Even if his name doesn’t ring a bell, there’s a very good chance you’re already familiar with Andreas Deja’s work.
A Disney animator for 30 years, Deja helped establish some of the studio’s most iconic heroes and villains. From The Lion King‘s malevolent Scar to the quiet and eccentric Lilo from Lilo and Stitch, Deja’s richly drawn characters have left an indelible mark on children and adults the world over.
Deja visited the DigiPen campus on Sept. 21 as the keynote speaker for the 2012 Digital Art Festival. With a warm demeanor, humorous anecdotes, and plenty of video clips for reference, Deja offered an insightful retrospective on both his own career and the Walt Disney Animation Studios. It was a rare treat for those in attendance, made even more remarkable when Deja concluded by live sketching some of his past Disney characters.
Most animators, Deja said, can point to a particular film or cartoon that sparked their interest in the medium. For him it was Disney’s 1967 adaptation of The Jungle Book.
“It was the first Disney film I ever saw, and my head was just turning and twisting,” Deja, who was born in Poland and raised in Germany, said. “Even as an 11-year-old, my life all of a sudden had a mission.”
About a year after seeing the film, Deja wrote a letter to Walt Disney Animation Studios asking them what it would take to become an animator. In a reply form letter that Deja has kept to this day, a Disney representative encouraged him to study art, anatomy, and to learn drawing. Despite coming from a very non-artistic family — his parents were horrified one day to discover that their teenage son was drawing from real-life nude models — Deja went to college to pursue a degree in art.
Deja eventually landed his dream job in 1980, joining the team at Disney’s California studio to help design the animated epic The Black Cauldron. For the first year Deja worked alongside another recent hire, future film director Tim Burton, who according to Deja hummed along to punk music while knocking out fantastical concept sketches that ultimately didn’t satisfy the tastes of Disney management. While Burton eventually went on to forge a successful career outside of Disney, Deja found success within the company through his work on such features as The Little Mermaid, for which he animated the benevolent and imposing King Triton, and Beauty and the Beast, for which he animated the handsome villain Gaston.
Deja described the latter character as his most challenging work. Whereas Deja’s initial animations depicted Gaston as a physically exaggerated buffoon with an enormous jaw and outrageous muscles, Disney studio Chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg felt they were too “cartoonish.” As opposed to the Beast character, who on the surface appears frightening and villainous but deep down has a heart of gold, Katzenburg said the vile Gaston had to have the initial appearance of a charming male protagonist.
At first Deja resisted Katzenburg’s criticism. “But I saw his point, so I erased all the jaws, made them smaller, made him look more like a soap opera character,” Deja said. “It’s always the degree of realism you have to watch for. The more realism you have, the more difficult it is.”
Deja approached his next assignment, the evil vizier Jafar from Aladdin, as a deliberate departure from Gaston. “I thought, ‘I’m going to have fun with this one. No realism here. Let me stretch that face and put his mouth — instead of where it should be — way down here,” Deja said. And in what would become the third in a trilogy of memorable villains, Deja brought actor Jeremy Irons’ distinct vocal performance — as well as his facial resemblance — to The Lion King‘s regicidal Scar.
Deja soon after had the opportunity to animate Hades in Disney’s Hercules, but he instead requested to take on the film’s adult protagonist. “I needed to crack something like that, where it’s more internal. He’s a shy guy, and he’s insecure,” Deja said of the Hercules character. “And I’m glad I animated him, because I think I learned a lot about subtleties and holding back.”
Deja would go on to work as the supervising animator for a whole range of character types, including Mama Odie in The Princess and the Frog and Tigger in 2011’s Winnie the Pooh. You can follow the artist’s “Deja View” animation blog at andreasdeja.blogspot.com.