Bringing Disney to Life
LCAD professor David Pruiksma helped to bring some of the most beloved Disney characters to life. – By Daniella Walsh | Photos courtesy of David Pruiksma
“Under the sea, under the sea …” warbles Sebastian—the crustacean friend of Ariel, also known as The Little Mermaid—intent on cheering the lovelorn redhead while barely keeping ahead of a French chef who’s equally intent on turning the charismatic crab into dinner.
While the 1989 Disney film “The Little Mermaid” teems with salty characters, including Ariel’s wacky sidekick Flounder and Ursula’s eel minions Flotsam and Jetsam, it’s Sebastian who steals the show. One of his animators, David Pruiksma, has insisted on remaining out of the limelight and allowing the characters to shine. In “Beauty and the Beast,” he brought to life Mrs. Potts—the lovable teapot, and her son, Chip. David explains that, contrary to perceptions, animation does not have a singular creator, but that the process of inventing and then bringing characters to life is a highly collaborative process. In the case of Sebastian, he choreographed Sebastian’s droll actions under Directing Animator Duncan Marjoribanks.
These are but a few of the cherished characters that David helped bring to life in his 20-year career as an animator at Walt Disney Feature Animation in Burbank, Calif. Now an associate professor and co-chair of the animation department at Laguna College of Art & Design, Dave—as colleagues and students call him—imparts the finer points of animation to acolytes eager to make their mark on an industry brought into the worldwide spotlight by Walt Disney.
The act of animation, or creating an illusion of movement, can be traced to Paleolithic cave paintings where animals were depicted with more than four legs to convey motion. For centuries, animation has been a subject of fascination. But it really wasn’t until Disney created Mickey Mouse as Steamboat Willie in 1928 that animated films captured the imagination of worldwide audiences. The medium has evolved and devolved since, and is again at a peak of popularity. (“Brave” produced by Pixar and distributed by Walt Disney Pictures debuted with $66.7 million during its first weekend in June.)
With technology reigning supreme, common thought holds that all animators have traded their pencils for computers. Not so, says David. Computers and related technology are vital but he believes that at its core, animation still demands sophisticated drawing skills. “You have to be a very facile draftsperson to make things move in space; the computer is just another tool,” he says.
A passion is born
Born 55 years ago and raised in Falls Church, Va., David chose his career at age 5, a time when Hanna-Barbera ruled the airwaves. “Color TV was rare then, but I filled in color in my mind,” he says. When he turned 12, his supportive parents bought him a film camera and cheerfully shelled out for his film processing, he recalls.
The first time he saw Disney’s “Peter Pan” (originally released in 1952), he was blown away, and he considers “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” and “Fantasia” products of Disney’s golden years.
“The scene of Peter and the kids flying over London is still awesome—it represents Disney at its best,” he says.
While he has been drawing since those early years, David believes that it’s not just a skilled hand and an eye for detail that brings his most successful characters to life. “I am really an actor at heart. When I drew Sebastian, or Flounder or Mrs. Potts, I became the character,” he explains. David hasn’t let his lack of formal acting training stop him from performing on stage. He says that acting bolsters his ability to express himself. “My mind and emotions bring the character to life. Like the best actors, I believe in moving in the moment I happen to be in,” he says. “Of course a teapot can dance and sing!”
After graduating from high school in 1975, he enrolled at the Pratt Institute in New York City and studied art and film for two years. Still enamored with animation, he was told that if he wanted to get into the industry, he should move to Los Angeles. He took the advice and enrolled in the California Institute of the Arts, where he ultimately earned a degree in character animation in 1981.
That year he also began his career at Disney, starting as an assistant animator. He went on to become supervising animator on the films “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” and characters such as Flit the hummingbird and the forest animals in “Pocahontas,” along with performing a variety of studio related tasks.
For example, he developed training programs for “clean-up artists,” or hires on the first rung of their career ladder tasked with interpreting and solidifying rough animator sketches. He was also involved in Disney’s Artist Development Department, traveling to schools to recruit promising talent. He said that back then, he did not visualize himself as a teacher but he did consider someday passing on the skills he learned from veteran Disney animators Eric Larson, Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas as well as practical skills he acquired in the creative trenches.
