The Bancroft Brothers, Former Disney Animators, Talk With Dove

by Edwin L. Carpenter, Editor of Film Reviews

Tom and Tony BancroftTom and Tony Bancroft are both former Disney animators.  They have a lot in common in addition to being twin brothers and animators. Tom currently resides in Nashville and spoke with us shortly before his brother did. With the new Blu-ray release of Disney’s Mulan and Mulan II we were excited for the opportunity to speak with this dynamic duo.

Dove: You must be pleased about the Blu-ray release of Mulan.

Tom: “Yeah, yeah, we’re very excited. It’s kind of about time. We were waiting for this one.” (The disc was released on March 12).

Dove: What’s your background and how did you get into animation?

Tom: “I had a twin brother and we used to draw together all the time and we kind of fell into it. Our love has always centered around three things: comic strips, comic books and animation. We grew up on the Ray Harryhausen stop-motion live-action film Jason and the Argonauts but we didn’t realize that that was animation too.  Those skeletons were all stop-motion animation and since we loved comic strips we were drawing all the time and doing our own comic strips in the High School paper.   Then in junior college we met a friend of ours, a fellow comic strip artist, and he had done some stop-motion clay animation with a Super 8 camera. When we saw that and saw that he could just, out of his bedroom, make a short animated movie, we just couldn’t believe it. We were shocked because we thought you had to have big equipment and a whole production studio to be able to pull off any kind of animation. So we just thought, it’s not impossible, this is it. I think that’s what gave us the bug”

Tom and Tony went on to take advantage of the following summer and made their own clay-animated short film.

“By that time, we were hooked. Seeing your characters come to life—there was nothing that could kind of compare to that.”

This led to the twins finding out about the California Institute of the Arts which features character animation as one of the focal points of the education program. It was one of the only schools at the time in the United States that taught animation. Walt Disney was the founder of the school. Tom and Tony attended a year and a half and were both offered an internship at Disney. They arrived at the time of the making of The Little Mermaid and although they didn’t work on that title they got their feet wet and learned to work on clean-up and to hone their skills. The brothers landed a job in 1989 and transferred to Disney Studios in Florida to staff the new animation studio. After about a year the brothers’ careers shifted a bit and Tony became engaged to a young woman and went back to California where he has lived ever since. Tom stayed in Florida, working for Disney, for twelve years. After about six or seven feature films Tom said Mulan came along.  Tom added that, despite Tony being three thousand miles away in California, they still worked on different parts of several Disney films. Tom remembers a portion of The Lion King being sent to him and his staff in Florida to work on.

Dove: It must be rewarding to look back at Disney films and see your work in these classic movies.

Tom: “You never forget. I look at the scenes now and some of them I go, ‘Awe, I wish I could do that over again or do it even better’ but, especially with Mulan— Mushu, the character I did, I still look at some of that and go, ‘Wow; that turned out pretty good. I’m surprised I still like it!’”

MushuTony came back to Florida to co-direct Mulan with Barry Cook and for a year or so he and Tom worked in the same studio again. Tom moved up in the ranks and became a Supervising Animator, meaning he was in charge of his own characters which featured Mushu. He was pleased he got to meet the man that voiced Mushu, Eddie Murphy.

The brothers have now formed their own companies. Tony’s business is in California and Tom has a Tennessee-based company with a partner. Tom has done a lot of children’s book illustrations as well as character designs and has written a couple of how-to books on character design.  Currently he is designing a TV program. In addition he worked on Superbook and Brother Bear. The brothers do have a Facebook page together called simply “The Bancroft Brothers.”

Tony joined us by phone right after our conversation with his brother Tom.

Dove: We just spoke with your brother. So you are twins?

Tony: “We are–we’re identical twins. He’s three minutes older than me.” Tony joked that even though he came along second, he was Tom’s boss on Mulan.

Dove: So what transpired to move you to California?

