Disney Character Designer Jean Gillmore Visits Sheridan College
by Anne Whitehead
With an adorable turned-up nose and blue dye streaming through her silver hair, Jean Gillmore exudes an aura of playful youth, in keeping with the Disney brand she is representing on her visit to Sheridan College. Jean is inspired by costume and performance, and she brings that interest into her work developing characters for Disney. She has worked on dozens of films, including The Lion King, Toy Story, Aladdin and Mulan.
Today, Jean is making her way through Sheridan College’s Animation department. “What do you think of students’ work at Sheridan?” I asked her.
“I’m amazed,” she replied. “They’re all so different!”
I first caught up with Jean as she stopped for lunch with Mark Simon, Computer Animation Program Co-ordinator, and Animation professor Nancy Beiman. It was revealed that Mark and Jean both worked at Hanna-Barbera in the late 70s, when the company was expanding into more commercial animation, and “everybody was there.” Mark claims that in his year, Hanna-Barbera hired nearly the entire graduating class from Sheridan College.
Also discussed over sandwiches was the changing nature of animation, toward
Computer Graphics (CG). Animation is becoming more mediated by technology, and a lot of new animators are coming from technical fields rather than fine arts. Jean said this can be problematic, because some technicians neglect the artistic performance aspect of animation, so the resulting animation is unemotional and artistically flat. Jean emphasized the importance of knowing “what your character is thinking,” describing animation as “acting on paper.” Indeed, she said that animators are cast for characters, so a theatrical element is key to the process. Studios are struggling with what to do about the artistic/technical divide: teach tech skills to artists, or teach art skills to techies?
A newer model is emerging for developing animated films, which involves splitting up the project into many small tasks performed by different people who are specialists in the technology used for that task. This is in contrast to the old model, when animators would collaborate on story, character design and settings. With the introduction of many new technologies, animation is much more compartmentalized than it used to be, often divorcing character development from animators.
Following lunch, Nancy, Jean and I found ourselves in the ladies’ room, chatting about (of course) the status of women in the animation industry. Nancy insisted that the animation production studios are still very much dominated by men. Jean explained further (while we shared the hand dryer) that women commonly play administrative roles in the industry. However, in the animation business it is the creative directors – those with their hands in the creative process – who really hold all the power, and these are still mostly men.
Leaving gender issues in the ladies room, we continued on to meet fourth year animation students. Jean reviewed their films, all about one minute long. Like John Musker (who visited a week before), Jean was very enthusiastic and supportive of students. Nancy, on the other hand, responded to films with a quick fire of editorial commentary. Students took Nancy’s criticisms in stride, as they were clearly learning a lot from her, and it showed in their work.
After watching a few films, Jean sat down with students to review their portfolios. She has done this for Disney, where portfolios are submitted by the ton. “We’re looking at 60 [portfolios] at a time,” Jean explained. The important thing is: “what are you doing to make your stuff stand out?” The last portfolio submission Jean reviewed at Disney showed “a lot of the same style.” They say every school has an in-house style, but Jean couldn’t identify a single style for Sheridan, which she thinks is great. In fact, Jean thought that what she saw by Sheridan students is better than most recent submissions to Disney! Take note, Sheridan students – time to submit your portfolio!