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Animator Brenda Chapman shares her career insights expertise at IFTA Skills in Focus Event
27 Aug 2021 : News Desk
Yesterday (Thursday, August 26th) The Irish Film and Television Academy (IFTA), supported by Screen Skills Ireland, hosted a special IFTA Skills in Focus: Animation event with celebrated Animator Brenda Chapman (The Lion King, The Prince of Egypt, Brave.)

The event was hosted by Galway-based animation studio Moetion Films’ Owner, Producer and Voice Director Moe Honan. Honan spoke with Chapman about her incredible career and her approach to making incredible stories.  

Chapman was the first woman to ever direct a feature animation for a major studio (  and the first to win an Oscar for Best Animated Feature. Brenda reflected on her career at Disney, DreamWorks, and Pixar and shared her early influences and the threads that connect to her newest projects as well as the skills need to succeed in animation. Topics discussed included  design and idea development; visual storytelling; director skills for animation; the journey to becoming an animation director and her key points and insights to achieving success. 

Speaking on when she knew she wanted to be an animator Chapman spoke of her love of stories, reading and drawing.

“Whenever I would draw or read, those were my escapes, and it fuelled my imagination. It was what I wanted to do. I was in my late teens when I wanted to do animation, I stayed and watched the credits after a film, almost by accident, and I saw all of these people credited for their work on the animation and it was only then I realised…there were people who worked on these things and knew then what I wanted to do.” 

Chapman started her career as a story artist at Walt Disney Feature Animation in 1987, where she worked on several animated films including The Little Mermaid, and the Oscar nominated Beauty and the Beast. Chapman was the story supervisor on the original The Lion King, for which she won ASIFA’s Annie Award. She spoke of the role of the storyboard artist as a writer in that time saying:

 “Back in that time, and still today to an extent, storyboarding and writing were heavily linked. You’d be boarding and writing at the same time; problem solving, working on arcs etc. You’d be changing things in the script sometimes and adding in your own work…but it was a collaborative approach. Sometimes the script is just perfect, and you leave it as it is. “

She reflected on a particular instance that marked her out as a talent to watch when she was a Junior Story Artist on The Rescuers Down Under. Chapman watched as the team tried to tackle a scene where Kody wakes up in the nest of Marahute, the golden eagle. Other writers had the eagle talking and the moment was clunky, but Brenda recalled a Disney Sunday Night Movie that Roy E. Disney made about a Native American boy who talked to his eagle and she approached it in a similar way after discussing it with Glen Keane. Her pass on the scene is the one that was chosen and from that point on, Marahute didn’t talk. It put her on the radar of the higher-ups at Disney.

 

After this she worked on other titles including Beaty and the Beast where she worked closely with future Lion King director Roger Allers on many of the key sequences and motifs used in the film including the sequence where the villain Gaston. It doesn’t adhere to the traditional villain’s death wherein it wasn’t something external or an accident that did them in, but rather an actual altercation with the protagonist. She also helped break the scene where Beauty bandages the Beast.

 

This lead to her being the first woman to be Head of Story on a major studio Animation with the Lion King:

 

 “I was in development for a long time after Beauty and the Beast. I was working on Fantasia 2000 and helping Mike Gabriel develop Swan Lake. I was aiming for Swan Lake, but another studio announced they were doing Swan Lake as an animation. But they asked me to be Story Lead on King of the Jungle and it was the best thing I’ve ever done. Six of us went to Africa which was mind-

We came back and managed to turn that into what would become the Lion King. There are whole scenes there based on literally what we saw there.”

She went on the speak of the collaborative approach on the film and the feedback it received:

 “I love that collaborative aspect of story and animation. Yes, Directors have a vision of the story but they let a lot of people contribute. I was very fortunate to work with some great people who let me shine and at the same time it was great to experience working with them when they shone. It was exactly what I’d hoped working at Disney would be. When I would see kids singing songs from The Lion King and The Little mermaid it was very gratifying.”

As the first woman to hold the role of Head of Story she spoke of how lucky she felt that she was (mostly) accepted: “I can think of one or two people who may not have been OK with it but I was clueless. Occasionally I realised I was the only person in the room but overall I was very lucky. I just took it for granted.

She then helped launch DreamWorks Animation Studios and co-directed the 1998 release of the Oscar winning Prince of Egypt. Chapman was the first woman to direct an animated feature for a major Hollywood studio.

“I never had the desire to direct. I loved being in Story. I went to Dreamworks to set up the story department. After The Lion King, Disney became very marketing-lead and something had just changed there, the bubble had burst.” 

Producer Jeffrey Katzenberg asked her to take on the director role ‘in the interim’ and she ended up finding her feet and enjoying the role. But when DreamWorks absorbed Steven Spielberg’s Amblimation the studio wanted to bring in two more directors:

“I had become the director on Prince of Egypt and then Steven Spielberg wanted to bring in two of the guys from Amblimation to co-direct. I was nervous at first but once I got over being intimidated I realised they were great to work with and we became inseparable. “

She went on to detail the process of working with the other directors, Steve Hickner and Simon Wells, on the Prince of Egypt, again outlining the importance of collaboration.

