Art and performance: what it takes to be a Disney animator

Filipe Coutinho

10 min read time

Originating from the small town of Cádiz in the beautiful Spanish South, Valentin Amador is making a name for himself at Disney Animation. Which is good news for someone who tells us he’salways wanted to be a Disney animator. Since he got hired in 2011, Amador has worked on Frozen, Big Hero 6, Zootopia, Moana, and Ralph Breaks the Internet. His most recent film is Encanto, which tells the story of a young Columbian girl who faces the frustration of being the only member of her family without magical powers.


How does a kid from the South of Spain decide to be a Disney animator?

The first movie my parents took me to was Fantasia, and they still joke that I was the only kid in the theater who wasn’t asleep. I was 3 years old, but to this day, my favorite piece of animation remains the Night On the Bald Mountain

Was there a strong animation industry when you were growing up?

Not at all. For many years, I put the idea of being a Disney animator on the back burner. 

What changed?

Disney’s renaissance in the ‘90s. I told myself, “I want to be a part of this.” At the time, I was studying astrophysics in Barcelona, but it was making me very unhappy. I decided to take animation classes, and eventually I got a job at a small animation studio.

Did you quit your undergrad?

No. I wanted to make my parents happy. I was still able to finish it.

How did you end up at Disney?

At some point, I left to work in hand-drawn animation in Madrid. That was a big moment because I started working on higher-quality projects. When you don’t know anything, everything is a learning experience. But after a while, I realized I had to try other things and transition into computer animation. This was around 1994, when Toy Story was released. It changed everything. I moved to London to work on animation for visual effects, which was the only place available to me that offered what I needed.

London is still far from Hollywood.

Yes, I’m getting there. [Laughs.] I felt like after a while I reached a ceiling. I worked on Dobby from Harry Potter, and on Spike Jonze’s creatures from Where the Wild Things Are–which remains one of my favorite things I’ve done, but most of the other projects just weren’t satisfying. Luckily, Disney came into my life. Sometimes, the studio sends recruiters all over the world to look for new talent, and in 2012 they set up interviews in London. I was able to get one and three months later, I moved to Los Angeles.

How was the interview?

I showed the recruiter my reel—who, by the way, was my Director of Animation in Encanto—and he saw a lot of potential in my work, even though 50% of it were hand-drawn projects. He could see that despite my computer animation not being very sophisticated, my skills were good. 

So you’re at Disney now. Mission accomplished.

Not quite. The way it works is that you work as a part of a team for a movie or two. Depending on how you do, you may or may not get the next job.

What was your first movie for Disney?

Frozen. 

Just one of the biggest movies of all time.

Yeah, it was the perfect movie to start with. Disney brought in John Lasseter after buying Pixar to implement their trademark storytelling, and after a couple of movies, Disney was able to regain back the trust from audiences and started going on an upward trajectory. 

What did you do on Frozen?

I animated the sequence of Elsa trying to control her powers at the crowning ceremony. I had to convey a lot of emotion in a very subtle way. Actors usually say that the hardest thing to do is to do nothing, and I felt the same way with this sequence. If you remember, Elsa is holding a scepter and an orb, and they’re beginning to get frozen, but she doesn’t want anyone to know about her powers. It was a real challenge to do a lot with little.

I’m sure you felt a lot of pressure.

Yeah, those first six months in Los Angeles were a blur. I just wanted to do my best, keep my job, and hopefully get the next one.

Which you did.

Yes, Big Hero 6 was next. I worked mostly on Hiro and Baymax. And after that, I worked on Zootopia, which was an amazing experience. It’s a movie I’m really proud of, with a style of animation that is really fun and very aligned with my sensibilities. I got really good feedback in that movie, and that’s part of the reason I got cast in Encanto. The directors that worked with me in Zootopia were fans of what I did, so they brought me in as a Supervising Animator.

Disney has hundreds of animators, but not all of them share your journey. Did you do anything specific to stand out?

It’s about the entertainment and emotional value of your shots.

What do you mean by that?

Well, let’s go back in time. Remember Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs? Walt Disney gave each of the dwarfs a very specific personality, allowing everyone to relate to them at a deeper level. That only got more sophisticated as time went on.

Doesn’t that come from the script? How do you approach it?

The same way an actor approaches a script and turns it into a performance. You have infinite ways of playing a line. In that sense, we get treated like actors. We get cast on shots, or specific characters, or even types of scenes. Some people are good at physical comedy and others better at subtle drama. Then you go to a meeting with the directors, and they explain what they’re looking for and you play off that: personality, specificity, what have you. Something that reveals the unique personality of the character. That’s what gets you noticed. 

