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March 22
2022

ISSUE

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AUTHENTICITY WAS MISSION NO.1 FOR CAPTURING THE ESSENCE OF ENCANTO

By CHRIS McGOWAN

Images courtesy of Disney.

The Madrigal family in front of their magical house in the mountains of Columbia. A “cultural trust” of experts were consulted about details regarding Columbian clothing, food, architecture, customs and local flora and fauna.

The Madrigal family in front of their magical house in the mountains of Columbia. A “cultural trust” of experts were consulted about details regarding Columbian clothing, food, architecture, customs and local flora and fauna.

For the filmmakers of Walt Disney Animation Studios’ award-winning Encanto, the main goal was to bring specificity and authenticity to its characters, and ultimately transport audiences to Colombia, according to Kira Lehtomaki, Head of Animation along with Renato dos Anjos. In the animated musical, the large Madrigal family lives in a magical house located in a small village in an encanto, a place of magic in Columbia. Each Madrigal has been blessed with a magical gift, except apparently for Mirabel, a young woman who must save her family’s magic before it’s gone forever.

Mirabel Madrigal (Stephanie Beatriz) is determined to prove she fits in her magical family, though she doesn't appear to have a magical gift of her own.

Mirabel Madrigal (Stephanie Beatriz) is determined to prove she fits in her magical family, though she doesn’t appear to have a magical gift of her own.

“Our consultants were key to helping us make sure that the specific actions were correct and the context in which we were portraying these gestures was appropriate. We paid close attention to Colombian gestures that may not be common in other parts of the world, like pointing with puckered lips, and incorporated these gestures into our character performances,”

—Kira Lehtomaki, Head of Animation, Walt Disney Animation Studios

Encanto has been praised for its representation of Columbian culture, catchy Lin-Manuel Miranda songs, and vibrant visuals – it took home four awards at the recent 20th Annual Visual Effects Society ceremony. Stephanie Beatriz (Mirabel), Wilmer Valderrama (Agustín) and John Leguizamo (Bruno) are among the vocal talents, Lin-Manuel Miranda composed original songs and Germaine Franco contributed the score. Jared Bush and Byron Howard directed, along with co-director Charise Castro-Smith. Yvett Merino and Clark Spencer were the producers of Encanto. Scott Kersavage was Visual Effects Supervisor. Bill Schwab was the Art Director of Characters, and Camille Andre and Mehrdad Isvandi were the Art Directors of Environments.

Encanto won Outstanding Animated Character in an Animated Feature at the recent VES Awards for its creation of Mirabel.

Encanto won Outstanding Animated Character in an Animated Feature at the recent VES Awards for its creation of Mirabel.

Gifted with the ability to see the future, Bruno (John Leguizamo) has been estranged from the Madrigal family for as long as Mirabel can remember.

Gifted with the ability to see the future, Bruno (John Leguizamo) has been estranged from the Madrigal family for as long as Mirabel can remember.

The filmmakers consulted a “cultural trust” made up of Columbian documentary filmmakers Juan Rendon and Natalie Osma, as well as other experts in Columbian music, anthropology, culture, architecture and botany, to ensure authenticity. Great care was taken with costumes, natural hair styles, architectural details, customs and other specifics. “Our consultants were key to helping us make sure that the specific actions were correct and the context in which we were portraying these gestures was appropriate,” says Lehtomaki. “We paid close attention to Colombian gestures that may not be common in other parts of the world, like pointing with puckered lips, and incorporated these gestures into our character performances,” says Lehtomaki.

“We Don’t Talk About Bruno” is performed by several members of the voice cast, including Diane Guerrero as Isabela and Stephanie Beatriz as Mirabel.

“We Don’t Talk About Bruno” is performed by several members of the voice cast, including Diane Guerrero as Isabela and Stephanie Beatriz as Mirabel.

The kitchen scene between Mirabel and her mother, Julieta, was particularly influenced by guidance from the consultants. Lehtomaki notes, “We showed a rough ‘blocking’ version of our scene that had Mirabel and Julieta talking to each other from across the kitchen island. Immediately, our consultants flagged that this did not feel like an authentic mother-daughter interaction for a Colombian family. The feedback was that their relationship felt cold, and in Colombia, people,  especially family members, are close and tactile with each other. We knew we needed to change the acting in the entire scene to have Mirabel and Julieta in closer proximity to each other so that Julieta could touch and comfort her daughter to make their relationship feel authentic.”

