INTRODUCING DARRELL VAN CITTERS...
Darrell Van Citters has grown from animator to director for two
of the key homes of animation, Disney and Warner Brothers. In
his current position of Creative Director at Warners Classic
Animation, his duties include overseeing almost every aspect of
the classic Warners characters from the new shorts, to
commercials to the comic strip and print work.
The Classic Animation division is located across the street from
the current Warners lot in Burbank. The hallways are large wall
sized paintings of the Warners characters done by classic WB
background painter Dick Thomas and current painter Alan Bodner.
We interviewed Darrell in his office, which was filled with story
material for the second Bugs Bunny short, BEACH BLANKET BUGS.
Q: Please give a brief description of your career including
studios and projects you've worked on.
DVC: I was an art school major for the first year of college.
After that I came out to California Institute of the Arts for
three years. I worked one summer at Chuck Jones' studio as in-
betweener/gofer. The next summer I spent as an assistant at
Filmation Studios. I graduated with a B.F.A. and went straight
into the animation business. The summer after that I started at
Walt Disney Studio as a trainee in animation. I worked up from
trainee to assistant animator, or animating assistant, and up to
animator and we'll just say I ended up doing story on some TV
specials which led me to directing and I've been directing since
I was an animator on THE FOX AND THE HOUND and did story and
direction on FUN WITH MR. FUTURE. It was not exclusive story
credit, though. Then came development on the ill-fated WHO
FRAMED ROGER RABBIT. Last at Disney was direction on the SPORT
GOOFY film called SOCCERMANIA. I was free-lance for three years
between Disney and Warner Brothers, working on a multitude of
commercials. Now I'm with Warner Brothers as the creative
director of their animation department.
Q: So you broke in as Chuck Jones' gofer and in-betweener?
DVC: No, I really broke in in 1974 as a cel painter at this
little tiny commercial studio in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I
worked as a cel painter, Xerox technician, finally doing some
assistant work for one of their house free-lance animators. I
tried to find out about Cal Arts and went from there. So I
started right at the bottom.
Q: What does a directing animator do?
DVC: Directing animator or animation director?
Q: Both. And the difference.
DVC: A directing animator is basically a position, for example at
the Disney Studio, where you're the head animator for a group of
animators, on a sequence or a character or something like that.
The director over at a place like Disney would supervise all the
directing animators for the entire production. A director over
here at Warner Brothers is a lot closer to dealing with the
individual artists in that the director here will do character
layouts, exposure sheet timings, and oversee the animation as
it's done. I work directly with the animators to get the scenes
on the screen the way they were envisioned.
Q: Would you say it is similar to what is called the "classic
shorts period" in animation at Warners?
DVC: In terms of the job I do, yes. My directing is very similar
to that. At Disney my understanding is that the directors don't
have the time to do the actual character layouts and exposure
sheets. They work directly with the animator when they hand out
a scene, but they don't give the same kind of information up
front. The animator will come back with that information after
the fact and see if his vision jibes with the director's.
Q: How much supervision do you feel is necessary?
DVC: It depends on the staff. I try to hire the best people I
can so that I don't have to be supervising them that much. Once
I give them the layouts and the exposure sheet and we've talked
it over, they're on their own. My job basically is not to
animate for them; my job is to just guide them, make sure that
the overall whole works.
Q: When do you generally get involved with a project?
DVC: At the very beginning; working on the story with the writer
or the story man. That's because if the director doesn't see it,
it isn't going to make it on the screen. And as a director, as
well as with a producer, you see it from the very beginning to
the very end. And I think when you're involved with something
that long, you really want to feel like you believe in it.
Q: You work with basically all the areas: writer, voices?
DVC: All the way up through post-production.
Q: Do you cast the voices?
DVC: It's a tricky, tricky thing over at Warner Brothers. I have
input on who gets cast in the voices, but I don't actually cast
Q: In other productions you've worked on?
DVC: Yes. It would be a combination of the director and producer
casting the voices.
Q: What are your strongest areas in direction? Where do you feel you are a good director?