It seems like your ability to think in visual and empathetic terms at the same time really is what helped you climb the ladder.

Someone I respect a lot told me there are two types of animators: those who like to draw, and those who like to perform. Every animator likes both, but inevitably everyone is going to lean more towards one or the other. 

Which one are you?

The one who likes to perform. I like to forge a bond of empathy with the audience.

How did you go from being an Animator to a Supervising Animator?

The way it works at Disney is you apply for the job and then you get accepted or not based on your record, and also who’s hiring. I’d applied a few times for this role before, but didn’t get it. Which is fine, because I still got work as an animator. There are way too many factors that come into play. You can’t take these things personally.

What were your new responsibilities?

Your main job is to help shepherd the characters and to start building their blocks while the crew is animating the previous movie. When I started working on Encanto, the crew was working on Raya and the Last Dragon. That was the first year of my job. The second involved managing the crew, communicating what exactly the directors are looking for, and being responsible for the overall quality control: shots, performances, and story. And a bunch of other stuff.

So you don’t get to animate a lot when you’re in a supervising capacity?

Unfortunately not. You’re more in a managerial role. But you also get to do the work, if time allows for it. 

Were you responsible for all the animators?

No. Each Supervising Animator gets assigned two or three characters– there are 12 main characters in Encanto–, and then we work with our animators on those specific characters. Otherwise, it’d take 15 years to make a single movie.

How did Covid impact this project?

Encanto was in pre-production for two years before I was hired. I was told I was cast on the project in November 2019 and started to work on it in late January. Not long after, the studio told us we’d be working from home and we all waited two weeks while everything was set up for remote work. In terms of the animation production, the movie was 100% done from home.

Was that a big change for you?

Serendipitously, the studio was already promoting a ‘work-from-home’ mentality, so I was already working from my place one or two days a week. Covid only accelerated that trend. 

How do you go about making a state-of-the-art animation movie from home?

We were all given laptops and the equipment we needed to work from home. By the way, this is not how the studio likes to do things. Disney has the commitment to make their movies in-house, under one roof. It’d be cheaper to outsource the work, but having everyone in the same building gives a lot of flexibility due to the constant contact and accessibility. Because we didn’t have that, the way to replicate the experience was by having a ton of Zoom meetings. With all departments. The big problem was the broadband at home. The studio couldn’t do anything about it. These meetings were very much like a séance. There was a lot of “are you there? Are you there?” [Laughs.] Most of us had to upgrade our internet. For security reasons, the servers never left the studio and we had to connect to it through a secure VPN. So we’d be having Zoom meetings while connecting to the servers and working on a shot simultaneously. 

What was the biggest challenge about working like this?

In general, making a movie like Encanto feels like laying the tracks as the train is coming. There isn’t much room to breathe. But the hardest part in terms of the collaborative process is the body language and the non-verbal aspect of communication. Feedback is a delicate part of the process. You’re looking at what the animator has done and if they’re good, they put a lot of themselves into the shots. There’s a lot of vulnerability in that. Sometimes you have to give hard feedback, and when you’re on Zoom, you don’t always feel the same type of empathy, that we’re all in this together and want to make the best movie possible. When we’re all in the same building, there are quiet moments, water-cooler moments, which allow you to have an extra word with the animators. “Hey I really liked that shot you did.” or “I’m sorry I had to send this back to the drawing board.” Those moments were difficult to compensate for. 

And there’s a mental health aspect to it too.

Yeah. Those times when you go get a coffee, or walk to the bathroom–just those quick breaks when you stop and have a quick chat with someone, [those all] help. Working from home was really intense because there were a lot of things to be done and we had to be more organized. Most days were “join meeting - leave meeting” without getting up from my chair. 

What would you be doing if you weren’t an animator?

I love movies and I love working in movies. Probably I’d be working in other kinds of movies.

Final question. What was the last great thing you’ve seen?

Dune. Definitely. It has to be Dune. It’s a love letter to cinema, a movie in which the writing, the images, and the sound have the same level of importance. That doesn’t happen with all movies. Some are heavier on the writing side, or in the visual language. Most movies don’t pay as much attention to sound as Dune does, and I care a lot about that. In those terms, it’s pure cinema. 

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Filipe Coutinho

Filipe Coutinho is a writer, filmmaker, and a 2020 Black List Feature Lab alum. He also works as a freelance brand consultant and cultural forecaster, creating valuable insights on future trends and movements.

