Bill Kroyer is living proof that following your passions can yield legendary results. After being fascinated by the animation process early on in life, he soon began blazing his unique trail in the industry. His professional journey started in 1975 at a small commercial studio where he began cutting his teeth. By 1977, he was an animator working under the legendary “Nine Old Men “at Disney Studios. There, he met Director Steven Lisberger, who was working on ‘Animalympics’ and with whom he would collaborate on the groundbreaking film ‘Tron.’
Always on the cutting edge of technology, his path ultimately led him to blaze new trails in the world of computer animation. In 1986, he and his wife Susan started Kroyer Films, Inc., where they developed their pioneering “combo” technique, combining computer and hand-drawn animation. Their first short film, ‘Technological Threat,’ was nominated for an Academy Award in 1988. Kroyer Films would also produce the title sequences for ‘Honey, I Shrunk the Kids,’ ‘Troop Beverly Hills,’ and ‘National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation in 1989. The studio would also bring ‘Computer Warriors’ and animated the main titles for the TV show ‘Bobby’s World’ to the masses.
In 1992, Kroyer and his team would thrill audiences around the globe with one of the most breathtaking animated films of the day, ‘FernGully: The Last Rainforest.’ This fan-favorite boasts an all-star voice cast that includes Christian Slater, Samantha Mathis, Tim Curry, Cheech Marin, Tommy Chong, and Tone Loc. Three decades after the film’s initial release, this hand-crafted classic’s story remains as poignant as ever.
In celebration of the film’s 30th anniversary, Shout! Factory will release ‘FernGully: The Last Rainforest’ on Blu-ray on August 23rd. The highly anticipated 30th Anniversary Edition features a fantastic restoration from a brand-new 4K scan of the original film elements. Special features include a fascinating NEW introduction with director Bill Kroyer, which contains never-before-seen pencil, character, and animation tests.
Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with the legendary Bill Kroyer to discuss his unique career path, the lessons learned along the way, and breathing life into ‘FernGully: The Last Rainforest.’
What went into finding your creative voice as a young creative?
I grew up in a working-class family in Chicago. My dad was a factory worker who didn’t believe you could make a living by drawing. I loved drawing, but he wouldn’t allow me to take art classes in school. So, to be creative, I wrote! I was the editor of the school newspaper, which landed me a journalism scholarship to Northwestern University. However, all I did was draw cartoons for The Daily Northwestern newspaper! [laughs] When I had to do a film for an advertising class, I decided to make a cartoon film because I liked cartooning. So, I got Preston Blair’s book on animation from the library and did this little film. I drew it, shot it in Super 8, and sent it to the drug store to get the film developed. When I got it back, I immediately stuck it in the projector. On the screen, I saw what I had drawn come to life. I saw it turn around and look at me. It was that moment when I fell in love with animation, and I’ve never done anything else since that moment. I’ve never worked at any other job. I just loved it!
I consider it a God-like profession because it is one of the few professions where you create life! You create life and characters that people actually believe exist. People believe in Bugs Bunny, and they believe in Batty Koda and Hexxus! It became a miraculous obsession for me. I self-taught myself in Chicago and finally got some encouragement to go to Los Angeles. I went into the business without real training or an art school education. I learned on the job! The next big cathartic thing was getting into the Disney training program which Eric Larson ran. My roommates were Brad Bird and John Musker, who were the most incredible guys. That’s where I got indoctrinated with what I think are the important timeless principles of character animation and storytelling! In a nutshell, that’s where I came from.
What lessons did you learn early on in your career that continue to resonate?
It’s always about what the character is thinking. That’s what we always used to say at Disney. You’re not doing a drawing. You’re drawing a character that is supposed to be alive. The only thing that makes anything seem alive is not that it moves, but the character is defining the movement. It’s not some exterior God-like thing making it happen. The character’s mind is the pilot. “The mind is the pilot.” and “What is the character thinking?” are two phrases that have always been the driving force of all good animators. First, you want the audience to believe that the character, even if it is a simple thing, has a mind, feelings, and a will to do something. The audience invests in that, and they start to believe in that character. The next step is to have the audience care about the character. Those are the two biggest things! Create characters that you believe in and care about. Those became the bedrocks of my philosophy, theory, and application on how to do animation.