DVC: Hmm, I'd say in comedy timing and in guiding the animators
so that they do things clearly and simply. Not simplistically,
but simply so that they achieve clarity. And hopefully inspiring
Q: You mention comedy timing. What is your definition of that? Maybe an example would help.
DVC: I think comedy timing is knowing how quickly or how slowly
to do something to optimize its comedic impact. Sometimes very
slow timing can be considered comedy timing, and at the same time
very quick timing can be considered comedy timing. That's what
most people usually associate with it, but sometimes you can get
a bigger laugh by a very drawn-out reaction to something. Or
even no animation is a reaction to something. Does that make any
Q: Yes, it does. What is your average routine on a production?
DVC: The daily routine changes the farther along you get in the
picture, obviously. You're no longer doing layouts. The guys
are all animating and your daily routine is different. You spend
most of your time looking at tests on the video to see if the
animation is working.
Q: Let's start at the beginning of production and sort of go step by step.
DVC: At the very beginning I will take the storyboards and figure
out if the way we've got it staged in the storyboard is the best
way to stage it. And if it can be improved upon, I'll sketch in
really crude layouts in terms of perspective or angles or things
like that. Next comes the character layouts on top of those.
And then my background layouts, the perspective planes and things
like that, will go to the background layout person or production
designer and he'll work over those things to give it "the look."
Q: What is the difference between character layout and background layout?
DVC: Background layout is just the setting. The character layout
is the characters themselves fitting in that setting. Once I've
decided what the angle is, what the setting is going to be -- I
don't worry so much about designing that, I just know where the
characters will be placed within that, and I let the background
layout person take care of that. With character stuff you deal
with as many poses as you need in the scene to get the idea
across. When you have a steady crew of animators, you can
develop a shorthand where you don't have to use quite as many
Q: Would that be like key animation?
DVC: Yes. You just give them the poses that tell the story.
Sometimes you'll need to add a little bit more than was present
in the storyboard itself. I prefer not to give them too many
poses. I don't want to animate the scene for them, I'd like them
to bring something to it that I can't put into it. That's part
of their job. And it's expressions, it's little movements,
things like that that you add just to fill out the storyboard,
From there, once we have the dialogue recorded, I will take those
poses and roughly expose them on an exposure sheet and show the
animators where I want the timings to occur. They have a lot of
flexibility in the timings and we work out the fine points once
they've started animating the scene and we see it on the video.
Then we can see what's working clearly, what could use more
improvement in the timing, or where we could use a little more
elegance in the timing.
So once I've done the character layouts, I've got the stuff on
the exposure sheets, given them timings, I'll issue the scenes
and we'll discuss what kind of acting we're trying for in this
scene. What kind of timing we're trying for. Whether we want to
push the comedy end of it or whether we don't want to push at
all. We will discuss the whole scene inside and out. Then he or
she will go away with the scene and do it in a very rough form
and show it to me on the animation video camera. I look to see
if the person's going the right direction, if they ought to
continue to keep breaking it down and making the animation more
fluid and timed the way we discussed it. This continues until
both of us agree on the way the scene has come out. I'll tell
the animator to go ahead and draw it out so it can be followed up
by an assistant animator, and the process repeats itself from
Q: At which point it eventually goes to a pencil test.
DVC: Yes. Once we see it, roughly drawn on the video, it will go
to the assistant animators and they will do the cleaned-up
drawings, and then we send that out to the camera services room
and get that shot on film so that we can not only double-check
the animation on it, but double-check the way it was drawn, too.
This is to make sure there's nothing out of the ordinary or out
of arc. We're trying to eliminate glitches every step of the
way. That's just another part of the fail-safe, another
redundancy in the system, or whatever you want to call it. It's
just a quality control step. Once you see it on film, the actual
drawings, you can tell if there's going to be any problems with
it projected on a large screen. That's the last chance you have
to make any corrections before it goes to color. Then the
corrections get expensive.
Q: How involved are you in the color process?
DVC: I'll discuss that with the production designer or background
people, but I try not to get too involved with that. I try to
hire people who know what they're doing in that department and
let them do what they feel is appropriate. I'll just come in
after they've done their work and I'll either make suggestions or
okay it. Basically I don't like to tell anyone what to do on a
picture. I figure I'm hiring them to do a job, and I want them
to do the job they're hired to do. All I do is edit or guide.
