February 25, 2011

Feb 25 – Bruce W. Smith: Cartoon Character

Bruce Smith sketching Dr. Facilier

I have to admit that I enjoy animated films, especially when I want to unwind. They’re kind of my guilty pleasure; and I’m perfectly happy to watch them without kids being present. I’m probably the only person who has never watched an episode of The Simpsons; but give me a Disney, Pixar or Dreamworks film any day. They are really fun and incredibly clever! The ‘science’, which goes into making them, fascinates me and commands much respect. There’s not a lot of diversity behind the scenes, however; but there is one, leading African-American, who has made his mark on many of our favorite, animated films and TV programs: Bruce W. Smith.

Born in 1962, Bruce grew up in South Central Los Angeles, California and was a self-admitted ‘cartoon fanatic’.  He loved comic books and animated TV shows, such as The Flintstones and Bill Cosby's Fat Albert, as well as Disney animated movies. But, with the exception of Fat Albert, he noticed that these shows and films did not include any characters like himself or his friends. So, he started sketching stories and creating his own cartoons, based on his own experiences. He even drew a comic strip based on the live-action sitcom, Sanford and Son.  At the age of ten, his fourth grade teacher noticed that Bruce’s artistic talents surpassed any of his classmates', so she encouraged his mother to enroll him in animation classes. He soon became the designated artist for all projects during elementary school; and by the time he was 12-years-old, he had made his first, animated film.  During high school, Bruce worked odd jobs to help continue his animation classes. Upon graduation, he enrolled into the prestigious, California Institute of Arts (CalArts); but he chose to leave before earning his degree because he was offered a summer internship to work for an animation studio and do some hands-on work with experts in his field.

CalArts animation student

Quickly gaining a reputation for being a ‘wunderkind’, Bruce began to attract the attention of the major animation studios. By the late-1980s, his first, significant film job was to work on Oscar-winning, Steven Spielberg film, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, starring Bob Hoskins. Soon after, Bruce worked on character design for TV program, Bebe’s Kids, and a character for A Goofy Movie. In 1990, he was one of the lead animators for Disney short film, Back to Neverland, starring Robin Williams. 1996 saw Bruce embark upon his first directing project with Space Jam, starring Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Bill Murray and basketball superstar, Michael Jordan. Boston Globe critic, Jay Carr, noted that, “the movie exploited the ‘antic wildness’ of the original cartoons, while running the ball into a few, new realms of animation and cleverly using the technology, rather than letting the technology use them.”

Bruce with his sketch of Robin Harris in Bebe's Kids

Bruce sharing a laugh with Robin Williams

After Space Jam, Bruce worked as the supervising animator for the character, Kerchak, in Disney's Tarzan; and for Pacha in The Emperor's New Groove.
Tarzan and Kerchak
Pacha and Kuzco
By the late 1990s, Bruce wanted to create more projects to address the void in the market of urban entertainment, especially on the animation side.” He noted that, “animation was still not ready to diversify."  With the collaboration of Hyperion Studio President and Chief Executive, Tom Wilhite, he formed his own studio, Jambalaya Studios. Its primary aim was to create animated programs about ethnically-diverse characters and communities.  Its first production was award-winning, The Proud Family, which debuted on The Disney Channel in September 2001 – being Disney’s first, animated original TV series. Bruce is a married, father of four children, and he has said that the series was loosely based on his own family. Michael Mallory, from The Los Angeles Times, said that, “The series showed that there is more to creating ethnically-sensitive material than ‘digitally painting some characters a darker shade of skin tone and calling it diversity’. It is a matter of depicting a specific American neighborhood and its people with some truth and fidelity.” It eventually evolved into a feature-length film, a Playstation game and lots of merchandise. 

Bruce with his sketch of Penny Proud
Another Jambalaya production was Da Boom Crew – an adventure like series, which was a mix between Star Wars and Boyz-N-the-Hood. Bruce’s vision was to create a hip hop science-fiction animated series following the intergalactic adventures of four orphans who are transported into a universe that resembles a video game in which they themselves created.

Da Boom Crew

Many people do not realize that it takes several years to produce an animated film. Bruce’s most recent, finished project was to be the supervising animator on the villainous, Dr. Facilier character in Disney’s The Princess and the Frog. This was the first, animated Disney film that featured an African-American ‘princess’. So highly-anticipated was this film, that all of the merchandise had sold out even before the film had been released.  It also reached well beyond African-American audiences and enjoyed record ticket sales. Click here to see a 3-minute video of Bruce discussing how he created Dr. Facilier.

Bruce is currently the supervising animator on the Kanga, Roo and Piglet characters in the new Winnie the Pooh film, to be released within the next couple of months.

He also serves on the Board of Directors for Animobile, a company that designs and markets mobile entertainment for wireless devices and networks. Proving that you can break the color barrier, even in animation, Bruce has become one of the hottest creators, producers and directors in Toon Town. Rest assured, I will be going to see Winnie the Pooh and all of Bruce's future projects.

Sources: Wikipedia, Net Industries, BNET, Jim Hill Media, Google Images, YouTube


  1. Thank you! I really enjoyed this one, too:-)

  2. This guy is one of the best animators.