Legacy Content

Great Animated Performances: Zazu as Supervised by Ellen Woodbury
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Ellen goes on to explain how Frank Thomas agreed to review her student film.

I had all these questions like “So, do you get this? Do you understand what I’m trying to do here and what I’m trying to get across? And this is my character?? and stuff like that. And he wrote back…I don’t remember exactly, something like “You’re asking the age old question of ‘am I getting what you’re trying to communicate through your animation?’ It was kind of like somehow I felt like…not that I’d been admitted to the hall…but just that I was one of the many - that we all struggle with this.

That’s part of the process, and everybody goes through it. You always start out not really knowing as you’re sitting there whether or not anybody is getting it. It was very comforting to know that this was something all animators go through. I was like “oh, okay!?

Tell me about the choice you made to go into the experimental animation program. Is that right? Jules Engels’ program was the Experimental Animation program?

It was called Film Graphics in 1981, 1982. I was in a film program at Syracuse University. It was a very intellectual program. We read tons of books. We wrote tons of papers. It was thought provoking and demanding and it took your mind and just stretched it way out into all kinds of shapes. You had all these ideas pouring into your head that had never been there before. It taught me to look at things and think about them and ask questions. I taught me to analyze things. We learned all the film theories, and also about the making of film, meaning the craft of making film - you know learning how to edit and all that kind of stuff. And I think because I was in animation and taking animation classes it all melted together to make some sense. Everything I was learning I was applying to animation. So I came out of there with my head full of ideas. And also, a BFA. At the time Ronald Reagan had a thing where you couldn’t get two BFA’s. I mean you couldn’t assistance to get a second BFA. I was saying “Okay, I’m going to Cal Arts! But if I go into the Character Animation program - a BFA program - I couldn’t get any assistance, but if I did went into the graduate program, I could. So I met with Jules, and he was just so charming. There was something about him right from the start. I think he called me ‘honey’ like right from the beginning. He called everybody ‘honey.’ He showed me the work - just the stuff that was up in the workshop area -- and it really blew me away! I left there thinking ‘Wow! I really want to be a part of this. This is really interesting.’ And it was also shocking. I think part of it was ‘I don’t really understand this, and I would like to.’ It seemed like that program sort of came out to me, and met me half way from where I was coming from - having all the esthetics and film theory from my time at Syracuse. It just seemed right, so I did it. And thank God I did! Where my mind was stretched, Jules filled it up with all these different ways of animating and all these different mediums and ideas!

When did you first feel like ‘okay now I can own my profession’? You know that point where you no longer feel like a student or a journeyman but like a true working professional?

Yeah, I know exactly what you mean. I guess it was about half way through ALADDIN. I realized I could see on ones. I’d been seeing…but not on ones.

(Woodbury is talking about the timing of animation. The basics principal of timing is that most scenes are animated on twos -- one drawing every two frames of film -- or on ones -- one drawing per frame. The more drawings there are between each pose - or extreme - the slower and smoother the action appears. Fewer drawings make the action appear crisper. By combining the timing in a scene, the emotional nuances that naturally occur in life are made possible - thus the illusion of life. Regardless of how it’s shot, it’s still projected one frame at a time - 24 frames per second. Understanding by seeing whether something should be ‘performed’ or acted on ones or twos is a finely tuned skill for an animator to develop.)

I was working under Duncan (Marjoribanks) on Abbu, and it was a lot of fast action. You’d animate it and shoot it and then look at it and there was something that wasn’t quite right - you know when you shoot it you become a critic. What happened was I always could feel it, so I’d go back in and strengthen a drawing or try adding something and that would fix it. But it’s a lot easier to feel it on ones than it is to see it on ones. Then one day I just saw it and I thought - “oh, I get it!? - and it became easier to go back in and know exactly what to do.

How long was it before you had fully integrated that, and it became second nature and not something you consciously paid attention to?

Oh, no it just took that once. I was like “Oh, wow, I can do that. Okay? and that was it.

Did you grow up around artists? Were your parents or other family members in the arts?

Well my Dad always drew and I used to draw with him when I was little. We’d go out and take vacations somewhere and go out and draw. He’d go out and draw and I’d go with him and draw. And also my Mom and Dad both played piano.

What drew you to animation, and when did you decide that that was what you wanted to do?

Actually it happened in my senior year in high school. One of my friends took me to see THE SWORD IN THE STONE. We’d just read THE ONCE AND FUTURE KING and she said ‘we have to go see this.? And I said ‘Nyah’ and she said, ‘c’mon’ and I said ‘I really don’t want to go’ and she said ‘c’mon, you’re coming!’ and she dragged me to see it and I thought it was fabulous. I loved it. And I remember sitting in the theatre and thinking ‘this would be really fun to do!’ That was the beginning of it. It was finally in college when I decided to give it a try and thought about it as a profession. I decided to go for it. I thought ‘hey if it doesn’t work out, oh well.’ It’s like everything in life - or animation - you keep trying until you hit a wall and can’t get through it.

In school I think it’s rigged such so that you don’t hit a lot of walls. All the way through school I didn’t hit any walls. I found somebody to teach me. I found things I wanted to learn. I found places I wanted to be.

(c) Disney Enterprises

I have seldom seen or heard anyone so comfortable with themselves, and yet without any hint of pretense or ego. The only way I can describe listening to Ellen Woodbury and watching her is fluorescent. She hums, and even glows. Her energy is steady and balanced. It is absolutely palpable. Every once in a while you chance upon someone who has somehow found a way to get out of their own way. There is nothing overbearing or obnoxious about her. It’s not some silly optimism, or pluckiness, either. Even when talking about her time in school I don’t feel as if she’s taken anything for granted. After all, as a graduate student she wrote to Frank Thomas in pursuit of some assurance that people “got? what she was trying to do. Whether answered or not, once she got the nod - or at least understood that this was something that so many animators struggle with - she appears to have made instant friends with the question and kept right on going. It’s a rare sort of blend of confidence and comfort - like a child who never crawled but just got up and walked one day. You can almost imagine her facing one of the walls she talks about hitting. The look on her face would unlikely show any fury or frustration, or even confusion. Instead she would most likely display a sort of “oh. Well, how about that?; standing in front of the inevitable and looking calmly to see if there’s a way around it. If no outlet is visible she’ll turn in another direction and head on without so much as a beat.



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