When it comes to modern Disney animators who have done a good job carrying the torch of Disney animators from the past, Andreas Deja comes to mind. Deja is one of the most important people who helped shape the Disney Renaissance. He was hired by Disney in the eighties and rose through the ranks so quickly as one of their most talented artists that he was already a supervising animator before the decade even ended, and to this day his passion for hand-drawn animation is strong.
Andreas Deja was born in the port city of Gdansk, Poland in 1957, moving to Germany a year later. The event that led Deja down the path of animation and changed the course of his entire life came at the age of 11 when he first watched Disney’s The Jungle Book (1967). That movie inspired Deja to want to become an animator and he even wrote to Walt Disney Productions as a child to express his desire to work there and ask for tips on how to achieve his dream. The Disney studio actually sent him a reply with solid advice on how to be a good artist, basically explaining to Deja that observing and drawing the world around you is a more valuable skill than being able to draw characters like Mickey Mouse or Pluto. You must draw people, animals, family members, pets, etc., and you have to draw on a regular basis. Deja, who has kept that letter to this day, took the advice seriously.
Watching movies like Bambi (which was re-released in German theaters during Deja’s childhood) clarified many of the things Deja was told by Disney about how animators must understand anatomy in order to animate living creatures. Deja was so serious about becoming an animator he took life-drawing lessons as a teenager, and even at that time Deja’s art teacher called him gifted. While studying graphic design at the Folkwang University of the Arts in Essen, Germany, Deja regularly corresponded with Disney animator Eric Larson, showing Larson samples of his art and life drawings. Larson told Deja that he had potential and that Deja should move to California when his schooling was done.
In 1980, when Andreas Deja was 23, Disney finally hired him as an animation trainee working under his pen pal Eric Larson, who taught Deja how to apply his art skills and use it to communicate in the medium of animation. Deja’s first assignment was The Black Cauldron (1985), a movie for which Deja designed and animated many of the main characters, including Taran, Eilonwy, Gurgi and the Horned King. Deja knew they were working on a film adaptation of Chronicles of Prydain before he was even hired by Disney so he already had many of these designs in his portfolio, and Disney liked Deja’s work so much that they purchased his drawings and used them as The Black Cauldron’s official concept art.
Andreas Deja shared a cubicle with fellow Black Cauldron concept artist and future film director Tim Burton, with the idea from Disney being that Deja’s conventional Disney-like drawing style might offset Burton’s unconventional stick-figure style, but Burton’s concept art was ultimately rejected in favor of tradition, and The Black Cauldron ended up looking more “Sword in the Stone” than “Nightmare Before Christmas.” Looking back on this moment it’s funny when you think about how Tim Burton would go on to become a successful film director and producer exactly because he embraced his weird and wacky imagination while The Black Cauldron would become a huge flop, although Andreas Deja still considered working on that film an important training ground for developing his animation skills.
Deja would go on to do some animation for The Great Mouse Detective (1986), particularly the scenes with Queen Mousetoria, but it was Deja’s work on Amblin’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) that was most impressive in this period. Deja had already met London animator and Roger Rabbit animation supervisor Richard Williams before he and producer Don Hahn convinced Deja to move back to Europe to animate on the film. Deja’s decision to work with Williams would ultimately benefit both the movie and Andreas Deja’s animation career because Who Framed Roger Rabbit was both an artistic success and a box office success. Deja animated most of the characters in that film including Roger Rabbit, Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Baby Herman, the Weasels, Bongo the gorilla bouncer and many of the cartoon characters Eddie Valiant sees outside Maroon Cartoon Studios at the beginning of the film.
Andreas Deja was promoted to supervising animator by the time The Little Mermaid (1989) came around. On that movie Deja supervised the animation for Ariel’s father King Triton, and throughout the nineties Deja would go on to supervise the animation for many other well-known Disney characters from that period, including three popular Disney villains: the handsome but evil Gaston from Beauty and the Beast (1991), Jafar from Aladdin (1992) who was evil in a less boisterous and more understated way, and the sinister Scar from The Lion King (1994). In the interest of avoiding being typecast and expanding his range, Andreas Deja was originally going to pass on animating Scar but hearing Jeremy Irons’ vocal performance was enough to get Deja interested in the character. Whenever I think of Andreas Deja, these Disney Renaissance villains are the first thing that come to my mind.
That decade Deja also worked on Hercules (1997) for which he supervised the animation for Herc as an adult, and following Roger Rabbit, Deja also became Mickey Mouse’s resident animator working on that character in The Prince and the Pauper (1990), Runaway Brain (1995) and Fantasia 2000 (1999). Plus Deja was planning to animate his fourth villain when he signed on to supervise Yzma in Roger Allers’ Kingdom of the Sun, but after Disney hired Cats Don’t Dance director Mark Dindal to overhaul that film into the comedy The Emperor’s New Groove, Deja instead went on to a new challenge by supervising the Hawaiian girl Lilo in Lilo & Stitch (2002).
For animators like Deja whose first love was always hand-drawn animation and who tried and failed to transition to animating on computers, Disney was a tough place to work in the 2000s when Michael Eisner decided to shift the studio’s animation output to CG completely. Deja found work on Alameda Slim in Home on the Range (2004), he was an animation consultant on Mickey’s Twice Upon a Christmas (2004) and Bambi II (2006) and he picked up the few hand-drawn jobs that were available on films like Enchanted (2007) and How to Hook Up Your Home Theater (2007), but he finally got to be a supervising animator again when Disney made their hand-drawn comeback with The Princess and the Frog (2009) where he worked on Mama Odie and her snake Juju. Plus he supervised the animation for Tigger in Winnie the Pooh (2011). But once Disney made the decision to turn their upcoming hand-drawn animated film The Snow Queen (later Frozen) into a computer-animated film based on the success of Tangled, Deja knew hand-drawn animation would not be coming back to Disney for a long time and that was the beginning of Deja’s departure from the studio.
Around that time, Deja began a series of blogs known as Deja View in which he shares many of his past art, not just from himself but from many Disney artists of the past, and he regularly posts there to this day. He also set out to bring one of his passion projects to animation with an independently produced 30-minute film called Mushka that he directed and worked on with some of his artist and animator friends and which tells a story set in Russia about a human girl who befriends a tiger. No word on when that might be shown to the public if a film festival doesn’t pick it up, but I’m glad Deja is still pursuing his passion and that he is still able to do so outside the studio system, because his work is part of why I became an animation fan in the first place.