An Interview With: Frans Vischer
Written by Cary Nelson

Frans Vischer was raised in Holland, until the age of 11, when his family moved to northern California. Animating from a young age, he received a personal tour of Disney studios, and after sending a short to Chuck Jones, was encouraged to join CalArts. He went on to work on projects like Frozen, Road to El Dorado, Cats Don't Dance, and Who Framed Roger Rabbit? He's now a freelance animator and children's book author and illustrator with his series, Fuddles the Cat.

His Website:

You seem to have been doing art since you were a child. What were your art aspirations like growing up in Holland before moving to America? Frans Vischer: Growing up, I loved comic books; Asterix and Obelix, Prince Valiant, Lucky Luke, Tintin, and many more. I spent hours copying drawings from Donald Duck magazine. In Holland in the 60's we had only three TV channels, and they rarely showed cartoons. My parents never went to the movies, the only Disney film I saw in Holland was "Mary Poppins." So when cartoons were shown, I was entranced.
I had no formal training in Holland. But my grandparents lived nearby, and when they visited, my grandfather always drew horses for me, and I'd spend the rest of the day copying his drawings.
What was the turning point for you and animation; what was appealing about it? How did you go about practicing and learning to animate back then? F.V.: In America there were far more TV channels showing lots of animation. I was introduced to Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Tom & Jerry, and many more. I drew as much as I could, and fell in love with cartoons. At the age of 13, you got a studio tour of Disney. How did that happen? What did you see, who did you meet, and how was the experience overall? F.V.: My mother sent some of my drawings to the Disney studio, and a man named Donald Duckwall, (no joke- he was the studio production manager,) responded and invited us to the studio. We lived in Northern California, and the following summer my family took a vacation in Southern Cal. We did all the tourist things, Disneyland, Universal Studios, Hollywood and Beverly Hills. But the highlight for me was walking around the Disney studio in Burbank. I met several animators, (who's names I can't remember.) I do remember meeting Ed Hansen, who would later become production manager of the studio. Disney was then nothing like the megacorporation they are today, and we were allowed to wander around freely. I was in heaven!
I was encouraged to make my own little films. So back home my dad built a lightbox for me, with pegs for registering the paper. He bought a used super 8 mm camera, and I got started, experimenting as I went, learning by trial and error. I made two minute films that took months to animate, with characters I "designed," really blatant rip-offs from Disney characters.
You also had the opportunity to meet Chuck Jones when you were young and later sent him one of your animations. What was he like and what were his thoughts on your work? (Also, do you remember what the short you sent him was about?) F.V.: I was in high school when I met Mr. Jones. He spoke at a community college near our home in Nor Cal. I brought my 8 mm movie projector that had a pull-out screen, foolishly hoping to show him one of my films, (involving a roller-skating donkey named Dubert.) Mr. Jones gave me his business card, suggesting I send him my film, which I did. Several weeks later he called our home and told me how much he liked my animation, and urged me to apply at CalArts in Southern California, (an art school founded by Walt Disney that had recently started an animation program.)

