An Interview With: Phil Young
Written by Cary Nelson

Phil Young worked at Disney Animation for 24 years, animating characters like Mufasa, Mrs. Potts, Aladdin, Quasimodo, Kuzco, and Ariel. He experienced large company changes first hand and worked along side some of the biggest names in Disney Animation. He designed the guards in Aladdin and the stove in Beauty and the Beast. He's also worked for Warner Brothers, DreamWorks, Ralph Bakshi, and Duck-Soup Studios where he animated commercial mascots such as Tony the Tiger, Tucan Sam, and The Great Rollupo.
He was the Shakespearean actor on the TV in Oliver and Company and co-stared in the 1982 Tim Burton short film Luau as "The Kahuna."
From studying art at a community college, to joining the military, to having an illustrious career in character animation, he now teaches animation and character design to college students.

I've had the great opportunity to get to know Phil over the past year and asked him a few questions through email recently.

You didn't start out looking to work in animation. What were you trying to do before? And could you please go over how you got into working in animation and at Disney? Did you think your stay at Disney would last very long? What was the first thing you ever animated? Phil Young: I'll take the parts of this question in the order you've listed. Originally, my goals were mostly to get the degree, knowing that would open doors enough for my work to be seen by prospective employers .The BFA was for Illustration, which came about through several changes along the way. I had declared an art major through several years at Community College, then entered at Long Beach State to finish the upper level classes. At that time I was a Fine Arts Major (Drawing and Painting) and with a teaching credential to allow me teach on a High School or College level if I needed.
Then I decided to go for a Bio-Medical certificate, due to lots of figure drawing and anatomy studies I did in the first couple of years there. Finally, in my Junior year, I opted for Illustration, which was offered as an option in the new BFA program. I chose Illustration, as I felt I had a real ability to tell stories through my work. That set me up as a candidate for an Animation career, though I wasn't sure; I was open to anything that would allow me to make a decent living at graduation time.

Being hired by Disney was really something out of left field. As I was talking with some of the grads I'd studied with, I happened on a guy who had graduated a year before me, and who was working as a Background Painter at the studio. Their department was only a couple of people at that time (1977), the whole studio having dwindled to a tiny crew compared to the glory days of the 30's to 50's. I met the exec. In charge of screening potential artists, and he filled me in on what they wanted to see from an applicant.
I submitted three times before I felt pretty sure I had the right stuff, and they apparently agreed. I started training in October of 1977, having finished school the previous May, almost no gap at all. All luck and timing. Initially, after I'd been there awhile, I thought the place would go under, and felt that at least I'd have good stuff in my portfolio for whatever came next. The first thing I animated, that actually appeared in a production, was the scene in "Fox & Hound" where Tod tries to show off for Vixey by catching a fish. That was in 1979.
When you came to Disney, you had training. What was the training like and how long did it take? You also got to the company in time to be mentored by a few of the remaining "9 old men." Were they good teachers? And what's some advice that they gave the new artists that stuck with you through your career? P.Y.: Immediately after reporting to work at Disney Feature Animation on my first day, I was shown the room I'd be sharing with two other applicants, and one trainee who was finishing his second test animation. We were then introduced to Eric Larson, one of Walt's "nine old men", who had been working there since the 1930's.
Among other things, Eric had been the Animation Director on "Lady & the Tramp" in the 1950's, and had done work on "Snow White" and most of the other big features of the golden era of the studio. Eric was quite optimistic about the future, seeing a younger generation of animators coming in who might once again infuse life into a studio that had lapsed into relative mediocrity. He told us that the future could be ours, lifting the product of Disney animation to new heights. It eventually came to be as he predicted, but unfortunately he passed away a short time before completion of "Oliver & Company", before the truly dramatic comeback of Disney in the favor of worldwide audiences with the release of "The Little Mermaid".

The trainee period for new animation trainees at that time consisted of the producing of a bit of animation over a four-week period. If it was entertaining and reasonably well done, we were then given a second month to complete another one. If we showed improvement, and were judged to have potential, we were then assigned the beginning production position, rough in-betweens. In my case, that was on "The Small One", a Christmas featurette.
The training continued on into production time. Those of us who aspired to Animator positions continued to work on little bits of animation scenes, our own ideas and on our own time, in order to climb the ladder for promotion a bit faster.

