Bruce W. Smith Biography
Was a Cartoon Fanatic, Formed Jambalaya Studios, Selected works
Considered one of the leading talents among a new generation of animators, Bruce W. Smith has broadened the array of multicultural cartoon characters seen on television and in films. Through his Jambalaya Studio, he has created programs for children and families that focus on authentic depictions of life among racially and ethnically diverse communities.
Was a Cartoon Fanatic
Growing up in South Central Los Angeles, Smith was a "cartoon fanatic," as he noted in a Jet article. He loved comic books and animated television series, such The Flintstones and Bill Cosby's Fat Albert, as well as Disney animated movies. Yet he was frustrated that these shows didn't include any characters like himself or his friends. He decided that he would make his own artwork based on his own experiences. While his older brothers shot hoops, he spent his time sketching stories and creating his own cartoons. He even drew a comic strip based on the live-action sitcom Sanford and Son. "I was huge into the whole 'blaxploitation period,'" he admitted in a Celebrating Children article.
Smith began attending animation classes at age ten, after his fourth grade teacher noticed his artistic skills and helped arrange for classes. He became the designated class artist for school projects, and by the time he was 12 had made his first animated movie. Through high school, the aspiring artist continued with extracurricular classes, intent on making art his career. "I was going to do whatever I could—even if it meant 7/11 wages or $5 an hour," he told a writer for the Trinidad Guardian. "It was about getting happy for doing something you love." After graduating from high school, Smith enrolled at the California Institute of the Arts. Offered a summer internship and the chance to work full-time in a studio, Smith chose to leave school before getting his degree. It was the right move, he noted in the Guardian, because it gave him the opportunity to work with experts at their craft.
Jobs with major studios soon followed. Smith worked as an animator on the groundbreaking film Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, a mix of live action and animation that was one of the top-grossing films of 1988 winning four Academy Awards. Critics raved about the film's creative audacity; New York Times writer Janet Maslin hailed its "wildly inventive" interchanges between cartoon and human characters, and praised its animators and other creative crew members for making the film's magic seem "effortless." Smith also provided animation for another Roger Rabbit film, Tummy Trouble. Smith then worked on character design for Bebe's Kids, and as animation supervisor for The Pagemaster, another film blending live action and animation. Subsequent projects included character design for A Goofy Movie and for the television series C-Bear and Jamal.
In 1996 Smith tackled his first directing project with the film Space Jam, on which he served as co-director of animation. Like Roger Rabbit, this film—in which Looney Tunes characters (including Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck) convince real-life basketball superstar Michael Jordan to help them win a game against space aliens—utilized many new animation technologies. Boston Globe critic Jay Carr noted that the movie exploited the "antic wildness" of the original cartoons, observing that its animators "run the ball into a few new realms of animation, cleverly using the technology as opposed to letting the technology use them…. After Space Jam, athletes are going to start lining up outside animators' studios." Smith subsequently worked as supervising animator for the character Kerchak in Disney's Tarzan and for Pacha in The Emperor's New Groove.
Formed Jambalaya Studios
By the late 1990s Smith was growing more interested in creating his own projects. As he explained to a writer for the Los Angeles Times, he was aware of a "void in the market of urban entertainment, especially in the animation side…. [A]nimation was still not ready to diversify." With Hyperion Studio president and chief executive Tom Wilhite, Smith formed Jambalaya Studios, which aimed to create animated programs about ethnically diverse characters and communities. The studio's first project was the series The Proud Family, which Smith wrote, directed, and produced. According to Michael Mallory in the Los Angeles Times, 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." Indeed, Smith, the father of four children, admitted in the Guardian that he relied heavily on his own background in creating the series. He likened The Proud Family's father, Oscar, to himself, and said that the character of Penny was modeled on his own daughter, while the mother and grandmother were based on his own wife and mother. Like many African-American families, the Proud family includes a working mother, a grandmother, and a father, who in this case is an entrepreneur. Among their neighbors is a Latino family. While The Proud Family was recognized for its role in promoting diverse entertainment, it was also respected as a program that could attract a wider audience. The program was nominated for an NAACP Image Award.
Another production from Jambalaya was Da Boom Crew, an adventure series that Smith described in Celebrating Children as a cross between Star Wars and Boyz-N-the-Hood. The program follows a group of orphans who make their own video game involving space aliens. A supernatural occurrence pulls them into this fictional world, where they must outsmart monsters and other villains in their search for missing boom carts. Smith was careful, he pointed out, to avoid any hip-hop stereotypes in the show. "Recreating the black experience in animated form is deeper [than that]," he explained. "And once you see Da Boom Crew, you see how these kids are just like you and I."
Smith also worked as an animator on The Indescribable Nth, which was named "Best American Short" at the BBC British Shorts Film Festival in 1999. He was lead animator for the character Pearl in Home on the Range. He serves on the board of directors of Animobile, a company that creates and markets "mobile entertainment" for wireless devices and networks. By the mid-2000s, Smith was widely perceived to be one of the hottest animators in the industry.
Additional animator, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Walt Disney Pictures, 1988.
Animator, Tummy Trouble, Walt Disney Pictures, 1989.
Character designer, Bebe's Kids, Hyperion Pictures, 1992.
Animation supervisor, The Pagemaster, 20th Century Fox, 1994.
Character designer, A Goofy Movie, Walt Disney Pictures, 1995.
Animation director, Space Jam, Warner Brothers, 1996.
Supervising animator, Tarzan, Walt Disney Pictures, 1999 Animator, The Indescribable Nth, 1999.
Supervising animator, The Emperor's New Groove, Walt Disney Pictures, 2000.
Lead animator, Home On the Range, Walt Disney Pictures, 2004.
Character designer, director, Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales for Every Child (co-producer), HBO, 1995-2000.
Character designer, C-Bear and Jamal, Fox, 1996.
Director, executive producer, writer, The Proud Family, The Disney Channel, 2001.
Executive producer, writer, Da Boom Crew, WBKids!, 2004.
Boston Globe, November 15, 1996, p. D1.
Guardian (Trinidad), October 3, 2004.
Jet, February 9, 2004, p. 19.
Los Angeles Times, September 15, 2001, p. F2.
New York Times, June 22, 1988.
"Da Boom Crew Rockets into Space," Celebrating Children, www.celebratingchildren.com (April 28, 2005).
"Disney's The Proud Family Producer, Bruce Smith to present at Animae Caribe 2003," Animae Caribe 2003, www.animaecaribe.com/about/index.php?topic=news&id=0901 (June 29, 2005).
"The Proud Family Makes Disney Channel Its Home," LaughingPlace, www.laughingplace.com (April 28, 2005).
—E. M. Shostak
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