If you’ve ever noticed an influx of mermaid-themed artwork posted online in May, there’s a good reason for it: MerMay, a challenge that encourages artists to draw a different mermaid every day of the month, with 31 prompts that help guide them along. The Art Challenge has officially been around since 2017, although the artist behind it had no idea it was going to get that big. Veteran Disney animator Tom Bancroft, the lead animator for MulanThe little red dragon Mushu has just decided to draw some mermaids one day.
“It was a fluke,” he tells Polygon. In 2016 he did painted a picture of a couple of mermaids hanging out on rocks in the sea and talking on their “clam phones”. (“Do you understand?” He adds.)
“They show up how [makes phone-displaying gesture]I’m just a young girl, ”he explains. “I have four girls. So I knew this world really well. I just thought I’d like to see such a modern twist on mermaids today. “
The drawing went viral on Facebook and Bancroft decided to spend a month doing mermaid-themed drawings. Eventually it became a formal call-up list and competition that turned into sponsorship with Wacom.
“We had hundreds of thousands of people involved [that first year]. But we’ve been in the millions since then, ”says Bancroft. “It has become a worldwide drawing event. I really wanted that. I wanted it to be an encouragement for artists to just work on their drawing chops. “
In 2021, MerMay will be bigger than ever official Chinese language version
“First of all, I was just one of many thousands of people who drew mermaids. It was a little easier, ”he says. “In general, it works by itself. I could clear the prompts and have people decide whether or not to use the prompts. And they just start drawing. Which is wonderful, there are so many people who come back to do it every year. You inspire others, and this chain reaction has been going on for the past three to four years. It just grew and grew on its own. “
He has certain tasks at MerMay – especially at his studio Pencillish Officially sponsored this year – the self-sufficient nature of a viral art competition gives him the freedom to focus on his primary passion. Bancroft has been in the animation industry for more than 30 years and knows better than anyone that it is time for a change. He believes aspiring animators shouldn’t be tied to any corporate path – even if the industry was like that when he worked for Disney, and it has been for a long time.
“Young creators have the philosophy that there is only one good way to get into the animation industry,” he says. “Importance I’m going to LA, I’m going to work at Pixar, Disney, or one of the big companies. And I’ll sell everything to them. ”
With its studio, Bancroft wants to be an alternative to the big studios like Disney or DreamWorks, where creators can realize their dream projects. If the ideas are good, Pencilish helps fund them – with the creators as part owners of their creations. It’s not just the animators who will own them. Pencillish operates on a crowdfunding platform where those who invest become shareholders in the company. “It’s like a kickstarter,” explains Bancroft. He says he’s tired of seeing the characters he created turn into plush toys, prints, and other merchandise that he sees no profit from. He wants to fix the system where animators often sign their creations and get pennies on the dollar for what they earn.
“You will make a billion dollars, you will not see a dime,” he says. “And that’s how things really work in Hollywood.”
Disney is a creative studio, but it’s primarily a multibillion dollar company – and it will always be about maximizing profits rather than helping the creators who make those profits. Bancroft is far from the only Disney employee who has seen their creations make a ton of money for the company that they are not a part of. For example, few of the original animators, screenwriters, and other filmmakers of Disney animated films ever reap profits from the billion dollar live-action remakes that their characters reuse.
But with Pencillish, Bancroft hopes to use the studio to empower animators rather than the other way around. He points to Ireland’s cartoon saloon known for Wolf Wanderer and The secret of the Kells.
“This is a small independent studio that is doing it right,” he says. “They do 2D animation, which I love a lot. I love your edition. It’s high quality, really interesting, different types of stories that Disney and other places don’t really pick up on. “
As someone who has been in the industry for decades, Bancroft admits that he never thought CG would take over completely. He recounts how he saw the opening sequence of Pixar’s 1995 film Toy story
“We all thought No, no, 2D animation is Disney’s core business. It’s been around for 80 years. Mickey Mouse is 2D. You just won’t see a switch. They will coexist. CG is a very workable thing, but 2D will of course keep selling and they will just go in parallel, “he says.” What we haven’t seen is one person turning the other off because it doesn’t make sense. Why should you shut down this thing that is still fine? “He adds,” I like to think that they have regretted it since then. “
Just as CG was quick to take over animation, Bancroft believes that streaming will soon overtake theaters and that big companies will be switching to buying content instead of actually creating it. It’s the perfect timing for Pencillish, he says, as the world needs content and outlets like Netflix are ready to grab projects from smaller, independent studios.
“I don’t think we’ll see the best work from Disney and Pixar if they haven’t bought it,” he explains. “They will continue to make good films in-house, but I have a feeling we’ll see that slow down and become a smaller part of their business. Your business will be to acquire other content created elsewhere. “
According to Bancroft, the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated that shift: theaters closed, but Netflix remained accessible and available to a world in need of distraction. In those early 2020 lockdown days when troubled people needed a point of sale, they turned to entertainment, art, and the internet.
“We needed some fun,” says Bancroft. “MerMay came at the right time. I still think the time is right. It was a breath of fresh air. “