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The Independent Critic

 An Interview with Disney's Mark Henn 

You may not know the name Mark Henn, but you are most definitely familiar with his award-winning work as one of Walt Disney Animation Studios' most talented and versatile animators. Henn, who received the 2013 Winsor McCay Award recognizing his career contributions to the art of animation during the 2013 Annie Awards from ASIFA- Hollywood, has had a hand in creating some of the most memorable and appealing characters to come out of Walt Disney Animation Studios. Henn started with Disney in 1980 as an in-betweener for "The Fox and the Hound" but was promoted to animator within that first year and quickly tackled the featurette "Mickey's Christmas Carol" for which he was part of the team responsible for creating Micky Mouse himself. Since then, he's become a widely respected supervising animator on such Disney classics as "The Great Mouse Detective," "Oliver & Company," "The Little Mermaid," "The Lion King," "Aladdin," "Beauty and the Beast," "The Princess and the Frog"  and countless others. Henn also provided the animated bookend sequences to Disney's popular live-action film "Enchanted." Henn has a different role on Disney's latest soon to be classic "Frozen" as a consultant and mentor to the animation team. Henn took a few minutes out of his busy schedule preparing for the release of "Frozen" to talk to The Independent Critic by telephone about animation, his career and Disney's latest animated feature film.

The Independent Critic

Well, I really appreciate your time. Let's start off by giving Frozen its due. Tell me about Frozen.

Mark Henn

Frozen, I think, is right in the tradition of what we do very well here at Disney Studios. It's kind of the fairytale musical type of a film. It didn't always start that way, but that's where we ended up. I think what's really unique about Frozen is the story revolving around the idea of these two sisters. Normally, we have one prince and one princess. In this film, you have two princesses which is very unique. I think it starts right off from the get go with telling a sister story which is very unique and very exciting. That coupled with great voice talent and amazing music from Bobby and his wife Kristina (Richard's Note: Robert Lopez and Kristina Anderson-Lopez) plus the score is really excellent and it's really the best of what we like to do here.

The Independent Critic

I agree. One of the things that I noticed and experienced was that it was a very immersive experience which Disney does do very well. I left this film remembering it which is amazing for animation. To talk about animation, it is or at least it would seem to be a challenge to create characters and places that are so immersive and alive. It's wonderful.

Mark Henn

Yeah. It's really fun. That's the joy I've had for 33 years. Each production is a unique adventure. Each character is unique and that's certainly been the fun.

The Independent Critic

Now then, if what I read was correct you really knew as a child that this was what you wanted to do with your life. You knew that you wanted to be an animator.

Mark Henn

Correct. Yes, I did. I was just talking to another reporter about specific films and Cinderella was very influential and another film called The Reluctant Dragon which was a film that was made in the 40's that was kind of a behind-the-scenes film. It was Walt pulling the curtain back and letting people see how the films were made. I remember watching Robert Benchley walk into the animator's office and he looks over Ward Kimball's shoulder and he's drawing Goofy and he takes the drawing and puts it on a stack of drawings and flips it and Goofy starts dancing all over the place. As a young boy who loved to draw, I was hooked. So, yes, it has been a boyhood dream for me.

The Independent Critic

I was thinking about just how awesome that was for you. I mean, you had this early influence from Cinderella and now you're working for Disney. That's just amazing, really. I mean, the whole thing with Disney is this idea that dreams come true.

Mark Henn

Yes, it is - wishing upon a star.

The Independent Critic

What was your role with Frozen?

Mark Henn

Well, I was kind of asked to come on board as kind of a mentor/coach/cheerleader for the young animators and artists. I physically would sit in on dailies. We have a computer system here that allows me as their scenes come up on the screen that I can make a drawing on a computer tablet and say "I think this might be a stronger pose" or "this might be a stronger expression." So, I spent my time touching all the scenes and all the characters throughout the film at one point or another and working with the animators to improve the animation by bringing my years of experience as a  hand-drawn animator. I did one computer film, so I do have experience with computer-generated animation so I understand a little of where they're coming from and their frustrations. I was there to encourage them and to help them develop and maintain their themes not only with their drawings, but I might just throw out ideas. I was just part of the crew. I was able to make drawings and kick in ideas and to just be a resource for the animators.

