Bill Kroyer

Bill Kroyer

Bill Kroyer remembers the life-changing moment more than four decades ago when the world of animation beckoned him. He responded by stepping through the looking glass without a backward glance.

It was 1971 and Kroyer, a journalism major drawing cartoons for Northwestern University’s newspaper, had to create a 30-second film for advertising class.

“At the time, I planned on being a political cartoonist, so I decided to be a wise guy and create an animated ad,” says Kroyer. “To make the film, I studied books about cartoon animation by Disney animator Preston Blair. When the character I created came to life on the screen and winked at me, I experienced the most incredible feeling. I became obsessed with animation, and from that day to this I haven’t worked on anything that wasn’t animation related.”

Today Kroyer, who since 2009 has served as Chapman University’s Director of the Digital Arts Program for the Lawrence and Kristina Dodge College of Film and Media Arts, shares with students decades of animation industry knowledge. Pioneer of the technique of combining hand-drawn and computer animation, the awarding-winning director has worked for industry giants like Disney Studios and helped create groundbreaking films like “Tron” and “FernGully: The Last Rainforest.”

Self-Taught Beginnings

Kroyer grew up in Chicago where he started drawing in the third grade. Though he filled sketchbooks with artwork, his father didn’t allow him to take art classes.

“My father was a factory worker and didn’t believe you could make a living in the arts,” says Kroyer. “It wasn’t until my short film “Technological Threat” received an Academy Award nomination in 1988 and he put on a tux for the event that he thought my career in animation might work out.”

In Chicago, Kroyer knew of no one in the animation field, so he taught himself by reading on the subject and practicing. He used the skills to create a demo film on Super 8 for a food co-op he belonged to at the time, which led to him getting a job making educational films after graduation.

When Kroyer was 25, the famed animator Chuck Jones came to the Chicago Film Festival, and Kroyer showed him one of his super 8 educational films. “Chuck told me, ‘You can be an animator. Go to Hollywood,’” says Kroyer, who packed up his van and drove across country.

When he arrived, Jones wasn’t hiring, but he gave Kroyer several industry contacts. He found a job at a small studio, which gave him plenty of hands-on animation training.

“I owe a lot to Chuck Jones for helping me get started, says Kroyer, who became friends with the late animator and now serves on the board of directors of the Chuck Jones Center for Creativity.

Disney Dream Job

In 1977, Kroyer landed an animation job at Disney Studios. “Working at Disney was like being in Florence in the 1500s and learning under some of the greatest animation masters who ever lived, like Eric Larson,” he says. “We had no set schedules and could work on a scene for weeks until it was perfect.”

Eventually, Larson and the other animation masters retired. Kroyer left Disney to work on the film “Animalympics” directed by Steven Lisberger. Scheduled to release before the 1980 Olympics, the film ended up not getting distribution because the U.S. boycotted the Olympics, but it did air on television. Kroyer next served as animation director for “Tron,” also directed by Lisberger and starring Jeff Bridges. 

“Tron” ended up breaking ground as the first feature film to use extensive computer graphics, which inspired Kroyer to pursue the burgeoning industry of digital animation. He took a job at Digital Productions where they had the only Cray XM-P supercomputer not dedicated to defense. In 1986 Digital Productions went bankrupt, so Kroyer and wife, Susan, who he met at Disney and married in 1979, opened Kroyer Films, which became the first studio to combine computer and hand-drawn animation. Their first computer, which had 4 MGB of RAM, cost a whopping $57,000.00. Their groundbreaking process was instrumental in making “Technological Threat” nominated for the Academy Award for Best Short Film in 1988.

Of the many commercials, titles and other projects produced at Kroyer Films, the most famous was their animated feature film, “FernGully: The Last Rainforest.” One of the most successful non-Disney features, “FernGully” became an influential environmental film for a generation and was the first animated film ever screened in the General Assembly of the United Nations.

Kroyer later went to work for Warner Bros and then spent 12 years as Senior Animation Director at Rhythm & Hues Studios where he directed animation on commercials and feature films, including “Cats and Dogs”, “Garfield” and “Scooby Doo.”

Tom Sito is Chair of Animation at USC and author of several books, including Moving Innovation, the first complete history of the creation of computer graphics. He met Kroyer in 1982 and collaborated on several projects with him.

“Bill is an excellent filmmaker,” says Sito. “Trained by the legendary ‘Nine Old Men’ of Walt Disney’s glory days, Bill was one of the first traditional animators to embrace digital technologies when most artists feared what the computer might do to their profession. He currently represents animators along with Pixar’s John Lasseter on the Board of Governors of the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences and has worked with many stars. Despite hobnobbing with Hollywood’s rich and powerful, he’s not elitist but directs with a disarming folksiness that belies a quiet confidence, and he’s a natural leader and teacher.”

Joining Chapman

In 2009, Chapman University’s film school dean, Bob Bassett, called Kroyer to discuss him joining the university to build up the film school’s visual animation effects. He initially said no, but then decided to visit and discuss the opportunity after speaking with his wife, who began teaching in 2005. 

Kroyer found himself greatly impressed with Chapman’s faculty, leadership and facilities and agreed to teach one semester, which went so well that Bassett offered him the opportunity to head up the department.

Chair of the Media Arts Division, Janell Shearer, reports that Kroyer has succeeded in making a difference at Chapman. “As director of our Digital Arts Program, he has transformed the program and put it well on its way to achieving national recognition,” she says. “He tirelessly develops and refines curriculum so students learn current industry-standard skills needed to build careers. He also offers exceptional opportunities to meet and learn from industry professionals. The excitement among students is palpable when people like Brad Bird, Glen Keane and the director of “Wreck-it Ralph,” Rich Moore, come to campus.”

Kroyer’s favorite part of being at Chapman is the opportunity to make a difference for students. “Just as Chuck Jones helped me years ago, I try to connect students to as many opportunities as possible.”

Digital Media Arts Center at Dodge College

Located in the former California Wire and Cable Co. building, the Digital Media Arts Center at Dodge College provides students the opportunity to learn in a state-of-the-art facility. Instrumental in the design of the building’s interior, for inspiration Kroyer pointed the architects toward the working spaces of Google, Microsoft, Pixar and Disney Studios.

The resulting interior of the building features a modern design and vibe that encourages creativity. “It is the coolest building ever,” says Kroyer. “Whenever I show people in the animation and visual effects industry the facility, their jaws drop.”

The building includes studio spaces with a directing studio and digital arts suites, a creative commons where students can hang out and share ideas, a café, a 1,500-square-foot multi-purpose screening room with 3D projection, a digital arts computer teaching lab, 2D design and flex classrooms, and an art studio where the creative process begins. The art studio’s computer-less space contains paper, pencils, paintbrushes and easels.

Published in the Jan/Feb 2015 edition of the Old Towne Orange Plaza Review

Written by Julie Bawden-Davis, Photograph by Russell Snider

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