INTRODUCING BILL LORENCZ...
Bill Lorencz is one of the most accessible of background artists.
Not only can his work be seen in dozens of features and TV shows,
he has done extensive work in books and other publications.
We talked with Bill in his office at the Disney TV animation
building which is located in North Hollywood, several miles from
the Disney Studio lot.
Q: Could you please give a brief description of your career,
including studios you've worked for and specific productions
you've worked on?
BL: Okay, I started out in high school. I worked for Western
Publishing Company doing children's books and games, puzzles,
things like that with animation characters. I went from that to
Hanna-Barbera doing TV animation backgrounds and subsequently,
other studios, all in animation. Filmation, briefly, Ruby-
Spears, advertising animation, Film Fair and some of those places
that do commercial TV advertisements. Then, Don Bluth's,
Bagdasarian Productions, Chipmunk Productions and Disney, working
for TV animation, basically painting backgrounds and initially
starting out painting production backgrounds for the animation
studios. Gradually, as you gain experience, you go into keying
which is basically what I'm doing now, background keying. I
don't actually paint animation backgrounds now. I'm painting
keys that other painters will be using to paint the production
Q: What are some of the actual productions you worked on?
BL: Going back into Hanna-Barbera days, HERCULOIDS and JONNY
QUEST and any number of those. I just worked from one production
to another. Then there were theatricals, THE SECRET OF NIMH and
AMERICAN TAIL, THE CHIPMUNKS' ADVENTURE. At Disney, I've worked
on CHIP AND DALE'S RESCUE RANGERS and DUCK TALES, a brief
encounter with DUCK TALES, but mostly RESCUE RANGERS and TAIL
SPIN. Hopefully more.
Q: What schooling did you have?
BL: None, basically. I was in junior high school and I went to
an art class and there was a fellow that was teaching the art
class who worked for Western Publishing Company. He thought I had
talent and said I could apprentice with him. So I started during
my senior year, I went four-four, part day school and part day at
his studio, and before I graduated high school, I was getting
books and games published. So when I graduated high school, I
was already working and it was just a flow from there.
Q: How did you get into the animation field?
BL: The fellow that I had worked with and I had come up with a
puppet of Huckleberry Hound. That was in the beginning when Joe
Barbera had just started. We took it over to Joe Barbera and he
said that he couldn't do anything with it because he had licensed
the character out; we'd have to see Knickerbocker Toys.
Knickerbocker Toys looked and said it's too expensive to put out.
Joe said, "Well, forget the puppet, I want you to work for me."
So, I started working with Hanna-Barbera. Then, once I'd worked
there, wherever I went I had a reference in the business.
Q: What does a background key artist do?
BL: A background key artist gets a layout and he has to establish
the mood and the atmosphere of the stage that the characters are
going to play on. So, he takes a line drawing that a layout man
has done or maybe he's done himself and talks with the director
to establish what kind of a mood they want to get involved with.
Is it a night shot? Is it a dark, sinister shot? Is it a happy,
day shot? Then you have to go through reference material or just
out of your head. When you've done it long enough, you can just
fabricate the coloring and lighting you want, to establish and
create the stage that the characters are going to play on.
Q: What are the tools you generally work with?
BL: Basically, I try to use Liquitex brushes. The red sable
brushes seem to be the most efficient for the keys that we're
using. We use round series brushes with the sharp point. I use
flat, chiseled brushes for broad areas. I use Badger brushes for
smoothing areas out, blending areas. Airbrush is an important
tool basically for keeping the board wet and for tinting areas,
more so than working with friskets and things like that. Paints:
I use Cel Vinyl which is an industry product. Well, it can be
purchased now outside in some art stores. Cartoon Color is
selling them. Gouache, acrylic, or any one of those mediums may
be applicable to this job.
Q: How do you personally go about converting a layout into a
BL: First of all, you have to trace it down onto a board, which
I happen to use Strathmore, series 500, regular surface, cold
press. That's not an advertisement. It's a very nice surface to
work on. It's almost like a nice watercolor paper, only it's got
this firm board texture. I trace it down with graphite paper and
then proceed by starting with a wash underpainting and then
building up to a more opaque surface. I try to control surfaces
with textures and things like that to make it interesting so it
isn't all one, even look. Basically, that's how it's done.
