Black Animation Pioneer
SeeingBlack.com Editor and Film Critic
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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?
I attended the High School for Art and Design at 57th and 2nd
Ave. and took the course in course in cartooning and animation.
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
The biggest thing there was learning to supervise a group of people.
Q: What happened next?
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?
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
On the horizon is the Internet and how it could change the
movie business altogether. It could change the distribution.
has helped a lot of people get into animation who would have
otherwise not have tried it. A computer allows them to work solo
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?
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.
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
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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