Where Yeagles Dare!

Animator Dean Yeagle at Playboy

Drawing with a real pencil on real paper is how ‘traditional’ animators like to describe themselves, in this modern era of computers. Working as effortlessly on his Macintosh G4 as he does on paper, Animator Dean Yeagle creates some of the most exquisite pinups and gag cartoons, many of which find their way into the pages of Playboy magazine. But there is more to him than what meets the eyes of his countless fans, who cannot take their glance from his Pinup Galleries.

Dean Yeagle has produced work for most of the top animation houses in the United States and has produced, directed, designed and animated innumerable TV commercials and CD-ROMs. He has also done assignments for corporate clients across the United States and Europe, which include designing characters for various products, contributing cartoons, designing toys and working on a continuing series of children’s books. In fact, he will take up anything that sparks his creative senses. His client list include Walt Disney Productions, Warner Bros., MGM, Blue Sky Studios, Hanna-Barbera, Animus Productions, Hahnfilm, Swan Studios, Rick Reinert Productions, Playboy Enterprises, Western Publishing, JuniorNet, Nestle, Kraft, Proctor & Gamble, Saatchi & Saatchi, Grey Advertising, Wallace/Church and The Coleman Group to name just a few.

In animation, Dean has worked as designer, animator and director. His work has earned him the Animator of the Year Award of the National Cartoonist Society. After high school, Dean went to art school for a year (they hated cartoons there). He began his career in an animation studio in Philadelphia, PA with a summer job. Being a small studio, he stayed on and began to do a little of everything and learnt the business from the bottom up. He was in the Navy for four years during the Vietnam era and then took up a job in NYC at Zander’s Animation Parlour, working for Jack Zander, who once animated on the old Tom and Jerry cartoons for MGM.

After seven years at Zander, Dean moved on to be on his own and began freelancing. He worked for most of the NY animation studios before he started an animation studio, Caged Beagle Productions, in 1986, with Nancy Beiman as partner. Caged Beagle is still up and running and produces TV commercials, CD-ROMs, subcontracts or consults on features and character design for all sorts of clients. His wife Barbara is also an artist and musician. They enjoy traveling and keeping in touch with their daughter Becky and her husband Nick, in Pasadena, CA.

In the midst of his busy schedule, ArtYears caught up with the Animator who puts the smiles into Playboy, with the hope of finding out more about the artist and his work. He surprised us with his wealth of experiences, along with his advice to the budding animator, hoping to break into the big world of animation art.

ArtYears presents an extract from an exclusive interview with animator Dean Yeagle:
What prompted you to a career in art? How did you first begin?
I was a Disney fan since I was very young (aren’t we all?). So after giving up the idea of ‘lion tamer’ as a career goal at the age of 10 or so, I settled on animator, specifically for Disney. I drew all the time, copyingDisney characters at first and then designing my own.

From films, books, commercials to magazines, your work attracts attention from all age groups. What is it that draws everyone to the universal appeal of cartoons?
I doubt I’ve ever actually thought about it, but cartoons do have an appeal in the way any sort of art form (if I may use the term) does. It shows us aspects of our humanity by distorting the truth to point out what the artist wants to show…even if it is only (in the case of caricature) physical attributes. Moreover, when one points out these attributes in a drawing, they become – Funny, and everyone likes funny .
To the extent that cartooning is Art, the cartoons should, I would argue, be well-drawn. This is not as obvious as it sounds, as there are a lot of cartoons today that are very, very BADLY drawn, and not always on purpose. Unfortunately, these are often very popular anyway. They just shouldn’t be. One hopes people are laughing at them, not with them. But I doubt it.

What challenges do you encounter in illustrating children’s books?
Well, the challenges are the same as they are in film, to some extent. The concise presentation of a story, told visually. You must have appealing characters, and the pages must be varied in ways that draw the reader into the story and make them want to turn to the next page. Composition of the page is analogous to camera angle in film, and should be varied, but not simply for the sake of variety. The composition should allow us to see something that advances the story, or character, or mood. Generally speaking, it is like making a film in a series of pictures. In fact, animation storyboards, (also used in planning live action films), are essentially ‘picture books’ in this sense. Otherwise, having the mind of an 8 year old, I find it fits my personality.

