If you are an animated movie lover, it is easy to recall the endearing characters that first captivated your heart. From the colorful worlds that sparked your imagination to the soundtrack lyrics that still inspire sing-alongs, each film brings a vivid story to life.
Through every classic fairytale and new adventure enjoyed on screen, a warm memory is made to cherish and share for generations to come. While these animated treasures are unforgettable, to say the least, the part that most people rarely recall is the credit roll that follows each happy ending. And you may not realize that Texas has an interestingly significant influence on the little details that make the big differences in the characters you know and love.
Legendary creations such as Frozen’s Elsa and Anna, Wreck- It Ralph, Tangled’s Rapunzel, and each furry friend featured in Zootopia are made possible by the creative minds hard at work in Walt Disney Animation Studios, many of which belong to talented Texans.
Texas transplant and Texas A&M University alumna Michelle Robinson is a more-than-impressive representation of that statement. With 26 years of experience at Walt Disney Animation Studios, Robinson is a Character Look Development Supervisor with a wealth of knowledge in the start-to-finish process behind how a Disney character is made.
Born outside of Mesa, Arizona, Robinson’s Air Force family moved around the nation until she landed in the San Antonio, Texas area to finish her high school career. Upon graduating from San Antonio’s Judson High School, she attended Texas A&M University in College Station, a growing hub for students with animation-oriented career paths.
“In the early to mid-‘80s, faculty and staff at Texas A&M recognized that computing was going to have a big impact on art and design,” said Tim McLaughlin, who heads the Department of Visualization in the College of Architecture at Texas A&M University. “They developed a curriculum incorporating art and science and this became the Master of Science in Visualization program.”
Robinson’s time in what was a ectionately dubbed the Viz Lab did not end after achieving her Bachelor’s in environmental design from Texas A&M in 1991; she enrolled in the Master of Science in Visualization program, producing animated short films that were shown at the Dallas Museum of Art, Imagina in Moncao, the Walker Art Center, and The AFI National Video Festival.
The early 1990s were a time when Texas A&M’s prominence in such fields was rising. McLaughlin noted that the release of Jurassic Park in 1992 displayed “the first substantial use of computer graphics in a film for photo-realistic creatures.” Then in 1996, Toy Story showed that computer graphics could be used for a new form of animated film, something with which Robinson became impressively familiar.
According to McLaughlin, Texas A&M students “were already working in the same computing environment and on the same software being used on those high-end projects.” Therefore, it came as no surprise that students like Robinson would go on to create magical works of art in the world of animation.
Transporting from Texas to Los Angeles, California, Robinson used her education and impressive résumé to land herself a position at Walt Disney Animation Studios; a setting where her expertise would play a significant role in the development of classic characters the world would soon see on screen.
With her first film credit appearing in Pocahontas and her most recent in Ralph Breaks the Internet, Robinson has seen many changes in creative practices over the last 26 years. However, when it comes to the meaning behind each film, she says the goal never changes.
“Certainly, the process has changed a lot,” Robinson said, “as the first handful of films I worked on were mostly hand-drawn and now they’re mostly 3D. But in terms of storytelling, the importance of the characters, and the desire to make something meaningful that will have a long history and will maintain its relevance way into the future – I think all of those things have always been a concern here at the [Walt Disney Animation] studio, and I feel like those missions haven’t really changed.”
And with the modern transition to a predominantly 3D model, Robinson’s role as a Character Look Development Supervisor gets very interesting. As Robinson explained, every new character dreamed up at Disney first appears in her department as a blank sculpt.
“I work mostly in the texturing and what we would call ‘surfacing’ side of things,” Robinson explained. “When a character comes into our department it looks like it’s made of gray plastic; it doesn’t have any surface qualities that distinguish the materials from each other. So, part of our job is essentially to make the fabric look like fabric, make the skin look like skin, and the hair look like hair.”
As Robinson added, her team is responsible for adding hair, eyebrows, eyelashes, and fur to each character’s appearance; a process that involves both painting and making adjustments to software that helps those elements render and look realistic on screen.
The process does not come without thorough research; Robinson and her team invest a great amount of time and effort into studying the way every detail should look and move, which includes several hands-on experiences, excursions, and demonstrations.
“We’ve brought in hairstylists to demonstrate a haircut, or to demonstrate a particular hairstyle that we needed to build in the computer and so we’ve essentially learned how to cut hair,” Robinson said. “We’ve also had someone come in and teach us how to build garments because one of the things we also do is build clothing on the characters – and in order to have them in 3D and look realistic, and have the seams in all the right places. We learned how to do that by building an outfit for each other. So we learned how to sew.”
For films like Zootopia, Robinson’s character research spanned from Los Angeles all the way to Kenya in order to gain a deeper understanding of the way that fur looks, moves, and blends across various animal species and environments.
“We did a whole bunch of different things,” Robinson said of her research for Zootopia. “We went to the Natural History Museum in Los Angeles, and they have a whole collection of fur from animals that we could look at really closely.”
From observing individual fibers through a microscope to studying animals in wide-open spaces, Robinson’s research provided a well-rounded, conceptual framework for how their furry characters should realistically look in the world of Zootopia, while also confirming their theory that not all fur is the same across all species.
“We took a trip out to Disney’s Animal Kingdom Theme Park and then to Kenya to observe the animals in the wild, and the purpose for that was partly to see how they behave with each other and to see how the fur responds in natural light, how it looks on an actual animal when it is running around, and then see how they blend in or don’t blend in with their environment; how the fur might help them be camouflaged or might stand out,” Robinson explained.
Using such educational adventures to their creative advantage, Robinson and her team then translated all of their gathered knowledge and information into a computerized model that represents what fur looks like in the real world; but in a way that they can control.
“A big part of what we do at the studio is we stylize reality a little bit,” Robinson said. “We do things to support the story and to make it look visually interesting.”
After working on so many fan favorites such as Pocahontas, Fantasia 2000, Chicken Little, Bolt, Tangled, Wreck-It Ralph, Ralph Breaks the Internet, and award-winning films such as Frozen and Zootopia, Robinson said it is hard to pick a favorite of her own.
“I really enjoyed working on the sloths in Zootopia; and the sloth with the pink hair is designed after me, because at the time, I had a little streak of pink hair,” Robinson said. “On Ralph Breaks the Internet, some of the really interesting characters were the princesses because some of them had never been realized in 3D, so the process of translating them from their 2D drawings to something that would be recognizable as who they are but also fit into our world of Ralph Breaks the Internet was a really fun and interesting challenge.”
With each film, Robinson said the part that really brings the experience full-circle is watching her work on screen in an unfiltered environment – opening weekend at the movie theater alongside a general audience.
“At some point, we hope and we cross our fingers that the film is going to land, but we never know for sure, so it’s wonderful to see that,” Robinson said of her experience. “I remember after the first Frozen, the response to the movie and the way people identified with both Anna and Elsa, and the stories that they told, and the way it touched them personally were so meaningful, and that actually makes all the hard work worthwhile.”
And as the world continues to connect with each character she helps bring to life, Robinson proudly reflected on the extraordinary process it took to get there. From a textureless beginning to a life-like finish, she takes pride in each character’s unique journey to the big screen.
“In the same way at the moment when an actor takes a bow at the theatre, or a musician finishes a song, and the audience responds – it feels the same way to me,” Robinson shared of watching her films for the first time. “Feeling that love come back from the audience is just the most rewarding thing. I really look forward to those moments.”