Advice — Disney artist Jim Capobianco on why we need new stories in animation

Posted 21 January 2019 Interview by Marianne Hanoun

Jim Capobianco knows a thing or two about telling stories. Having accumulated decades worth of experience at both Walt Disney Feature Animation and Pixar, the writer, director and storyboard artist has worked on modern-day classics like The Lion King, Finding Nemo, and even penned the original screenplay for Ratatouille. Most recently, he also made the return to 2D animation to work as a supervisor on Mary Poppins Returns. But while his back catalogue is impressive, Jim is every bit as interested in nurturing the future of animation. Founding idea creation and design studio, Aerial Contrivance Workshop in 2010, he has also been the longtime creative director for the The Bay Area International Children’s Film Festival, which presents culturally diverse cinema by, for and about children. We caught up with Jim as he shares his hard-won storyboarding advice, and his hopes for emerging animators. 

Jim Capobianco

Draw! And learn the basics
This might sound like an old dude talking, but I do feel that it is important to learn 2D animation first. I got into the industry through 2D animation; that’s where my love of it comes from. You learn the foundations of animation through drawing; the process of animating by hand channels through your body to the page, screen, or whatever your tool is. Even if you can’t draw that great, it will help you to understand the technique. 

Start with what you know
When I was starting out as a storyboard artist, my first feature film was The Lion King. I was given an assignment from the directors – a paragraph that described Simba being reprimanded by his father, Mufasa in a field under the stars, after the hyena chase. But it wasn’t scripted, and they had already storyboarded the ‘ghost’ sequence later in the film, so that was already locked in.

I had this great mentor on The Lion King, Burny Mattinson, who had worked in storyboarding since Sleeping Beauty. I was freaking out about the sequence, and said, “Burny what do I do?” He replied, “Jim, just calm down. Start with what you know.”

“My approach has always been: create what you’d want to see on the screen. What’s the story you want to tell?”

So I looked at the movie, and started to calculate. I thought, “Okay this is the last time Simba’s going to see his dad.” The next time he does, his dad is a ghost, and it’s a similar setting under these stars. I came up with the idea of Mufasa giving him this life lesson that the kings of the past live up in the stars, and that he’d always be there for him. So I storyboarded that, wrote it out with the dialogue on the boards, and then pitched it to the directors as a concept. They loved it, and it was taken by the writers into the script.

Open your eyes to the world 
Get out there and study life as much as you can. Get away from looking at animation that’s been done before. Try to pull from your own experiences, even if it means going out and creating new experiences. Travel, and collect. Look at the great masters of art, and silent films.

A clip from The Lion King, which Jim wrote and storyboarded

We need new stories 
We’ve been telling the same stories since the Greeks and earlier. I feel like a lot of animation today regurgitates stuff we’ve already seen; we don’t need more buddy pictures or princess stories. It’s now up to animators to go out and create new stories. I’m seeing a lot of stuff coming out of Europe which is pushing the boundaries of how animated stories could be told.

We should be challenging the new generation to tell new stories in new ways. You can have a photograph of a boat, a painting of a boat, or an abstract illustration of a boat. But it’s still a boat. It just depends on how the artist wants to depict that scene. 

Today, there’s a real renaissance; and an opportunity for people to experiment and do different things. There’s so many avenues to create animation, to be seen, and it’s also so much cheaper to do it on your own; the tools are so accessible.

Put what you want to see on the screen  
My approach has always been to create what you’d want to see on the screen. What’s the story you want to tell? How would you like to see something visualised? I really love it when people come in with a better idea than I could ever could – I don’t care where it comes from. 

I’m very excited about how the doors are opening up and barriers are dropping. It’s not just white dudes making stories. I feel like we’re going to see new points of view and a whole new type of storytelling. It’s not about telling the stories you think people want to hear, or what they feel they need to hear. Look at your own experiences of the world, and what we’re all going through; and tell those stories in an honest, authentic way.

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Read more from Jim in our behind-the-scenes look at the making of Mary Poppins Returns here

Posted 21 January 2019 Interview by Marianne Hanoun
Collection: Advice
Disciplines: Animation
Mentions: Jim Capobianco, Walt Disney Animation Studios, Pixar Animation Studios

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