Sunday, March 13, 2016

Seattle-Based Artist Kira Lehtomaki Does ‘Zootopia’ Proud

An interview with Kira Lehtomaki, supervising animator for "Zootopia."
Animator Kira Lehtomaki (Disney)

 INTERVIEW 

Zootopia broke box office records during its first weekend and it slated to be America’s top ticket-seller feature again this weekend. Adults are loving the themes, messages and story as much as the kinds and it still sits at 99% “fresh” on Rotten Tomatoes. Expect to see a lot more Zootopia toys on store shelves in the near future.

A cynical person might think that just because a film is Disney made, that it will be a huge success. That just isn’t true. Ask any animation fan and they will tell you that Disney, like all movie studios, have had their share of ups and downs over the years. It simply comes down to talent and quality. If your film is lacking in either, it will be forgotten quickly.

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to speak to one of the animators who was responsible for making Zootopia the success that it is. Kira Lehtomaki has been working for Disney for nine years working on such hits as Frozen, Wreck-It Ralph, Tangled and Bolt. For Zootopia, she served as an animation supervisor who oversaw many sequences in the film. But perhaps her most important role was supervising the animation of Judy Hopps, the spunky little rabbit who ventures out from her same family home in the country to become a street cop in the big city of Zootopia.


I met Lehtomaki at a hotel in downtown Seattle, not far from her childhood home in Edmonds, Washington. She greeted me with and a big smile as if I was the only person meeting with her on that day, but I know she has seen a string of people on the press tour. She wore a sweater with little bunnies on it and I commented on it.

“I like to live the characters,” she says with a laugh and she’s not kidding. When she speaks, she is just as animated as any of her characters. I told her that I appreciated the story that I heard about her after she saw Sleeping Beauty for the first time at the age of three and then by the ripe old age of five, she decided that she wanted to become a “draw-er” for Disney. I told her that I wanted to do the same thing when I was little, but obviously she and I ended up on different roads.

“It was kind of a long meandering path because I did have this goal as a child and I stayed very firm in it,” says Kira. “In fact, when I got to high school, I was talking to my mom about colleges and where I should go for animation and she was like, ‘Wait, you were serious?’”
Fortunately for Kira, one of her father’s friends knew a friend who worked at Disney who told her to continue her art studies, but also be open about learning the computer. As it turns out, that friend was Nathan Warner who became the director of cinematography on Zootopia.

“I saw his name and wondered if he could be the same guy. I still had the email because I save everything and so I printed it out,” sounding more like Anna from Frozen. “The first time I met him I asked him [holding up the printed email], ‘Did you write me this?’ I think I freaked him out, but we laugh about it now.”

Since Zootopia is a completely original work not based on any familiar story line, I asked Kira where the concept came from. She said the inspiration came from director Byron Howard who had just finished work on Tangled.

“He had talked to [John] Lasseter earlier saying how much he loved [the animated] Robin Hood as it was one of his favorite movies growing up. We haven’t done an anthropomorphic movie in a really long time. And to hear Byron explain it, he said that Lasseter said “Yes” and thenhe lifted him up aloft like baby Simba and said ‘go forth and make this movie.’” Talk about high praise. According to Howard is one of her favorite people on the planet. “He is actually from Washington State as well as is our producer Clark Spencer, so we had a good Pacific Northwest representation on the film.” Another fun fact about the film is that Byron, John Lassiter and Kira all had their first jobs working at Disneyland. Kira was a cookie artist. Of course she was.

Jennifer Hager is another female supervising animator who worked on the film with Kira, but if you look at the list of credits on the film you’ll still see a much longer list of male names. I asked Kira why she thought that was.

“I really think that it’s changing. It has been in the past very male dominated, not that they were never inclusive to women. I don’t know if women weren’t pursuing it or…I really think that the internet has opened things up a whole lot more, because, even before when it was just the hand-drawn medium, it was such a niche group of people – like you really have to be an excellent draftsman and there was really just a small group of people who would teach each other to learn this craft. So, I think that it just naturally came about that way. At Disney, the majority is still men, but we have quite a few women animators and they are all great.”

I asked Kira if it helped to have women working in the studio to point out things that the men wouldn’t know. For instance, like to point out that “a woman would never do that” – that sort of thing. 

“Totally, says Kira. “We often do film reference of ourselves. But often times, if a male animator has a female character in their scene, he will come and ask me to come film reference for him or ask one of the other ladies to do it because we do things differently. We do move differently. I will go ask the guys [for help], especially if I have a big, buff character. I can’t do that performance myself, so I will go ask them.”

Playing the role of Judy Hopps is Ginnifer Goodwin (Once Upon a Time’s Snow White) and after watching the film, you can’t imagine anyone else for the part. Kira agrees. “I did get to meet with Ginnifer a couple of times and she is so lovely. The thing that I love about her is that she is a huge Disney fan just like I am. So, we connected in that way. She is just a pure delight.”

In 2015, two Disney/Pixar films were released: Inside Out and The Good Dinosaur. Inside Out was a huge success, was up for two Academy Awards and won for Best Animated Film. Meanwhile, The Good Dinosaur has been credited for becoming the least successful Pixar films to date. (Although it did receive generally favorable reviews.) I asked Kira if these stats made her nervous. Without batting a eye said “No. Not at all. The way I feel about it is that awards are really nice. Nobody will deny that they don’t love getting that golden statue and putting that on the mantle and seeing that, but, that is not what remains with people. 

Nobody is concentrated on that, so I think, as long as it touches the audience, we’re happy.”
A few days later I was invited to a preview screening of Zootopia and saw Kira’s handiwork up on the screen. She might have been at that screening as well, I don’t know. But I do know that a bunch of her friends and family were in attendance that night, because when Kira’s name appeared during the end credits, the crowd went crazy. I guess you could say that the audience was touched.

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