ANDREAS DEJA was an impressionable 11-year-old Polish boy growing up in Germany when he saw his first Walt Disney cartoon, The Jungle Book.

To say that it made quite an impression on the youngster is an understatement.

“My head was spinning and my life was changed overnight,” he says, during a trip to the UK for the premiere of The Princess And The Frog, which marks Disney’s return to hand-drawn animation.

Loading article content

“I was just completely fixated on this whole idea of how this was even possible.

I wanted to find out about the studio and the techniques of animation, but I couldn’t because there weren’t any books to speak of in those days.”

Like most children, he’d always drawn, but unlike most children, his interest didn’t drift away into sport or other things.

A year after that life-changing trip to see The Jungle Book, he wrote to the studio, with the help of an English teacher, asking what he needed to do to prepare to join the Disney team.

The studio replied. “I still have that letter from Walt Disney Productions – that’s what it was called then – there’s a magic in that name,” he says.

“In that letter they were really specific in pointing out that if I was serious about this type of animation, I needed to become an artist first and then they could teach me cartoon drawing.

“I thought about it for a while and it made sense because I kept thinking about The Jungle Book again and what would it take to animate this panther running through the trees. I guess you’d have to know where the paws are located, the position of the elbow and the ribcage. Those are things you work with and you’d better know this stuff.

“So it made complete sense when the Disney studio was advising to go to the zoo, draw the animals, take a life drawing class when you’re a little bit older so you know the human figure.

“I took it extremely seriously, but always thinking it’s not going to happen because everybody tells you, friends and parents, that you’re a little crazy.”

He studied art at university, still in Germany, before writing another letter to the studio addressed to Eric Larson, one of the legendary “nine old men” – Disney’s pioneering animators – who was heading the training programme in the Seventies.

An exchange of letters culminated with Larson, after finally seeing copies of Deja’s work, telling him that he thought he had what it takes to be a Disney animator.

He went to the US working on such feature cartoons as The Black Cauldron, The Great Mouse Detective and Oliver & Company, as well as spending a year in London as lead animator on Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

BACK at Disney, he oversaw the animation of Triton in The Little Mermaid before serving as supervising animator for the first of his many Disney villains – Gaston in Beauty And The Beast.

That was followed by the evil vizier Jafar, in Aladdin, and the power-hungry villain Scar in The Lion King, which has become the Disney studio’s most successful film.

“It just happened,” he says about the emphasis on villains. “When you work for a big company like Disney and you do something they like, they see you as the guy who always does that. I’ve no complaints doing villains because they’re very juicy assignments. Most animators prefer those over the straight characters.”

The rise of computer animation made him redundant as Disney stopped making hand-drawn films. “At the beginning I thought it was just a question of time before it came back because the whole hand-drawn medium is so beloved all over the world and so many artists still want to express themselves in it.

“Time passed and it didn’t come back and I thought, ‘well, maybe it’s time to think about your plan B’. I looked into computer animation to see if there was something in it for me to express myself. I started to take a class and, after the second day, I could see I could learn it but really for me it wouldn’t be fun working on a keyboard and moving this electronic puppet on the screen.

“The process of bringing something like that to life is so different from pencil and paper. It’s almost day and night. I said that’s for other people to do, let’s stick with hand drawing.”

FOR half-a-dozen years, he only had odd jobs to do “because I was stubborn and didn’t want to get into computer animation”. When John Lasseter took charge of animation following the Pixar and Disney merger, he brought back hand-drawn. The Princess And The Frog marks the company’s return to that medium.

Deja opted to animate neither princess or frog but Bayou lady of magic Mama Odie, a blind 197- year-old woman who lives in a boat stuck up a tree.

“I voiced my interest in her very early on, which was maybe a little cheeky because the meeting wasn’t about casting,” says Deja. “I knew it would be interesting for me because I hadn’t done anything like that.

“I just liked the challenge of not being able to convey things through eyes because that’s the first thing the audience goes to.

How to show a range of emotions?.

The whole concept is this little old lady still has life in her – especially when the music starts going. Also she was eccentric and has her own sense of humour.”

He’s already at work on his next hard-drawn assignment, a new Winnie the Pooh film for which he’ll animate Tigger. This is a particular joy as he’s a fan of both the character and the animator, Milt Kahl, who created it for previous Disney films.

“He was a friend of mine in the early Eighties and had the highest standard of draughtmanshp and animation. Tigger was one of his last creations, so it’s just a thrill to take what he’s done and give a the character a little encore in life,”

says Deja.

■ The Princess And The Frog (U) opens in cinemas on Friday.

■ Dreams Come True: A Celebration Of Disney Animation: Five, tomorrow, 1.35pm, and Aladdin, 4.40pm.