EXCLUSIVE: Disney Animator Shares How Family and Faith Shaped His Career

in Disney, Movies & TV

Mushu from Mulan acting scary

Credit: Disney

The artists and animators at Walt Disney Animation Studios are some of the most talented individuals in the industry. After decades of working on some of the most iconic films in the medium, former Disney animator Tom Bancroft shared with us how his faith, family, and fondness for the medium helped shape his journey.

Tom Bancroft has put his pen to some of the most iconic films under the Disney brand. Having left his mark on a huge chunk of the Disney Renaissance is more than just a career boost for any artist, but he is far from a one-trick pony.

Related: Animation Icon Leaves Disney, Laments Loss of Meaningful Storytelling

Inside the Magic recently covered the animator’s recent commencement speech at Lipscomb University, during which he elaborated on how his faith in God and relationships with his family and fellow creators helped shape his career before, during, and after Disney. We reached out to Mr. Bancroft, and he was kind enough to share more of his story in the art of animation and beyond.

Tom Bancroft Beneath the Ink

A man in glasses and a black shirt, identified as Tom Bancroft, smiles at the camera. Surrounding him are animated characters: Belle and the Beast dancing (top left), Mushu from Mulan (top right), Ariel from The Little Mermaid (bottom left), and Simba from The Lion King (bottom right).
Credit: Inside the Magic

Tom Bancroft, along with his brother Tony, is still one of the most influential animators in the business. Along with other Disney Legends like Andreas Deja and John Musker, Bancroft was a prominent fixture at Disney during some of the studio’s most successful films.

Having worked with the biggest name in the industry is certainly a tremendous honor, but what happens to an animator post-Disney? Inspired by his recent appearance at Lipscomb, we reached out to Tom Bancroft to hear more of his story, and he was kind enough to give us a Q&A session to tell more of his story. Needless to say, he did not disappoint.

What were your first days at Walt Disney Animation like?

 “It pains me to be this cliche- but there’s no better word to use: magical!  I was 21, couldn’t afford another semester of CalArts, and Disney said, “Join our paid internship with a chance to move to Florida and start a brand new Disney studio with us”!  It was the answered prayer I didn’t even know I COULD pray for!   On top of that, my twin brother got the same offer, and we ended up passing that 6-week internship; we were bumped up to Assistant animators right off the back, moved to Florida to help start that new Disney studio, AND then I found out I was chosen to be the assistant to Disney legend Mark Henn!  It was one blessing after another.  I was in Disney World drawing for the mouse as my first job! What I didn’t know was it was only going to get better because films like Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King were coming!”

What was your favorite project or character?

“That’s easy- “Mulan.” It’s kind of a family joke, but we call “Mulan”  our family film. That’s because my twin brother, Tony, co-directed it, and I was the supervising animator and designer of Mushu the dragon. I also had my second daughter, and Tony had his second during the making of that film. (This was just before they had the “Production Babies” in the film credits, unfortunately).  It’s just an important film for the Bancrofts, and our DNA is a small part of it.  For me, I was chosen to animate and help create a character that was one of the biggest in the film- both in the celebrity voice (Eddie Murphy was huge at the time) and in how much he was in the film!  It was an honor, a huge responsibility, and a huge stress all rolled up in one.  I am still very proud of my work on Mushu.”

You and your brother Tony Bancroft were both animators. What was that like? Did it affect your career or relationship?

“I’d say yes. Before Tony directed on Mulan, he was an animator for many years, as I was. We were very competitive as artists, especially growing up.   He had moved back to California (the main Disney studio) a year after we went to Florida, but I stayed and raised my family. We worked on the same films but 3000 miles apart.  We still found many ways to compete with each other, though. I was at the smaller studio though, so I didn’t have near as much opportunity to move up as Tony had and that was very hard for young Tom to not be jealous of.We did weather that by growing up a little, and we are now closer than ever.”

Related: Disney Animation Owes EVERYTHING to Its Biggest Bomb

What was your last project with Disney Animation?

“It was Brother Bear.  I had left Disney for a couple of years to work on a faith-based project, VeggieTales, but came back to Disney around 2003 to help animate the two moose characters (Rutt and Tuke)  during the last third of that film.  It was fun to be back but they were tough characters to work on when you are coming in late and have zero ramp time to get to know how to draw them.”

Do you miss Disney? If so, What’s the biggest thing you miss?