Sometimes, if you don't have a picture in your mind of what you
want to do, you get magazines or go to a reference library. If
your doing an interior of a castle or something and you just
can't really visualize what that would look like, look for
reference on castles and get a visual picture. As opposed to
directly translating that picture that you're looking at onto
what your doing, you just get the flavor of it, the colors, and
the values and then you apply it to what you're doing.
Q: Who do you generally work with, besides background artists, on
BL: Well, basically, you work with your director, number one,
because he's telling you what he wants to see on the screen. But
on more of a craftsman level, you work with the color key artist,
who's going to do the color keying for the characters, because
it's important that the background and their characters meld
together so the characters read well on screen. And then you
work, quite often with the layout artists themselves, determining
what the important areas are and then defining some of their line
work in how they want it to be interpreted. So, it's a
cooperative effort. The more cooperative you are, the more
successful you are in an overall product.
Q: Could you give me an example of a film that you would consider
to be a film with good backgrounds and a film with bad
backgrounds? How would someone discern that by looking?
BL: Well, obviously, THE SECRET OF NIMH was a beautiful film.
Any of the early Disney films were beautiful films: BAMBI's
softness, the ethereal feelings that were in FANTASIA, beautiful
background work. The early Disney films almost to the film were
excellent and have not been attainable since. But in the current
films being done, THE SECRET OF NIMH was beautiful background-
wise. AMERICAN TAIL had scenes that were really beautifully done.
As far as failure goes, in backgrounds, Filmation's PINOCCHIO AND
THE EMPEROR OF THE NIGHT might be considered an appropriate
example. I don't know whether it's a matter of time, or whether
it's lack of people understanding the feature look, they're just
not very nicely painted.
Q: Are there more specific reasons other than they're just not
BL: Just the control of surfaces, the colors, the attention to
detail, the atmosphere or lack thereof that's created. If you
don't have a specific ambience about a room, you end up with flat
walls with hard shadows on them, that, to me, is unattractive
unless you're doing Daffy Duck or something of that genre. Then
that is handsome for that type of cartoon. But as far as feature
animation, even OLIVER had some very poor painting, but it also
had some very rich painting. In feature productions, the
painting quality varies with the individual. There were some
absolutely beautiful paintings in MERMAID but there were some
places that just made me grit my teeth.
With the time schedule, one person or one particular person who
is maybe better than another person can't do the whole show. So
you have this imbalance in backgrounds. Almost every film has
it, even the old Disney films. You can see if you really are
looking for it and you know what to look for. The overall look
of Disney's SNOW WHITE was beautiful, but there were some
sequences that had some pretty sloppy painting in it. It just
depended who had their hand to it.
Q: What is an average daily routine in this job?
BL: It's pretty much just come in in the morning and getting your
supplies out and laying your palette out, get your water and your
brushes together, and start painting. Paint until the end of the
Q: Do you have a specific number you're trying to do every day?
BL: If you're doing keys for production work where you're going
to be actually in control of the people who are going to be
interpreting your keys, they [the keys] can be loose and
basically, color studies that you can hand to an artist. And as
they develop their painting, you can direct it. In our
particular case, here at TV Disney Animation, we're sending it
overseas. So I don't have that luxury of being able to control
what they're going to do with my keys, so we have to be pretty
explicit with what we put down on paper, and so therefore, it
takes longer to do the keys.
Usually a key takes a day and a half to two days because,
generally, the keys that we're dealing with are the most
elaborate scenes in the movie. You're not going to key a simple
wall card. It's not necessary. You'll key the entire room that
that wall is included in. So you end up with furniture and
curtains and just miles and miles of rendering that establishes
the room and everything in it. Then, the production people,
they'll do things that maybe have just one chair in it and they
can do those quicker. So, on production backgrounds, you may be
able to do three, four, five a day, depending on the subject that
you're dealing. But in keys, it's usually a day and a half to
two days. There are exceptions when you get larger ones that
have whole cities in them. Sometimes they run to three days.
Q: How much freedom are you given on an average production?
BL: Basically, after talking with the director and getting a
general idea, unless he has a very specific thing in mind color-
wise like, "I want this to be blue," it's pretty much up to me
what I want to paint, as long as it's attractive and states the
moment that's trying to be achieved. There's quite of bit of
freedom from that aspect.
