Tom Bancroft of Pencilish Animation Studios: Second Chapters; How I Reinvented Myself In The Second Chapter Of My Life
People will give if they believe in you, and you ask. — Equity crowdfunding is the ultimate “ask” for me. I’ve never been someone that is good at asking for help. It took me awhile to realize that just because I believe in something doesn’t mean someone else can’t also — and they will back it.
Many successful people reinvented themselves in a later period in their life. Jeff Bezos worked in Wall Street before he reinvented himself and started Amazon. Sara Blakely sold office supplies before she started Spanx. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson was a WWE wrestler before he became a successful actor and filmmaker. Arnold Schwarzenegger went from a bodybuilder, to an actor to a Governor. McDonald’s founder Ray Croc was a milkshake-device salesman before starting the McDonalds franchise in his 50's.
How does one reinvent themselves? What hurdles have to be overcome to take life in a new direction? How do you overcome those challenges? How do you ignore the naysayers? How do you push through the paralyzing fear?
In this series called “Second Chapters; How I Reinvented Myself In The Second Chapter Of My Life “ we are interviewing successful people who reinvented themselves in a second chapter in life, to share their story and help empower others.
As a part of this interview series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Tom Bancroft.
Tom Bancroft is the CEO of Pencilish Animation Studios. He is a former Disney Animator who has created characters in some of the most popular and profitable animated features of all time, including “The Lion King,” “Pocahontas,” and “Mulan,” among others. Bancroft has also directed 10 feature films and eight TV Series. Pencilish is a brand new crowd-owned animation studio created by a team of legendary alumni from Disney, Nickelodeon, and DreamWorks. The studio enables investors to be a part of creating fun, animated series and characters that they can own a piece of. Its vision is to create high-quality animated projects that connect with audiences of all ages.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we start, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
I grew up in Southern California, in a less than white collar area, North Long Beach — just across from Compton. My older sister, twin brother and I were raised by a single mom who would bring home “computer paper” (this was the late 70’s) that had lines and perforations on both sides but was still enough of a blank canvas for my brother and I to draw on. We taught each other to push ourselves to be the best artists we could. Just out of high school, we discovered a local art school, California Institute of the Arts that many of the Disney animators came from. We applied and got accepted in 1987 and a year and a half later, we were both accepted into a Disney animation internship. After that nine-week internship, we were both given jobs at the brand-new Disney Feature Animation studio in Florida. I stayed for about 12 years and had the opportunity to animate on films like “Beauty and the Beast”, “Aladdin”, “The Lion King”, “Mulan” and a few others. For “Mulan” I was given the job of being the supervising animator of MUSHU, the dragon, which meant I designed him and animated him with a team of additional animators I supervised.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Being a twin, and a Christian, one “quote” that has been important in my life is “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another” (Proverbs 27:17). My brother and I would push each other to be the best we could be artistically (sometimes with some negative competitive sides to it, I’ll admit), but I think this proverb also speaks to how we can affect one another when we work together toward a mutual goal. I believe we never stop learning in life so “being sharpened” by others is my goal.
You have been blessed with much success. In your opinion, what are the top three qualities that you possess that have helped you accomplish so much? If you can, please share a story or example for each.
This is a hard question, but I’ll list three and then unpack them a bit:
1) Staying Fascinated by Innovation/innovators — Since I was young, I was fascinated by innovation (and specifically innovators) and where things were headed. To this day, I Google search one or two people a day that I may have just read about or heard mention of them doing something new and exciting. It’s not research to me, it’s fun! I learn something new from each person and their passions.
2) Being Trustworthy: Trustworthiness is not spoken about much these days but it means EVERYTHING in life. If people can’t trust your word, then you have no value to them. People talk about the future “currency” we will yield (usually referring to “Information”) but trust is the one that will never grow old or lose its value.
3) Listening to my Inner “Tom Bancroft”: “Tommy” was my name growing up (it sounds good with “and Tony”, my twin brother’s name and twin parents love cute sounding twin names). Listening to my inner “Tommy” means not forgetting those things that I loved and got me excited about life, drawing, and the dreams I had then. I still love to draw and try to find time for it everyday because “Tommy” wanted to have the ability I now have. He couldn’t draw cars, mermaids, or even a good Mickey Mouse- but I can, so why would I stop now that I’ve finally hit the point he always dreamed of reaching? In short, I want to always remember what drove me so hard all my life and not turn from it.
Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about ‘Second Chapters’. Can you tell our readers about your career experience before your Second Chapter?
I have done about every form of art/creation there is for “kid’s media.” From designing toys, designing characters for video games, TV series, or film, storyboarding for animated feature films or TV, illustrating children’s books and comic books, creating drawing apps, authoring two art instruction books, and animating on eight Disney feature films and four shorts. At this point, I cut my career into thirds- the Disney years (about 12 years), the independent years (about 18 years) of freelancing and having my own development company, and where I’m headed now as CEO of Pencilish Animation Studios. For those first 30 years or so, I’ve been concentrated on two areas: creating intellectual properties in the form of animated characters/stories and teaching Animation and character design principles to the next generation of animators. It’s been rewarding and there hasn’t been a day that I haven’t learned something. I’ve followed my heart, helped people create their dream projects, and provided for my family of six. As an artist, that’s the ultimate dream: to draw for a living.
