Yesterday during my studio tour I posted a photo of an original sketch of Jafar given to me by master Disney animator Andreas Deja. I have mixed feelings whenever I look at this sketch. On the one hand, I feel deeply honored and inspired to have met Mr. Deja and to have walked away with an original sketch by him. On the other hand, the event is one of the most embarrasing moments of my career.
In the summer of 2000 I attended the Disney Institute, a week-long animation camp (now defunct) held near the Disney studio in Orlando. At the end of the week we were treated to live interviews with Andreas Deja and Eric Goldberg, two master Disney animators. (You may have seen them both as talking heads on the special features of various animation DVD’s.)
Afterwards we all stood in line with our sketchbooks to have Mr. Deja and Mr. Goldberg do little signed sketches for us. At the time I was pretty new to animation and I had never heard of either of them. I had no idea what legends they were. But I knew the classic Disney characters they had animated and I knew by the fuss everyone was making that they were both highly revered. It’s probably a good thing I was so ignorant, or I may have never recovered from my embarrassment.
First, some quick background: I’ve often been told that some of my doodles and characters look a little bit like me. It’s not intentional, but it happens. Conscioulsly or unconsciously, artists draw from what they know. Since we look at ourselves in the mirror every day we are most familiar with ourselves. Of course this tendency is not common to all artists, and is more prevelant in some than in others. But it seems to me an artist’s own appearance will have at least a small measure of influence on the way he/she draws.
A classic example would be Norman Rockwell. Many of his more humorous illustrations depict characters with spindly limbs and gawky features, much like Rockwell himself. I had just discovered this phenomenon around the time I was at the Disney Institute. Being young and naive, I thought it was a pretty clever insight for me to have learned. As is often the case when a young man learns something exciting and new, in my mind I exaggerated its importance.
Andreas Deja designed and animated many classic Disney characters including Gaston (Beauty and the Beast), Scar (The Lion King), Hercules, and the villanous Jafar from Aladdin. When it was my turn in line he started drawing Jafar in my sketchbook. As I watched I started to notice a few things. Andreas had a wide nose, Jafar had a wide nose. Andreas has slightly arched eyebrows, Jafar has arched eyebrows. Andreas has a goatie, Jafar had a goatie. (You can probably guess where this is going.)
“So, did you actually design Jafar?”, I asked.
“Yes,” he said as he kept sketching.
Wanting to impress him with my deep insight into the challenges of character design, I blurted out, “Yeah, I can see the resemblance”.
Andreas stopped sketching. He looked up at me with an expression I will never forget: a heavy, unblinking stare that was a combination of shock and offense. Understandably so. I had just told him he resembles one of the most hideous, cartoonish villians ever animated.
Of course, what I meant was that Jafar looked as if his features may have subconsciously evolved from some of Andreas’ own features. I was pretty young and thick-headed, so it took me a moment to realize what I had really said. Andreas was kind enough to finish my drawing and even personalize it, but he is also a fast artist. By the time it dawned on me he was handing me the finished sketch and saying “Next!” . I walked away banging the sketchbook on my forehead mumbling “Stupid! Stupid! STUPID!”
I felt so bad about it that at one point I actually wrote Andreas an apology letter. I never heard back. I don’t know if he even received it. So Andreas, if by some chance you happen to read this, please know how sorry I am. I was just a dumb, nervous kid bumbling for a way to impress you.You are a brilliant artist and a very kind man. You’ve given so much back to the animation community for which I am deeply grateful, and I just want to say for the record: You look absolutely nothing like Jafar.