Q: Which do you prefer keying for: Saturday morning TV or
BL: Well, I prefer keying for features. Fortunately, at this
point in time, the keying that I'm doing for this Saturday
morning, they want quality in their keys, hopefully to stimulate
the foreign production people to bring their quality up. The
idea being that if you give them something with more quality,
then they're going to have to espouse more interest in themselves
to try and reach that plateau. If you give them something that's
just simply done, they have nothing to reach for and they'll give
you about half of what you give them. So if you give them a weak
key, then you're going to get half of it back. If you give them
a strong key, many times, they'll give you over half. If they're
challenged by something, they try to achieve it just to maintain
their own dignity and their own self-esteem.
I've been overseas several times and there are some good painters
over there and they're generally not challenged. But when they
were challenged, they did come up to the challenge. Consequently,
the keys that I'm doing for the shows that I've been on, they're
like feature keys, atmospheric painting, so I've been comfortable
with that. So that's one reason why I have remained here and not
Q: What production have you worked on that gave you the most
BL: It's hard to say. Probably AMERICAN TAIL. It was an
interesting project. There was a lot of experimentation we did
with effects and key background work in that, that was
interesting. We were trying to do something different. THE
SECRET OF NIMH was interesting also. But I came in on the
background end of THE SECRET OF NIMH later on. Initially, I was
doing production things like designing box wraps and things like
that. I was also doing storyboards, coloring storyboards for the
Leica reel. As we finished the animation, the board pieces were
replaced on the reel. Then I did some of the backgrounds towards
the end. But that was enjoyable just being part of that process.
Q: What would you say was a product that you worked on that you
don't think lived up to what you were hoping for?
BL: It's hard to say. I guess you kind of bury those things
(laughs). It's like pain, do you remember how you felt the last
time you had pain? Your mind kind of blocks out the painful
experiences. Basically, there's nothing that I've really worked
on that I could say was a failure, other than some jobs required
excruciating hours that I would've liked not to have put in. But
I really don't feel I've done anything that I could attribute to
being a failure anyway. All the jobs have been interesting in
some way. And that's partially, probably attributable to
If you go in and try to make the best of everything you do. And
if you paint for yourself, the project works itself out somehow.
You gain some knowledge and experience out of the project no
matter whether it was a failure, or the group that you were
working with was a failure or not, you've gained something. So
it's important that you bring your own attitude into the
situation and make the best of whatever you're doing.
Q: If you were beginning today in the business with background or
key painting, how would you prepare yourself?
BL: Beginning today, it would be very difficult, mainly because
most everything is done overseas. So there's no real apprentice
program nowadays. In past, back in the Sixties and Seventies,
almost all the TV animation productions were done here. They had
larger crews and quicker production, so you could start there as
an apprentice. They were more forgiving in taking you in because
you weren't going to be doing keying. You were going to be doing
production backgrounds. You're not going to mess up a wall card
too badly. And they needed those hands to do wall cards so their
better artists could do the more complicated paintings.
Consequently, by being there and just doing the simple paintings,
you were learning by observing. But now, they don't have that
because it's all sent overseas. Where do you apprentice in this
business? It takes years to become a key person. They're
skipping a whole sequence of learning.
We have interns that come here from colleges in the East and they
say, "We want to do animation so badly. How do we get in?" I
say, "I can't tell you," because most everyone working here in
our division are all experienced people. They have to have the
knowledge behind what they're doing so that it can be interpreted
over seas and not misinterpreted. That takes a lot of experience
to know what to put down and how much to put down.
Schooling-wise, you should get a really good art education.
Perhaps Cal-Arts, they do animation there. You might have a
better chance if you've been to Cal-Arts because of the fact that
they do have a very specific animation school there. We pick up
some artists out of [Pasadena] Art Center that have strong
Disney still does their feature work here for the most part. They
hire people as apprentices in background painting, but it's not
like an ongoing thing where every week they hire somebody. When
they have a feature going and they get an overload of work and
need someone, they will hire apprentices to come in and help out.
There are also some smaller studios that you could go to that do
production work that you might have a chance of getting in.
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