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You may never have heard of Dan Haskett, but
you've probably seen his work: (l to r) The Simpsons, Beauty and the Beast, and The Little Mermaid.

Interview: Dan Haskett
Black Animation Pioneer

By Esther Iverem
SeeingBlack.com Editor and Film Critic

Talk about Dan Haskett and Black animation! Click here.

Dan Haskett, a veteran animator with three decades in the business, designed the character Belle for “Beauty and the Beast” and Ariel for “The Little Mermaid.” He won an Emmy for his work on “The Simpsons” and has credits for “Toy Story,” “The Prince of Egypt,” a well as for commercials and cartoons for “Sesame Street.” Yet the Harlem native, who now resides in Burbank, Ca., is still humble enough to be self-deprecating. The 52-year-old master animator describes himself as “heavy-set and near-sighted” after so many years of up-close, intense drawing. He talks to us about his journey.

Snow Queen - Dan Haskett

Snow Queen by Dan Haskett

Q: How has being African American impacted your experience?

Haskett: One of the things that has been helpful about being Black in this business has been [my] lack of pretense. I often have told people that animation is the nigger of the movie business. It’s the thing that has been the most scorned and, at the same time, it has been remarkably successful. Animated films are remembered longer, they have a longer shelf life, they make money years after their release. At the same time there is still a stigma about them—they’re for kids, they’re not taken seriously for whatever reason. Being Black in this business I didn’t have any illusions about that. I was 25 when I first came out to Hollywood. A lot of people had not had the type of background I came from. Their concept of making it in Hollywood was very different from mine… Black people that I grew up with didn’t even consider anything like this as a career. You know, if we do any type of art, it’s performing art. It was interesting that I was even able to get a foot in the door.

Comparatively speaking, it still hasn’t changed all that much. There is still only a handful of us. Not that long ago, a young animator working on “Batman” wanted to have a gathering of Black animators, called around and reserved a table at a soul food restaurant near the Warner Bros. Studio. Soon the table was filled up. People just kept coming in and coming in. We filled up the place! But you know….(laughs) if someone had dropped a bomb on that soul food restaurant, it would have killed the entire population of Black animators. It’s still an exotic thing.

Q: What are the challenges to getting more Black characters in animated movies?

Haskett: We have to make our own movies. I don’t want Disney to do the Black characters. I’ve already seen what they do with the Asian characters and the Mexican characters and the Hawaiian characters and I don’t like it. There’s your image up there but what are you doing with it? What are you saying with this image? I remember during the making of “The Little Mermaid” there was an idea, wouldn’t it be funny to make Sebastian the crab be a Jamaican? And basically what that meant is give him a big, fat lower lip and popping eyes—and that’s what they had in the film. A lot of our folks think that because it’s a cartoon that it’s harmless, that you can put a coon image in a cartoon and it will be harmless. But it’s very important…people remember those images.

We have to make out own stuff we can’t depend on Hollywood to make better pictures. Hollywood is not interested in you. They’ve made allowances abut it’s nowhere near where it ought to be. There is still a lot to be done in American animation in multicultural representation.

Q: Tell me how your upbringing led you to animation? Were your parents artists?

Haskett: I think I inherited my talent from my mother and her mother, but I’m the first one able to use it professionally. My mother had the talent because when she was in high school she won a fashion design contest sponsored by a department store but they away her prize when they found out she was Black. She worked as a clerk for the Department of Hospitals. I definitely did not grow up rich and I definitely did not grow up middle class either. But living in New York City was a definite advantage. It has so many places like museums that are free. I actually enjoyed going to the library. We lived at 154th Street and 8th Avenue in Harlem and one block away there was a tiny little library on Macombs Place heading toward Yankee Stadium. I wasn’t an enormous reader but I just loved the atmosphere.

At the library I found my first book about animation. I took it away and kept it. I paid for it. It was The Technique of Film Animation… I must have been about 14. By that time, I had already tried animating some things on my own. My folks did like to read. Our place was full of magazines and newspapers—and so it was also full of cartoons.

My first attempt at animation were on 8x10 sheets of paper folded into 16 squares with 16 little pictures—one was a Christmas story with mice, another was a Looney Tunes-type dog chasing rabbits. The dog was named Spotty and the rabbits were Pierre and Horace Hare. The first time I saw any explanation of the process was on a program by Walter Lance, who created Woody Woodpecker. At the end of the Woody Woodpecker show, he would do a show explaining the process. That was the first time that I’d actually seen the process at all. At that time on TV (in the 1950’s), they ran every cartoon that had ever been done to fill up the time. So I had an education about the actual history of the craft. I would watch cartoons and fantasy films and commercials. Saturday morning cartoons really didn’t start until the 60’s. Before then, CBS ran Mighty Mouse on Saturday. NBC started running Hanna Barbera’s “Ruff and Reddy” series.