Art and performance: what it takes to be a Disney animator

Filipe Coutinho

12/22/21

Originating from the small town of Cádiz in the beautiful Spanish South, Valentin Amador is making a name for himself at Disney Animation. Which is good news for someone who tells us he’salways wanted to be a Disney animator. Since he got hired in 2011, Amador has worked on Frozen, Big Hero 6, Zootopia, Moana, and Ralph Breaks the Internet. His most recent film is Encanto, which tells the story of a young Columbian girl who faces the frustration of being the only member of her family without magical powers.


How does a kid from the South of Spain decide to be a Disney animator?

The first movie my parents took me to was Fantasia, and they still joke that I was the only kid in the theater who wasn’t asleep. I was 3 years old, but to this day, my favorite piece of animation remains the Night On the Bald Mountain

Was there a strong animation industry when you were growing up?

Not at all. For many years, I put the idea of being a Disney animator on the back burner. 

What changed?

Disney’s renaissance in the ‘90s. I told myself, “I want to be a part of this.” At the time, I was studying astrophysics in Barcelona, but it was making me very unhappy. I decided to take animation classes, and eventually I got a job at a small animation studio.

Did you quit your undergrad?

No. I wanted to make my parents happy. I was still able to finish it.

How did you end up at Disney?

At some point, I left to work in hand-drawn animation in Madrid. That was a big moment because I started working on higher-quality projects. When you don’t know anything, everything is a learning experience. But after a while, I realized I had to try other things and transition into computer animation. This was around 1994, when Toy Story was released. It changed everything. I moved to London to work on animation for visual effects, which was the only place available to me that offered what I needed.

London is still far from Hollywood.

Yes, I’m getting there. [Laughs.] I felt like after a while I reached a ceiling. I worked on Dobby from Harry Potter, and on Spike Jonze’s creatures from Where the Wild Things Are–which remains one of my favorite things I’ve done, but most of the other projects just weren’t satisfying. Luckily, Disney came into my life. Sometimes, the studio sends recruiters all over the world to look for new talent, and in 2012 they set up interviews in London. I was able to get one and three months later, I moved to Los Angeles.

How was the interview?

I showed the recruiter my reel—who, by the way, was my Director of Animation in Encanto—and he saw a lot of potential in my work, even though 50% of it were hand-drawn projects. He could see that despite my computer animation not being very sophisticated, my skills were good. 

So you’re at Disney now. Mission accomplished.

Not quite. The way it works is that you work as a part of a team for a movie or two. Depending on how you do, you may or may not get the next job.

What was your first movie for Disney?

Frozen. 

Just one of the biggest movies of all time.

Yeah, it was the perfect movie to start with. Disney brought in John Lasseter after buying Pixar to implement their trademark storytelling, and after a couple of movies, Disney was able to regain back the trust from audiences and started going on an upward trajectory. 

What did you do on Frozen?

I animated the sequence of Elsa trying to control her powers at the crowning ceremony. I had to convey a lot of emotion in a very subtle way. Actors usually say that the hardest thing to do is to do nothing, and I felt the same way with this sequence. If you remember, Elsa is holding a scepter and an orb, and they’re beginning to get frozen, but she doesn’t want anyone to know about her powers. It was a real challenge to do a lot with little.

I’m sure you felt a lot of pressure.

Yeah, those first six months in Los Angeles were a blur. I just wanted to do my best, keep my job, and hopefully get the next one.

Which you did.

Yes, Big Hero 6 was next. I worked mostly on Hiro and Baymax. And after that, I worked on Zootopia, which was an amazing experience. It’s a movie I’m really proud of, with a style of animation that is really fun and very aligned with my sensibilities. I got really good feedback in that movie, and that’s part of the reason I got cast in Encanto. The directors that worked with me in Zootopia were fans of what I did, so they brought me in as a Supervising Animator.

Disney has hundreds of animators, but not all of them share your journey. Did you do anything specific to stand out?

It’s about the entertainment and emotional value of your shots.

What do you mean by that?

Well, let’s go back in time. Remember Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs? Walt Disney gave each of the dwarfs a very specific personality, allowing everyone to relate to them at a deeper level. That only got more sophisticated as time went on.

Doesn’t that come from the script? How do you approach it?

The same way an actor approaches a script and turns it into a performance. You have infinite ways of playing a line. In that sense, we get treated like actors. We get cast on shots, or specific characters, or even types of scenes. Some people are good at physical comedy and others better at subtle drama. Then you go to a meeting with the directors, and they explain what they’re looking for and you play off that: personality, specificity, what have you. Something that reveals the unique personality of the character. That’s what gets you noticed. 

