talks about his career as a Disney animator
by Scott Wolf
one of the few people in Disney history who has the distinction of
actually animating a character he provides the voice for.
Tony Anselmo's animation career is as fascinating as
his role as the voice of Donald Duck. I
am grateful that he was willing to sit down and talk with me about his
fascinating dual career.
I found his stories fascinating and it delights me to be able to share
them with you.
Scott Wolf: What were you doing before you worked for Disney and how did you end up working for Disney?
Tony Anselmo: It was a goal that I had since I was four when I went to see “Mary Poppins” with my dad. I was so blown away by all the magic in that picture. It was the first movie I’d ever seen.
So with that along with all those great Disney special effects, I remember leaving and asking, “How did they do that?” “Who did that?” “Where do they do that?” He told me, and from that point I wanted to work for Disney. I never wanted to be a fireman like other kids, I always wanted to work for the happiest studio on Earth.
In grade school and junior high I would write to the nine old men, Frank (Thomas) and Ollie (Johnston) and several other people at the studio asking what it was that I needed to know to do Disney animation. I loved art anyway and this would be a great way to make a living doing something I loved.
SW: Did they write back?
TA: Oh yeah, every time. In those days nobody knew what an animator was. Now everybody does. They’ve got a lot of people that try to approach them. In those days they were unsung heroes really. So the fact that anybody knew who they were, I think they were impressed or flattered. Not to mention they were all very kind and generous.
I wrote back and forth a lot and Ollie would send me drawings. He'd say you need to know quick sketch and life drawing. All the things that he said I needed I went and took classes at night when I was in high school and got my portfolio together.
So for my whole childhood I really focused all my efforts on getting into Disney.
At sixteen, I brought my portfolio down to the studio. I showed Ollie and the gentleman who was running the animation department at the time, whose name ironically enough was Don Duckwall and Jack Hannah was running Cal Arts. They all looked at my portfolio and said, “Okay, we’ll hire you, but we want you to go to Cal Arts for a little while.” I said, “Okay, I’d love to go, but I can’t afford it and my Dad won't let me.”
My dad wanted me to go to business school. He said, "You go to business school and then if you want to go to art school later you can".” I knew that I didn’t want to have anything to do with business.
They said, “Step out in the hall for a bit,” and then they called me in and said, “We’re going to send you.” I actually got a Disney Fellowship full scholarship through the Disney family to Cal Arts, so I didn’t have to worry about my dad trying to hold me back, and have always been very grateful to the Disney family for their generosity and help
SW: And Cal Arts had a connection with Disney…
TA: At that time it was an absolute connection. Walt set the school up thru Chouinard (Art Institute). Cal Arts had a school of music, and dance, and theatre and art. The character animation program which I was in was run entirely by Disney veterans. Jack Hannah was teaching animation, Ken O’Conner taught perspective/Layout, T. Hee taught caricature. We had design and life drawing with Elmer Plummer who was a stylist with the studio. I was in heaven and sucked everything they had to teach up like a sponge.
SW: Was the point for Cal Arts to train you to work specifically at Disney?
TA: In my case it was because I was on the Disney Fellowship as it was for several others. It wasn’t in every case. We all had to do a film and a lot of other studios came and looked at them at the end of the year as well, Disney being one of them. Disney would usually pick two to five people at the end of year to come to the studio, but I had already shown them my portfolio and they had sent me there.
I have to give Jack Hannah a lot of credit as well because I still had to cut the mustard. I still had to get good grades and show that I had what it took and Jack spent a lot of time with me. I wanted to know everything they had to pass down.
After about two and a half years they said, “Okay, the studio wants you now.”
Even when I was hired on officially as an employee I was put in a program they don’t have anymore and haven’t for years called the Disney School of Animation on the lot. There were fifteen of us in my class and we didn’t even work on Production. We were still going to school but now we were getting paid for it.
It was just like the old days in the 30s with Don Graham where we had more life drawing and we had to learn about story and editing, how to run the camera, and everything from exposure sheets to music… the whole gamut.
That was with Eric Larsen, one of the “nine old men.” On Thursdays we would go up to Walt’s screening room and watch, “Ichabod and Mr. Toad” or “Lady and the Tramp” or something and he’d talk about it and show it frame by frame. It was an invaluable experience that they really don’t do anymore.
SW: What year was that?
TA: Mid or late 70s. It was two and a half years of Cal Arts and then eight months of training at the studio before we were actually put on Production on “Mickey’s Christmas Carol.”
Even then there were four of us that were taken out of that original fifteen as animators to work on “Mickey’s Christmas Carol” with Eric.
The Director Burny Mattinson gave Eric the dance sequence at Fezziwig’s party. Eric would pass along those scenes thru us and we’d work on them and he’d go over our stuff. So that was a good year of working with Eric.
SW: What did you do after “Mickey’s Christmas Carol?”
TA: I worked on every feature that we did in California, not the ones obviously that they did in Florida, but I worked on every feature from that point on, “Little Mermaid,” “Beauty and the Beast,” and “Lion King” up until the last one of traditional animation that was done.
SW: Do you think the process was the same as the 1930s at that point?
TA: Oh yeah, absolutely, other than ink & paint.
“Little Mermaid” was the last one they had inked and painted cels. After that they did the coloring digitally, which was actually kind of nice because then they could have colored ink lines again.
Since “101 Dalmatians” it was Xeroxed… kind of a black Xerox line.
But, everybody was on the same page. Everyone there was trained like I was from Frank (Thomas) and Ollie (Johnston) being trained with Don Graham and Walt in the 30s to us being trained with them. It was all about doing the highest quality character animation possible. You didn’t turn anything in until it was right.
We were taught to look at everything and say, “How can I plus that?” “How can I make it better?” whether you’re the background painter or the in-betweener or the editor, everybody plusses it. In that style it hadn’t changed at all.
SW: Do you have any favorite memories of your career at Disney so far?
TA: My happiest memories are being able to work with folks who worked with Walt. They were so willing to share their experience and their knowledge and the tricks of the trade.
The times that I was animating scenes with Eric Larsen are some of the happiest moments of my life, and going to sessions with Clarence Nash
(the original voice of Donald Duck) and watching him work.
He spent a lot of time volunteering, like he would go at least once a week across the street to St. Joseph’s hospital, to the children’s ward to entertain sick kids.
One day I went with him and the nurse came up to him and said, “You know, there’s a little boy who just had his tonsils out and he’s screaming. He’s been crying for two days and if he doesn’t stop he’s going to hurt himself.” So Clarence went over with his Donald Duck puppet and put it right in the little boy’s face and said, (in Donald Duck’s voice) “Shut up!” and the kid did.
More from Tony:
How he became the voice
of Donald Duck
See other interviews