Frank Dietz’s Journey to Animation at Disney and Beyond

Posted on: Jan 23, 2024

Photo Credit: Frank Dietz

By Jessica Mathis

Frank Dietz is a seasoned writer and animation artist. Dietz has made significant contributions to the entertainment industry through characters you know and love such as Mulan, Hercules, and Tarzan. Join us as we delve into his multifaceted career, exploring the inspiration behind his work and gaining insights into the fascinating world of a true artistic visionary.

You have such varied experience as an actor, writer, director and animation artist. Where did you start?

I remember being in kindergarten and the teacher asking everybody to just draw something. I drew an alligator and the teachers thought it was pretty good for a four-and-a-half-year-old. It was definitely art that started me up until I was about six and saw Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein on television for the first time.

That blew my mind because I didn’t know who Frankenstein or Dracula or the Wolf Man were. I’m watching this movie with all these amazing characters, and it’s all so funny and there’s animation in the very first scene. The opening credits are animated. I just know that movie was the catalyst for everything else I’ve done in my career. 

I know you’re a big monster kid. Monsters really played a big inspiration even in your animation?

Absolutely. After watching that movie, my drawings shifted from animals to monsters. I didn’t have a whole lot of references to go by because back then, you had to wait for these things to come on television. I would draw monsters with crayons and hang them with tape and wait for the next monster movie on television that I hadn’t seen.

I continued to draw, but I was never good at taking lessons. I dropped out of high school art, because everyone in my whole life was telling me I was going to be an artist.  But I was at that age where it was just like, “You can’t tell me what I’m going to do. I’m going to be an actor.” 

How did you develop your skill?

I must have read some art books or taken some easy-A college classes, but I don’t know if any of that really stuck. I would just draw what I wanted. It wasn’t until I had the opportunity much later in my 30s to possibly go work at Disney Animation, when I realized, “Wow, I have to learn how to do this correctly, because I’m not going to fool anyone with just what I’ve gotten by with all these years.”

How did you end up with the opportunity to animate at Disney?

I was making a decent living as a writer. I had a manager for my screenwriting and my movies were getting made and it was great. But you know…freelance. I might sell a script and then not sell another script for a whole year. At the same time, my wife was working in casting at Disney Animation. She called me up and said, “You could easily get a job here, if you put together a portfolio and get into the training program.”

I literally went to the Animation Guild and paid for classes in gesture drawing and life drawing and so forth. I took it very seriously at that point because I wanted to work at Disney.

I put together a portfolio and submitted it. I had to wait for Disney to look at it before they decided to bring me in and put me in the training program, which was rigorous to say the least. Two months culminated in a two-day final test where they gave us a scene and we had to do the cleanup animation on it. Luckily, I passed. They threw me right into the fire. 

Can you just quickly just tell us what cleanup animation is?

This is back when everything was still hand-drawn. Cleanup means taking the rough animation that the regular animators do and making it perfect. We’re making it clean lines.  

What did you work on?

They threw me right onto Hercules and it was terrifying. And it was thrilling. There were times when I felt imposter syndrome. It was a really good time to be there because Jeffrey Katzenberg left a few years prior and started DreamWorks. He was poaching artists from Disney and offering them more money. Some artists were leaving and some were staying. 

Disney was treating the artists like gold. They were throwing us parties and throwing money at us and gifts and all this stuff. And I loved it. It was the first time in my life for all my artistic abilities—whatever you want to call them—that I felt like I was applying them to something worthwhile. Everything I drew before was just me goofing around. Then it was real. I was contributing to something magical. It was terrific.

I know you visit cons as a guest. Which Disney characters do you get the most attention for?

Baby Pegasus in Hercules. I’m so glad, because that character who is barely on screen for a minute total in the movie is one of the most popular characters in that movie.  

Kala, Tarzan’s ape mother in Disney’s Tarzan, because her voice was Glenn Close in the movie and she was a very emotional character. The third one is probably Audrey, the little feisty Latino mechanic in Atlantis, which is a movie that has just recently seen a surge in popularity after all these years. People really like Audrey as well.  

Which is your favorite? 

I really loved the Fates in Hercules. There’s a moment that is distinctly my moment with them where the really tall, skinny Fate is talking and this spider drops out of her nose for a second. Then she snorts it back up. I did that spider.

It’s a moment that everybody goes, “Oh my God, that was so great when the spider came out of her nose.” It’s so cool that I can point to that. Because we have teams of eight, nine people sometimes working on a single character. So, to be handed that scene and be able to take care of that cleanup for that bit was really cool.

What advice do you have for artists interested in working in animation?

It’s the best time ever to be getting into animation because it isn’t just TV shows and movies anymore. The gaming world is huge. It is a giant market—probably bigger than movies and TV shows at this point. Of course, you have to learn the skills of how to create animations in CG. That’s not hard to do these days either, because there are hundreds and thousands of helpful videos on YouTube.

But I think all animators working in the CG realm should study traditional animation. Read “The Illusion of Life,” the book about Disney animation. All the principles like squash and stretch, and bounce and gravity still apply. If you don’t have those skills, it’s gonna show. I saw some movies back when CG animation was terrible, because it was being done by engineers and not artists. It really is important to understand the basics of animation—where it all came from—before you can make it work in CG.

Jessica Mathis (AKA Divinity Rose) is an award winning screenwriter/performer/producer from Louisville, Kentucky. She is the CEO of She Dreams Content Development and Production, which focuses on female forward projects in comedy, docustyle and genre entertainment.

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