obviously, on the one hand it, it’s sorta obvious – but what does it evoke to you?
TB: A pencil to me means craftsmanship because there’s no other way around that. It’s such an old-school tool but it’s still in use today and the Pencilish “ish” part to me is also more about (how) we’re also moving into the digital world. So, it’s probably more of a digital pencil. We’re gonna be creating projects that are virtual and created all over the world through a digital process but it’ll still feel handcrafted.
JWK: So, kind of honoring the past while embracing the future.
TB: Yeah, in a fun way. I kind of wanted it to sound kind of funny too.
JWK: Prior to what is now considered sort of a second Golden Age of Screen Animation that you were so much of a part of at Disney during the nineties, animation had sort of fallen on hard times and had seemed to many be sort of passé. What lit the fire in you about it – that had you jumping into an area other people were turning their backs on?
TB: You know, I started out loving comic strips. I have a twin brother and we would draw together all the time and kind of compete against each other too — getting our mom to say (whose drawing she liked better). So, we kind of sharpened each other growing up. But, ultimately, we just sort of discovered it. We already knew we liked animation but just out of college somebody showed us a short film he made that was clay animated with a super 8 camera and it dawned on us that you don’t need a huge staff and millions of dollars to make animation. Actually, even back then – pre-internet – you could create it very inexpensively. So, we were hooked.
JWK: Besides the books you’ve written about the art of animation, you also have a YouTube series in which you teach your twin daughters to draw. I take it passing the craft onto the next generation is important to you.
TB: Oh, yeah, definitely. I also started the animation program six years ago at Lipscomb University in Nashville. I teach on the college and university level because, yeah, I love animation. I still love to draw. So, I’m kinda communicating that and passing down the animation principles that I learned from some of the old masters is really important to me.
JWK: You, of course, have applied your craft to some of the most classic well-regarded animated films ever. Do you have a personal favorite among them?
TB: I do. Mulan has sort of become a family film for us Bancrofts…My twin brother co-directed it and I was the supervising animator of Mushu the Dragon. Because of that, all of our kids…have heard all about Mulan (while) growing up. It’s definitely the most personal film for all of us. My brother and I were very involved.
JWK: You touched a little bit on this right off the bat in our conversation but I’m still wondering why any animator would leave Disney in 2000 when that definitely seemed to be the top of the mountain for anyone the field. Is there more to tell there?
TB: Yeah, there is. It’s a long story but the short version is that I got sick. I got so involved in my career and climbing the ladder at Disney that I got viral meningitis. Some would say that was an accident and unrelated but I don’t believe in accidents. I don’t believe in coincidence. So, I came out of the hospital after about a week and I looked at Disney differently I guess is what I would say. I still loved animation, I still loved drawing and I still loved Disney but I could turn it off. I finally found that ability to go home and not think about it as much because I realized I had kinda put aside my God and my family to climb that ladder.
JWK: And you went from Disney to working for Phil Vischer’s Big Idea Productions. I can see from what you’ve said, why you would make that move. How different were the two company environments – and how different was in working primarily in television as compared to film?
TB: It was very different. I went from the biggest animation company in the world to probably one of the smallest. (The job) was in Chicago so I had to move. The move was horrendous. The weather change from Florida to Chicago was crazy and hard (and) then they were also just figuring out how to make a feature film. I helped them on Jonah, their very first feature film. We had been through that at Disney many times over. It was neat and exciting feel the energy of this small studio that was like the little engine trying to climb the hill. Being a part of that was probably like Disney was like very early on with their early Mickey Mouse cartoons. I’ll never forget it. It was a good time there. It was chaotic and it was hard many times and even frustrating but knowing that we were doing it for a bigger reason than just to make money was really, really a good reward.
JWK: So, telling stories with meaning is important to you.