And how did you “reinvent yourself” in your Second Chapter?
I discovered that I had been going down a few roads that eventually, with where the world is headed/new technologies, began converging. First, I was already entrepreneurial. I had launched an online art instruction company and collaborated with other creators on projects like App video games, and a social network app for artists, too. Secondly, I had been creating my own animated TV series and feature film concepts for a couple years. I was passionate about them and wanted to see them get made. Thirdly, I have a large following on social media with people coming to me from various areas- some know me from the Disney films, some know me from working on Veggietales, some have my art instruction books, some follow me because I created the #MerMay drawing challenge on Instagram, and so on. All these various parts of my career and the fact that I love to draw still (and post those sketches), led to me having an “army” of followers. But, I didn’t know why I was building that army. I needed something to point them towards that I cared about as much as they did. At the same time, the US government created something called a “Regulation CF” (about six years ago) which is equity crowdfunding. In short, it allows the average person to invest as little as $100 in start-up companies. Unlike a Kickstarter though, it’s not a donation, it’s an investment where you become a shareholder in that company. I already had a love for social media and interacting with followers, so a company that is basically “fan based” sounded too good to be true. I would create the world’s first crowdfunded animation studio, Pencilish Animation Studios! We are an entertainment company that will create our own IP that is also owned by the shareholders. Imagine if you could have backed Walt Disney when he created Mickey Mouse so many years ago? Iconic characters and stories are as valuable in this world as any patent ownership. We’ve already raised well over $1 Million with our new raise set at $5 Million.
Can you tell us about the specific trigger that made you decide that you were going to “take the plunge” and make your huge transition?
A few years ago, I turned 48 and it struck me that at 50 I would be “old!” I’ve since come around to realize that maybe 50 isn’t such a dire age after all. At the time, though, it was a huge wakeup call that I hadn’t done the thing I had always wanted to do: create my own IP and get it out into the world. Like so many of my other talented artist friends, I had taken the “safe path” of working for the major animation studios and creating their characters and stories. It was a good life with exciting projects that get worldwide attention and good pay — so it’s hard to pull away from that and risk it all for your own projects. I decided that year that phase one was to put a year or two into developing pitches for animated shows and feature films I’ve always wanted to make. I teamed up with a writing partner and we did just that: creating about eight TV series pitches and writing three feature film scripts. I’ve since added a couple more to each of those categories. At that point, it was time to start pitching to the major studios in the hopes they would give me money/ a job to create my show for them. But, Hollywood’s dirty little secret is: they have no idea what they want. It’s frustrating trying to convince development people why your project is good and that people will like it. They’ve heard every pitch known to man and your idea is summed up as “that alien idea” or “that animated western.” Creators know what makes their concept different and studio heads rarely get it. What they know is numbers. They want you to go out and make that show, release it on YouTube or other social media, garner millions of “likes” and comments, put in a couple years of creating it, and THEN come to them for them to purchase it. The last heartbreak is that deal with the major studio will be pennies on the dollar and they will own it outright. They will get all of the most lucrative money — the merchandising and licensing dollars, not you. I realized that something was broken on how we traditionally create IP and sell them off. I didn’t want to play that game.
What did you do to discover that you had a new skillset inside of you that you haven’t been maximizing? How did you find that and how did you ultimately overcome the barriers to help manifest those powers?
Through the years, as I was launching new ventures, often having five to six projects going simultaneously, people would ask me, “How do you get it all done?” I had realized the importance of partners a few years back. The right people involved in a project is power. My first ventures were with other artists. They had the same passions as me, but they also had the same skillset. It created redundancy and where we were both weak, usually the business or financial side of running the company, it left a hole. In the last few years of my life, I’ve expanded my network to include people that have opposite abilities and knowledge so I can learn from them. In some cases, they have become my partners in a project and I’ve seen the benefits of that in the growth of that concept into a company.
Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I have to cheat and pick the two important ladies in my life: my mom and my wife. My mom was a hard-working single mom raising three kids. She never gave up. She instilled in us a work ethic but also an appreciation of what you are given in life. Even at 80, if you met her, she’d talk your ear off about her kids. My wife and I have been best friends since high school. I wouldn’t be as driven as I am without her support. I helped her get her Master’s degree, and then she helped raise our kids while I was working long hours at Disney for many years. She’s now getting her PhD at age 54 and I couldn’t be more proud of her. We’ve always sought accomplishing shared goals as an important part of our marriage.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started in this new direction?
We launched Pencilish Animation studios about the time that COVID-19 hit the US and we really weren’t sure what was going to happen. The world was in disarray and many people had no idea where they were headed, much less, where the world was headed. It seemed unimportant to launch a company that was about creating animation content that the average person could own a piece of. What surprised us was that the reaction was the opposite — the world was instantly shut off from new content from Hollywood and there was a need for new content more than ever. As you invest at wefunder.com/pencilish you can leave a comment and I’ve read every single one of them. I’ve heard the stories of how that person needed to know that their schooling in animation still meant something and others said they can’t wait for someone other than the big conglomerate entertainment companies to make shows that are different than what’s out there. On top of that, I knew I was building something that artists and creators would “get” but I didn’t know how the investor crowd would react. They tend to want quick ROI and I’ve been upfront from the beginning that this is a startup entertainment company, we are a long-term investment. To my shock, many of our investors are coming to us because they love the concept and see it as a viable company. This means a lot to me because people are getting the passion I have and the direction we are headed.