Q: Do you go into the actual editing process at the end?
DVC: It's animation editing, so it's basically gluing scenes
together. There really isn't much creativity in the editing
process. You can fine-tune some of your cuts and animation -- I
won't say animation, you'll fine-tune some of your actual editing
by shortening scenes or things like that in the process, but
basically animation picture editing is just gluing scenes
together. Then I'll work with the sound effects editor, work
with the mixers who mix the final soundtrack and get the levels
right. But most basically, animation editing is done as you draw
Q: You've directed numerous films from shorts to commercials. How much freedom are you given on an average production, like a
DVC: Damn little. On a commercial a client is selling product
and you're there to help sell product. So you do what he wants
done on a commercial. When you're working on a theatrical
production, you are still selling a product, that is the
character which helps sell licensed merchandise. But you have a
little more leeway. You're able to tell a story and you don't
have that limitation of thirty seconds to tell the beginning,
middle and end of the story.
You're given a fair amount of freedom, at least here at Warner
Brothers. Of course everybody all the way up and down the ladder
has input into it. We have been fortunate, here, that everybody
tends to agree on the type of film we're making. Warner's is a
little trickier because you have such a vast library of major
history here that you're working with, which is both liberating
and confining at the same time. It's liberating in that you have
these characters with a lot of dimension to them; it's a
wonderful precedent. Confining in that you want to bring your
stamp to it too, you don't want to duplicate what the master
directors have done in the past. Disney studios, I think, has
probably a little less freedom on a picture, but I think you'll
find that out when you talk to the Disney animators, what their
feelings are like there. I generally had a fair amount of
freedom there, but then I was working on projects that management
really didn't care that much about, so I was not doing any high-
profile projects. Features are where you have a little less
freedom, I think.
Q: What project, work, film or commercial have you worked on that you really were totally satisfied with?
DVC: I probably never am totally satisfied with anything I've
ever worked on. I think the short FUN WITH MR. FUTURE was a lot
of fun to make because it was kind of busting loose after working
on a project that was as staid as FOX AND HOUND. We kind of got
a chance to play. We got to discover for ourselves comedy timing
and there really weren't any rules in that picture. It was a lot
of fun to do. We were just kind of let loose and we had a good
time making it.
Q: On the opposite spectrum, what is a project you've been
involved with that you felt failed? It may not have been a
commercial failure or critical failure, but you personally felt
that it didn't meet the expectations?
DVC: I have to be careful in that. I'd say a failed project was
the SPORT GOOFY film. In that one you were taking a klutz, a
world-renowned klutz, Goofy, and suddenly making him very good at
sports. Which, as a concept, is pretty thin. And beyond that,
it was started with one regime and finished under another. And
we all know what happens when that occurs.
Q: Most of the "golden age" animators began working on short
subjects and eventually graduated to feature work. You have done
the reverse. You basically made your start in feature films and
now you're working on theatrical shorts. Do you have any comment
over this evolution, or de-evolution?
DVC: I can't say it's really a de-evolution. I think there's
some people who feel more comfortable in one medium, whether it's
features or shorts, than another. I personally wouldn't want to
break it up into doing shorts or features. For me it's been an
evolution in that I find shorts or, short projects rewarding
because you can always try something different since every few
months your desk is being cleaned off, and you can start on
On a feature, once you commit to something, you're two or three
years in the process. And even if you've got a better idea,
you've got to wait until that film is done. And as a film
evolves, you find out, "Well, gee, now we should go back and re-
do that because I've got a better way of doing it." But you
can't. You have to wait and finish the film. Whereas with a
short, or the short project, your turnover is that much faster
and you can take what you learned out of that one and apply it to
the next one very quickly.
