“I used to collect figures and maquettes–I like collecting pencil tests now!”: A Conversation with Jamaal Bradley

Jamaal Bradley

DreamWorks animator Jamaal Bradley has been a long-time aficionado of pencil tests, and his website Pencil Test Depot has evolved into the place for collecting and sharing pencil tests. Encompassing animators from the Golden Age of animation through today’s heavyweights Bradley’s website is a valued resource for both aspiring animators and professionals in the field.

The pencil test, though rarely seen by anybody outside of a film’s production, reveal one of the most intimate views into an animator’s thought process. It is the lifeblood of the hand-drawn animation pipeline; it is through the pencil test that an animator evolves a character’s personality and fine-tunes the movement and staging of a performance before it’s passed down the line to the assistant animators.

But in a CG world, what has become of the pencil test and drawing in general? Cartoon Brew spoke with Jamaal Bradley about his site Pencil Test Depot, the role of drawing in CG, as well as his own animation career and work as a teacher. The New Jersey-born artist currently works at DreamWorks Animation’s Glendale studio as a Senior Animator on The Croods. Bradley other credits include Disney’s Tangled and Sony Picture Imageworks’ Open Season and Monster House. Although all of his recent projects have been CG animation, he’s kept his hand-drawn animation skills sharp by relying on it for some of his preliminary scene thumbnails as well as his work as a teacher at iAnimate.

Chris Arrant: PencilTestDepot.com has become a hit in the student animation community. What led you do create Pencil Test Depot, and did you know it would make such a big impact on animation students?

Jamaal Bradley: Pencil Test Depot was around for a while before it went public. I love animation and the beauty of looking at a well crafted pencil test makes me smile externally and internally. It probably sounds corny but that’s what it does for me; like food for the soul.   I had a personal site with pencil tests on it and I had tests I received from friends, stuff I shot myself, and things I was finding on the web. I initially created it for personal growth and didn’t think about maintaining it as a blog. Only one other person had access to it and he convinced me to open it to the public.

” …Jamaal if you make it public and ask for people to donate works, you will surely get more pencil tests and I bet people would appreciate seeing the stuff you have also…”

It made perfect sense and it worked. I am very happy people enjoy the site and support it.   I didn’t think it would be a big hit, I just wanted to see what pencil tests were out there. It has been amazing to have fantastic animators like Glen Keane, Bruce Smith, James Baxter, Kristof Serrand, Sergio Pablos, Sandro Cleuzo, Pedro Daniel Garcia, Rune Bennicke, Mike Surrey, and more showing great support for Pencil Test Depot. I used to collect figures and maquettes. I like collecting pencil tests now!

Jamaal Bradley and Tangled Crew

Chris: When you were studying animation, I assume you were being inspired by pencil tests of traditional animation like the ones you post on the site. Was it disappointing that the industry changed so rapidly and that you’re not animating more pencil tests like the ones on Pencil Test Depot?

Jamaal: It is sad that studios are not generating more 2D films, but times always change. I really do enjoy 2D films, but how do you change public opinion? You have to be amazed by the technological advances of CG and I believe the general public can see that aspect of the films. Using that technology to make entertaining movies that are visually stunning with good stories will draw a crowd. I am not saying this draw can not be done with 2D but the audience wants something different than what they saw in the 90′s. There is something different about moving artwork that has only been generated really by materials that come from the earth; pencil and paper.

I don’t want to say I am disappointed by the evolution of animation because I believe there is still someone out there who is going to make a 2D film that will generate the revenue that a CG film brings in. . . .It’s just a matter of time. Until then I can always count on the French and Spanish artists to make some great 2D items that are amazing…and I also enjoy a well put together anime film.

Chris: Do you think there’ll ever be a day when animators will be studying rough CG animation with the same enthusiasm as we look at drawn pencil tests today?

Jamaal: That’s an interesting question. I don’t know if CG will have that kind of following; anything’s possible. There will be great shots that animators will reference but it’s hard to say if it will be prized as much drawings. There is an idea for someone! A CG animation blog with great shots from all of the computer generated films. It would be a great library of items to look at.

Chris: Learning and sharing information drives a lot of what you do. You’ve taught online courses and developed instructional videos. You’re developing a video right now called Acting, Entertainment, & Variation that’s due out in November. What can people expect to learn from this new video?

Jamaal: I think teaching may be apart of who I am. My mother, four of my aunts and my wife are teachers. I was raised by educators so something probably rubbed off a long the way. Like anything teaching takes time to get skilled at and I surely would like the time to be better at it.