Q: Tell me how you wound up as an animator?

Haskett: I attended the High School for Art and Design at 57th and 2nd Ave. and took the course in course in cartooning and animation. I was a good student. I had a high B average. The whole experience is what did it. It was the first time that I had been with a group of artists of all ages. They were all people who either had or still had a career in commercial art going while they were teaching at the school. They were in the nuts and bolts of it everyday. Just being around teachers and students who were all on the same wavelength with what they wanted to do with their lives was unique and had a lot to do with me going into this full-time. It’s where everybody was insane. I started working right after I graduated and started college at Pratt institute for two years, Left college for a few years and then went back to the New York Institute of Technology, where I took TV, radio and communications. Six months shy of graduation, I took a job setting up an animation department that did commercials and corporate films. It was a place that did a low-budget work but we had some big clients like Procter and Gamble and Kellogg’s. I stayed there two years. Up to that point, I’d taught myself how to put a film together. While there, I learned some finer points. The biggest thing there was learning to supervise a group of people.

Q: What happened next?

Haskett: I was 23 when I left. My co-workers told me about this man, Richard Williams, who would later go on to make “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” who was coming to New York to make a feature-length animated film. I told myself, if there is a chance of working with this guy I’ve got to take it. We made “Raggedy Ann and Andy.” Fox released it. I worked on it for one year and it was a very important experience for me. I met the people who would be my animation family for several years.

After that, Thanks to Williams, I got an audience at Disney with Frank Thomas, a master animator, one of the original animators and I had to choose between going to Disney and going back to London with Richard Williams. I went to Los Angeles. I came in as a trainee and did animated two pictures: “The Small One” and “The Fox and the Hound.” I drew some images of the hound as a pup….Everything was done by hand. Each individual plate. …There are 1441 frames in one minute and just about all of them have to be drawn. You do the math…

Over the last 25 years I’ve worked at Disney at least once a year. I’m a freelancer. The biggest change has obviously been computer generated imagery. Now the animation drawings, the drawings that make characters move, and the backgrounds are being done on computer and the computer enables you to get a three dimensional effect that you couldn’t do before. It remains to be seen what kind of effect it will have on an audience. “Shrek” and “Toy Story” really haven’t changed things a lot. It’s just a different look. It hasn’t changed the initial design of the characters or settings. It hasn’t changed storyboarding of the films or the visualization of the script.

Q: Isn’t much of animation now being done in Asia?

Haskett: Yes and that’s a sore spot here. The actual animating of the figures is not done here anymore—so if it is your true desire to do that kind of work, you can’t do it here. That’s the part of the process that Americans consider “manufacturing” and so they ship it out to get the cheapest price. At the very beginning some of the main countries were Mexico, Japan, Korea and China. Now the main countries would be China, Korea the Philippines –and India is starting to make a big inroad as well.

Q: What are the exciting things are happening in animation?

Haskett: On the horizon is the Internet and how it could change the movie business altogether. It could change the distribution. The Internet has helped a lot of people get into animation who would have otherwise not have tried it. A computer allows them to work solo and not form a studio. Combined with the Internet, the computer allowed a lot of kids to come in and make films without selling their ideas to studios. Right now it’s still in the baby step stage. It could be that they can change everything.

There has been a blossoming of interest in animation during the past ten years. With shows like “The Simpsons” and “South Park,” we’re reaching an older audience. People aren’t ashamed to say (laughs) that they actually watch cartoons. Animation has even acquired a cachet of sorts.

Q: How would you characterize your career. It sounds very impressive. Are you at the top tier of animators? Are you now a master animator?

Haskett: Yes, I am considered a master animator. I would say that I am at the top of the old game. Things are changing quite a bit. There are types of stories that I’d always wanted to do in animation but I could not do commercially and that might finally be changing. I’ve done about all I can do with what has been given me, I have the reputation within the business and now I have to go into my own thing, do my own thing…

Q: What do you feel is your most important work? What has been most gratifying?

Haskett: I’ve been able to influence a lot of young talent. A lot of people like what I do and they like how I do it and they want to learn. And it’s very important to me create characters that have a life of their own—and apparently I’ve been successful at that.

— February 7, 2005

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