Legacy Content

Great Animated Performances: Zazu as Supervised by Ellen Woodbury
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by Rhett Wickham (archives)
October 24, 2003
In the fourth of a series of columns, Rhett profiles Ellen Woodbury and her performance as supervising animator of Zazu from The Lion King.

Shades of Understanding

(c) Disney Enterprises

A Conversation with Ellen Woodbury
And a Closer Look at Zazu

The principles and approaches championed by Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston that are the foundation for the craft of great personality animation - “the illusion of life? that we think of as the classic Disney approach - are fairly obvious in the work of the second great generation of animators. However, over the past thirty years there has been an unseen hand, if you will, that has quietly influenced and, arguably, had equal impact on popular animation: the teachings of Jules Engel. The late master animator and fine artist headed the Film Graphics/Experimental Animation program at Cal Arts for close to thirty years, where his deceptively simple philosophy - it’s not what we give them, it’s what we don’t take away from them? - nurtured the careers of numerous animators of note - chief among them Ellen Woodbury.

Woodbury was a graduate student under Jules Engel in the early 1980’s, and following a very brief stint at Filmation she took a job at Walt Disney Feature Animation where she has remained for nearly two decades. Her work displays mastery of not only the craft, but also the art of animation. She is known among her peers and colleagues as one of the most disciplined and accomplished talents in the industry, and producer Don Hahn noted that he has “never seen anybody get into a character as much as she would.? She has recently shifted from pencil to pixel, and is currently brining her talent to what will be Disney’s first all CG feature animated film produced in-house - CHICKEN LITTLE.

Ellen Woodbury is every bit as gamin and charming as Audrey Hepburn. Her bright and laughing eyes are filled with endless curiosity and excitement that instantly draw you in. Comfortably outfitted in breezy blue and white stripes, she sat down with me in Valencia on a sunny October afternoon to talk about her career - both past and present.

So what’s been your experience moving from traditional hand drawn animation to working with CG animation?

It’s actually pretty cool! It stimulates your creativity. You’re coming at what you know from a different direction and finding all these things that you did with another medium and suddenly you get new “oh!?s and “ah ha!?s.

When you’ve spoken about animation in the past, one of the things that you come back to again and again is a discussion of the physicality of a character. Maybe it’s by chance or coincidence, but I always see footage of you in motion - acting out character moments and various movements.

I do a lot of research. A lot of research. But I feel like I need to, because I have to come at the character from the inside out, so I have to understand both the physical and the personality and get it out there and make it visible. There’s two ways to approach it, there’s the physical and the emotional, and I try to understand not just the motion but the emotion, too. One character will take a thoughtful pose in a different way than another character depending on who they are, and I think that’s what makes the characters alive, when you know them so well that you know not only how they move, but why they move and you know it instinctively. How they’re put together and then what motivates them - what they’re like inside.

Not surprisingly, Woodbury is speaking the language of great actors. I’ve had a life-long spiritual love affair with actors - particularly with animators. They best fit the view that I’ve always had of actors as blank pieces of paper waiting to be drawn on - constantly in a state of becoming. Nothing is as exciting or enjoyable as the characters realized by animators, and never is a conversation about the acting process more insightful.

It sounds like you’re talking about understanding the specifics of character.

Yes. That’s like the really fun part of it. I mean it’s really fun to move them around and it’s really fun when you know who they are. ‘Oh he’d do this’ or ‘he’d never do this, instead he do this.’ And that’s what makes them real to me. I figure if they’re real to me they’re going to be real to somebody else. I can’t think about what the audience is going to think, I just think about what I think and just hope and cross my fingers that whatever I think it’s going to be convincing enough to the audience.

I remember at Cal Arts not really knowing if what I was thinking and wanting to put into my stuff was there. And I remember -- because I came from such a detached environment in my undergraduate program in Syracuse, where there were only like four people who were doing animation - when Frank and Ollie’s book came out I wrote to them and they started writing back, and I was like “Oh my gosh, they wrote back!?

So when I got to CalArts I was in Jules’ (Engels) program, and I was there two years and I did a film a year and I wrote to Frank (Thomas) and asked him if he’d look at my film. And he wrote back asking “Well won’t I see it?? And I said “Well, no, you won’t because I’m in experimental animation.?

Woodbury punctuates her conversation with jabs and punches of enthusiasm, and her long fingers explode out from tightly balled fists as if she is tossing magic into the air around her.

I’m a bit jealous, to tell the truth. I had met Jules Engel a few times in passing and I certainly knew him by reputation, having long admired his work both as an animator and as a fine artist. But I never knew him closely. I was deeply moved by the outpouring of true affection and genuine love that was expressed at his memorial services in late September of this year.

(c) Disney Enterprises

Hearing Ellen Woodbury talk about Jules Engel, I begin to wonder exactly what role artistic passion plays in the survival of an animator in this ever-shifting landscape that is today’s industry. New tools limit exactly how much of the traditional technique can be applied, and the demand for technical skill just might be outweighed by the need for unbridled artistic passion, such as Woodbury’s. The approach of Thomas and Johnston, Milt Kahl, Eric Larson and others alone may not be enough to push CG animation to be as great or greater than traditional animation. And there is an ever diminishing cadre of mentors the likes of Engel to counter the vision-less management that has put a stranglehold on places like Disney.