I received some great feedback from the first video [I made], and some very good requests that I didn’t have in the first one. This tutorial–Acting, Entertainment, & Variation– will go over various ideas pertaining to acting that we discuss inside of the studio as well as a few key points that specifically hit on entertainment value in what we do. Even though the last video went through shot creation, I will be doing a bit more in this one as well. I will also go over my bad and good reference and explain why they get these labels, application to the CG puppet, and go over some of the theories that i have learned over the years. There will also be insight from a few veterans that everyone knows in our business.

Chris: We’re looking forward to that. You recently posted a clip (above) from Tangled where you showed how you planned out some of the secondary cape action through drawings. Can you explain how drawing is incorporated into your CG process? I’m assuming you thumbnail everything out, but do you do a lot of what we saw in that clip too?

Jamaal: I definitely draw a lot while I am on a production. Getting into animation you are inspired by those who came before you. Seeing all of those great thumbnails by pros while I was a student just made want to do it as well. Once I became a professional that part of the process stayed with me into CG.

Over the years I have tried to refine how I use drawings and thumbnails. Even when I worked in games I drew out the actions I wanted. For me it’s quicker to draw an appealing and functional pose for the shot or action I am working on. The way I use thumbnails and drawings is to hash out my thoughts and then build on them. You can say it’s a waste of time but for me the more I plan the easier the animation will go.

Animation thumbnails by Jamaal Bradley
Thumbnails by Jamaal Bradley for test animation of Disney’s “Prep & Landing.”

A great plus is if you get a director who used to be an animator or story artist, you can show them the drawings and the get your ideas immediately; I love that! Luckily a lot of studios have software that allows you to draw over your CG. I use this to refine poses or make out arcs and paths of action. In the case of Tangled, we were encouraged to draw specific actions of Rapunzel’s hair or anything that needed specific contact. For the Gothel Death sequence, I drew the cloak in and the hair she is picking up for all of those shots. I wanted it to look a specific way and Glen Keane really wanted to get a nice shape on the hood as her body was against the window. He and the directors liked what I did, so it was up to FX to mimic it…I think they really pulled it off.

Chris: Whereas you could work either as a traditional or computer animator, many younger CG animators coming into the business aren’t particularly skilled draftsmen. Are they at a disadvantage against those who know drawing, or do you think it’s possible to be just as good a CG animator without solid draftsmanship skills?

Jamaal: I don’t think the guys who are not draftsmen are at any huge disadvantage. There are some phenomenal CG animators who can’t even draw a circle. The one thing drawing can give any animator is a sense of appeal beyond something just ‘moving correctly’.

I use the intro scene of O’Malley from Disney’s Aristocats in my classes to illustrate this point. Not once when you are watching the animation do you ‘not believe’ he is a cat. He is performing humanistic movements but never breaks out of how a cat’s anatomy works. The point is that it is a realistic ‘animated’ cat. When I say animated I mean an exaggeration of real life. We as animators can make the audience believe the movements and we decide the degree of exaggeration. Just because the CG human looks slightly real doesn’t mean you can’t push things and make them a bit more appealing. When you make a drawing you have to push things a bit to draw the viewer in otherwise is just a boring drawing. Norman Rockwell is a great example of pushing life! In general, being good at anything that can help your craft is always beneficial.

Chris: If there’s one thing you could tell animators coming into the business today–a piece of advice that you wish someone had told you–what would it be?

Jamaal: This is not something I wish someone told me but it’s advice…. Help lift your peers, the ones that are excelling and the ones that are struggling. Be a gentleman and continue to remind yourself that animation is one part of life, so live yours to be a better animator.

Chris: Are there certain pencil tests out there that you’re looking for that you haven’t found yet, like the Holy Grail of pencil tests?

Jamaal: YES! These tests have been locked away and there are only a tiny few out there. Looney Tunes and Classic Tom & Jerry pencil tests! I have not seen large chunks of pencil tests from either one of these. I never really got into Mickey… I was a Looney Tunes and Tom & Jerry kid. I used to sit on my grandmother’s floor with a piece of Wonder Bread and watch them all day; even the crazy racist ones. If someone is sitting on any of these, share them with the world!


  • http://www.blackdynamite.com LeSean Thomas

    One of this generation’s premiere animators and one of my favorite’s to have a conversation with. Good going brother and thanks to CB for the coverage . :-)

  • Old Man Father Time

    We welcome you to Cartoon Brew and I look forward to these interviews!

  • James Madison

    I visit penciltestdepot.com all the time!

    Very helpful site!

  • http://www.artofdarnell.blogspot.com Darnell Johnson

    Great interview Jamaal! I follow penciltestdepot.com and I always come away inspired. Congrats!