How successful have animators been in selling commercial brands?
Animation has been extremely successful in advertising. Consider Tony the Tiger, Snap, Crackle & Pop or for that matter, Mickey Mouse, who has been essentially an advertising icon for various Disney enterprises for the past 50 years. Cartoons attract the eye and catch attention in a very direct way. I have done any number of designs for products, including the original design for the Cheerios Bee, for instance, who’s still going strong.

How much freedom do you enjoy in the advertising industry?
‘Freedom’ is not a word that comes readily to mind in advertising, because the client generally has in mind a very definite set of parameters they want addressed in the design. Given those restrictions, I use my own style (which is why they’ve contracted me in the first place), and it’s usually possible to end up with a character that’s appealing not only to the client (and the consumer, of course), but to me as well. In TV commercials, since I usually handle the design, direction and animation myself, there’s a good deal of freedom, within the obvious restrictions. The restrictions of time are actually instructive, because a commercial forces you to tell a story, sometimes a fairly complex one at that, in a VERY short amount of time… 30 or even 15 seconds. Concision is forced upon you – some scenes are little over a second long, and the image has to register on the viewer’s brain and advance the ‘story’. At times, it is a worthwhile lesson in economical storytelling that’s useful in other media as well.

From among the varied work that you produce, could you speak about some of your recent projects?
I have been doing CD ROMs more often now, the most recent being the one for Scholastic with Clifford the Big Red Dog. I have also done Rugrats, the Berenstain Bears, and the Cat in the Hat. The process is essentially the same as ‘regular’ animation – drawing on animation paper – within the particular needs of the computer process. Since it’s just out on DVD, I must mention that I did some pre-production work on the CGI film ICE AGE for Blue Sky Productions.

I am also working on my own children’s book, at the moment, and we’ll see what happens with that. Besides, I’m doing the Playboy cartoons on a regular basis, as well as selling some original artworks, which is something that’s opened up recently since my website gallery’s been up at http://www.bellefree.com (under ‘dabeagle’). My general client portfolio website is at http://www.cagedbeagle.com, in case any clients,with money, are reading this.

How did you find your way between the covers of Playboy?
In a rather roundabout way. Playboy sent an announcement to animation studios inviting entries for a contest they were running on their website. Since animation is costly and time-consuming, and I was very busy at the time, I didn’t want to do animation for it, but I decided to do a couple of gag cartoons and send them in. Even if it wasn’t really what they were asking for, at least they would see them. They did, and I got a call from the cartoon editor. The rest, as they say, is history. Not up there with Napoleon or the Fall of the Roman Empire, but MY history, anyway. They are great to work for, and I get to use ideas that are mine from the beginning, and sign the work at the end. Lots of fun.

Does drawing for Playboy label you as a pinup specialist?
Well, there are people who only know me from the Playboy cartoons. As an animator, you don’t get to sign anything, and people never stay for the credits. So I’m known as a pinup specialist to some, and there are worse job descriptions.

What kind of exposure do your cartoons in the adult magazine bring you?
There’s quite a bit of exposure from the Playboy cartoons. I’ve been getting fan mail, including some from people with disposable income! That is to say, I’ve been selling original artworks, sketches for the cartoons and other unpublished work that’s in my website gallery. I have also been contacted by clients who have seen my work in the magazine and do an online search to find me – animation companies from around the world, a magazine in Australia, a producer of video games, and two very interesting projects that I’m not at liberty to disclose yet (cue mysterious music). Not all of these people want pinup style cartoons, but the drawings are an example of what I can do and are a good selling point.

Your cartoons are known for their simplicity and grace. What basic principles do you follow when it comes to drawing styles?
Well, gee, thanks. In animation, you need to be able to handle all sorts of styles, but my own style comes from a blending of the styles of artists who have influenced me, and over the years my own style has emerged from that, which is pretty much how it happens to anyone. I don’t know that there are any actual ‘principles’ that I could articulate. I just draw like I draw, but in general there’s an obvious animation influence to everything I do.

