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Animator Andreas Deja breathes life into Disney characters and more

Animator Andreas Deja breathes life into Disney characters and more
Animator Andreas Deja wanted Jafar to contrast the "bounciness" of the other characters in "Aladdin." (Disney)

Andreas Deja is a famed Disney animator who during his multiple decades at the Burbank studio brought a reserved humanity to young Lilo in "Lilo & Stitch," a ghostly menace to the composed malevolence of Jafar in "Aladdin" and a frightening fancifulness to the tortuous Scar in "The Lion King."

Today, he's also required reading.

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His blog, Deja View, offers a behind-the-scenes glimpse at the animation process. In the past month, he's shared stories about his struggles on "The Lion King" and offered short dissections of animation classics, from the flowers with "attitude issues" in "Alice in Wonderland" to the expert tilts-of-the-head that acclaimed Disney artist Milt Kahl brought to Wendy in "Peter Pan."

FULL COVERAGE: D23 EXPO

"I go to his blog fairly often," admits John Musker, who with Ron Clements directed Disney's "Aladdin," "The Princess and the Frog," "The Little Mermaid" and more.

Deja, who first wrote to Disney asking for a job when he was 11 years old — and living in Germany, unable to speak English — will on Friday share the stage with George Lucas, Danny Elfman and several others being inducted at this weekend's Disney fan convention D23 Expo into the Disney Legends program, which honors the artists and business leaders who have made what is deemed a "significant impact on the Disney Legacy."

Having joined Disney in August 1980, when the studio was in the early stages of work on "The Black Cauldron," Deja's artistry knew no stylistic bounds. The exaggerated, outrageous hare that starred in 'Who Framed Roger Rabbit"? Deja contributed. The seemingly perfect man — Gaston in "Beauty and the Beast" — who turned into a horror show? That was Deja's handiwork.

"Moving drawings are the ultimate magic trick," Deja says. "It shouldn't be possible to see drawings move and communicate. There is a technique where you can fool the eye and people's minds and you can make them believe that these drawings are real living beings."

Today, the 58-year-old is just getting started. He's at work on his own independent animated film, "Mushka," a short that will celebrate the sort of hand-drawn animation that is nearest to Deja's heart. This fall, he'll release his first book, "The Nine Old Men: Lessons, Techniques, and Inspiration from Disney's Great Animators."

"Maybe it will get some students excited about this medium," Deja says of the book, due to be published by Focal Press. "This is a medium where you can really self-express yourself. It's you and paper and then you can do some magic if you put your heart and soul into it."

Deja is an animator in the most classical sense of the term. While he says he admires the realism and the advancements of today's computer-generated imagery (CGI), it's still a pencil and paper that gets Deja most excited. No surprise, as one of his greatest passions has been to absorb the lessons of Disney's original animators.

His time at the studio made him something of a scholar of Disney's celebrated "Nine Old Men," the core animators who defined the look and standard for which all animation is still judged.

"I sort of became a Disney historian, I guess," Deja says.

A graduate of the Folkwang University of the Arts in Essen, Germany, Deja was recruited to work for Disney by Eric Larson, whose own résumé included "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs." Upon arriving in the States, Deja hunted down other surviving members of the Nine Old Men. That's how Larson, Kahl, Oliver Martin "Ollie" Johnston Jr. and Frank Thomas all became mentors.

Eventually, he began searching for their rough early sketches and purchased them at auctions, if need be. Deja says he "made a deal" with Thomas and Johnston to acquire much of their unpublished art not owned by Disney. Some of his acquisitions appear on his blog. Some will surface in his book. He will also share some of the lessons he learned from spending time with the then-surviving Nine Old Men.

"The bad news when I started in 1980 was, 'Oh my God, the old guys have just retired. I can't believe it. I'm too late!' The good news was they were still around — seven of the nine old men were still around," Deja says. "So I looked them up. I invited them to dinners. I just hung out with them and just kept asking them, 'How did you do that? What was it like to work on 'Jungle Book'?"

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Among the lessons from the late but now fellow Disney Legends?

"You find out it wasn't all just fun," Deja says. "They had challenges and frustrations. Frank Thomas would tell me that he never thought he was a good enough draftsman, that there were other people at the studio who drew better. He really struggled with that. It made these people human. They had their struggles."

Deja too.

"Aladdin" directors Clements and Musker talked about how Deja brought to life the work of storyboard artist Daan Jippes on Jafar. "They had menace, they had a cartoony-ness and a power," Musker recalls of Jippes' stills.

Yet Deja was unsure what to do with Jafar.

"I had a problem finding him in the beginning," he says, noting that so much of the film, from the larger-than-life Genie to the mischievous monkey Abu, were "so animated." His solution? Dial the villain down.

"How was I going to handle Jafar to create a little darkness in the movie? Is he also going to be expressive in his gestures? Should I hold him still? The more I thought about that, the more I realized that the successful scenes are the ones where he is holding still and you just see him scheming and thinking and plotting. I was holding him back to contrast the bounciness of the characters."

It was a lesson Deja would remember nearly a decade later when working on "Lilo & Stitch." The young and troubled Lilo, struggling to keep the social workers at bay, at first vexed Deja.

He says drawings by director Chris Sanders reminded him of those from early Disney animator Fred Moore, whose takes, Deja says, on Mickey Mouse, as well as the Seven Dwarfs, were "very soft and round." Thus, Deja started drawing Lilo broadly, full of excited reactions and big gestures.

It wasn't long before he learned that was the wrong way to go. He recalled a scene in which Lilo was arguing with her sister, which forced him to see the movie in a new light.

"I thought, 'Wait a minute, this is just like back at home. This is not a crazy fantasy. This is real. These are real people.' Then the whole thing became very grounded to me. I was able to really crawl into that little girl's head, and animate her from the inside out. I understood her situation and her loneliness."

And thus, Deja learned the art of a "subtle tilt of the head."

He's open about his art because it's clear Deja wants young animators to learn from him the way he absorbed the knowledge of earlier Disney greats. His own film, "Mushka," will be a departure from his Disney work.

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"It will have a slightly different look than the cell-painted Disney look, where you have clean drawings with flat color shapes," he says. "I want mine to look more sketchbook style. Like you open my sketchbook and the drawings come to life."

His career was guided by the principles that came from his first-ever rejection, when the 11-year-old son of a steelworker and a stay-at-home mom asked Walt Disney Studios what kind of openings could he expect to find. Disney sent him back a form letter, which Deja still has.

"The main advice that they gave me was, 'Please, do not send us any copies of Mickey Mouse. We can teach you that. You need to become an artist in your own right first. Watch the world around you. Draw your brothers and sisters. Go to the zoo. Sketch the animals a lot. See how they move. See how they're built, in terms of muscle and bone structure.'"

"I did all that," Deja adds. "I took it very seriously. They told me I had to know the human figure. I did that for years and I sketched at local zoos in Cologne. I knew I had to be good. I knew I had to be above average."

Twitter: @Toddmartens

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D23 Expo 2015

Where: Anaheim Convention Center, 800 W Katella Ave., Anaheim

When:Aug. 14-16

Tickets:Single-day passes for adults start at $74 (cheaper for D23 members); Saturday and three-day passes are sold-out.

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