Frank, Ollie, Eric, Ward Kimball and Woolie Reitherman were around on an ongoing basis for us to learn from, and were an invaluable resource for those of us just learning. They continued to sit on the review board, and were responsible for picking out those of us they considered the "hot prospects" among the crew. ALL the advice they gave us was of great value, and it's hard to really pick out the most memorable. One thing I remember is that Eric Larson believed the most important principle in animation was Shape Change. I'll buy that.
What was your experience prior to getting the job [at Disney]? Did anything surprise you when you joined the company? P.Y.: Prior to arriving at Disney Feature Animation, I had been a lifelong art student. From my earliest days, my drawing was the form of expression that was most often praised by the people in my life. A major influence in that direction was my mother, who had always been a natural artist, and who completed a course in art by mail in the mid 1940's, while she was in a long period of recuperation from an injury. I used to watch her working on watercolors, her medium of choice, and it seemed a natural thing for someone to be doing.
As I went through grade school my teachers consistently mentioned my "visual storytelling" in the reports they sent home. In High School, where we were able to have a "major" subject, I chose an art major, and was so avid that I had finished all the requirements at the end of my junior year, but repeated them all during senior year to get more experience. I had also started in school drama presentations during my junior year, and played the lead in most of them throughout the senior year. My high school teachers were excellent, but aside from art and drama, my grades were mediocre in all the other classes. College was put on hold.
Five years after HS graduation found me married, working, and subject to the military draft due to the buildup of forces for the Vietnam conflict. I decided to enlist, so that I could feel it was my choice. My work at a restaurant coffee company seemed like a frustrating dead end as well, so I wasn't that unwilling to try the military to have the opportunity to get an art degree on the G.I. Bill after I served my active duty.
The Army years were actually good ones for several reasons. I was assigned to Germany, my wife was able to join me, and we saw the birth of our first child. The other big plus was that I was finally given an official paid job as an artist! I was trained as a clerk-typist in my advanced training, but arriving at my assigned headquarters in Germany, the call went out for someone with some art training, and I volunteered for what was to have been a temporary job.
My unit was to move out shortly for NATO maneuvers in Greece & Turkey, and before it was over I had been assigned to the training HQ as a Draftsman/Illustrator, a job I never knew existed before I went into active duty. I became a somewhat pivotal person, as our Colonel had me doing all kinds of public relations stuff for the various bigwigs among the foreign military we were training with; Turks, Greeks, Belgians, Brits, Germans and some civilians. I ended up serving in that position for my three years of active duty, continuing it when we were eventually moved stateside to Fort Riley, Kansas, and attaining the rank of Sergeant.

As for my being hired eventually by Disney, the biggest initial surprise was that I had to join the Animator's Union in order to work there. I didn't somehow equate the idea of artists in a union. 'Turns out they need it; just like the Screen Actors Guild, the Animation Guild is our best business rep.!
You were doing clean up until Don Bluth left with a good number of artists. What were you feeling when you were bumped up to animator at that point? Was it intimidating? P.Y.: I had been at the studio for about two years when Bluth left with twelve of our animators, leaving us with about 15 to finish "The Fox & the Hound", which was only about one third completed. This situation caused management to rush about five of us who were working as animating assistants into promotion as full animators.

In my animating assistant program, I had been assigned to learn cleanup skills under the tutelage of Walt Stanchfield, who headed the cleanup department at that time. He was one of the most consummate artists ever to hold that position. I learned much more than cleanup from Walt; I also learned things about animating that I've never forgotten. The Monday after the Bluth departure, myself and the other animating assistants all got the word we were being bumped up to animator.

I found working directly with the directors was more to my liking than having to clear all my stuff with Glenn Keane before it was sent to the directors. I suppose it was my own vanity, but my footage began to climb like it never had, and I felt pretty good about things. It was sometime later before I realized how much I'd learned working with Glenn, and continued to do so for the remainder of my time on the picture, co-animating with him on the bear fight at the end of the story. I think I was too busy working to feel intimidated. I also had a pretty big ego at that time; I think it's deflated a bit over the years.
Your first screen credit was Foods and Fun: A Nutrition Adventure (1980), a PSA. Did you think that was going to be the largest project you'd get to work on and what do you remember doing on that project? P.Y.: I think this is the first time I've heard that title in years! I always knew it as "the Orange Bird" while I was working on it. This came along as a freelance gig someone told me about. It was during the time I was doing key cleanup with Stanchfield, and I was feeling I would need to keep freelance going, and that the promotion to animator might be sometime later in coming.
Orange Bird Title Orange Bird Sweeping Orange Bird Credit ©Disney
It was a big shot in the arm, getting an animation assignment from a credible source, and through the help of some friends I'd made during my time there. The studio was a small company from Ohio that had been sub-contracted to Disney to do some public service spots. The studio was run by Rick Reinert, who was a great guy to work for, giving me total control on the character's action, as long as the message got through. We finished the piece, it was deemed worthy, and I'd made a good freelance contact. Right around this time, the Bluthies had flown, and the promotion was right around the corner! I never really doubted I'd make animator, but the Orange Bird really helped with my animator's confidence.