The Independent Critic

You mentioned the uniqueness of Frozen's storyline with two sisters. I know that you also were the supervising animator for Princess Tiana, Disney's first African-American princess from The Princess and the Frog. In both situations, there's a certain degree of what's happening that's groundbreaking. Do you have that idea going into it or that vision? Did you know going into that experience that you were going to explore new territory?

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Mark Henn

Well, a little bit. I don't really allow that to influence anything in terms of how I approach the character. In one sense, I was oblivious to that. With Princess Tiana, I knew that she was going to be African-American as a character but I couldn't let that overwhelm me. She was African-American. She was young, but then halfway through the movie she becomes a frog which was another unique challenge. You'd never really seen anything quite like that in any of our films. Like I said, each film and each production presents its own unique challenges. The fact that Tiana was our first African-American princess was great, but I tried not to let that weigh me down or put a burden on me. I went in like I normally do. I've worked on so many of our leading ladies that the biggest challenge may have been to not fall back on something that I'd already done but to make Tiana an all new character. From an animator and an acting point of view, that's always the great challenge.

The Independent Critic

Is there any difference as an animator in tackling a brand new character and, say, one of Disney's iconic characters? For example, I know that you've also worked with such iconic characters as Winnie the Pooh, Christopher Robin, Mickey Mouse and such.

Mark Henn

Well, there are some unique challenges. There's probably a freedom when you're creating a new character that you don't have when you're creating an existing character or one of the characters from our stable. If you're one of our animators, Winnie the Pooh is one of the characters you sort of grow up with but that was certainly a lot of fun. The thing with most characters that have already been established is the preliminary work is already done. You're not worrying about what they're going to look like, but they allow you to bring your own personal stamp to it. For me, the challenge with Winnie the Pooh was to make it so people would say "That's the Winnie the Pooh that I remember and love" but also to satisfy the needs of the new film and to maybe put my own stamp or my own style or performance on the Winnie the Pooh film. The established characters are kind of set up so that they allow each individual artist to bring a little bit of themselves and their sensibilities. That's a little bit different than completely starting from scratch.

The Independent Critic

What about live action? I know that you did the bookend sequences for Enchanted, for example. Is it more of a challenge to weave together the two worlds?

Mark Henn

It really wasn't a big challenge. I was primarily focused on the animated sequences. You kind of let the effects guys handle how they actually want to make that transition. Handling Giselle was just like handling any other leading lady that I've worked on.

The Independent Critic

I want to be respectful of your time. I'll end with a technical question for those of us who sit there at the end of a film and we see this long list of credits and teams and such. You've got quite a few credits as being a "supervising animator." Can you talk for just a bit about what that means and what you do and how that fits together with the films that you work on?

Mark Henn

The role of a supervising animator if I boiled it down would be quality control. It's a little different between hand-drawn and computer animation in the way that the films are set up. In hand-drawn, you have no "Head of Animation." In hand-drawn, you have the supervising animators and you have the director who sort of turns to the supervising animators as quality control. They set the standard. They set the bar with how the character looks and how the character acts in the film. All the other animators have that person to go to as a checkpoint and as a way of evaluating their work. For example, on Tiana I had just a handful of other animators who would do Tiana. So, the director would look to me to sort of set her standard of how she looked and her standard of how she performed. So, I was there to make sure that everyone else who worked on Tiana is consistent throughout the movie. In computer animation, you have a Head of Animation who handles not only the animation but also a lot of the technical issues dealing with a variety of things such as the overall look of the film. He or she is over the supervising animators who essentially function in the same way in terms of setting a gold standard for the character.

The Independent Critic

I know you need to get going. I really appreciate your time.

Mark Henn

Thank you.

"Frozen" opens in theaters nationwide on November 27th and looks destined to become Disney's latest animated classic. For more information on Mark Henn, check out his IMDB page.

Interview by Richard Propes 
The Independent Critic 

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