Did you ever struggle with believing in yourself? If so, how did you overcome that limiting belief about yourself? Can you share a story or example?
I’m not someone that suffers from self-doubt and I’ve never had a headache before — please don’t hate me! That said, I have lived with competition my whole life. My twin brother is also a Disney animator and he often times got better opportunities during those years at the Mouse House. I had to deal with that in my twenties and thirties. What I do, I do to the best of my ability and there will always be someone better than me. But, I’ve also been given opportunities that some of them have not, so I need to make the best of them, ignore the feeling of “imposter syndrome,” and learn from the mistakes I make along the way. The world doesn’t cherish people that win easily, they love people that keep getting up.
Starting a new chapter usually means getting out of your comfort zone, how did you do that? Can you share a story or example of that?
I remember when I was given the role of MUSHU the dragon in the Disney film “Mulan.” I had never supervised a character at Disney (which means creating their final character design and leading a group of animators and artists on how they look and act). It was a big step up and MUSHU started to become a larger role in the film as it was being developed and rewritten. Then, along came Eddie Murphy, who agreed to voice the character. All of the sudden, all eyes at Disney were on me- all the way to the top: Michael Eisner and the President of Animation, Jeffery Katzenberg. Could Tom pull off a character that had so much riding on it in the story (much less all the plush toys and merchandising to follow)? I was told by the directors that I needed to step it up. I had to bring that “something extra” that all supervising animators at Disney had. Only, no one explains what that is. They call it “appeal,” but there’s no real definition or instructions on how to apply it to your scenes. What I discovered was that I had reached the top of my industry- I was a Disney animator — but that I had to reach inside and give even more. What that became for me was finding that special something that MUSHU would do in every scene that ONLY MUSHU would do. Sometimes that was just how he would contort his snake-like body to show his emotions or an expression. Other times, it was how he would rise from the ashes and smoke saying, “I LIIIIIIVVVVE”! The questions about me died down within a few months and I had realized that good wasn’t always good enough.
Fantastic. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my organization” and why? Please share a story or example for each.
- People will give if they believe in you, and you ask. — Equity crowdfunding is the ultimate “ask” for me. I’ve never been someone that is good at asking for help. It took me awhile to realize that just because I believe in something doesn’t mean someone else can’t also — and they will back it.
- Reputation matters — We all know that we live in a world that’s in love with celebrity, but when we put together our advisory board, I wanted people I knew and respected, people who brought a diversity of life as well as different viewpoints. We have two Disney directors, a former VP of Disney, an AIG regulatory officer, a film company CEO, a marketing firm founder, and, yes, a celebrity, but she’s also a friend and smart businesswoman (Ming Na Wen, voice of “Mulan”).
- Support matters — Having a stable, loving relationship behind you makes all the difference in the world if you are going to move forward. My biggest fear has always been to finally have all my dreams come true but not have anyone to share it with.
- Don’t fear new ways of doing things — It’s amazing to me that we’ve had smart phones for years now and YouTube is the biggest entertainment channel on the planet. We are constantly told that more people watch entertainment on their phones than any other source and yet we still want to go to the big studios to sell them our content and “get it out to an audience.” Why aren’t we ALL going direct? Some are and we read those articles about their success stories and then we go back to calling our agent, manager, or development executive about how we should change our IP to get it to sell better? Really? We know our project better than anyone! Make it and get it out there yourself!
- Youth are the future- I’ve spoken at many animation and art schools around the world. At every one of them- but especially in international locations like Italy, Spain, and Costa Rica — there is amazing talent, but they often graduate and launch into the world with no real prospects for jobs. They are waiting for studios to tap them on the shoulder and give them a job on one of their existing series. I have seen some of their amazing ideas and characters, they just need some money to make those concepts into shows. Pencilish is doing just that. We are interested in the next generation of creators and their dream projects.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
I’m not the person to launch something that will do the most amount of good to the most people in the world — that seems like a job for a (good, trustworthy) politician or a religious leader. I hope my contribution will be to help creators get fair deals for their IP, to bring back the idea of Patronage (with a profit), and bring some happiness to people through that work. If I can do those things and do it with honor, supporting people over profits, I will feel like I’ve contributed.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them. :-)
Chris Pratt — I like his work of course, but I think I like his heart even more. We all think there’s some celebrity out there that if we only met, we’d probably be friends. He’s mine. I’m older than him and not near as sporty though. Also, selfishly, I have a dream project that is a live action/animated feature film that I think he’d be incredible at providing the voice for the lead animated superhero character. He’s got boys and this could be the chance for him to be Superman without having to do crazy stunts and wear tights. Come one Chris! — wasn’t that all your favorite words in one sentence?
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!