Disney Animator Mark Henn (Jasmine, Belle & Many Other Disney Characters) Talks ‘Snow White’ Blu-ray™ Release
Disney has released its masterpiece from the vault, and it became available yesterday (Tuesday, Feb. 2) on Blu-ray Disc™ and DVD.
And, to celebrate its release, I spoke with veteran Disney animator Mark Henn about Snow White
(#SnowWhite, @Disney) and about his now-legendary animation career with Disney.
But first, I have to say, as a father with a child still approaching pre-school age, I’ve had quite the Disney renaissance in recent years, rediscovering many of my old favorites (and watching them again and again, at my daughter’s request). And it’s not every day you get to chat on the phone with someone like Mark Henn, one of the persons responsible for creating so many of the classic Disney characters that have graced the big screen.
So before I share my interview with one of the most accomplished animators in the business, I can’t help but show you some of his bio that the studio provided. It’s mind-blowing. Just about every beloved Disney classic is on his resume, and he oversaw the creation of the classic character Jasmine from “Aladdin,” to name just a few of his achievements:
MARK HENN (Supervising Animator, Jasmine) is a veteran animator and director for Walt Disney Animation Studios. He most recently added his talents to the Academy Award®-winning feature, “Big Hero 6.” Before that, Henn served as lead 2D animator on the Oscar®-winning feature “Frozen” and as animator for the 2013 short “Get A Horse!” His skills were also tapped for last year’s live-action feature “Saving Mr. Banks.”
Previously, Henn served as supervising animator for Winnie the Pooh and Christopher Robin in 2011’s feature film “Winnie the Pooh,” and for Princess Tiana in 2009’s big-screen adventure “The Princess and the Frog.”
Henn joined Walt Disney Animation Studios in 1980 as an in-betweener for “The Fox and the Hound.” He was promoted to animator less than a year later, tackling the featurette “Mickey’s Christmas Carol,” for which he was part of the team responsible for animating Mickey Mouse. As an animator on “The Black Cauldron,” Henn worked on the Horned King’s henchman, Creeper, the furry Gurgi and Fflewddur Flam, the wandering minstrel. He animated Goofy in “How to Hook Up Your Home Theater” for Disney’s shorts program and provided animation for the bookend sequences of for the Walt Disney Studios’ hit “Enchanted.”
Since joining Disney, Henn has risen through the ranks to become one of the industry’s most respected artists. In his first stint as a supervising animator, Henn animated Basil, Dr. Dawson, Olivia and Flaversham in “The Great Mouse Detective.” Since then, he has continued in his role as supervising animator, bringing life to Oliver, Dodger, Jenny and Fagin in “Oliver & Company”; Ariel in “The Little Mermaid”; Bernard and Bianca in “The Rescuers Down Under”; Mickey, the Prince and Goofy in the animated featurette “The Prince and the Pauper”; Belle in “Beauty and the Beast”; Jasmine in “Aladdin”; Young Simba in “The Lion King”; the free-spirited and irrepressible heroine in “Mulan,” as well as her father Fa Zhou; the hula dancers in the opening sequence of “Lilo & Stitch”; and Grace in “Home on the Range.” He also served as an animator on the title character in “Pocahontas.” In 2000, Henn traded his pencil for a director’s chair and directed the award-winning short “John Henry,” which is based on the popular American legend.
A native of Dayton, Ohio, Henn was age 7 when he announced that he wanted to be an animator after being inspired by the Disney animated classic “Cinderella.” In 1980, he successfully completed the character animation program at California Institute of the Arts, then began his career at Disney, where he was mentored by legendary Disney animator Eric Larson.
First of all, I want to say that it’s an honor to speak with you. I’ve devoured many of the films you’ve worked over the course of my life, so you’ve directly contributed to my childhood happiness — so thank you! [laughs]
Well, that’s good! [laughs]
Speaking of childhood and beginnings, your bio mentioned “Cinderella” as a big inspiration for you. Could you tell us more about how that inspired you and how that led you to pursue a career in animation?
