Legacy Content

Scarlett Stahl: A Profile of Mike Gabriel
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by Scarlett Stahl (archives)
October 14, 2010
Scarlett talks to Disney artist and director Mike Gabriel about his life and career with Disney.

There were three different reasons that made me want to interview Mike Gabriel.

The first one that drew my attention to him is that he was the co director of the Disney animated film, Pocahontas. As I am a direct descendant of Pocahontas through her great great great granddaughter, Mary Bolling Bland but have no real information on her, I was interested in his research on my ancestor.

The second reason is his work on the Disney animated short film of 2005, Lorenzo. This film noir had been nominated for an Oscar, but did not win. However the film did indeed win the coveted Annie Award. In my own opinion, the film should have won both for its unusual story line, music and color. Mike used tempera paints seeping into black construction paper to achieve the unique look and a new CG application called Sable was used to translate the look into the film.

Lastly after viewing the wonderful documentary of Don Hahns Waking Sleeping Beauty and seeing the snippet of the masked animators acting out their frustrations during the dark days before the Renaissance, I wanted to meet one of the Masterminds of that caper, Mike Gabriel.

As I entered the Roy Disney Animation Bldg. (the building with Mickeys Sorcerer Hat on top), I was excited to see the building and meet the man who had enticed my interest so much. On the wall of his office was Walt Disneys face, done in metal by Kevin and Jody. It was soon evident that this very intense and attractive man revered Walt Disney and his craft.

Mike Gabriel was born on November 5, 1954, in Long Beach, Ca. with 10 siblings. Mike was fifth of the children. His ethnic background is more Irish with some French and English. His grandmother was from Ireland and her name was Flynn.

His mother doodled a little bit but there were no known artists in the family except for Mike. She was a fulltime home maker with so many children while his father was a Lieutenant Colonel in the Air Force for many years requiring moves to other cities. His fathers war career story was so interesting that it would make a book of its own! When he retired from the Air Force, he returned to where his family lived in Long Beach, Ca. and worked for several more years in the aeronautics field with McDonnell Douglas.

Mike was always interested in Disney Animation Art, cartoons, more than art itself. I remember being a little tiny kid, somewhere around five or six years old, seeing Pinocchio in a theatre and really wanting to draw Pinocchio. Someone had told me that it was animation, where you had to draw it from all angles and that was fascinating to me. So I was captured by the idea of animators and animation.

He always loved cartoons and went through a phase of Mad Magazine immersion and wanted to draw like Don Martin and others. I went through my Charles Schultz phase (Peanuts comic strip) and finally got to meet him and get an original that I will always treasure.  He went through a phase of drawing and building Revells Wierdos model kits with Big Daddy Roth, Rat Fink and would make up his own wierdos. In sixth or seventh grade he had an assignment of designing everyone in the class as a weirdo for a big party. It was a daunting gig but I had a ball doing it.

Mike went to Golden West Junior College in Huntington Beach and took animation classes. In one class his teacher brought in an executive from Disney. As Mike asked a lot of questions, the guest told him that he reminded him of Card Walker, who was the President of Walt Disney Studios at the time. Mike kept telling himself that someday he would work there. I was just this super determined little guy that was determined to get into Disney and I started writing letters when I was a teenager. They always sent very kind letters back but every time he received the packet back he would think This is it, the manila envelope with the little triangle Mickey and the paint brush and what did they say? I kept thinking they were going to say Come on, youre hired. But they always said Go to college, Get art classes, Learn art drawing, well teach you how to cartoon from there.  At a certain point he received a packet from Ed Hansen of Disney for Cal Arts, suggesting he go to Cal Arts if he wanted to work for Disney. After Junior College, Mike just did not want to go back to college and just wanted to go to Disney so In my stubborn way, I didnt follow up on that and decided to learn to draw on my own. He went to libraries and got all the art and photographic books, practiced drawing from them about six hours a day for two or three years.  When he was about twenty-two, he did a book on cartooning animals, which was published, called Gabriels Friends, An A to Z Guide, on Cartooning Animals.

He was twenty-four before he finally got his interview and had been determined that he would be sure that he was good enough before he went after them again. At a certain point I saw my line work and my drawing style start to get good. Its amazing if you really determinedly go after it, at some point your hand starts to get good. At the time he was working in Stanton, doing safety cards for airlines, painting in the hair colors and shirts on the line drawings on the cels, showing how to evacuate the plane, etc. So he had an old packet that said Disney was looking for artists and to call Donald Duckwall, so he called and got an interview. So he gathered his best work together, put on a suit and tie and had his interview. It was like the Waltons, when John Boy went off to the City with most of the siblings at home, waving me goodbye in the street, with my little Ford Pinto putting away.

