Tony Bancroft Brings APU Animation Program to Life

by Rebekah Bruckner

Director, producer, and animator, Tony Bancroft, recently joined Azusa Pacific University as head of the new Animation and Visual Effects degree program. With a career spanning 30 years in the animation industry, including with Disney and Sony Pictures, Bancroft’s credits include Mulan, Stuart Little 2, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King, and The Emperor’s New Groove. For Mulan, Bancroft and his co-director, Barry Cook won an Annie Award for Best Director in an Animated Feature Production. Bancroft believes his students all have a story to tell that can inspire others and impact the world.

What inspired you to pursue animation as a career?

I drew my first Snoopy, copied from the Peanuts character line-up in the comic strip, when I was three years old. My twin brother Tom and I were encouraged by our mother to pursue creative activities. Tom and I were competitive with drawing like most boys were with sports. As iron sharpens iron, I credit a lot of my success to the dynamic that Tom and I share. We have grown in our talent level and abilities because we work so closely together. We studied together at CalArts, worked together at Disney, and we share a dream of one day making our own film together.

Where has your career path led?

I started as an intern at Disney after I graduated from CalArts. The first film I worked on, Rescuers Down Under, paved the way for my future as an animator. Just like actors, animators can be typecast. Some focus on heroines or villains, but I always did comedy characters. My work on Frank the frill-necked lizard in Rescuers Down Under led directly into that type of work. I went on to animate characters including Cogsworth the Clock in Beauty and the Beast, Iago the parrot in Aladdin, Pumbaa in The Lion King, and Kronk in The Emperor's New Groove.

I worked at Disney for 12 years. There was so much that I could have still done there, but I felt called by God to start my own animation company that focused on faith-based projects. I began Toonacious Family Entertainment with Ben Chambers and Bo Ferger, two men who I connected with at church. With our company, we created a series called Lenny and Sid. We worked together on our business for about seven years, and I have been independent since then as a director and producer. I recently directed a new film called Animal Crackers that will come out at the end of this year.

You began directing the award-winning film, Disney’s Mulan at age 27. What was it like to have this significant project in your hands at such a young age?

It was scarier than scary. My mother instilled in me a confidence that I shouldn't be afraid to say “yes” when presented with an opportunity. I had only been with the company for five years, so there was a lot that I didn’t know. It was very intimidating. I went from one day working beneath many animators that were my mentors to becoming their boss the next day. I became the youngest director in Disney history.

What was your directorial approach for Mulan?

My co-director Barry Cook and I conducted years of research to create a film that respected and honored the Chinese culture and Hua Mulan. We worked tirelessly to perfect the details of clothing, architecture, and even pottery in the film. We knew that Mulan would be a game changer in a lot of ways for Disney and especially for female-driven storytelling. Prior to Mulan, every Disney heroine relied on the help of a man or a prince to save her. Both Barry and I have daughters, and through Mulan, we honored our daughters by showing them that a woman can do anything. Mulan challenged a society that said she had to play a supporting role and she remained true to herself.

How has the animation process transformed since your work on Disney’s The Lion King, your first big project at the company?

The basics of character animation haven’t changed much. An animator still sits down at a desk and creates a performance. However, today technology influences the performance. Rather than using a pencil and paper, an animator primarily manipulates a mouse and a keyboard. The quality and the techniques used are the same as when we drew on paper.

Our program will use top VFX and animation software and hardware. Our students will employ key skill sets and learn how to operate valuable programs. Students will create a website and portfolio that they can share with industry leaders.

What do you most look forward to in your new position?

There is joy in engaging with students as they come to understand new techniques and practices. The program I have created is based on my learning at CalArts and Disney.

The program’s philosophy emphasizes that all of our students are storytellers; they aren’t simply animators, or character designers, or storyboard artists. Christ used stories to transform lives and I want my students to do the same.

I’ve developed a four-year program where everything builds on the previous course. Each year, the students will create their own short film. This encourages them to think about the overall product and how the pieces affect the story they tell. This approach provides students with a valuable set of tools that most animators don’t have, like how to create a TV show, feature, film, or children’s book from scratch.

Why is it important for APU to start this program now?

Animation and VFX impact our culture in a major way. In the U.S., movies are one of our top exports. Animation, in particular, and the stories that come from animation are an effective tool to reach people, change minds, and create space for dialogue and discussion. There is more animation and visual effects work in Hollywood now than ever before. That’s only going to keep growing with the advent of video streaming services.

What encouragement do you have for Christians looking to work in Hollywood?

We’re called as Christians to be “in the world but not of the world,” and what better place for us to be influencers for Christ than in Hollywood? We can make a difference. Because Hollywood provides a wider platform where the demands for quality and creativity are exceptionally high, our work is spread across the world. We need Christians to excel in the arts through great skill and talent to create a lasting impact.

Rebekah Bruckner ‘18 is an editorial and public relations intern in the Office of University Relations.