Animators Then & Now: James Baxter

This is the first of a series of blog posts I plan to do where I’ll give an overview of an animator’s career, highlight what they’re most famous for and say what they’re doing today.

Today’s post is about James Baxter. Baxter is a British animator who did his most well known work at Disney in the 90s (1). The first credit he has as an animator is on Who Framed Roger Rabbit. He animated Roger, Jessica Rabbit and the Weasels in some shots (1). His animation style is soft and rounded with complex physics. He complemented and helped set Disney’s softer animation style in the 90s.

A compilation of animation by James Baxter.

Then

Baxter began animating in his teens, using magazine cut outs in a style similar to Monty Python’s animations (2). In college he earned a degree in art fundamentals and began an experimental animation course (3). Richard Williams was his biggest influence and idol at this time (2). Williams is a highly regarded animator best known for directing The Thief and The Cobbler, the film with the longest production time ever, taking 31 years to make. At university, Baxter attended a film festival that showcased parts of The Thief and the Cobbler and it was seeing this film that pushed him to pursue a career in animation (2).

A clip from The Thief and the Cobbler, known for its meticulous animation.

Shortly after the festival, Williams advertised that he was looking animators to help him on Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Baxter applied for the position and this is how he got his start in the industry (2). There, he worked under the famous animator Andreas Deja as an inbetweener and occasional key animator (2). Other animators, including Deja and Glen Keane, were impressed by his skill in both his professional and personal animations (2).

An animation Baxter did for a CalArts lecture.

Partly due to the renown he’d built up amongst his peers, Baxter graduated into the role of supervising animator quickly. Supervising animators are in charge of a particular character’s animation and often animate the majority of their shots (4). When he was 23 he supervised the animation for Belle in Beauty and the Beast, making him the youngest supervising animator ever for a major character at Disney (3). After Beauty and the Beast he was the supervising animator for Rafiki in the Lion King and Quasimodo in the Hunchback of Notre Dame (1). He was also a key animator for Ariel in The Little Mermaid and many characters in The Rescuers Down Under (1).

Baxter produced his most well-known work from ’88-’96. His animation of the ballroom dance in Beauty and the Beast in particular became one of the film’s standout sequences. Animators like Baxter helped push Disney out of the creative slump it went through in the 80s by producing memorable and intricate shots that involved complex camera work. In particular Baxter developed a skill to keep a character’s form consistent in moving camera shots.

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A Pencil test of the dance sequence in Beauty and the Beast animated by Baxter.

Despite this, Baxter is critical of his early work. In a podcast Baxter apologised to Glen Keane, Ariel’s supervising animator, saying he’d let him down in his animation for Ariel. Baxter said his shots were “awful” (2) and referenced how Ariel looks in the following cut, saying he made her look like “fish eyed” (2).

Shortly after The Lion King came out, Walt Disney’s chairman, Jeffrey Katzenberg, had a falling out with the company (5). Katzenberg left Disney in 1994 and helped found DreamWorks Animation. The split echoed a similar incident that happened a decade earlier when Don Bluth left Disney. Both men were highly respected amongst the animators and their departure convinced some staff to leave with them (5). After supervising the animation for Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Baxter went with Katzenberg and became an animator at DreamWorks (3).

Baxter was the most well known animator in DreamWorks’ cel animated films. He was the supervising animator for Spirit in Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, Tulio in Road to El Dorado and Sinbad in Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas. He also animated some shots of Moses in The Prince of Egypt, in particular Moses in the burning bush scene (1, 3).

Baxter’s pencil test of Moses from The Prince of Egypt.

Now

Baxter continued his role as an animator after DreamWorks made the shift to CGI animation. He was a supervising animator in Shrek 2, Madagascar, Monsters vs. Aliens and How to Train Your Dragon (1). How to Train Your Dragon 2 is the only computer animated film where he’s credited as the supervising animator for a particular character (Valka) (1). Baxter isn’t very critical of the shift towards 3D animation, but thinks that computer animators should apply more techniques used in cel animation (2).

In 2005 he founded his own animation company, James Baxter Animation. At the company, Baxter produced the traditionally animated opening for Kung Fu Panda (for which he won an Annie Award (6)), some scenes in Curious George and the cel animated sequences in Enchanted. In 2008 the company disbanded and he went back to work for DreamWorks (3).

Cuts from Enchanted (2008) animated by Baxter.

More recently he worked as an animator in two episodes of Gravity Falls and animated and voiced a caricature of himself as a horse on a beach ball in an episode of Adventure Time (1). Adventure Time’s creator, Pendleton Ward, had attended a guest lecture by Baxter at university where a student requested that Baxter animate a horse on a ball. This is what inspired his character (7). Since returning to DreamWorks he’s done animation in the traditionally animated shots in The Croods (1) and animated some shots for the independent short film Adam and Dog (1).

These days his work can mainly be found on his blog, Ockhams Toothbrush  where he shares personal and behind the scenes drawings. He also occasionally lectures at the famous animation school CalArts (8).

For me Baxter sits close to Andreas Deja and Glen Keane in terms of great Disney Renaissance animators. He produced just as many standout scenes as them and the complexity of his shots can be mind-blowing. Most likely because of the extensive study of horses he did during his time on Spirit he’s also one of the, if not the, best horse animator around. His understanding of 3D space is unparalleled. This shot he animated in the Lion King is so flawless that it almost looks like CGI, and he still manages to make the make the character’s performances shine through. His style is appealing, memorable and a microcosm of what made Disney’s renaissance films so endearing.

Trivia

  • He went to school with David Bowers, another animator and the director of Flushed Away (2).
  • Andreas Deja was a big influence on Baxter. Besides working as an inbetweener for Deja and animating some shots of characters he supervised (2), Baxter inherited Deja’s admiration of Milt Kahl. Like Deja, he frequently went to the Disney vault to study Kahl’s drafts when he worked on a film (9).
  • He’s said that the most difficult character for him to animate was Spirit (10).
  • Animating for Beauty and the Beast was a stressful process for him and he took a year off after its release to work on commercials (3).
  • He was the animation director for The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water (1).
  • He can usually animate one second of footage a day (10).

References

  1. IMDB. James Baxter (I). Available from: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0062744/.
  2. Kaytis C. Animation Podcast- SHOW 023 – JAMES BAXTER, PART ONE. 2008.
  3. Pontian G. 27. James Baxter 2011. Available from: https://50mostinfluentialdisneyanimators.wordpress.com/2011/06/13/27-james-baxter/.
  4. creativeheads.net. Supervising Animator. Available from: http://www.creativeheads.net/job/14407/supervising-animator-in-shanghai.
  5. Hahn D. Waking Sleeping Beauty. 2009.
  6. Awards A. 36TH ANNUAL ANNIE NOMINATIONS AND AWARDS RECIPIENTS. Available from: http://annieawards.org/36th-annie-awards.
  7. McDonnell C. The Art of Ooo: Abrams Books; 2014.
  8. Animation CC. James Baxter came to visit CalArts… Available from: http://calartscharacteranimation.tumblr.com/post/99098949736/james-baxter-came-to-visit-calarts-on-919-and.
  9. Oscars. James Baxter on “The Lion King” and Milt Kahl. 2014.
  10. Canchola RCS. Contemporary Character Animation and Classic Techniques with James Baxter 2016. Available from: http://www.laughingplace.com/w/articles/2016/01/14/contemporary-character-animation-classic-techniques-james-baxter/.
  11. Beauty and the Beast James Baxter 2. 2006. Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iuThvc4Fl9Q

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