“We all direct. At Disney I had noticed how they split up the work and I noticed what worked and what didn’t/ Jeffrey (Katzenberg) and the producers wanted us to take sections of the film but that wouldn’t work as you’d have three visions. Sometimes in a studio you see the co-director role being used to divide and conquer but talking to Simon and Stephen we all agreed Story was key… so we ended up joined at the hip and Story and Animation became one. We took departments then and I took background painting and special effects which I had never done before. Simone was the cinematographer of the film. He took camera and layout. And Steven took on things like the immense crowds in the film. But we all came back in the edit and got our notes together. It was collaborative and unified. “

The film marked a shift away from the fairy tale themes which dominated at Disney to one with more overt religious themes. 

“We didn’t want to preachy and ram religion down your throat and I was very conscious that this story meant different things to different people. Christians, Muslims, Jewish people, they all have different interpretations...but we eventually decided that the film was about the characters, and the relationship of Ramses and Moses and it became a story of two brothers and how they get through the incredible amount of stuff that gets thrown at them . It’s about finding the heart that audiences as human beings can relate to. Gods and religion can be so distant so you must find that emotional connection we can relate to.”

After this she moved to  Pixar you were she became  first female animator on the famous  Pixar Brain Trust (advising on such classics as Cars, WALL•E, Up and Toy Story 3). She went on to  break even more ground and direct Pixar’s first ever female lead film with Brave, inspired by her  daughter. This would earn her an Oscar, making her the first woman to receive the honour for an animated film.

She spoke again about how her mentors were vital to her career, particularly the sadly departed Joe Ranft: 

“Joe was a champion for me and asked me to come up and work with Pixar and I couldn’t say no. Sadly he died 2 years later and it was like the soul was ripped out of Disney.”

Speaking of her writing process she notes how she still approaches it from an artist’s point of view: 

“I  realised the other day that I approach it like when I was a story artist. I used to pace around the halls at Disney and it would just click and I would then set down and rough it out. I have the same approach to writing, I scribble notes and doodle and then it eventually takes shape. It doesn’t all come at once. I would love to be the “sit down every morning and do the thing 9-5” but I need the pacing around. Once that’s done I can do it 9-5 but it takes a while to get there.”

Recently she made her  live-action debut with Come Away. The film imagines what would happen if Peter Pan and Alice (of Alice in Wonderland) were brother and sister, and how their magical adventures are informed by the tragic death of their older brother. (David Oyelowo and Angelina Jolie are their parents, who cope with alcohol and gambling). It’s a wonderfully tragic but beautiful take on traditional fairy tales but an experience she has mixed feelings about.

“I was spoiled coming from the studios where people trust your vision and that’s not always the case in live-action.  I think if you are passionate about live action and can fly by the seat of your pants that’s fine but ultimately I’m a planner. There’s a passion for people in animation that only artists there have, and the ability to collaborate is unique there but there is more fear and allegiances in live action that I couldn’t figure out.”

Honan opened up the questions to the audience and Chapman spoke about the brilliant animation coming from outside the US, and Ireland in particular. 

“About a decade ago I spoke at IADT and saw all the non-Disney styles there and it was amazing and I wanted to encourage it. We don’t have the film board in the US and everyone wants to be Disney but here you can bring your original take to the artform, especially from different cultures

When I saw Secret of Kells for the first time I was blown away… They sort of broke through and I'm very excited to see so many different types of (animations) coming to the forefront.  Disney is trying to embrace that, but I think there's something about getting it from that culture as opposed to Disney trying to do it.

They’re coming in and I think for Americans it's sad they're not getting the distribution but the rest of the world is. I wish there were more here.”

A view asked about advice for a first time animator for working between storyboard artists and scripts

“For me I like to let my story artists take the script, I tell them what the scene absolutely has to have. "I want them to explore and see what can be done. I talk to them about what I want, what character needs what the scene needs and let them run with it. Find that thing that you do like about it first and tell them that, then talk about the things that aren't working  then they know you’re looking at what they're doing and how they can work with it. “

She gave advice to people on starting out in Animation, particularly young women saying “You have to ask for what you want. Reach out to people and reach out to your tribe and if you get a no, ask them why it's a no so you can figure out how to adjust. Don't take no at face value, but i know my career is being in the right place at the right time, So always show up and hope its the right one.

Just do it. Just believe in yourself. Say you're an artist with a vision and a passion. There may be people trying to put roadblocks in your way,but surround yourself with people who support you. 

It can be kind of devastating at times, but you get up and keep doing it. Do it because you love it. Do it because it’s what you want to do.,”

At the end it was brough to her attention that Irish Olympic Gold Medallist Boxer Kellie Harrington walked out to the ring to The Lion King’s Hakuna Matata, a phrase she uttered in nearly all of her interviews. Chapman was deeply touched by how her work had influenced someone in this way.

Based on the event as a whole it is clear that Chapman’s work will continue to influence people in and outside the animation sector for decades to come.





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