Judging by the recent box office success of “Brave,” animation retains a permanent niche in the hearts and minds of moviegoers. The increasing role of the computer as a production tool has brought a slicker appearance to modern animation, but hands-on drawing with its idiosyncratic imperfections maintains animation’s endearing quality, David says. “There is going to be a hybrid where animation will be augmented by the computer rather than driven by it. Animation is a bit like writing, where authors’ stylistic quirks rather than cold perfection make it interesting,” he says.
“Animation is an art form that will continue to train artists and thinkers rather than rote technicians, and that’s where the LCAD animation program comes in,” he says. Since its inception in 1999, David says the school’s animation curricula have been, are and will continue to be based first and foremost on draftsmanship, design and performance. Only after students have mastered those fundamental skills will they have access to the latest technologies, taught by professionally seasoned experts. (He emphasizes that the team that created “Brave” is both traditionally and technologically trained.)
“We want to make sure that anyone coming out of LCAD is prepared for either branch, the traditional and the cutting-edge technology, for whatever comes students’ way now and in the future. It is a medium of entertainment and communication, the cornerstone of what we teach,” he says.
From Studio to the Classroom
David left Disney in 2001, disillusioned by what he describes as “Disney’s greed-driven corporate structure.”
“I loved working for Disney because they required my best,” he says. “When they stopped asking for that, when management instead of artists were driving pictures, it was time to go.”
However, he did not go into full retirement, taking on freelance assignments and, brought on board at LCAD by animation program chair David Kuhn, he began to lecture and substitute teach. “Teaching energizes me,” David says. “It is a tremendous challenge and I take pride when students learn and grow.”
The two Daves, as they are known at LCAD, met in 1994 when David was the supervising animator assigned to train Dave Kuhn. “It was all crazy pressure, but [David] was amazingly patient with young animators, a natural teacher even then and with a witty sense of humor,” Dave Kuhn says.
While working together, the two play practical jokes on each other, letting students in on the fun. Dave Kuhn recalls how he replicated a scene from “Lady and the Tramp” where Lady sees her owners’ new baby for the first time. With Dave Kuhn’s slight alteration, an aghast Lady does not come face to face with a cute baby but the visage of David in the crib. “It used to be that the health of a studio could be judged by the number of its gag drawings, and that’s something we are passing on to students,” Dave Kuhn says. Visitors to their office can find examples of these gag drawings along with students’ tributes to the Daves and a plush replica of Flounder given to David by students.
“You always do the meanest caricatures of your best friends, and we have piles of those on Post-it notes,” Dave Kuhn quips.
LCAD animation students are on average 21 or 22 years old, juniors and seniors looking ahead to making their mark on the industry. In 2009, Sierra Lewis, who works for Renegade Animation in Glendale, belonged to the first group of seniors graduating in animation to benefit from David’s expertise.
“[David] is not just popular at the school, he is at the top of his game,” she says. “It’s been a rewarding experience to study with someone with so much talent and who is still a great mentor.” She praises his emphasis on good storytelling and imparting depth onto characters. “And, he’s got a great laugh,” she adds.
“Students right now are fascinated with zombies and monsters but, to prepare them for the future, we teach them solid values and hold them to standards. Even though I always use humor in my work, they know this is no game,” David says.
Katrina Carras will graduate in May 2013. “[David] holds high expectations for himself and passes that to us,” Carras says. “But, he’s down to earth—sometimes he just takes the class out for ice cream and talks. In other industries you might get intimidated by meeting someone who is as talented and respected as Dave. I want to be such a talent someday and also help students.”
Both Sierra and Katrina emphasize that under the Daves’ tutelage, students are on the way to becoming serious professionals while already establishing reputations among themselves. “If you’re in it just for a game or a grade you’ll never make it. Word gets around among students, grads and even to future employers,” Katrina says.
David says that by creating a structured and demanding curriculum, he gets to pass on wisdom that he learned from the greats of what he calls the first line of expertise, the masters of mid-20th century animation. He says, “I get tremendous pride when I see students get it, when I see creative, thinking students who want to do what is right.” LBM