One of the things I remember was having my daughter, about nine years old at the time, do some acting for the scenes I was doing, and making sketches of her performance.
When Michael Eisner and Jeffery Katzenberg came in, you would have been working at the studio for a few years at that point, did the animation team and them hit it off right away? P.Y.: When the Eisner/Wells/Katzenberg era came in, everyone felt on thin ice. We'd really had no advance word of what we might expect, but kept our fingers crossed.
A big outdoor meeting was held on the backlot; Eisner and Frank Wells introduced themselves, and Michael looked pretty friendly, initially. He was not like the traditional Disney leadership, and we picked up on that very shortly. The company policy had always been "first name basis" up to this time, and that extended all the way to the top, including Walt, Roy, and Walt's successor, son-in- law Ron Miller. Eisner, on the other hand, was never felt to be down at our level, but of his "upper management" status. People got used to holding doors for him and being totally unseen or acknowledged.
The good things that happened came about due to his management guys Katzenberg, Peter Schneider and others who listened to Roy Disney when he assured them that animation was the heart of the organization. They came through the department and went in to see the processes involved in feature animation for themselves; asking questions such as "can't it be done with fewer drawings?" and other typical questions from the world outside animation. They seemed to get some good answers, especially when they asked several of us what we thought would help get the department realizing its potential, and we all answered with words to the effect that we needed better stories, better ideas, better writers, better publicity, etc.
Armed with feedback that was unanimous, the new studio heads set about putting those ideas into effect. It was never that simple, but all were on the same page; we had to make money or we'd cease to exist!
Where did the employees think the company (and the animation) was headed before the late 1980's and 1990's? P.Y.: There was nothing to indicate that things would improve as suddenly as they did, at least looking back on it now. When I came to work at Disney it was 1977. Ten years later, the animation department finally started a resurgence after a long period of uncertainty. During that intervening ten years, many of us "kept our bags packed", so we could quickly form a "plan B" if the occasion arose.
My initial reaction was to try not to let my hopes get too high. It was truly a heady experience to find myself accepted as a trainee at a place that held so much importance to my growing up years. Added to that, our trainee tutelage under Eric Larson was more than I could have dreamed of. The first day when he addressed the three of us new trainees, and showed around his office, we were like star-struck fans.
Eric told us about interviewing Peggy Lee in this very room when she was cast as the voice of Peg in "Lady & the Tramp". I felt like I should pinch myself to see if this was real. Eric went on to tell us his belief that the studio had yet to realize its greatest potential, which would be brought about by the new generation of animators being trained at that time. To me, he represented a possibility that we beginning animators might emulate him; we might go on to work at the studio for 50 years, and see our 80 th birthday, still creating art at Disney.
Eric was right in foreseeing a resurgence of the art form, but not in ways any of us anticipated. I kept my stuff packed and ready to go for a long time before the trend changed for the better.
What was the atmosphere like at Disney during the renaissance compared to before and after it? How did this affect the employees and animators? P.Y.: At the height of the 'renaissance' feelings were pretty positive, but we had all seen so much change over the years that none of the veteran animators felt it would be all up and no down. Most felt "Lion King" would be the high point, but none were sure what the coming features would be like; would the material stay up to the new standard?
The process leading up to the height had been the first spike in public interest in Disney Animation in quite a few years. We knew that the features we were working on were a step in the right direction. After the release of "The Great Mouse Detective", we plowed into "Oliver & Company". "Great Mouse" hadn't attracted much attention, although it was great fun working on a real "cartoon" after so many years on more reality-based stories.
With "Oliver", the new management had put their full-on publicity push behind the release, and it paid off with the first big box office hit we'd had in years, plus finally beating Bluth for positive public reaction. While "Oliver" didn't feel to us like an artistic success, we all knew "The Little Mermaid" was in development full-bore, with Musker and Clemmons at the helm, and we were all sure we had a winner, one that would at least up the quality standard of the new animators to a new level. When it was released, it exceeded that on all levels.
From that point on, the confidence and feelings of success continued to grow with each feature (with the exception of "Rescuers Down Under", which drooped a bit). When we got to "Lion King", as I've mentioned, we (the veterans) began to have nagging doubts, as it seemed there had been almost too much going well, and something would come along to screw it up. As it turned out, it was the rush on the part of management to get too many projects going at once. The result was a lot of half-baked ideas not really worked out that well. Michael Eisner's goal of "A Lion King Every Year!"
So, from "Pocahontas" on, we were all on "keep yr stuff packed" status, and some of us were lucky enough to be employed elsewhere before the final axe fell at the end of 2003.
And when PIXAR came into the picture, how did that effect them? P.Y.: The advent of Pixar was the "final straw" for traditional animation, and it was underlined in certain terms with the release of "Toy Story". Up to that time it was a wait and see period to find if they could put a complete feature together from a medium that had taken considerable work just to be an effective form for very short spots. The box office confirmed; a new contender had taken the medium by storm. Several of us long-term veterans figured we should jump onto a feature and see about learning the new technology, and a few of us ended up on the crew of "Dinosaur", and nearly all of us lived to regret it.
Pixar has definitely changed the art form. The future of animation overall still remains be seen, as new technology quickly replaces old. Underlying it all is the need for artists to stay in the mix, as technology by itself is obviously not enough.
After Katzenberg left, what did you think after you heard he was starting up with DreamWorks? Did this effect anything Disney was doing at that point? Did any of the animators go see Antz or Prince of Egypt when they came out? P.Y.: We were sorry to see Jeffrey K. leaving. Even though he was often pretty abrasive, he had proven that he had a good eye for the overall production on all the features. He was always able to pick out the parts that were not working. He would stop at any point in the picture and say "this part here; it's not working! The audience will be going to sleep! I don't have any specific suggestions; that's for you story guys to sort out, but get that stuff changed and let's see what you can come up with." As a critical eye, he was at his best.