TB: Yeah, for sure. To me – and this is back to Pencilish – I really feel strongly that the kind of stories and characters we create should by something or somebody that you can (relate) to and (convey) the emotions and feelings that you have and that, in general, the world (has). (A good story needs to) have a lot of heart but, at the same time, (feature characters) that have flaws and things like…that we can all kinda understand and relate to.
TB: Both those books are on character design, specifically. I have very strong feelings about character design. Basically, if I said “Design a little boy character” you’re gonna get a very generic little boy, right? But if somebody tells you to design a boy character and, you know what?, “He’s kinda thin and doesn’t fit in in high school very well and he’s pretty shy, especially toward girls.”…So, you’re talking about not just what he looks like but his personality. That’s when you get the best characters. It’s when you get the artist excited about who that character is. You’ll get the best (character) designs from that.
JWK: Pencilish sounds like it could be the next Pixar – which, of course, was eventually bought by Disney. Maybe that could happen to Pencilish – sort of like the Circle of Life from The Lion King.
TB: (Laughs) It would be. I’m not closed to that idea, that’s for sure. Many companies are built to be sold. That doesn’t sound good but, in business, that has become an expectation. Let’s put it this way. I want to create something that Disney wants to buy. Whether or not we sell is going to be up to us – but I really want it to be appealing to the world (audience).
JWK: Where do you see the company in five years? Will you be doing movies and television? Will live action be part of the mix?
TB: I’m excited about all of those things. So, we’re starting with animation. It will always be a part of the company for sure – and we’re also starting with more TV-style animation. It’s a little quicker (and) a little less expensive. Animated feature films are really something that is on our radar for when we do have even more capital to be able to pull that off because I already have many ideas for that and partnerships that could be in place for that. And then, yeah, live action. I have a few scripts of my own and I know other people that have some really good stories to tell too.
JWK: Do you have particular projects in mind that are pretty much ready to go into production when you’re ready to launch?
TB: Yeah, I do. I’ve been developing my own TV IP and also feature film IP for the last four or five years. They’re kind of waiting for this moment. So, I do want to launch with at least one of my ideas as being part of that launch.
I’ve also been very active in the last few months raising funds to find some kinda unknown talent…and then team them up with people that have more experience and create small teams. So, I’m looking at two or three other projects that I hope will be a part of the launch also.
JWK: Is there anything else you’d like to say about Pencilish?
TB: I definitely want people to know how they can find out more information and invest if they’d like – which would be at wefunder.com/pencilish…I’ll (also) say this. I don’t think without COVID happening last March that I would be talking to you right now about this. I honestly feel like, if there’s any positive that’s come from COVID, it’s that some of us are kind of going “Well, now’s my chance to do this thing.” We’re all virtual now. In creating a virtual animation studio – and that’s really what Pencilish is – we’re gonna have people working on projects from all over the world. I’m talking to people in Scotland, and Greece and Costa Rica right now. So, what’s exciting about this is that animation is flourishing during this time and I want to be a part of that.
JWK: I know that TV networks are having quite a time putting full schedules of scripted shows on during the pandemic. It seems like a good time to pitch animated shows.
TB: Exactly. I think we’re actually in good timing and I think that, hopefully, our investors will benefit from that too.
Having recently retired from his day-to-day duties at RIP Medical Debt – the social relief organization he co-founded with financial expert Craig Antico in 2014 – US Navy veteran Jerry Ashton is off on a new mission. Namely, solving the world’s problems. His new solutions-based website Let’s Rethink This hit the internet on Sunday with the goal exploring out-of-the-box idea that are ambitious and have the potential to be impactful enough to make a real difference in getting over the challenges that vex and, too often, divide society. I’m quite humbled to have to have my take on how Universal Basic Income can be rethought to lift up a lot of people, untangle government bureaucracy and, hopefully, do so while avoiding being yet another battle line between liberals and conservatives among its first posts. IMHO: My piece aside, I think Jerry’s new site is a fantastic idea and a great starting point for just the sort of conversations society needs to have right now.
Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11