Tony: “I was engaged at the time to my now-wife, Renee. So we were dating kind of long distance there for a while. We met out here in Southern California and then I went to Florida with Tom and we were both there for a year; two things—one was my girlfriend at the time and wanting to see her more but the other thing was that I felt there were more opportunities career-wise. I really wanted to animate and I really wanted to animate at Disney. I was at the Disney Florida studio with Tom and we were both in the clean-up department which is kind of a notch down from animator. I really wanted to get that promotion. I felt like there was more opportunity back at the Southern California Disney studio. I applied and I put in my portfolio to the big Whigs over here at Disney, Burkbank, and they accepted me as a full-fledged animator on Beauty and the Beast. I ended up getting married about six months later.”

“I worked on Cogsworth the Clock. Animators are kind of cast like live-action actors are in movies. It’s usually based on their skill sets and some guys are better with drawing the girls and the princesses and some guys are better with comedy characters or villains. I was always kind of type-cast if you will as a comedy guy. So I did Iago in Aladdin, Cogsworth in Beauty and the Beast, Pumbaa in The Lion King and Kronk in The Emperor’s New Groove among others.”

Dove: And eventually you directed Mulan?

Mulan I & Mulan II Blu-rayTony: “I did, yeah. I had started with Tom out in the Florida studio and then I spent another four or five years back at the Burbank studio, kind of moving my way up slowly but surely. God had really given me a lot of great opportunities early in my career. I really can’t take much credit for myself because I kept getting promoted almost every film from Assistant Animator to Animator to Supervising Animator and then I found myself being called into the top executive’s office one Friday over at Feature Animation and they asked me to co-direct Mulan which was the first feature that they were going to do at the Florida studio.”

“Since I knew all the guys there, including my brother, it seemed like a natural idea for Disney to promote me to director and have me go back to Florida which is what I ended up doing. Now with my wife and my first child we went back to Florida and spent another year and a half working on Mulan at the Florida studio with Tom and his family so that was pretty great.”

Tony eventually went back to California as his parents and wife’s parents are there. He’s been in Southern California ever since.

Dove: You got to work with some pretty impressive voice actors like Eddie Murphy and Pat Morita.

Tony: “As director I was at all the voice recording sessions and even directed the actors for the most part.”

Tony said Eddie Murphy did his recording for the movie from his house. Eddie had his own recording studio in New Jersey in his home. His part was recorded in his basement. He said Donny Osmond did the singing voice for Shang in Mulan and Tony added, “He was just a really nice guy.”

Dove: You have to feel pretty good about the Blu-ray release of Mulan.

Tony: “I do because when we made the movie back in 1998, fifteen years ago, seeing it now on Blu-ray is as good an image as what we were approving, what we were seeing on the monitors; we had very high-end monitors at the time and so when we were approving all the final color to be put on the film we were seeing it at its best.  But when it gets put to film the resolution quality is actually lower than what those HD monitors were back then. So it actually kind of went down a generation on film and then on video a step down from there. With the Blu-ray, it’s never looked as good as when I saw it in 1998. So I’m really excited about it because it just looks and sounds better than it did in the theaters when it first came out.”

Tony added that the challenge in making Mulan was in the fact it was the first Disney feature made in Florida with a young group of artists. The question was: can this team pull off this amazing feat? “Not only did they pull it off but I’m happy to say I really feel like they did a better job than what the more seasoned Burbank studio would have done because they had that feeling of not knowing what they couldn’t do.”

Tony eventually felt like God called him to move on from Disney. He had been the youngest director in Disney history with Mulan but now he has been a driving force behind several independent faith-based projects which he believes has glorified God. He currently teaches an animation class at Azusa Pacific University, a Christian university. He said the students come up to him almost every day and will say, “Oh, you remember that scene you did in The Lion King” or, “I just love Mulan, she was just a heroine I looked up to and that movie was the reason I wanted to get into art or animation.”

“To have that kind of impact in the movies that I worked on and to see the impact they’ve had, it’s very rewarding.”

Pick up your copy of Mulan and Mulan II today on Blu-ray and when you do, think for a moment about the twin brothers who helped make this wonderful movie, Tom and Tony Bancroft.

Read Dove’s Review of Mulan | Read Dove’s Review of Mulan II