As soon as he walked on the lot, he felt so relaxed, comfortable and at home. He felt in sync with it. Don Bluth had left a few weeks before, which was good timing as they were looking to hire. I walked into the animation building and this was the hallowed halls. In the distance I could hear a few of the young peoples voices, shouting a little bit and I just remember getting the feeling that I could get really good here. This is where all that good animation gets created.. Donald Duckwall was very kind in his Disney issue cardigan sweater and open shirt. He started looking at my portfolio and complimenting it. He said maybe you want to work in backgrounds and I said No I really want to be an animator in my stubborn way. I should have said anything man, whatever.  Donald told him that they needed pictures drawn from life, not books and that what they were looking for were silhouette drawings. Mike was really disappointed and depressed at not being hired but right before he left the office; he told Donald that he thought he understood what they wanted. On the way home, he decided to do what they wanted. He spent the entire weekend drawing, going to the beach and sketching his brothers throwing a Frisbee around and trying to capture the movement. Even at night he would be running and sketching his brothers on a basketball court. He sent all of these loose little sketches into Disney that following Monday. When he didnt hear back all week, he finally called on Friday and spoke to Ed Hansen, who said Oh Mike, we got your drawings and everyone loved them. Youre hired. We couldnt get hold of you as you gave us the wrong number. He told his family that he was in and his Dad gave him the proverbial pat on the back. Everyone was so thrilled for him.

Mike worked under famed Eric Larsons tutelage. He worked first as an inbetweener and then became an assistant animator. He worked on Fox and the Hound, Black Cauldron, and Fun with Mr. Future. He had animated around 400 feet before he was promoted to animator, which was frustrating. Then he worked on The Great Mouse Detective. John Musker and Ron Clements let him help design the dog,Toby, and the cat, Felicia. He likes designing cats and dogs. He enjoys doing the elongated squash and stretch of cats as the run at full speed. Mike has been with Disney for thirty years.

When questioned about the clip entitled the Guns of Flower Street, which was shown in the documentary of Waking Sleeping Beauty, Mike laughed and said It was fun, raping and pillaging, to take a gun and put a head bandana and sun glasses on, with some fatigues and go in and put a gun to Walt Stanchfields headThese strange suits from Paramount had come in from over the hill to throw us off the lot that really didnt have any connection to Disney and now theyre running it. The hallowed halls were built by Walt for animation and it seemed a little unjust.We hit a kind of strange period there and when the new guys came in, it changed the vibes. The first few years in the early 80s before the new regime took over were kind of stress free as we didnt have a lot of deadlines.It was such a small crew of twenty five animatorsMark Henn was fast and Glen Keene but most people were doing about two to three feet a week. We had Tim Burton and John Lasseter in the building and nobody realized their potential in the old Disney executive guard. Flash ahead to 1985 and the animators were frustrated by being banished from the lot to trailers and relieved their frustrations by acting out the hostage takeover. And then came the Renaissance of animation and all the wonderful decade of hits, such as Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Lion King, etc.

Mike co directed Pocahontas and did extensive research on her. From his research, he concluded that she was indeed in love with Captain John Smith. When questioned regarding the fact that Captain Smith had written a second book about another young woman falling in love with him and saving his life, which seemed a little implausible, Mike said he might have been like a Rock Star and just attracted women easily. Mike also added that he was a romantic and would like to believe it. Romance aside, based solely on the facts regarding Pocahontas life among the early English settlers we know she and Smith spent months and months together, over a two year period, more than any two people from either group. The bond was palpable according to every written account including her emotional meeting with Smith when she visited England as the wife of John Rolfe in 1616. That affection was never questioned until our film came out which was frustrating. According to current trends they had much affection for each other but were definitely not in love. Huh? Slicing the unknowns a little too thin for me. Pocahontas was a child when they met but soon bloomed into early womanhood for that period. After Smith left, she was forced by her father into a politically motivated marriage to an Indian named Kocoum soon, so the argument that a by then teenage girl was too young to feel love for a dashing foreign guy in his twenties seems a little unrealistic. John Smiths account of being saved by Pocahontas might be fabricated but the bond they had clearly was not. You dont spend vast amounts of time with people you cant stand unless they are members of your family.

Mike was given a choice of a few short films to do. He chose to do Lorenzo, a tale of a pampered cat, who has a black magic spell put on his tail and in the sequence of events dances a tango with it. The original idea was suggested by Disney Legend, Joe Grant, with Don Hahn and Roy Disney as Producers. Don suggested the tango would be the music for the film, but not sure which tango music to use. Mike listened to about $350 worth of CDs of tangos that he bought with his own money and ended up choosing the first one he listened to, Borde- neo E 900! In the middle of it was an explosive obvious moment, where the tail came to life, which broke the film in half. He really enjoyed working on the film. It is supposed to be released Dec 2 on the Fantasia DVD.

As for Mikes private life, he has been married twenty-two years with three children, 19, 18 and 13. His oldest daughter, Kelsey, is studying design and marketing and has always had a strong graphic sense. She really is into fashion. His son designs, too, and is great but he doesnt think he is going to stay in that. He is very proud of his wife and children. Mike is still working long hours and staying until 9:00 in the evening and working even on weekends. An animator is also married to his work. He would like to be helping out at home more but is art directing now. He had even helped out on Princess and the Frog. At present he is doing art direction on a huge new CG picture. Its a whole new thing for Mike, who is working with a second new art director. The film, called Reboot Ralph, is set to come out in 2013 and is original and fresh, according to Mike. who is delighted to be working on it.