“Yes, I do!  It was one of the best times of my life personally but also extremely artistically fulfilling!  It’s the people I miss the most. It’s the last time I felt like I was learning from every single person I worked with. We did that for each other, even though we didn’t know it. We were all young and passionate about the films we were making, so every drawing, meeting, or animated scene was a Masterclass.  I will likely never have that again.  But I am also very happy now with my own studio, Pencilish Studios.  I also don’t live in the past.  I know the Disney of today is not the Disney I experienced.   You can’t recreate situations like we had in Florida with different people, in a different time.  I’m just thankful I got to be a part of that special moment, and it’s with me wherever I go and whatever I do.”

You speak openly about your faith. How has that impacted or influenced your animation career?

“I do; thanks for noticing. But I didn’t always.  Even back in the 90s, Disney was not an open environment to talk about your faith.  And it’s far harsher now.  I will say, though, it’s not just Disney; it’s all corporate companies.  We’ve lost something in our culture when a person can’t feel completely able to share a beautiful part of themselves.  When I left Disney, I worked for Big Idea Productions, makers of VeggieTales. It was a Christian-friendly company, and I didn’t know that it existed!  We prayed before meetings!  We would talk about what church we went to and could invite your friend to come with you- without getting called into HR!  It was so freeing to me!  I could make cartoons AND be an outward believer?  Amazing!  Well, that experience changed me, and I decided that if it came up in natural conversation, I would share that part of my life.”

Do you think your Disney background helped make things happen at Big Idea/VeggieTales?

“Not really. Big Idea was already a huge success with their direct-to-video VeggieTales series. I came in as part of their bigger goal to make feature films.  It turns out that goal was one of the reasons they ended up going bankrupt a few years later.  It was part of a “perfect storm” of financial blows that hit them in those few years, and my joining them really couldn’t stop that from happening. There were a handful of us who left major studios to join them, and we did make some really good content and brought the production values higher; it’s just that the direct-to-video bubble was popping right when they were spending more money than ever on a feature film.”

Related: Walt Disney & Lucille Ball: The Love Affair They Shared

Is there anything you want your audience to take away from your work?

“I feel blessed that, even though I wasn’t always trying, most everything I have worked on- in TV, feature films, children’s books, comic books, video games, toy design, etc- has been edifying to people in some way. Creating edifying content is now the only thing I want to do. I believe in fun, uplifting, inspiring, and even (sometimes) educational projects that point toward people thinking beyond themselves. Those stories are what will last, and I believe they are what our world needs now more than ever.”

What projects are you working on now? How has your faith played a role in that?

“Right now, I am working on a film that has already become one of the most important projects of my life. It’s a 2d animated feature film on the life of Jesus, and I am the co-director via my company, Pencilish Studios. It’s not “my” project, but I’m very involved in shaping it, and I am so excited for the world to see it. It’s looking beautiful (we are in the beginning phases of production animation) and the story is good.  We decided early on to tell the story through the eyes of a young John (the disciple) who is looking for the answer to his family’s problems. Someone they have heard about for hundreds of years who will save their people from oppression- a mighty king: The Messiah. Like any Disney film of the 90s, it’s a coming-of-age story where he must leave his family to search for this person who can fix everything. When he finds him, he discovers that he can fix everything, but not in the way they think.  That’s when things get interesting. It’s coming in the Summer of 2025, and it’s called “The Light of the World.” It’s turned into the film I always wanted to make but didn’t know it! “

What do you do when you’re not creating?

“My wife will be the first to tell you that it’s a blessing and a curse that my career is also my hobby! I always have a side project (like MerMay, which I started in 2016 and is going on now), a freelance gig (my company has two right now), a class to teach (I started the Lipscomb University animation program in 2016), a podcast to record (go listen to The Bancroft Brothers Animation Podcast), or a new company I want to create.  Because of this, “not creating” time is small, so it’s pretty much exclusively family time.  That includes church, vacations, and crashing with my wife at 9:00 p.m. for some TV time – that’s my rest time.”

Related: Disney’s ‘Mulan’ Singer Coco Lee’s Final Message

From animating McDonald’s commercials to full-length animated features nominated for Best Picture to having his own studio, Tom Bancroft has had quite the impressive career. While the animator is far from finished, as he clearly states above, his story in and out of Disney is truly inspiring.

Inside the Magic would like to thank Mr. Bancroft for taking the time to answer our questions, and we can’t wait to see what he does next!

Has Tom Bancroft worked on your favorite Disney movies? Let Inside the Magic know in the comments down below!

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