The longtime Disney animator talks about this classic film

Andreas Deja has been in the animation biz with Disney for almost two decades. He's been involved with a number of Disney films from Who Framed Roger Rabbit all the way up to last year's Enchanted. I had the chance to speak with him over the phone, and here's what he had to say about this new classic, 101 Dalmatians coming back to DVD.

You've been working with Disney on animation projects for more than 20 years. How did you first become involved with the company back in the mid-80s?

Andreas Deja: It was a giant dream, really. I saw The Jungle Book when I was 11, way back in Germany where I grew up. I wrote a letter to the studio asking how do you become an animator, what kind of training would they reccomend. I still have that letter, actually. They said, basically, what you should not do is do any drawings of Mickey Mouse and Pluto because we can teach you that later. But you need to go to art school and spend a lot of time at the zoo drawing the animals, studying anatomy and all that stuff. It was a little surprising to me to find out. I wanted draw the cartoon characters, and then it all started to make sense as I was watching these classics come back to the theater like Lady and the Tramp and so forth. If you want to animated the dog, you have to know where the ribcage is and the hip bone and all that. With a lot of passion and enthusiasm, I just threw myself into it. I went to art school and got in touch with the studio again later on, towards the end of my art studies, and wrote to Eric Larson, one of the Nine Old Men who also animated on 101 Dalmatians, and he basically got me in. I started in 1980.

I read that you're one of the Nine New Men. Can you elaborate at all on the Nine Old Men and the Nine New Men groups?

Andreas Deja: I don't know if we have a group of Nine New Men, but we have a new generation - well, we're not so new anymore because we've been doing it for awhile now. There is a crop of animators who were involved in the newer films like Aladdin that was made. It's the same group of artists, so I don't know if we're nine, or eight or twelve (Laughs).

I saw that Marc Davis was one of the Nine Old Men. Had you worked with Marc Davis before on other projects and discussed creating Cruella de Vil?

Andreas Deja: I didn't work with Marc on any projects. When I started in 1980, he was retired actually. He wasn't working animation anymore. He actually retired from animation after 101 Dalmatians. He went over to a Disney company called Imagineering, and was involved with theme park attractions for Disneyland. He was trying something new. But, I did have a chance to meet Marc in 1984 and we've become friends with him and his wife and we'd hang out over the years and ask questions. He was just a wonderful man, very patient. He had his own quirky sense of humor, very dry sense of humor. He had strong opinions about what was right, what was good art, what was bad art.

What exactly was your role in this new 101 Dalmatians Platinum Edition DVD?

Andreas Deja: Well, I usually get involved in the interviews about the animators and the filmmaking in general, because I had a chance, over these last 20 years, to really get to know most of them. I got to know, not only Marc Davis, but Frank Thomas, Artie Johnson, Ward Kimball, all these great animators, and just ask them all these questions about how they did certain things, what their trials and errors were, the ups and downs. It wasn't always easy for them, to make them as perfect as they look. They talk about this to audiences now, which I really enjoy. That was my major role. I wasn't really involved in the restoration process. There was a special team that did that.

What other special features can we look forward to on this DVD?

Andreas Deja: What is my favorite one?

Yeah. There is one, I forget the title, but it's about Walt Disney's correspondence with the author of the book, Dodie Smith. They had a really nice correspondence and the way that it's staged, and the way that the letters are read, it's sort of a fascinating look, look back in time. You know how Walt would relate to somebody who wrote the book, and how he would go about asking her whether it would be possible to do a movie about it, and it just brings that chapter of history back to life. I really enjoyed that. Then, of course, the special featurette about Marc Davis, one of the greatest animators of all-time, and what he was all about. I think you cannot qualify these great artists enough. These animators really are the Michaelangelo's, the Rodan's, the Degas' of our time, because they could do things that nobody else could do, anywhere in the world. They were that unique. Whether it's a documentary, or a book, you can't profile these people or talk about them enough. They were just too important to this art form.

101 Dalmatians is obviously one of Disney's most timeless film. What do you think sets this apart from other Disney animated films?

Andreas Deja: Well, I think it's one of the best stories told. It's a very straight line story. It just flows along beautifully. I don't know if you were aware of this, but for the first time, they only had one story person developing the whole story. He drew all of the storyboards, he did the story treatment, and that was a man named Bill Peet. He was basically Walt Disney's best story man, other than Walt Disney himself. Bill Peet just took on that book, and boarded the whole thing. So that's one of the most important things, and then, of course, the fresh sketchy look, if you will, for the film. Animated filmmaking had become so expensive that they had to think about saving costs somewhere. A couple of people got together and they thought why don't we not trace the animators drawings and ink them on these cells anymore. Why don't we just Xerox them. It would be a lot quicker, and less expensive. So, that resulted in this sort of sketchy, art-line look for the film that really hadn't been done before. I think audiences liked that spontaneous feeling in the drawing, in the background.

I also saw that you were an animator on the new Disney short, How to Hook Up Your Home Theater, which I thought was just great, on the National Treasure: Book of Secrets movie. Are they planning on doing more of these shorts to be shown before upcoming Disney movies?

Andreas Deja: John Lasseter came in to join us. He introduced the shorts program that they have up at Pixar, because he believes very strongly in giving new artists, young artists, to be trained on short films. There will always be stories that require a feature-length format, and there will always be stories that will be told in short-form. We were all excited about this. There are more on the horizon. There are more to come.

Can you tell us anything about The Princess and the Frog that you're working on right now?

Andreas Deja: Yeah, just that I'm having a ball (Laughs). I'm doing an eccentric character for the first time. She's not really a villain - she looks like one, but she really isn't. She's very eccentric and funny, an old lady. It's just great to be back in the saddle again, and do something that's very meaningful and important to us. We're in the process of getting a crew together again. We have a skeleton crew right now, but we're adding on now and in a few months we'll have a full feature crew. So far, so good. It looks like it's going to be a great film.

Do you have any idea when that will be slated for release?

Andreas Deja: Yeah. It's slated for the holidays of next year, so November, October of next year.

If you actually had a chance to go back and meet Walt Disney himself, what would you say to him?

Andreas Deja: Oh gosh. 'Thank you! (Laughs) Thank you for giving my life purpose and meaning, because I don't know what I'd do with my life if it wasn't for animation.' I guess I would be an artist, or do something with animals. I have a passion for animals. Maybe I would've become a veternarian, but I would just say, 'Thanks. Thank you so much.'

Well that's about all I have for you. Thanks a lot for your time, Andreas.

Andreas Deja: Thank you so much.

101 Dalmatians is on the DVD shelves now.