How To Create Animation
Interviews by John Cawley



AUGUST 17, 1990

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Ed Gombert was one of the new team at Disney who joined the studio in the early Seventies. Along with such talents as Don Bluth, Randy Cartwright, Glen Keane, John Lassiter and others, Gombert formed a crew that the studio hoped would eventually take over when the original "nine old men" retired. Gombert worked his way up to an animator, but the studio felt his visual sense and staging made him a better candidate for story. He's done story work on a several films including the Oscar winning blockbuster THE LITTLE MERMAID.
We talked with Ed at his office in one of the many animation buildings Disney uses in Glendale. His walls were covered with sketches and ideas for the upcoming ALADDIN feature.

Q: Could you just give a general description of your career.
EG: Okay. Well, I've worked for Disney almost exclusively from 1975. I came in through their animation training program and started out as an inbetweener on THE RESCUERS, the original feature. I moved up to animate on PETE'S DRAGON. At the end of PETE'S DRAGON, I was made a full animator and then animated on FOX AND THE HOUND. After FOX AND HOUND, I spent a brief four months on THE BLACK CAULDRON and skipped over to MICKEY'S CHRISTMAS CAROL, where I animated and did my first storyboarding under Burny Mattinson. Then I moved to THE GREAT MOUSE DETECTIVE, where I did storyboarding.
I Left Disney for a year to work on various Keebler cookie commercials and things like that. Then came back to Disney to work on the "Sport Goofy" project for a year. After that THE GREAT MOUSE DETECTIVE was still being made, (laughs) and I finished up animating on that. Next I moved over to Disney TV animation and did character design work on DUCK TALES and some other shows that were never developed fully for production. I came back to do storyboarding on THE LITTLE MERMAID and that was the first time I was officially classified as a story man and really got to learn the business of storyboarding. On THE RESCUERS DOWN UNDER, I did storyboarding again and stayed on to animate. That brings us up to this year. I'm now doing work on the upcoming ALADDIN.

Q: What, if any, art training have you had?
EG: My original goal when I came out of high school was to go to CalArts. But CalArts hadn't opened up officially as a school, when I graduated from high school. They were in a transition period and they weren't accepting any new students so I ended up going to a local junior college in Azusa, Citrus Community College. After two years of that I realized CalArts would be too expensive for my parents, so I went to Cal State Long Beach. And put together my own program of classes that I thought would get me into animation.

Q: How did you break into the business?
EG: The year I graduated from college, I submitted a portfolio to Hanna-Barbera and they turned me down. I was about to submit my portfolio to Filmation but decided to mail it to Disney instead. I had been told there was no way you could get into Disney. There were no openings. Forget it. But, I decided what the heck, I'll send it anyway. It turned out Disney had an animation training program, that nobody knew about, and I got accepted. It was all very easy. (Laughs)

Q: What does a storyboard artist do?
EG: Well. There's a system in animation, at least here at Disney, we refer to as "plussing". No matter what phase of the operation you're in, you're expected to make it better than it was when it came to your desk, whether you're animating or cleaning up the background or whatever. In story, we take the script and we're supposed to visualize it, but more than that we're supposed to plus it, make it more entertaining. We bring the characters to life in "comic book" fashion. We have the freedom to explore relationships and come up with business that is more visually entertaining.
The way we storyboard here is different than any other studio. In other places where I've worked the director knows exactly what he wants and he dictates to the artist what he wants them to do. And on Saturday morning I know the storyboard artists are, pretty much because of the lack of time, just visualizing the script. They pretty much do the layouts instead of what I consider storyboarding, which is fleshing out the personalities and exploring ideas. This is the only place in the world I know of that allows us the kind of freedom to explore situations and expand on the script. And that's why, if I couldn't storyboard here, I probably wouldn't be storyboarding. (Laughs)

Q: At what point do you become involved with the project?
EG: Generally speaking, it's after the script has been written and a lot of visual exploratory work has been done. People have played around with character designs, played around with set designs, things like that. When I come on, I have a lot of information to draw from and I can focus on the character's personalities and what they might be doing, while they're saying the lines that someone else has written.

Q: How much assistance do you get from the writers and the directors?
EG: From the writers... that's tough, because in MERMAID and on ALADDIN the directors are also the writers. It's not so much assistance as getting direction from the directors. In THE RESCUERS DOWN UNDER, I worked with them like anybody else around the department. You just work together trying to find the best ideas for the sequence, but generally speaking, when a writer has written a script, he goes away and that's that. The director is making his picture based on that script. Storyboarding follows the script just as layout follows storyboarding. They are seperate aspects of production.

Q: What is an average, daily routine for you as a storyboard artist?
EG: Well, if you're preparing for a presentation, your door is closed. You don't see anybody. You're sitting here cranking out ideas as fast as you can to present them to the directors, to get their okay, before it gets presented to Jeffrey Katzenberg or Peter Schneider. Once it's presented to them, you get a list of their reactions and the directors decide how many of them they want to follow through on. That's what the average day is like. Once you've initially boarded a sequence there's months and months of corrections.

