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ariel on a rock Image: Walt Disney Animation Studios

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The creator of the worldwide MerMay art event wants to lead an animation revolution

Animator Tom Bancroft started the viral challenge by accident

Petrana Radulovic is an entertainment reporter specializing in animation, fandom culture, theme parks, Disney, and young adult fantasy franchises.

If you’ve ever noticed an influx of mermaid-themed artwork posted online during May, there’s a good reason for it: MerMay, a challenge that encourages artists to draw a different mermaid each day of the month, with 31 prompts to help guide them along. The art challenge has officially been around since 2017, though the artist behind it had no idea it would become so big. Veteran Disney animator Tom Bancroft, the supervising animator for Mulan’s tiny red dragon Mushu, just decided to draw some mermaids one day.

“It was by accident,” he tells Polygon. In 2016, he drew a picture of a few mermaids hanging out on rocks in the ocean, talking on their “shell phones.” (“Get it?” he adds.)

“They’re showing each other like [makes phone-displaying gesture], just being teenage girls,” he explains. “I have four girls. So I knew that world really well. I just thought I would love to see that kind of modern twist to mermaids today.”

The drawing went viral on Facebook, and Bancroft decided to do a month of mermaid-themed drawings. Eventually, that turned into a formal prompt list and contest, which turned into a sponsorship with Wacom.

“We had hundreds of thousands of people involved [that first year]. But since then, we’re getting into the millions,” says Bancroft. “It’s become a worldwide drawing event. That’s really what I wanted. I wanted it to be an encouragement for artists to just work on their drawing chops.”

In 2021, MerMay will be bigger than ever, with an official Chinese-language version of the event happening simultaneously. It’s also expanded to TikTok for the first time this year, with an animation component to the competition. Artists and animators alike around the world follow the same list of prompts generated by Bancroft. He does interviews every Tuesday with artists, and hosts a live drawing on Wednesdays, following one of the prompts. His role in MerMay has evolved considerably.

“First, I was just one of many thousands of people drawing mermaids. That was a little bit easier,” he says. “In general, it does kind of run itself. I could put out the prompts and people choose to use the prompts or not. And they just start drawing. What’s wonderful is, there’s so many people that come back every year to do it. They’re inspiring others, and that chain reaction is already happening over the last, say, three to four years. It’s just grown and grown on its own.”

While he does have certain MerMay responsibilities — especially with his studio Pencillish officially sponsoring it this year — the self-sustaining 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 he knows better than anyone else that it’s time for a change. He believes aspiring animators shouldn’t be beholden to one corporate path — even if that’s how the industry was when he was working for Disney, and has been for a very long time.

“Young creators are coming up with this philosophy that if they want to be in the animation industry, there’s really only one good path,” he says. “Meaning I go to LA, I go to work at Pixar, Disney, or any of the big corporations. And I’m gonna sell them everything.”

With his studio, Bancroft wants to be a viable alternative to the big studios like Disney or DreamWorks, one where creators can make their dream projects. If the ideas are good, Pencilish will help fund them — with the creators as partial owners of their creations. It isn’t just the animators who will have ownership. Pencillish is operating on a crowdfunding platform where those who invest will become shareholders in the company. “It’s like a Kickstarter,” Bancroft explains. He says he got tired of seeing the characters he created go on to become plushies, prints, and other kinds of merchandise that he doesn’t see any profits from. He wants to fix the system, where animators often sign away their creations and get “pennies on the dollar” for what they make.

“They’ll make a billion dollars, you won’t see a dime,” he says. “And that’s really how things work in Hollywood.”

mushu shrugging Image: Disney

Disney is a creative studio, but it’s a multibillion-dollar corporation first and foremost — and will always be concerned with maximizing profits over supporting the creators that drive those profits. Bancroft is far from the only Disney employee who’s seen his creations earn the company loads of money he doesn’t share in. For instance, few if any of the original animators, screenwriters, and other filmmakers on Disney animated films ever reap any profits from the billion-dollar live-action remakes that repurpose their characters.

But with Pencillish, Bancroft hopes to use the studio to bolster animators, instead of the other way around. He points to Ireland’s Cartoon Saloon, known for Wolfwalkers and The Secret of Kells.

“That’s a small independent studio doing it right,” he says. “They’re doing 2D animation, which is something I love. I love their output. They’re high-quality, really interesting, different kinds of stories that Disney and other places are not really tapping into.”

As someone who’s been in the industry for decades, Bancroft admits that he never thought CG would completely take over. He recounts watching the opening sequence of Pixar’s 1995 movie Toy Story with some other animators. He felt the first scene, focused on the green army men and other minor toy characters, was “charming,” but that the human characters were too stiff and unconvincing. It wasn’t until Pixar’s 1997 short Geri’s Game that the human characters actually started looking good — but even then, Bancroft couldn’t imagine a world where CG fully took over.

“We all thought, No no, 2D animation is the core business of Disney. It’s been around for 80 years. Mickey Mouse is 2D. You’re just not going to see a switch. They’re going to coexist. CG is a very viable thing, but of course 2D is going to keep selling, and they’re just going to go parallel,” he says. “What we didn’t see is that one would shut down the other, because it didn’t make sense. Like, why would you shut down this thing that is still doing okay?” He adds, “I do like to think they’ve regretted it since.”

an old man playing chess Image: Pixar

Just as CG rapidly took over animation, Bancroft believes streaming will soon overtake theaters, and that big corporations are going to shift to acquiring content instead of actually making it. It’s perfect timing for Pencillish, he says, since the world needs content, and outlets like Netflix are ready to acquire projects from smaller, independent studios.

“I don’t think we’re gonna see the best work coming out of Disney and Pixar unless they bought it,” he explains. “They’re gonna keep making good movies internally, but I have a feeling that we’re gonna see that slow down and become a smaller part of their business. Their business is going to be acquiring other content that is made elsewhere.”

Bancroft says the COVID-19 pandemic sped up this shift: Theaters closed down, but Netflix remained accessible and available for a world that needed a distraction. In those early days of lockdown in 2020, when restless people needed an outlet, they turned to entertainment, art, and the internet.

“We needed some pleasure,” says Bancroft. “MerMay came around at the right time. I still think it’s the right time. It’s been a breath of fresh air.”