Q: Since you have moved up the ladder from actually cel painter to director and producer, is there a particular aspect of
animation that you enjoy the most? Some task you would do for no
DVC: Well this is a business. (laughs) There's probably nothing
I would do for no money. I enjoy what I'm doing right now. I
like animating, but I enjoy doing poses for the animators and
working with the animators and that in itself is fun. But I also
like handing it to the animators and having them come back and
surprise me with something that -- I have to be careful how I say this -- I don't like being shocked. I like when an animator
*adds* something unexpected to a scene. He adds a little bit of
life to it that you hadn't planned on. When I do character
layouts, I'm not trying to restrict an animator's work. But
there's a time and money factor when you're doing the short
projects. Things have to be delineated as clearly as possible so
they can go through as quickly and smoothly as possible. But
within that, the animator can still manage to add a little touch,
sometimes a big touch, that really makes a scene shine. I really
like working with people and having them bring back something
more than what I handed out. That's a real thrill, because you
really feel like something's building there. I don't want people
to do exactly what I say. I'm giving them guidelines and the
thrill for me is seeing them come back with more. And it works
real well that way. We build it as a team.
Q: How do you judge animation direction in general? What do you think is a well-directed animated film, short, or whatever?
DVC: (Laughs) You're going to get me into trouble, aren't you?
I think, first of all in general terms, a lot of animated
commercials are not successful in animation or film making terms
because you usually have to put ten pounds of "stuff" in a five-
pound bag. You've got so much information to convey in such a
short amount of time and the clients want the world on the head
of a pin, so you get poor staging or over-active staging. You
have too many cuts in a thirty second period.
Clients tend to think that full animation is good animation. So
everything is done fully, but that doesn't necessarily mean
clearly. I like very cartoony animation, but by the same token I
won't use it gratuitously and I won't use it for its own sake. I
like restraint in my animation. Control. So that when the funny
stuff, the wild stuff happens, it pays off.
Sometimes the funniest animation is no animation. I think one
scene that stood out for me above all the scenes in, for example,
GREAT MOUSE DETECTIVE [Disney, 1986], was the scene with Ratigan
when he's talking to Basil, and looking at his pocket watch.
Basil replies to him. You can see that whatever Basil said to
Ratigan didn't go over well. There was that pause. Just a held
drawing, but you can see the wheels spin in the Ratigan's head.
Then he just closes the cover of the watch. To me that was good
timing and there was absolutely no motion in there, but you could
see the wheels spinning in this character's head. To me that's
what it's about. It's not how many drawings you use, it's which
ones you use and how you use them.
I think there are some real nice moments in LITTLE MERMAID.
There's a lot of clarity and good use of animation timing and
camera in that film. There's not a lot of shorts going on right
now so I can't really comment on that. I think when you see BOX
OFFICE BUNNY you'll see that there's some wilder stuff and
there's quieter stuff. I try to restrain it so that you've got
someplace to go when you want to do the more outrageous things.
Q: What film do you think has bad direction?
DVC: I think it might be better to keep it general. I do have to
work in this town.
Q: If you were starting today in the business or giving advice to someone who was interested in getting into animation, what would
you tell them?
DVC: Well, we had Mike Maltese [key writer for Warner Brothers
and Hanna-Barbera] up to Cal Arts to lecture. Somebody brought
that kind of thing up to him. He said, "If my kid wanted to get
into the business, first thing I'd do is break his pencil, then
break his arm."
I don't know, I wouldn't know what to tell somebody how to
prepare to get into this business. You better love drawing. You
really better love it. To the point where even when it gets
tedious, you still love it. Animation is a lot of hard work.
It's not one of those professions for the misty-eyed. It's a lot
of work, and even if you've got a vision, you've got to remember
you're working in a commercial operation and a lot of your vision
will be subordinated to support that commercial operation. But
if you can handle all that, it's worth doing.
It's kind of amazing to be able to do all these funny drawings
and have somebody pay you lots of money for it. And it's a lot of
fun to create the illusion of life where there was none, to bring
characters to life, that are really just a bunch of drawings.
Go to art school, enjoy drawing, enjoy cartooning. If you're
going to be in animation, I think it would be nice if you had a
real understanding for drawing cartoons. And observe everything
around you, constantly. Constantly. Be interested in everything
around you. It all comes in handy, because animation is really
just observation, both technically and artistically. It's
observing the actions and attitudes and personalities around you,
and commenting on those. So the observation is an extremely
important part of it.
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