APU professor contributes to production of animation sequence

Tony Bancroft has a mini soft-toy version of Cogsworth propped up on a shelf in his office.

Bancroft, the director of Azusa Pacific’s undergraduate animation and visual effects program, drew the sketches for the enchanted pendulum clock under the lights of the same studio in which Ken Duncan created the animation for Belle in the 1990s. “Beauty and the Beast”(1991) was among the first of several Disney classics that Bancroft and Duncan would work on together.

Back then, they were just starting their careers as animators at Disney. More than 20 years later, the two animators rejoined as part of something resembling a high-school reunion to bring the 17-minute animation sequence in “Mary Poppins Returns” to life.

Director Rob Marshall hired Duncan Studios — which Duncan opened in Pasadena in 2007 — to realize a creative vision, which would pay tribute to the original “Mary Poppins” (1964) animation while putting a modern touch on moviegoers’ childhood memories.

As the animation supervisor, Duncan was tasked to put together a team of animators to make about 70 animals dance in synchrony with Emily Blunt, who starred in the role of Mary Poppins. Overall, about 130 people worked on producing the animation sequence within the setting of Duncan’s intimate studio.

It was Marshall’s appreciation for traditional animation that led him to push for his movie to feature 2D, hand-drawn animation — a method of production that Disney has all but abandoned for digital technology.

“Everybody kind of had to sharpen their pencils that haven’t been sharpened in so long,” Bancroft said.

The team Duncan hand-picked to work on the animated sequence consisted mainly of trusted colleagues, many of whom belonged to what Bancroft called the “core team that made all those 2D animated films” in the 90s. Some crew members were even brought out of retirement.

“It was great to have familiar faces in the studio … and to hear the flipping of paper as people animated,” Duncan said.

Bancroft joined the project in its final production stages. He was responsible for drawing about 12 to 14 animals that dance behind Jack — played by Lin-Manuel Miranda — and Mary Poppins as they descend stairs throughout the sequence, top hats and all.

James Baxter, a prominent animator who also worked on “Beauty and the Beast” alongside Bancroft, created the model sheets for lead character designer James Woods.

Bancroft said he and Baxter have remained friends for more than 20 years after working on multiple Disney movies together. In “The Lion King” (1994), Baxter created Rafiki while Bancroft designed the gluttonous warthog known as Pumbaa.

“That was the amazing thing, walking into Duncan Studios on my first day,” Bancroft said. “It was a room full of animators; all these gray-haired animators like me that have all worked together like 20 years ago.”

Woods, 27, used his fresh perspective to modernize the original character designs. He belongs to a younger generation of animators who grew up admiring Disney’s nine old men and studying the work of animators like Baxter, alongside whom he worked for the duration of the movie’s production.

“It was both of the James’ that really created the final designs for the movie,” Bancroft said.

Sandra Elhachem, a senior cinematic arts major at APU, said the animation felt simultaneously reminiscent and new.

“I’m glad they kept some elements that are in relation to the first one,” Elhachem said.  “The animation definitely gave off a nostalgic feel of the traditional animation that’s done in Disney films.”  

The efforts of Duncan’s crew on the animation sequence were rewarded earlier this month at the 2019 Annie Awards, which are hosted annually by the Los Angeles branch of the International Animated Film Association. Baxter won the award for “Best Animated Special Production” alongside fellow animators Chris Sauve and Sandro Cleuzo.

Sauve has been the resident animation supervisor at Duncan Studios for the last 12 years and is credited for his work on a multitude of notable movies such as “Atlantis: The Lost Empire” (2001) and “Pocahontas” (1995). He was also the supervising animator of “The Iron Giant” (1999), which Cleuzo worked on as well.

Although the animation sequence represents a small fraction of the film’s duration, Bancroft said it was probably the most expensive and time-consuming part of the whole movie.

By integrating reality with a vibrantly-colored 2D world, the segment may have also been the richest in unifying a generation of animators.

“Animation is very much a family industry,” Duncan said. “ It’s not a big industry so we tend to know a lot of people around the world. It was really great to work with family members, in a way.”