I grew up in Ohio, in the Midwest, and as far as I can remember I always had a pencil and paper in my hand and I loved to draw. So I got hooked at an early age on watching Disney films. “Cinderella” was probably the first feature I remember seeing and I was 7 or 8 years old. It was just magical. With my limited knowledge of how these things were done I understood enough to know that it was drawn, but there was something magical about the fact these characters were alive in my mind and the audiences’ mind and it was just magic. That was just why it was so impactful, and of course, other films, everything I saw new as it came out, as I grew up. But that was the first one, and I was hooked.
From an animator’s point of view, what are your thoughts about “Snow White,” about what makes it special or inspirational to you?
“Snow White” was obviously the first. The company and Walt always said it started with a mouse and it did, and it was the success of Mickey that led to his ability to produce and come out with “Snow White.” But we have here at the Team Disney building, the Seven Dwarfs, are literally holding up the roof of the corporate headquarters building, and I noticed that the other day. Well, I’ve seen it for many days as I walked around the studio, but it hit me one morning as I looked up at it and realized, you know what, how true that is, that “Snow White” really is the foundation for the company as it now exists as this entertainment behemoth. It really rests of the shoulders of “Snow White.” Walt really believed in the film and he threw everything he had and the kitchen sink into it. People were constantly telling him he couldn’t do it, that it was “Walt’s folly.” Yet he believed in it. It sets the standard for what our company is known for and continues to strive for and certainly in animation and other areas of entertainment as well. When I look at “Snow White” — I didn’t see it until I was in high school — I see, practically, I hate to use the word perfect, but an almost flawless movie in a lot of ways. It was very close to Walt’s heart, and I think it really reflects a lot of who Walt was and his ideas of entertainments and everything. It was such a game-changer and we don’t see many films like that these days, but when they do come you know it. Like “Star Wars,” when it came out, was that kind of a film and had that kind of impact. Well, go back to 1938 when Snow White came out and it just had that kind of impact, and nobody had ever seen anything
like it before, and its impact is still continuing. We wouldn’t be here. I wouldn’t be here if “Snow White” hadn’t come out to begin with — let alone be a success. So it’s very, very pivotal in our company’s history and in my person life here at the studio and as an artist.
Speaking of digital technology and how that’s changed films for the audience, I always wonder how it’s changed the experience for the animator. Maybe you could touch on that a little bit, how the experience of being an animator has changed compared to the earlier years of your career?
It’s kind of apples and oranges. They are two different beasts. Sitting at a desk grabbing a pencil and a piece of paper and drawing is a different aesthetic and feel than sitting down in front of a computer and manipulating the model, the rig, and creating a performance that way. For me it’s a little hard because I’ve had experience in both worlds, and I know the things I like or dislike in either world. But the thing that’s common to both is still the fact that it’s the means to the end of the performance. The means, whether you’re drawing or using a computer, the goal is still the same and that’s to come up with a believable performance for the character that’s going to move the audience to engage in the movie and root for them or boo the villain and those kinds of things. At the end the processes may be a little different but in the end the results I still found, for me, that I enjoyed still seeing a CG character coming to life as I did seeing a hand-drawn animated character coming to life. That’s just technology changing, that’s the way of the world, the way things keep advancing in that way. I still love a drawing. There’s still something very special, and I hear that all the time from people, how much they miss the hand-drawn and they miss that kind of style of animation.
There is an authentic quality to it, you feel closer to the animator somehow.
Yeah, there’s arguably a bit of a disconnect as you’re moving the mouse around versus actually making a drawing where, tactilely, it’s a different feel. Holding a piece of paper and making a drawing and holding several pieces of paper and working through your actions that way. Again that’s just apples and oranges.
You directed “John Henry,” which my family enjoyed recently, so it’s top of my mind and I wanted to ask you. Did you like taking a break in animation and doing “John Henry?”