Original Uploader: Frans Vischer on Youtube
What was going to CalArts like? Was it the "Mecca" for animators that everybody says it is? F.V.: CalArts was wonderful! It was my first time away from home on my own, and it took a little time to adjust. But everyone in the program shared my love of animation, and we had our own silly sense of humor, which most people back home didn't get, so we got along great. Our teachers were mostly retired Disney veterans, who shared many stories and brought original artwork from the studio.
Each year we made a short film, with the emphasis on telling a simple story or situation while communicating visually through our animation. After my third year I was offered a job at Disney, and I took it.
1. Favorite project and character you've worked on? "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?" would have to be my favorite project, for its ground-breaking mix of live-action and animation, great script, and being such a high-profile project.
Darla Dimple from "Cats Don't Dance" was my favorite character to animate. She was such a broad caricature, at one point a saccharine-sweet Shirley Temple, the next an evil hellion, I had the time of my life working on the character.
2. Favorite character and production you didn't work on? "The Iron Giant." Brad Bird worked for a time at Turner Feature Animation, (where "Cats Don't Dance" was being produced,) developing an animated feature. As we were finishing Cats, Ted Turner sold all his interests to Warner Bros. and our division was absorbed into WB Feature Animation, which was then completing its first feature, "Quest For Camelot," (not among my favorite films...) Brad tried to convince Warners execs to produce the film he was developing, but I had little faith in Warners doing Brad's project. Brad was given another project, which eventually became "The Iron Giant."
DreamWorks came into being, and started an artist bidding war. After Cats was completed I moved there. (I turned down the role of supervising Turk on Disney's "Tarzan," preferring the challenge of a new studio. Plus DreamWorks allowed me to do storyboards as well as animate, so I chose to work on "The Road To El Dorado." It ultimately was a disappointing film.)
3. Preferred tools/programs? I love scribbling ideas in Sketchbook Pro, using layers with lowered opacity to trace or change drawings. I make picture book dummies in Sketchbook- it's so easy writing the text, and moving it around on the screen.
I use Photoshop for final artwork. All the painting and shading I do here.
For animation work, I use ToonBoom Storyboard Pro, which I like a lot. It's a bit technical, but for the basics of storyboarding it's terrific.
I've done some animation in ToonBoom Harmony. It's far more technical than Storyboard Pro, and not so artist-friendly, but I can make it work for me. I animated this Fuddles book-trailer in Harmony, (and all the paint work as well, and imported and edited the audio too.)
Original Uploader: Frans Vischer on Youtube
I've never used TV Paint, but I hear it's more intuitive and artist-friendly.
4. Top 3 influential people? Walt Disney, for what he accomplished with the mood, emotion and entertainment in animation, making audiences feel for moving drawings was and still is a great inspiration to me.

Roald Dahl's books inspired me to write my own books. I love both his adult short stories and his children's classics, drawing empathy for the characters without overtly forcing emotion into his writing.

Bill Waterson's Calvin and Hobbes reached incredible heights. The wonderful simplicity, both in writing and illustrating, masks such a deep understanding of childhood, of being different and inventive while hilariously driving his poor parents crazy.
How did you feel when you went to work as an animator for Disney out of college? Even after years of animating things yourself, plus CalArts, how much training did you receive from the studio? Did anybody you meet when you were younger still work there and did they remember you from the tour? F.V.: I spent the first six months in a training program headed by Eric Larsen, the last of the famous 9 old men still working at the studio. He was wonderful- very encouraging and easy going. One test scene I animated was of Donald Duck being pestered by a bee. Eventually Donald stepped on the bee, and popped like a balloon. Eric chuckled at the joke, and then he'd go over my drawings on a clean sheet of paper, and with a handful of lines make a stronger drawing than one I'd struggled with for hours. Eric showed me that I still had lots to learn, and I still feel that way. You should always continue learning and growing as an artist, even after many years of experience.
I started working on "Mickey's Christmas Carol" as an inbetweener, under Randy Cartwright, one of the top animators at the time. The studio also had evening figure drawing classes, which were really helpful.
Don Duckwall had retired by this time, and Ed Hansen was now the studio production manager, and my boss. He was much kinder to me when I was a kid. He was very strict and humorless, and cared more that people were at their desks working at any given hour than he did about making good films.
You worked on "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?" Did you or any of the animators sweat over the technical undertaking of the project, or was the attitude like any other production (focused mainly on what you had to animate)? What was Richard Williams like as an animation director (he's known to be very detailed oriented)? F.V.: I love challenges, and boy was Roger Rabbit a challenge. We sweated plenty, both over the quality of our animation, and the schedule, getting the film done on time. Before coming on to the film, I'd read about a test scene Dick Williams had animated where the camera roamed freely during the live-action shoot, and thought how foolish that was. Until I saw a finished scene and was blown away.