‘Tron’ is one of my favorite films and one that ultimately made me pursue a career in the arts. Take us back to the moment this project ends on your radar. What impact did this fantastic project have on you?
I stumbled into Tron because, after training my whole life in hand drawing characters, Steven Lisberger lured me away from Disney to work on his film, “Animalympics.” As we were finishing that film, we developed ‘Tron.’ So, just by coincidence, I backed into the world’s first computer-animated film by doing that. We took it back to Disney, and since I was the animation director, I inherited the challenge of trying to make things move in a computer. I have to say; it became so fascinating! It’s so rare in life that you get the opportunity to do something that no one has ever done before. To go into every morning and think, “Wow! I may create something today in a way that nobody’s ever tried before. I can’t describe how exciting and stimulating that was to do and what a privilege it was! We had such a blast on ‘Tron,’ and it came out great. When it was over, I was hooked on this new thing — “computer animation.” I loved hand drawing, but computers were so interesting. You have to remember that this was in the 1980s, and technology was exploding! That’s when it was all happening, and I just had to stay with it. Disney wasn’t doing it, so that’s when I left and tried to do something different!
‘FernGully: The Last Rainforest’ celebrates 30 years with a new Blu-ray release. What about this project made you want to bring it to the screen?
As I said, I was fascinated with computer animation, but after a couple of years of doing it, I found that it was still not giving me the subtlety of hand-drawn character acting. That’s when I developed my own custom software to make computer imagery plot out like drawings so I could draw right over it with my hands. By doing this, you could have the organic nature of hand drawing with the precision of computers, which was a big step. My wife Sue and I started our company, Kroyer Films. We began to make short films and commercials. We had a lot of ex-Disney people working for us. We were doing Disney quality and worked for Disney. We made “Honey I Shrunk The Kids” titles and an Epcot film for Disney.
When the producers of ‘Crocodile Dundee’ came to America to make ‘FernGully,’ they wanted to hire Disney, but Disney would not work for them. They said, “Okay, where’s another animation feature studio?” They looked around in 1990, and there were no other animation feature studios! [laughs] Disney told them, “Well, there is this one little group in Burbank. They’re not doing features, but they do Disney-quality.” That’s when they walked through our door. You asked me what motivated me to do this film. Well, it was people walking in the door with 20 million dollars! [laughs] They asked us if we wanted to make a feature! We said, “You want us to make a feature? We only have 17 people here!” They said, “You can do it!”
We all went out to the pub, had a few beers, and said, “Oh yeah, we can do that!” That’s how we landed ‘FernGully.’ It was only after the thrill of the challenge of making the movie that the meaning of the movie started to sink into us. When we started working on the storyboards, we realized that this movie was really about something. It’s about caring for the world and being connected to it. It’s the web of life. We started to absorb that message, and it almost took on a messianic mission for us to do a great job on it.
What were the biggest obstacles you faced in bringing this film to life? Starting with only 17 people was a big one!
Yeah, that was obstacle number one! [laughs] We only had 17 people, and we needed about 200! We also didn’t have a studio. Back then, you couldn’t go out and buy 300 computers in a day. You needed animation desks, cameras, editing benches, painter’s desks, and more. So not only did we have to find all that, we had to find a building, rent it, and stock it with furniture and people. Keep in mind this is all happening while we are making the movie. We were essentially building an airliner in flight! As we built the studio, we were making a movie, which I can’t think anyone else has ever done! We did all of this in two years. We returned from our research trip to Australia in February of 1990, and ‘FernGully’ was released in February 1992! It was miraculous! Just the physical act of all that was a very tough thing to do!
What was it like to revisit the film for this 30th Anniversary Edition of the film?