I did. I thoroughly enjoyed taking off my animator hat and putting on a director hat. I thoroughly enjoyed that. That was one of the highlights of my career that I will never forget.
My whole family loved “John Henry.” Your bio mentions you’re a history buff. Are there other historical characters you wish you could make into a film, like you did with “John Henry?”
I grew up in Dayton and I’m a big fan of Dayton’s heroes the Wright Brothers. It’d be fun, and I’ve had several ideas float through my head about doing something with the Wright Brothers, but I understand there’s potential that Tom Hanks may be doing something with them, and Disney actually had a brief little sequence or two in “Victory Through Air Power” that featured animated Wright Brothers and their early flight, but there’s a great story there that I think is often overlooked, I think, or taken for granted. They would be some fun characters to do. The reason why I picked “John Henry,” well for several reasons, one was he’s one of my favorite characters and the story is wonderful, but it’s also that he’s a character that at several points in Disney’s history alluded to and mentioned him but they never developed anything with him so I thought why not? I had the opportunity, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Jumping back into the animation process: I’ve always been curious, if you could mention some of the tricks of the trade that animators do to capture either the hand-drawn or the computer-generated performance and make it a real emotional performance. How do animators do that? Do they act out what the characters are doing to get it right?
Yes, it depends on the animator, I think it starts, and I can talk from my perspective, it starts with my thinking of myself almost more as an actor as opposed to an artist. It’s like the art is a means to the end. The end being the performance. So I’m not on the screen, you’re not looking at my face, but you’re looking at my efforts to — same as any live actor would do — to craft a performance, go through the same process and thinking about, “Who is this character?” I try to put myself in their situations and think about how would I feel — how would I react? — is one my techniques, and most of the young artists and animators today do a similar thing. We also, of course, have aides to help us, we have the live action reference. Which going back to “Snow White” they always had too. But they learned quickly that if you simply were to faithfully trace the live action, it just dies, it really doesn’t live. It may move smoothly and convincingly, but it lacks the life. You need that life that the animator brings, and their feelings as well, and then infusing all the animation principles and techniques of the craft of animation, the sense of caricature and squash and stretch and exaggerating things. That coupled with what you study in the live action reference combined gives you a believable performance in our characters. That still goes on today. The animators will often shoot reference of themselves or somebody else acting it out for them just to help give them a perspective because, often times, you have something in your head but it’s hard to visualize, so sometimes you need to act it out yourself and videotape yourself or have someone else do it for you. Those are just some of the tricks of the trade that help in crafting a performance.
My last question is a very serious question — from my four-year-old daughter Lucy. [laughs] She wanted me to ask you a very serious question: who is your favorite Disney princess? And there is no wrong answer in her eyes, so no pressure.
[laughs] Well, you know I’ve animated, to date, six of the Disney princesses and I’ve enjoyed animating all of them — I’ll start with that. People ask me that all the time, and as far as the princesses specifically, I suppose the girl I have in mind is technically not a princess, but I give her an ever so soft edge for a variety of reasons, but Mulan was a very special character to me and the studio in Florida at the time, which is partly why I give her a slight edge. I loved her story, I loved her heart, and it just was extra special. But that’s not to say I didn’t love Belle and Jasmine, of course, Jasmine is based on my sister, and how could I say I didn’t love that? Then going back to Ariel and Pocahantas and Tiana was extra special — that was a unique case. Ever, ever so slightly maybe Mulan is just slightly ahead of the rest, but they are all pretty close. Who was her favorite?
Currently Princess Aurora, but she loves them all and will change her answer about three times a day. [laughs] Did you say you based a character on your sister? Jasmine?
Jasmine, I did, yes. She helped me get through sort of an artist’s block at the time, trying to find who Jasmine was and who she looked like, and I actually turned and found an old photograph of my younger sister and used that as an inspiration.