A few weeks back, I was fortunate enough to attend an event at Disney Animation Studios in Burbank, California related to the forthcoming Sketchbook series that will stream on their Disney+ service starting April 27th. It’s a magnificent documentary series, celebrating the multi-generational artistic talent responsible for countless iconic characters, while giving practical instructions on how to draw the characters in real-time. Sketchbook is a lovely, heartwarming program, that will leave even jaded Disney fans with a smile, while most importantly, rousing young artists to try their hands at animation.
Sketchbook features six episodes, each focusing on a different animator at Disney. The artists (Gabby Capili, Hyun-Min Lee, Eric Goldberg, Jin Kim, Samantha Vilfort, and Mark Henn) pick a timeless character they helped shape, teaching the viewer how to render them with pencil and paper. As the artist walks you through sketching the figure, we learn about their own history and their path getting to Disney Animation. Hyun-Min Lee, featured in the episode related to Frozen’s Olaf, notes that the artist is supposed to be invisible; we are to connect with the character on the screen, letting the artist’s work seamlessly blend into the narrative. Yet, with each episode of Sketchbook, the series impeccably connects the personal experiences of its creator to design and movement on the screen.
With two young aspiring artists in my home, Sketchbook checks all the boxes. Like countless other children, after watching a Disney film, they go about recreating it through play. They dress up, sing the songs, and relive the film’s key moments with childlike elation. Ultimately, they move on to trying to draw these characters, and the clear, easy to follow guidance by Sketchbook’s animators will provide any novice with the necessary artistic direction. Perhaps more notably, the series celebrates animators from different walks of life, allowing Sketchbook to act as a tool to bring a new generation into the art of animation.
To my 5- and 7-year-old daughters, Disney films all exist in the same space. The Little Mermaid and Cinderella might as well have been made alongside Encanto, as its all current Disney animation in their eyes. And they are not wrong; while I may recognize different art techniques and storytelling sensibilities when comparing different eras, these films generally have a timeless quality. For an animation fanatic like myself, I loved hearing details about the studio’s history throughout the run.
While all the episodes are strong, I know that those featuring featuring Gabby Capili (who draws Kuzco from The Emperor’s New Groove) and Samantha Vilfort (who draws Mirabel from Encanto) will have an impact on my daughters. In Capili and Vilfort, they can see people like themselves, talking about their experiences growing up, and dreaming of working for Disney. Sketchbook shows them that working in animation is not something exclusive to people who look like their father, but a reality for anyone with a love for the art form. I’m thankful the series made the subtle choice to feature a diverse group of animators, as it will certainly inspire a new generation of artists in the process.
During a roundtable conversation, Vilfort and Mark Henn (whose episode features Simba from The Lion King) reflected on how the multi-generational nature of the studio’s animation department creates a delightful system to mentorship while injecting new ideas and energy into the studio. Henn entered the studio when some of Disney’s Nine Old Men were still active, and now that he is the stately figure, works alongside this young crop of animators.
Mark, reflecting on what inspired him as a child, said “Cinderella was one of the very first movies I saw as a small boy. When I started here, I was mentored by Eric Larson, who was one of the supervising animators on Cinderella. When I started working on Ariel and The Little Mermaid, I always had Cinderella and Eric in the back of my mind as a standard that was set. I hope Ariel has the same kind of impact as a character that I got from Cinderella.”
Samantha interjected, “Oh, it worked!”
Mark continued, “This new generation have come on in and graciously expressed how they were inspired by the things I’ve done. It’s neat to be part of that ongoing legacy. She’ll be doing that in a few years herself. People will be coming in saying ‘Oh, Mirabelle is so great!’”
As for realizing her dream of contributing to the current crop of films, Samantha gushed, “I still get a little emotional jump when I see that Disney logo ahead of one of our films…there is nothing else like it. This is the dream.”
Eric Goldberg, one of the liveliest figures in Disney’s storied animation history, amusingly discussed his collaboration with vibrant voice actor Robin Williams when coming up with the Genie from 1992’s Aladdin. Throughout Goldberg’s episode of Sketchbook, he illuminates the artistic conversation between creative forces, personally finding ways to visually capture Williams’ spastic vocal performance, revealing the creativity and imaginative authority Disney animators receive in creating their films.
Sketchbook seems to come at an exciting time, as the studio nears 100 years in existence, and finds itself recommitting to hand-drawn animation. During the panel Q&A, Goldberg noted that Disney Animation has begun a new trainee program for hand-drawn animators.
Considering the prospect of having a whole new generation of traditional animators at Disney, he enthusiastically exclaimed, “We’re thrilled to have them here. And, you know, with that, it means that we have several projects that I can’t talk about, several projects on the boil that involve hand-drawn animation. Also, it never really went away. People like Mark [Henn] and myself … we’ve all been doing and drawing all this time, but all of a sudden, it’s coming back.”
Goldberg, a teacher at the University of Southern California, notes the timelessness of Disney’s animation. Within his student body, he noticed how traditional animation is still driving young creators, and to “have the studio put into force a program where we’re actually going to be augmenting that and bringing up a new generation is very, very exciting.”
Sketchbook excels at reminding viewers that every generation has a Disney film that captured their imagination, instilling a wonder and interest in animation. Fans of any age will enjoy connecting with the historic details provided by these amazing artist artists. Most importantly, Sketchbook rises above nostalgia by celebrating the creative forces behind the curtain and encouraging aspiring artists of any age to pick up a pencil and draw.
Sketchbook premieres April 27 on Disney+.
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