Disney’s 61st animated feature, Strange World, hit cinemas on November 23, telling the story of the Clades, a family of explorers who embark on a fantastic adventure. 8List had the pleasure of sitting with amazing Pinoy animators Mikee Sevilla (Encanto) and Virgilio “John” Aquino (Frozen 2, Raya), who helped bring the film to life and chat them up on their work, their inspirations, and their newest piece of Disney magic.
A new way of working
With the global pandemic forcing the bulk of the production team to operate from their homes, the animators had to adjust to working remotely. According to John, “It’s been a learning experience, you know, especially during the pandemic…There was a big concern about oh my gosh, how are we going to how are we going to make films now? How are we going to tell these fantastic stories, and, you know, when there’s a will there’s a way.”
For Mikee, being new to the team meant that working from home was all part of the learning curve: “I started at Disney when the pandemic just started. So most of us, even up to now, are still working remotely, but they’re starting to bring people back in and actually, next, like, in two weeks, I’ll be working on-site at Disney, which I’m very excited about.”
From online courses to Walt Disney animation
Having learned from online animation classes before working on another studio’s film in 2019, Mikee was determined to break into Disney animation when news of Raya and the Last Dragon came out:
“I knew about it, I knew about Raya and the Last Dragon that it was a Southeast Asian film. And so I was like, ‘Well, I’m from there, I should be able to create something and show some of my culture and sort of show something different.’ So that really inspired me to create something that, would show not only what I am drawn to know — like adventure — but also just to do something different and fun.”
From Hercules and Fantasia, to Strange World
John Aquino began his Disney career when he was hired to work on Fantasia 2000, before going on to do in-between work on the effects for Hercules (1997), so he’s no stranger to making big-screen Disney magic. From there, his work was seen in genres ranging from full-blown comedies like The Emperor’s New Groove (2000), fairy tales like The Princess and the Frog-It Ralph (2009), and even superhero adventures like Big Hero 6 (2014). For John, having previously worked on Disney’s first foray into mixing classical storytelling with science fiction, Treasure Planet (2002), the chance to design Strange World’s Venture spacecraft was like coming full-circle.
A generational story
But it wasn’t all about spaceships and amazing adventures. For John, the aspect of the film that resonated with him was the tale of young Ethan, who goes on an adventure with his father and grandfather:
“We’re talking about three generations in the film that are coming together and just trying to figure out how to relate to each other and stuff…And, with Ethan, to me, he’s my point of view, as far as how he deals with the generation gaps; you know, the communication gaps that occur when you talk to your father or your grandfather; sometimes they can relate, and sometimes no, and that’s fine. But at some point, you know, you have to work things out.”
For Mikee, fondness for Ethan came from helping bring the character to life:
“Working on Ethan was very meaningful for me, because I got to be involved in pre-production on the character. So that’s really figuring out who this character is, and how this character moves and behaves. So one of the things that I enjoyed doing was sort of incorporating masculine [characteristics]; although Ethan is, I would say, generally masculine, everyone has both feminine and masculine sides to them. And I think, being playful, creating this character and incorporating feminine [characteristics], showing his softer side, that was really fun to do.”
Strange, weird things
“Since we didn’t really do any research trips on this film, It was really just from the imagination,” said Mikee. Where previous Disney teams went to exotic locations to get reference material or brought animals into the studio to study their movement, Strange World’s fantastic visuals resulted in the animators being bound only by their limitations.
“I feel like the director was really responding to just strange, weird things…it was really just, ‘Go crazy, and then we’ll pull back if it gets a little too far. That was a little different than the films that I had to work on… for films like Raya and Encanto, those were very cultural-specific things. This was different, for sure.”
Building a better spaceship
Of course, not everything could come from imagination, as revealed by John, who was tasked with crafting the Venture, a spaceship used by the Clades in their exploration.
“When I was tasked to model the Venture, there were a lot of mechanical things that I was not privy to because I’m not a mechanic or anything like that. So I had to research online, just how things work, how certain mechanisms would work. 80%, I guess, is research online, and then 20% of it is pure imagination, and we’ll just make stuff up that’s very unique to the film. And yeah, I think we pulled it off.”
The power of representation
Speaking of representation, it was pointed out that recent Disney releases have been taking tentative steps toward portraying characters from different backgrounds, genders, and beliefs. For Mikee, she shared that releases like Strange World would continue the trend, saying, “Representation in films, that’s something that we’re always trying to strive for. And hopefully, this film inspires young kids to just be themselves and be who they are, and allow them to be more comfortable.”
“That’s the thing about Disney. Right?” says Aquino. “We’re trying to explore all these different stories, telling them in different ways. We can tell fairy tales, we can tell adventure stories… that’s the beauty of what we do here at Disney. We tried to encompass and be inclusive of all stories of all people and you know, and all genders and all, you know, you know, beliefs and stuff. You know, we try to include everyone in that story-making process.”