As for the effects of DreamWorks on Disney, they were not long in coming. As Jeffrey was aware of many of the hottest animators, he began to recruit them away from Disney, offering more money (the magic touch), and began to build a competitive animation entity. One very positive effect was that everyone's salary started going up, throughout the industry.

I think that virtually everyone in the industry went to see "Prince of Egypped" and "Antz" just to check out the competition, if nothing else. And there wasn't much else anyone had to say about "Prince"; it was drop-dead boring. I guess "Antz" was okay, though I don't remember anything about it except the digital animation was up to the standard of the time.
After leaving Disney in the early 2000's, you did some jobs at DreamWorks and Warner Brothers, how did those opportunities come around? Did you enjoy your time at these studios? P.Y.: At the end of 2002, my work on "Sweating Bullets" (later to become "Home on the Range" before its release) was completed, and I left Disney on something less than an "upswing". It seemed that about twelve of the veteran traditional animators had become "too expensive" to retain, and my name was among that elite corps.
Fortunately, Jeffrey Katzenberg and many others on the DreamWorks crew remembered some of us, and we were picked up to work on "Sinbad", the last traditional film that would be released by that studio. The time at DreamWorks passed uneventfully, but it was different from Disney in many ways. The crew there had worked together for quite a while at that time, and in many day-to- day situations, I felt like an outsider. I had Alex Williams (son of Richard) as a roommate, and that helped considerably, as we'd worked on several films together at the Mouseworks.
By the time I got finished with my work on "Sinbad", I had already spoken to the folks at SCAD in Savannah, GA, and it was looking probable I'd be hired as a professor in their animation department. Meantime I had made a half-hearted attempt to do story work at DreamWorks, and made a presentation, but they felt it was half-hearted, and I moved onto the next gig, "Looney Tunes Back in Action" at WB. It was kind of a nice swan-song for my exit from the Industry, although it was pretty dreadful as a film. Many traditional people spent their final days of feature quality animation on the project, and there were a few wacky, fun times, but somehow everything seemed more melancholy as we neared the end. Some group lunches were held, with mostly the theme being "Here's to the end of an era. We'll never see the like again." Most lunches I spent eating something while I was working. I then walked up to the rooftop parking lot we had for our project, and spent the better part of an hour practicing my bagpipe playing.
I was looking forward to the move to Savannah.
Working on Looney Tunes Back in Action, was it hard to work with such famous pre-existing characters? P.Y.: In my experience, the most profound thing I felt about working on the WB characters in "LTBIA" was "it's about time!", as I'd grown up loving them, and was glad to have a chance to portray them in a feature. I was much more bowled over by the responsibility of animating on "Fox & Hound", as Disney had always seemed the ultimate product an artist could work on. I never quite got over that feeling of awe.
By the time the gig at WB came up, I had so many years of animating so many diverse characters, that it was about the same as going from one feature to another at Disney.
You also worked at Duck-Soup Animation, animating for commercials, what did you enjoy about commercial work compared to features? P.Y.: Aside from the extra money earned by doing a few hours of extra animation, the other perk's we got doing commercials were that we were really treated as a valuable commodity in the smaller studios. What that meant to us was re-enforcement of our morale, as the staff at Disney were seemingly never overly impressed by our work. Disney directors were a tough bunch to please, but their final product shows their standards were high, and that made better artists of us.
Duck Soup was known as one of the most fun places to work freelance for, as they had youthful, imaginative writers and directors at their disposal. They piled the work on as much as we wanted, and were never too demanding, as they ran a tight time scheduling on their commercials, which included some of the top business corporations; Kellogg's, General Foods, Post, etc. It was fun to submit your work when you had it ready, as they were usually delighted with the fun you had brought to the commercial. Great to open to rave reviews and chuckles (in the right places!)

