Bill Dennis Bill Dennis

William “Bill” Paul Dennis Sr., longtime Disney executive and a leading figure in the development of the Southeast animation business, died on January 22 in his sleep, surrounded by family, at his home in Washington, Utah. He was 80 years old.

Dennis was born in Marion, Indiana on April 30, 1942. He attended Indiana University and graduated from Rollins College before starting a career in retail merchandise management. After several years in merchandise, Dennis relocated and joined the the Walt Disney Company’s merchandising division in 1973. There, he was accepted into the executive training program and served in several management positions at the company’s parks and resorts in Orlando.

In the early 1980s, he worked on the launch of Disney’s EPCOT theme park as a manpower planning and training strategist. Dennis later shifted to working at Walt Disney Studios in Burbank, where he held a variety of roles, including vice president of human resources in the feature animation division. In the latter role, he orchestrated the talent and resources for Disney features including Oliver & Company, The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King.

Speaking with Skwigly in 2004, Dennis explained his motivation for leaving Disney after two decades and why he went abroad:

After 20 years with the same studio, it was time to try something new. I wanted to find more exciting and challenging opportunities. And what could be more interesting than helping to promote animation in developing countries?

Following his work at Disney, Dennis became general manager of Hanna Barbera’s 600-person-plus overseas studio Fil-Cartoons in Manila, Philippines. While in charge, the studio worked on the What a Cartoon! series, which hosted the earliest episodes of Cartoon Network classics Dexter’s Laboratory, The Powerpuff Girls, Johnny Bravo, and Cow and Chicken.

Dennis implemented numerous changes to the studio to improve working conditions and boost the morale of the workers, as he explained to Skiwgly:

Several artists actually lived at the studio, sleeping in their cubicle areas and going home to their families in the provinces on weekends. This had to change right away, so we built a small 60-bed dormitory, charging the artists a nominal fee to cover costs. We also held family days, so that artists’ spouses and children could get a tour of the studio and learn more about what we were doing.

Dennis encouraged the crew to develop their own ideas in addition to doing service work, which resulted in projects like the What a Cartoon! short Swamp and Tad and the UNICEF PSA about children’s rights, Child Soldiers.

A tour of the Manila studio, presented by Dennis, can be seen below:

In 1999, Dennis co-founded Toonz Animation Studio in Trivandrum, Kerala, India, and served as CEO of the fledgling company. The company today employs over 3,000 people.

At Toonz, Dennis produced The Adventures of Tenali Raman, which was the first Indian 2d animation series, and he set up the company’s cg division, which would co-produce its first series, Finley the Fire Engine, in 2007. Dennis targeted his efforts toward developing the infrastructure and talent for the Indian animation industry, and was involved in numerous activities beyond the studio, including launching the Week with the Masters Animation Festival in Kerala and the Toonz Webel Animation Academy in Kolkata.

Now a well-regarded hub of animation activity, Kerala’s industry owes greatly to the groundwork that Dennis and his team laid down at Toonz. In 2000, the Indian government awarded Dennis with the Rashtriya Rattan Award for outstanding individual achievement and distinguished service to the nation.

“[H]is vision and passion has given identity to Trivandrum as one of the important animation centers in India,” said current Toonz Media Group CEO P. Jayakumar in a statement on Dennis’s passing. “The seeds sown by him have sprouted and grown into a global kids and entertainment major.”

Bill Dennis
Dennis speaking to a class of students in India.

While at Toonz, Dennis founded the ASIFA India chapter and continued to serve as emeritus president after his retirement. He was also the executive director of ASIFA International for a period of time.

Later in his career, Dennis was a founding partner of Zanymation Associates, a boutique studio with offices in the U.S. and Germany. Before retiring, he was also a founding partner of L.A.’s International Animation Consulting Group.

Dennis is survived by his wife of 58 years, Rhonda Dennis; his three children Tiersa (Perry Vayo) Dennis, William (Paul) (Amy Carney) Dennis Jr., and Mireille Dennis Evans; and three grandchildren; Noah Dennis, Alex Evans, and Grayce Dennis. He is also survived by his sister Jackie Hetler and many beloved nieces and nephews.