“We were also tasked with figuring out the ‘rules’ for the house’s movement. The house is almost like a pet – it can do things to help or hinder, it can be playful, and it can express an opinion.”

—Kira Lehtomaki, Head of Animation, Walt Disney Animation Studios

Encanto features the voices of the Madrigal family (clockwise starting from center) Stephanie Beatriz as Mirabel; Ravi Cabot-Conyers, Rhenzy Feliz and Adassa as Mirabel’s cousins Antonio, Camilo and Dolores, respectively; Mauro Castillo and Carolina Gaitan as Mirabel’s uncle and aunt, Félix and Pepa; María Cecilia Botero as Mirabel’s grandmother, Abuela Alma; Angie Cepeda and Wilmer Valderrama as Mirabel’s parents, Julieta and Agustín; and Jessica Darrow and Diane Guererro as Mirabel’s sisters Luisa and Isabela.

Encanto features the voices of the Madrigal family (clockwise starting from center) Stephanie Beatriz as Mirabel; Ravi Cabot-Conyers, Rhenzy Feliz and Adassa as Mirabel’s cousins Antonio, Camilo and Dolores, respectively; Mauro Castillo and Carolina Gaitan as Mirabel’s uncle and aunt, Félix and Pepa; María Cecilia Botero as Mirabel’s grandmother, Abuela Alma; Angie Cepeda and Wilmer Valderrama as Mirabel’s parents, Julieta and Agustín; and Jessica Darrow and Diane Guererro as Mirabel’s sisters Luisa and Isabela.

Another focus for the Disney team was to show complex emotions among various characters. “Encanto challenged our animation team like never before, with the largest cast of main characters – all 12 Madrigals.” In one example, Luisa is the “rock” of the family, gifted with super strength. “We drew inspiration from Olympic athletes who have extraordinary physical strength, to infuse all of Luisa’s poses with strong lines-of-action and stable balance, while maintaining hints of vulnerability, especially in her face, to support her internal struggle,” says Lehtomaki. Such emotions get more complex as the movie progresses. As Mirabel learns to see her family members through a new lens and perspective, new depth is revealed in each of the characters.

The Madrigal’s casita in Encanto is more than a house – it’s alive with the same magic that has blessed the Madrigal children. Filmmakers liken the house to a loyal pet – it's part of the family and treated as another vital character in the film.

The Madrigal’s casita in Encanto is more than a house – it’s alive with the same magic that has blessed the Madrigal children. Filmmakers liken the house to a loyal pet – it’s part of the family and treated as another vital character in the film.

Luisa (Jessica Darrow) sings the song “Surface Pressure,” which reveals her true feelings about her gift of super strength.

Luisa (Jessica Darrow) sings the song “Surface Pressure,” which reveals her true feelings about her gift of super strength.

Mirabel turned out to be the most challenging character of all as she didn’t have an obvious personality trait. The directors envisioned her as “capable” and yet “imperfect.” As the team did animation tests early on, they found that “capable” could easily skew to “superhero” poses, which did not fit Mirabel. Similarly, “imperfect” often came across as clumsy or uncoordinated. In the end, they found the key to Mirabel was improvisation. Lehtomaki explains, “In every scene, she is making it up as she goes along. When she has a misstep, she quickly recovers. We also discovered that her unique relationship with each of her family members changed her demeanor. She has bolder and more confident poses during her antagonistic interactions with Isabela, for example, while more restrained and insecure poses around Abuela.”

The animators utilized an eye shader that imparted more realism to facial expressions. Lehtomaki comments, “The eyes are the most important part of the character because they are always where the audience is focused. In the past, our eye shaders have given the iris and pupil the appearance of being wrapped around the surface of a sphere.” This “surface” approach required animators to strategically cheat the head and eye poses at certain angles to ensure seeing enough of the pupil to register the character’s eye direction. In this film, the new eye shader gave natural depth to the iris and pupil, with all the refraction, highlights and caustics that mimicked real eyes. Lehtomaki adds, “This eliminated many of the animation posing constraints by allowing the pupil to be clearly seen from angles where it had previously disappeared, and gave greater ability to capture depth and subtlety in character performances.”

Antonio (Ravi Cabot-Conyers) has the power to converse with animals, including wild jaguars, capybara, toucans and other native creatures.

Antonio (Ravi Cabot-Conyers) has the power to converse with animals, including wild jaguars, capybara, toucans and other native creatures.