It seems like your ability to think in visual and empathetic terms at the same time really is what helped you climb the ladder.

Someone I respect a lot told me there are two types of animators: those who like to draw, and those who like to perform. Every animator likes both, but inevitably everyone is going to lean more towards one or the other. 

Which one are you?

The one who likes to perform. I like to forge a bond of empathy with the audience.

How did you go from being an Animator to a Supervising Animator?

The way it works at Disney is you apply for the job and then you get accepted or not based on your record, and also who’s hiring. I’d applied a few times for this role before, but didn’t get it. Which is fine, because I still got work as an animator. There are way too many factors that come into play. You can’t take these things personally.

What were your new responsibilities?

Your main job is to help shepherd the characters and to start building their blocks while the crew is animating the previous movie. When I started working on Encanto, the crew was working on Raya and the Last Dragon. That was the first year of my job. The second involved managing the crew, communicating what exactly the directors are looking for, and being responsible for the overall quality control: shots, performances, and story. And a bunch of other stuff.

So you don’t get to animate a lot when you’re in a supervising capacity?

Unfortunately not. You’re more in a managerial role. But you also get to do the work, if time allows for it. 

Were you responsible for all the animators?

No. Each Supervising Animator gets assigned two or three characters– there are 12 main characters in Encanto–, and then we work with our animators on those specific characters. Otherwise, it’d take 15 years to make a single movie.

How did Covid impact this project?

Encanto was in pre-production for two years before I was hired. I was told I was cast on the project in November 2019 and started to work on it in late January. Not long after, the studio told us we’d be working from home and we all waited two weeks while everything was set up for remote work. In terms of the animation production, the movie was 100% done from home.

Was that a big change for you?

Serendipitously, the studio was already promoting a ‘work-from-home’ mentality, so I was already working from my place one or two days a week. Covid only accelerated that trend. 

How do you go about making a state-of-the-art animation movie from home?

We were all given laptops and the equipment we needed to work from home. By the way, this is not how the studio likes to do things. Disney has the commitment to make their movies in-house, under one roof. It’d be cheaper to outsource the work, but having everyone in the same building gives a lot of flexibility due to the constant contact and accessibility. Because we didn’t have that, the way to replicate the experience was by having a ton of Zoom meetings. With all departments. The big problem was the broadband at home. The studio couldn’t do anything about it. These meetings were very much like a séance. There was a lot of “are you there? Are you there?” [Laughs.] Most of us had to upgrade our internet. For security reasons, the servers never left the studio and we had to connect to it through a secure VPN. So we’d be having Zoom meetings while connecting to the servers and working on a shot simultaneously. 

What was the biggest challenge about working like this?

In general, making a movie like Encanto feels like laying the tracks as the train is coming. There isn’t much room to breathe. But the hardest part in terms of the collaborative process is the body language and the non-verbal aspect of communication. Feedback is a delicate part of the process. You’re looking at what the animator has done and if they’re good, they put a lot of themselves into the shots. There’s a lot of vulnerability in that. Sometimes you have to give hard feedback, and when you’re on Zoom, you don’t always feel the same type of empathy, that we’re all in this together and want to make the best movie possible. When we’re all in the same building, there are quiet moments, water-cooler moments, which allow you to have an extra word with the animators. “Hey I really liked that shot you did.” or “I’m sorry I had to send this back to the drawing board.” Those moments were difficult to compensate for. 

And there’s a mental health aspect to it too.

Yeah. Those times when you go get a coffee, or walk to the bathroom–just those quick breaks when you stop and have a quick chat with someone, [those all] help. Working from home was really intense because there were a lot of things to be done and we had to be more organized. Most days were “join meeting - leave meeting” without getting up from my chair. 

What would you be doing if you weren’t an animator?

I love movies and I love working in movies. Probably I’d be working in other kinds of movies.

Final question. What was the last great thing you’ve seen?

Dune. Definitely. It has to be Dune. It’s a love letter to cinema, a movie in which the writing, the images, and the sound have the same level of importance. That doesn’t happen with all movies. Some are heavier on the writing side, or in the visual language. Most movies don’t pay as much attention to sound as Dune does, and I care a lot about that. In those terms, it’s pure cinema. 

Filipe Coutinho

Website
Filipe Coutinho is a writer, filmmaker, and a 2020 Black List Feature Lab alum. He also works as a freelance brand consultant and cultural forecaster, creating valuable insights on future trends and movements.

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