Recently-retired Disney legend Mark Henn appeared on The Bancroft Brothers Animation Podcast last week and shed some light on his decision to leave the only studio he’s ever worked for after 43 years with the company.
The 90-minute interview covers a lot of territory and while Henn answers diplomatically, the chat is surprisingly somber in tone. Twin brothers Tom and Tony Bancroft worked at the Disney Animation Florida studio in the Nineties, when Henn was one of the studio’s artistic leaders, and they press Henn to discuss how he was treated by the Disney Company over the years. They also repeatedly come back to the subject of how Disney features have abandoned hand-drawn animation in favor of cg.
Here are five takeaways from Henn’s appearance on the podcast.
Henn’s Work At Disney No Longer Felt Meaningful
About 20 minutes into the podcast, Henn explains that one of the key reasons he decided to pack away his pencils was that the studio was asking him to do work that didn’t feel meaningful. Asked if he would have liked to stay until his 45th or even 50th anniversary with the company, Henn replied in the affirmative, saying:
If the work had been more meaningful, I think I would have stayed… It wasn’t what I signed up for. Some of it was interesting. Some of the stuff we were doing for the parks was kind of fun, but the other projects — I know the people that are running that [legacy] department are doing everything they can to keep 2d alive as long as they possibly can… it just wasn’t as fulfilling.
Henn says that for over 20 years, since he directed the 2000 animated short John Henry, he’s felt “like I’ve had a sign on my back that said, ‘Don’t let this guy direct.'” Making matters worse, Henn says two ideas he pitched to the studio were later made by other filmmakers at other Disney-affiliated studios:
I had pitched an idea about a true story based on a carrier pigeon in World War II… there was some interest, and then they finally passed on it. Several months later, the studio announced they’re doing Valiant, and I had a development person come racing down to my office to try to explain why these things happen. And then, in the early 2000s, I pitched the idea of having airplanes, and they got some interest, and then it was passed on saying it was too close to Cars.
Valiant ended up being produced by Vanguard Animation, which had a distribution deal with Disney, and Planes was later produced by Disneytoon Studios.
At Disney, ‘It’s a CG World’
Asked about how Disney has changed in the four-plus decades he was at the company, Henn didn’t hesitate in answering:
Well, it’s a cg world, and that’s a fact. That changed years ago. Home on the Range was supposed to be the last [2d film]. Thankfully, we got to do Princess and the Frog and Winnie the Pooh after we had another management change.
He went on to explain the reasons why 2d animation has fallen out of favor at the studio and explained why it’s highly unlikely that modern-day Disney would ever consider a return to hand-drawn animation:
Since then, I think it’s just too difficult for the studio to justify essentially creating a second studio within this current studio in order to do 2d, which is what you had when we had Princess and the Frog and Winnie the Pooh. We essentially had literally two smaller studios under one roof, and I just think that that became too much of a financial risk. Right now, we’re barely able to house everybody that we have on staff. So, I mean, there’s all kinds of logistical things from where you’re going to put people to taking that risk.
End of an Era
During the interview, the Bancrofts and Henn talk extensively about friends and colleagues that they share. Two names that come up repeatedly are Disney’s only other top hand-drawn holdovers: Eric Goldberg and Randy Haycock.
According to Henn, Goldberg and Haycock are mostly working remote these days. In fact, he says that Goldberg recently moved, and the Bancrofts imply that he may be joining Henn in retirement soon. When Goldberg and Haycock do call it quits, there will be no key 2d animators from the Nineties “Disney renaissance” period left working full-time at the studio. Besides the latter two, the only full-time 2d animation artists currently employed in the company’s ‘creative legacy’ department are supervising key assistant animator Rachel Bibb and a couple trainees.
Not Finished Just Yet
Although Henn’s time as a full-time Disney employee ended earlier than he may have hoped, he explained that he would be back at the studio this spring to wrap up one loose end:
The plan is I will be going back, as I left a project that I had started unfinished. I had started a little short film. I had a conversation with [Walt Disney Animation Studios president] Clark [Spencer], and he assured me to not put the pressure on myself to try to get it done by the end of the year.
So, while Henn’s time as a full-time Disney animator is done, there is still a bit more to come from the artist who supervised the animation of iconic Disney characters such as Ariel, Belle, Jasmine, Mulan, and Tiana.