How important is color to you when designing characters?
Not important at all in the beginning stages. First the line, always. Color adds mood or indicates a character’s state of mind or general health perhaps, and is therefore a very important component eventually, but first of all is the character, expressed in line. The ultimate color may be in the back of my mind as I design, but usually that comes later. In designing backgrounds, however, the color may well be the first thought and the determining factor in the end result

You are an inspiration to many talented animation artists around. Do you have any idols yourself?
Oh, sure, many. I’ll just list a few here: Disney (and the artists associated with him), Walt Kelly (LOVE Pogo!), Ronald Searle, Thelwell, Chuck Jones, Bob Clampett, T.S. Sullivant, George Herriman, Al Capp, Gil Elvgren, Frank C. Papé, Carl Barks, Norman Lindsay, Antoine-Louis Barye, Al Hirschfeld, George Price, Lee Lorenz, Jack Cole, Rembrant Bugatti, Auguste Rodin, Bernini. Okay, I’m getting a bit over the top with Rodin and Bernini and the like, perhaps, but they’re in my head, too. Then there are animators such as ALL the Nine Old Men at Disney’s, and others I’ve met such as Jack Zander, Preston Blair and Emery Hawkins. Besides lots of others who I’ll hit myself in the head for not mentioning as soon as I read this list again.

You have worked for some of the most prominent animation studios around. How much does a film’s success depend on the company that produces it?
Well, the company is simply the people who work there, and they sometimes shift around, so at any given time, a good piece of animation may come from anywhere. But generally, a company embodies a philosophy of animation, and as long as they keep that in mind, it will keep showing up, or at least that’s how I feel when I’m in optimistic mode. Animation is an art form, and I hope it can stay that way, even with all the effort being expended at the moment to kill it off in its pure 2D form, anyway.

With all the modern technology available to the animator these days, how long do you think the pencil will survive the competition?
I hope it will ALWAYS be possible to do, and see, ‘traditional’ animation. After all, it’s less than a 100 years old, and for an art form, that’s infancy. The pencil can do things the computer can’t, simply because it’s wielded by a human being, with no electronics in between the artist and the paper. Computer animation, as in MONSTERS, Inc., for instance, can be wonderful. It’s just not the SAME however, so let’s keep both.

What tips would you offer to an amateur animator?
You mean besides “STOP, you fool!”? Well, these are parlous times for animators with a lot of ’em out on the street. All the studios are ‘downsizing’. However, it’ll come back again, it always does. I hope. Most TV animation is done overseas. So I’d say, by all means, learn to animate; keep the craft alive, but have a backup talent or two: layout, storyboarding, character design, illustration. This is how I survive, and it keeps life interesting and varied. It has allowed me to work at home and sleep late for the past 20 years. Whatever you do, don’t count on getting a job at a major studio and keeping it for 40 years. That’s not how things work anymore. Keep your options open and good luck to you!

Your work table includes everything from Color Pencils to the Macintosh. Can you describe some of the art material and softwares you handle?
In fact, my materials aside from the Mac, are pencils and paper for the most part. I do the Playboy cartoons, animation backgrounds, and other illustrations in Photoshop, having first drawn with a 2B pencil on plain old animation paper or even copy paper and then scanned that drawing into the computer. I sometimes use colored pencils for particular effects, and I often draw roughs in blue or red Col-erase pencils, which have a nice feel and are as the name implies, erasable. Not that I make mistakes, of course.

As for software, Photoshop is my main program, but I’m going to try Painter, which gives a more painterly look, as well. I’ve used Adobe Premiere for animation purposes and Google to search for reference!

How much time do you devote to your art in a day? How do you relax?
I devote whatever time is called for, for actual work – sometimes day and night, other times no time at all. If I have no paying work with a schedule, I’ll try to learn more about Photoshop, or do drawings for my website, or put some time in on projects of my own, such as the children’s book. Strangely, I find working in Photoshop relaxing. I also am a movie buff, and I’ll watch old movies (new ones, too). We also try to do as much traveling as we can – both my wife and I love travel. Our daughter Becky now lives in Pasadena, CA, so we take several trips a year out there. I have clients out there, so I can do work there as well. We also read a lot, which makes the house look like a bookshop.

Cartoons aside, what else would you choose as an alternate career?

Photography – maybe nature photography in particular. Or writing perhaps. Not that I’m particularly good at either, but if I hadn’t been a cartoonist I’d have had to learn.

Or maybe I wouldn’t have given up on the lion taming!


Dean Yeagle is a well known animator who also draws cartoons for Playboy. He produces various commercial assignments for his animation studio ‘Caged Beagle Productions, Inc. You can view his online gallery at www.bellefree.com and his client portfolio website at www.cagedbeagle.com


All images in this feature are copyright © Dean Yeagle and used with his permission.


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