Roger Rabbit Animation Test

Original Uploader: TheThiefArchive on Youtube
We worked with Photostats printed from the live-action, tracing details from the background, (potholes, chairs, pictures on walls,) to help us register the characters. As the camera pulled back, we had to draw the characters getting smaller, and as the camera turned, we animated the characters rotating. It was tedious work, plotting where the characters were before we could even start to animate. But knowing how cool it would look once finished always spurred us on.
Richard Williams is quite a character himself. A workaholic who genuinely loves animation, he was probably the only one crazy enough to attempt making Roger Rabbit the way it was done. I didn't always agree with his animation decisions, (I felt his timing was often too even, and the overlapping action, such as Roger's ears, was distracting and floaty,) but I appreciate how he always tried to do things in a different way. What he ultimately accomplished with Roger Rabbit helped push the artform forward.
You've also worked for various other studios (DreamWorks, Warner Bros., Etc.). Is it intimidating to move around as an artist? F.V.: Some artists fear leaving the safety of a steady job, but I found it liberating to try different places. Even in the heyday in the mid 1990's, when DreamWorks was started a hiring frenzy, I never signed more than a one picture deal. Friends of mine signed up to seven year contracts, but I never liked being tied down for such a length of time.
There is comfort in staying in one place, (if you can,) but I find it invigorating to work with different people and other styles of animation. You become a more rounded artist having to adapt to differing environments.
You're a freelance animator, right? Is there anything that stands out as benefits (or just things you like) with freelance compared to working at a studio? Do major studios contact you or do you contact them for character animation and other jobs? F.V.: Freelancing by its nature is irregular. Generally you get no medical benefits, which is a drawback, and the pay can vary. But I do enjoy having my own schedule, the freedom to travel for school and bookstore events, or mid-day workouts. I can divide my day between personal projects and work, which is nice. I can drop everything if an email from my children's book editor arrives, requesting a quick revision.
The availability of work goes up and down, but I always have book projects in various states to work on. So if an animation project is delayed or falls through, I shift to concentrating on writing or illustrating. I've worked long enough, and know enough industry people, that often I'm contacted regarding a job. But there are dry periods too, where I'm looking for work, and sometimes the choices are limited.
I'm currently working on "Mary Poppins Returns" at Duncan Studios, (Disney subcontracted the hand-drawn animation to them.) It looks to be a wonderful project. Some of the animators I know, and it's fun working with new people too!
You also write and illustrate children's books. What was appealing about that at this point in your career? Do you think animation has helped you in illustrating and storytelling? F.V.: I do both animation and storyboard work for studios, and I enjoy making movies with big groups of people. But when you are one of four hundred people involved with a feature, you don't have much say in the film's story. Working in the story department, I've often been frustrated arguing over unresolved story points, and seeing the final film be less than what it could've been. I often came home from work frustrated at having my story suggestions ignored.
When my son was born, he played with the chickens we had at the time in our backyard. I sketched and observed him, and gradually a story idea grew in my head of a boy on a farm who told stories to the farm animals. Over several years the story evolved into a middle grade novel called Jimmy Dabble, which was published in 2001.
Since then I had three picture books published about a fat pampered cat named Fuddles, inspired by my own plump cat. I've written and designed a number of other book manuscripts that I hope to publish. The appeal to doing these books is the creative freedom I have. Instead of being a cog in a giant wheel that is the feature animation process, I work with an editor and an art-director at the publishing house, and the resulting book is all mine.
I'm able to incorporate so much that I learned from animation; not just in drawing appealing characters, (and what animators learn- strong poses, good silhouette value, flowing lines and shapes, etc.) but also my storyboard work- interesting staging and angles, directing the viewer's eye, good pacing, and above all, entertainment value. A very important lesson I've learned from animation is communicating visually and universally, meaning that an idea that I may like very much must work for a universal audience.
I've seen children's books, lovingly put together, but too personal or specific to the author, that don't communicate to a wide audience. Human emotions are universal, and animation helped me learn to express my ideas that can be understood by people of all backgrounds and ages.
Finally, what's your advice for aspiring animators/artists? F.V.: Strive to be the artist you can be. Study all artforms- sculpting, painting, film, theater, etc. Sketch a lot- I keep small sketchbooks in coat pockets and my backpack, so I'm always ready to draw. Study the better animated films, question why things were done in certain ways.
The best way to become an animator is by animating. Do lots and lots of animating, and try finding different ways of doing things. Animation takes a long time, a lot of hard work is required, but if you love what you do, you're willing to do what it takes.
Article: Copyright © 2017

Sulley in Monsters Inc. had a total of 2,320,413 individual hairs on his body that took around 12 hours to render.

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