Lock City Anime and Comic Con host an impressive guest list for a small convention. One such guest this year was Philo Barnhart, a former animator from Don Bluth and Disney studios.

At Barnhart’s panel, “The Art of Disney Animation,” Barnhart talked a bit about his career while walking attendees to the panel through drawing characters from The Little Mermaid and challenging tidbits, like hands and feet.

Barnhart was extremely soft-spoken and launched into his panel without fanfare. He started with a drawing of Ursula, a character he worked extensively on during The Little Mermaid. Unfortunately, many of the Ursula scenes he worked on ended up cut for script revisions, so in the finished project, very little of his work can actually be seen.

During this time, he admitted having difficulty with the character. Apparently, Ursula was much more aggressive in the original cut, enough so that it was difficult to believe that Ariel would stick around long enough to make a deal with. He described sitting down with Pat Carroll and having her describe what she thought of her character–“a Shakespearean actor who retired under the sea.” So, the body had to dictate Ursula’s “histrionics.” It really highlighted the importance that collaboration plays, especially with the voice actors along with fellow writers and visual artists, for inspiration.

This episode was also apparently a turning point in the film’s development, which is great for us Disney fans: Barnhart mentioned later that if The Little Mermaid didn’t do well, the Disney Corporation was fully prepared to pull the plug on their entire animation department.

Barnhart also walked attendees through characters, Sebastian and Ariel. He made a wonderful sketch of Ariel looking up with her mouth open and jokingly asked everyone if they could guess who animated the scenes where Ariel’s voice is stolen. He also used this time to talk about how a 3/4s angle is generally the best to show a character at; head-on can often look flat and should be used sparingly.

He had a lot of great advice to give throughout this session. When going over hands, he suggested drawing the rough sketch as mittens and then filling the details in. He said that a helpful thing he learned from both Jack Kirby and Don Bluth was to start a fist with the knuckles and then shaping the hand from there, which creates a stylized but easily recognizable image.

There is nothing so sobering as watching a professional draw a perfect hand in a minute flat.

He also discussed a method for situating facial features that both Kirby and Bluth employed. When figuring out the angle of the face and where things should go, they would draw a sort of half-mask (like what Batman or Robin wear) to suss out the area. It sounded as if this is particularly good for animation because it makes it easier to track the movement successfully.

Barnhart also discussed different types of animation. He got his start inbetweening at Hanna-Barbera, animation studio best known for cartoons like Scooby-Doo and The Flintstones. Hanna-Barbera is famous for employing limited animation, a somewhat cheaper style of animation that forgoes all “unnecessary” movement and employs cycling heavily. He said that in some ways, full animation actually is easier because there aren’t as many layers of cels to work with: everything moves more naturally. All the movement needed is happening at the same time, on the same cel, or a considerably decreased amount of cels.

One of the last things he discussed before opening the floor up to questions was his work on Star Trek: The Motion Picture. He asked the audience what they thought about the CGI scenes, then laughed and said they were all hand-drawn or at least created by hand. He shared that the V’ger clouds were a wire hanger spun against a strobe light effect, though he admitted that he couldn’t remember whose idea on the effects team it was.

He discussed some other animation projects he was involved with, including some Scooby-Doo television specials, SmurfsThe Secret of NIMH, Beauty and the Beast, and both of the Dragon’s Lair arcade games.

Perhaps the coolest part of the whole thing was at the end when he asked the audience if they wanted to keep the “chicken scratch” he had created during the course of the panel. A mother with a daughter who hadn’t power-walked to the front approached him as he was packing up and asked if he could just sign a piece of paper for her daughter. He proceeded to draw and sign a full-sized Flounder.

As he gave his drawings away he chatted with attendees and answered some more questions. I caught him at the very end and asked if it wasn’t hard to adapt to different animation studios’ styles and mentioned that Don Bluth’s style is one of my favorites. It’s very recognizable, so it was one of the first I started noticing as a kid. Without prompting, he drew a rough sketch of Dirk from the Dragon’s Lair games, which he had worked on–even when gently reminded that another panel was due to start by a volunteer–and signed it and gave it to me as easy as anything. In the thirteen years I’ve been attending conventions, I can say without hesitation that that’s the coolest thing that’s ever happened to me at one.

If you have the opportunity, I’d definitely recommend checking out one of Barnhart’s panels. He seems to be fairly active on the convention circuit, often touring with Silver Phoenix Entertainment.

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