Q: How much freedom are you given in this stage?
EG: In the very beginning, before there's a storyboard for each sequence, there's a lot of freedom. Because everybody is searching, even the directors, for the best ideas, the best things to happen, the best visuals. There's a lot of freedom at the beginning, but once there's a storyboard for each sequence, like I said, it's corrections after that and you're pretty much responding to other people's requests.

Q: When do you finish with a project?
EG: I can be finished with a project when the next project is screaming for my help, or there's just nothing left to do. Depending on your status as a story person, you can be taken off early. The person that draws the best and has the best ideas could stay on for a long time. He updates sketches in the story reel to accommodate changes the producers want, or the directors want. That's a very boring part of the job and everybody hates being the last person off.

Q: Do you think animation is a prerequisite for storyboarding?
EG: Definitely. As an animator you're combining the drawing and the acting. Storyboard people who don't have the animation experience, don't give as much information to the animators. It's that idea of plussing, again. The more alive it looks on my board, the more character and fun I can put into the scenes, the more information the animator has to build on and improve, or plus, his animation. The animator has to work harder to pull the acting from a dull sketch than from a sketch that looks like, "Gee, all I have to do is in between that."

Q: Speaking of adding a life to it, when you deal with a script is it harder to storyboard a bad script than a good script?
EG: Well, it depends on who's deciding it's a bad script. If the directors have decided it's a bad script, you have to figure out what it is they think is bad. If you think it's a bad script and they think it's a great script, (laughing) then you have the trouble of trying to figure out what they think is good about it! That's probably the hardest part about storyboarding, picking the director's brain, trying to figure out what kind of movie he's trying to make. What he sees the character's personality as being. Once you find your boundaries of creativity, then you can go hog wild.
I think we have good script right now. It's not very specific. Everything hasn't been nailed down, just a lot of basic, good ideas, and good situations for characters. I would say a good script leaves me room to be creative.
A bad script would probably have a lot of detailed stuff that's pretty boring. Scripts that I hate have sections that are worded humorously. When you read it, it sounds very funny. When you take the words away and start thinking about what the situation is, you realize that there's very little there to storyboard. It's just a clever combination of words.

Q: Personally, what project have you worked with that's given you the most personal satisfaction?
EG: Without a doubt THE LITTLE MERMAID was the most satisfying. Because you could see the potential, when you read the script and it held on to that potential throughout the entire production. And a lot of what I did, as a storyboard artist, stayed in the film (laughing) and were animated.
One of the saddest things about storyboarding is how many changes it can undergo once you're finished with it. The layout man can change the staging. Or the animator may come up with another way of doing it, and your idea is gone and now it's someone else's idea. That's the down side of plussing. In LITTLE MERMAID a lot of what I did stayed in the film. That's the most gratifying part, to sit down and watch the "Under the Sea" sequence and just see my storyboards brought to life by the animators. That's when storyboarding is the most fun.

Q: So that was a sequence you were key in.
EG: Right. That's about ninety percent of what I boarded. That and the sequence that follows it where Sebastian spills the beans. That was challenging. The song was easy for the most part because I had the timing and pacing of the sequence. And when they say things like "the carp plays the harp," there's not too many things you can do except a carp playing a harp.
But in the following sequence, we just have dialogue between the king and the crab. You have to punch it up to make it more interesting by coming up with visual ideas that are entertaining. Such as Sebastian crying into the king's beard, or having all his knees knocking together, when he's really nervous. That's the most challenging part, taking a script that's just talking heads, and trying to come up with visually entertaining ideas.

Q: What would you say was a failed projects that you worked on, that may have been commercially successful?
EG: I thought about this one and it may be wrong of me to say it, because I never saw the finished film, but to me THE BLACK CAULDRON was the biggest miss. Half way through production I knew it couldn't live up to what we saw in Mel Shaw's sketches in 1975. That film was a low point in many people's careers (laughing) at the studio. They went with every typical, unimaginative solution to telling the story they could think of. Everyone wanted to make THE BLAKC CAULDRON, but not the one the studio made.

Q: If you were to start today to think about being a storyboard artist, what would you feel you would need to know, or do?
EG: Acting. That's the main thing. When I was going to school, I thought the key to being a Disney artist was the ability to draw well. I focused all my attention on drawing classes and I learned, once I got here, how important acting is to the whole thing. I have since taken some acting classes and feel certain that it's a valuable experience for all areas of animation. Acting is so crucial for the animator and you don't always see it in a storyboard. That's one of the reasons I am storyboarding today.
In FOX AND HOUND there was a sequence of Big Mama and Vixie talking; just shots of heads back and forth. I said, "This is boring. Nobody comes to an animated film to listen to characters talk." I did some thumbnails of what I would have the characters doing and the director's liked it. During the production of MICKEY'S CHRISTMAS CAROL, the director, Burny Mattinson, liked my ideas and suggestions so much he asked me to board the section where Willie the Giant takes scrooge to see Mickey's family. After that I knew storyboarding was what I wanted to do.

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