Finally, it was the amount of learning you acquired in such a short time, as compared to the many prolonged periods of re-do's and changes at Disney Feature Animation. Some of those acquired skills were of use in getting better scenes on Disney productions.
You have a credit on Ralph Bakshi's Christmas special, Christmas in Tattertown (1988), your only TV work, not including commercials. Did you work closely with Bakshi? What was your experience on that project and did you do anything else for him? P.Y.: The "Tattertown" project is something I haven't thought about for quite a while. I got a call from Ralph while working on"Oliver & Co." I went to his studio (it was always a different location; Ralph moved around a lot), and he introduced me to Walt Peregoy, a former Disney BG painter I'd heard a lot about but never met.
Then I was shown some of the stuff they'd been doing on "Tattertown." It looked kind of fun, and Mr. Peregoy's presence there made the project look like it would be a legitimate tribute to an earlier age of animated storytelling.
They gave me the layout package with the main character, a little girl, accompanied by a big, goofy spider with four hands and four legs (as I remember), doing a walking scene with dialogue. That was about it. I got paid for my work, moved along, and the next thing I heard was that Ralph was off onto another project. I think I was offered some more work from Ralph, maybe on his "Mighty Mouse" series, but couldn't take it as Disney was keeping me too busy.
After the wrap on "Cool World", where some friends were employed for a while, I lost track of what Ralph was doing, and haven't heard anything more.
What did you learn from experience that you don't think you would have learned otherwise? P.Y.: I have to say that the core answer to this question is the one you hear from almost any professional who has been fortunate enough to have experienced a long career; we never learn anything as well as when we've been through a trial and error process. In other words, the more mistakes we make the more we learn.

Don't be afraid of failure; it's the best learning we can get!
What led you to teaching? Was it something you knew that you would like? And what kind of artistic projects do you work on today? P.Y.: When I received my BFA at Cal State Long Beach, I would have never pictured myself teaching. At the end of a year on the Artist Teaching Credential program, during which I had spent a couple of stints being teacher's assistant at a middle school, I had backed away from that option by my own choice.
Disney hired me as an Animation Trainee in the fall of 1977, and I was promoted to Animator in 1979. I worked on a number of features, and in the early 90's was made a member of the review board. My duties as a board member included screening potential trainee portfolios, and giving lectures on animation technique on a regular basis. I didn't mind the assignments, but sometimes wondered whether I was qualified to teach at college level as an option if I ever needed to.
As it turned out, I was hired to teach at Savannah College of Art & Design while I was still on "Looney Tunes Back in Action" at Warner Bros. It didn't take long before I found there was never a problem getting enough material to fill class times, and I've continued teaching now for twelve years. Teaching gives me time to work on art projects of my own as well, and that was one of my original ideas I've found being realized. Beginning with sculpture, and on into painting, my own art continues to develop, and teaching keeps expanding my knowledge and experience, with just enough time to be creative on my own art.
And finally, the age old question, do you have any advice for aspiring artists/animators? P.Y.: The Age-Old Question will merit an Age-Old Answer: learn your craft, practice DAILY, get feedback from candid acquaintances, and keep working when some ideas fizzle; the failures can be the most strengthening part of your training.

Finally, don't forget to keep your eyes open for the chance that may open a door for you, it often comes when you're least expecting.
Article: Copyright © 2017

Some early Disney animators would trace different sized coins for Mickey's head, belly, and ears.

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