We had a fantastic opportunity with this movie. It’s a very special piece of art. Remember, ‘FernGully’ was a handmade movie with hand-painted backgrounds and hand-painted cell vinyl characters, so there is no resolution limit. It was shot on film, so it’s on emulsion. Thanks to Shout! Factory, we got to go into the studio and transfer that from the original negative to this incredible 4K high dynamic range transfer. Our jaws were dropping because it’s so gorgeous and never looked better. You’ll recognize something different from watching a digitally created film when you see it. You’re going to watch something that feels like moving art. They were so thrilled to do that, and it really looks unbelievable. There is something there that knocks you out!
I couldn’t agree more! So, where do you see the future of animation headed?
I’ve been in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences for many years. I’ve been on the Science & Technology Council, and I’m still on some committees that judge films on their eligibility. So, I have been at the forefront of what kinds of technology is going into making animation. The main thing that I always tell people is that there is no evil in technology. Some people consider themselves purists and say you can’t use this or that. However, for a filmmaker, anything that works for you and will tell the story is legitimate. Animation is about creating motion, right? That’s the purity of real animation. Some people lean too much on motion capture, which is, essentially, just capturing reality. They are not stylizing or making created motion, and I’ve never found that to be nearly as entertaining as what comes from people who make real animation and real motion. That is one part of it. So, where is animation going? Unfortunately, I think that full, subtle character acting as you see in ‘FernGully’ is getting a little rarer. Most things on television today are more dialogue-driven, and the characters don’t move as much. They hit poses, and their mouths move like in old Saturday Morning cartoons. There’s not a lot of visual storytelling like you used to see in the old days. I hope it does not go away and that people continue to make movies like that!
What is the job field like in animation today?
The main jobs in the animation industry today lean more toward the television series jobs. For example, you would be storyboarding, doing basic poses, and things like that, which are not full animation-type jobs. That’s where a lot of the jobs are right now. I like computer animation, and I think there are a lot of really amazing performances in computer animation. I am looking forward to seeing the role of artificial intelligence in animation. I see the day coming when people literally program a character to think, act and respond to almost anything. Then you sit back and turn it on, and the character lives! That’s what video games have been doing for a while. I don’t know whether that will be sophisticated enough to make it in entertainment. However, intellectually, I find that to be an exciting thing because it seems to be the ultimate example of what we did as animators, which was trying to make a character that feels like they are real and like they’ve always existed. You may only see an hour of their life, but we want you to have the sense that they have been around since they were born and will be around after the movie — they feel that real! It will be interesting to see if somebody can actually do that.
Where on hitting the tip of the iceberg with the stories you could tell. Have you considered writing an autobiography?
I have actually thought about that and may have time to do that now. I’ve often wondered if I have enough interesting things to say, and you never know! Some of these biographies coming out today, I think I could do as well!
What’s the best lesson we can take from your journey as an artist?
The thing that I wish every student would do is listen to criticism. You’re never perfect. Nothing is right the first time, and it can always be a little bit better. So don’t accept every little bit of criticism as gospel and use your good judgment, but don’t be resistant to it. Don’t feel like, “I’m good enough already.” I say that because no one is ever good enough already! Working with Disney’s “Nine Old Men,” I was blessed to know Frank Thomas, Ollie Johnston, Woolie Reitherman, and Eric Larson. They never stopped learning or trying to be better. They are inspiring for that reason. I think that’s what made them the greatest animators of all time. They had the humility And fearlessness to say, “Ya know what? I can do a little better. I can learn something new. Help me out! What do you see? Do you have any ideas here?” I think that’s the way to be a better artist and be better at anything you do! If you’re open to honest help and criticism, you can’t help but become better through the process.
Thank you so much for your time today, Bill. You’re truly an inspiration!
Thank you for some very original questions. It was really nice to talk to you!
More About Bill Kroyer:
Bill Kroyer currently serves as Director of Digital Arts at Chapman University’s Dodge College of Film and Media Arts. He is also a Governor of the Short Films and Feature Animation Branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Additionally, he serves as Co-Chair of the Academy’s Science & Technology Council.
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