While animation usually focuses on the main characters, this movie posed a new challenge for the animators – the house as a character. The directors were clear early on that they wanted “truth in materials,” meaning all of the materials from which the house was constructed were accurate to the materials used to build Colombian houses. They wanted these materials to move in a way that was believable, and not have a plank of wood bend like rubber, for example. “We were also tasked with figuring out the ‘rules’ for the house’s movement. The house is almost like a pet – it can do things to help or hinder, it can be playful, and it can express an opinion,” says Lehtomaki.

“Kai [Animation Reference Consultant Kai Martinez], who is Colombian-American, was careful to incorporate nods to traditional Colombian dances within the choreography as well. They [Martinez and Choreographer Jamal Sims] shot an incredible reference video of the entire sequence [of “We Don’t Talk About Bruno”] in one shot! This was so inspirational to our layout and animation teams that we changed our usual pipeline process.”

—Kira Lehtomaki, Head of Animation, Walt Disney Animation Studios

But even though the house is “alive,” the directors did not want a house full of “enchanted” objects. After several exploratory animation tests, it was decided that any object that was “attached” to the house (i.e. a shelf on the wall) could be moved by the house. However, for any object not attached, like a chair, the house would have to move the floorboards or tiles underneath the chair to scoot it along to a new position. “It was impossible to predict and rig every element of the house that might need to move in a particular scene, so a new tool had to be developed to allow animators to generate rigs on the fly for any part of the house.” The house is especially vibrant and beautiful because it and everything else in Encanto is lit without the simulation of electric light – illuminated just by candlelight, sunlight, the moon, or magic.

Concept art for Antonio’s room by Camille Andre, who was Art Director of Environments along with Mehrdad Isvandi.

Concept art for Antonio’s room by Camille Andre, who was Art Director of Environments along with Mehrdad Isvandi.

Encanto won the VES award for Outstanding Created Environment in an Animated Feature for the creation of Antonio’s room, a magical place with a jungle tree house where he can play with his animal friends.

Encanto won the VES award for Outstanding Created Environment in an Animated Feature for the creation of Antonio’s room, a magical place with a jungle tree house where he can play with his animal friends.

One of the most notable aspects of Encanto is its dance sequences, which “would not have been possible without our collaboration with Choreographer Jamal Sims and Animation Reference Consultant Kai Martinez,” says Lehtomaki. “The directors, story and animation teams met early on with Jamal and Kai to share with them the initial storyboards for the musical sequences and to talk through the personality and animation of each of the characters. ‘We Don’t Talk About Bruno’ was the very first sequence they tackled together. Jamal and Kai went away for two weeks with the demo track, which included Lin-Manuel Miranda singing for every character, and choreographed a team of dancers based on the storyboards and character personalities.”

Continues Lehtomaki, “Kai, who is Colombian-American, was careful to incorporate nods to traditional Colombian dances within the choreography as well. They shot an incredible reference video of the entire sequence in one shot! This was so inspirational to our layout and animation teams that we changed our usual pipeline process. Layout normally takes their pass at creating camera setups first before animation begins. Instead, we put a team of animators on the sequence immediately, blocking a rough pass of animation in 3D space, paying close attention to accurate footfall placement and spatial coverage. Our layout team then took this rough animation pass and created camera setups more akin to a live-action shoot. Once the cameras were created, our animators went back to work, studying additional reference footage that was shot in the dance studio from almost every angle.”

“Since animators are generally not known for their dancing ability, we were initially concerned that it might be challenging for the animators to successfully incorporate Kai’s notes. We were surprised to discover that animators and dancers speak the same language. What Kai and her dancers do with their bodies, we animators do through our characters. We both focus on anatomy, clear posing and timing of movement. We even communicate often in just sound effects that better describe the timing and musicality of an intended movement rather than words.”

—Kira Lehtomaki, Head of Animation, Walt Disney Animation Studios

The animators worked closely with Kai to accurately capture and caricature each of the dance moves. Lehtomaki comments, “Since animators are generally not known for their dancing ability, we were initially concerned that it might be challenging for the animators to successfully incorporate Kai’s notes. We were surprised to discover that animators and dancers speak the same language. What Kai and her dancers do with their bodies, we animators do through our characters. We both focus on anatomy, clear posing and timing of movement. We even communicate often in just sound effects that better describe the timing and musicality of an intended movement rather than words.

Mirabel (Stephanie Beatriz) is a kind, humble 15-year-old who lives with her family in the mountains of Colombia in a magical house, in a vibrant town, in a wondrous, charmed place called an encanto.

Mirabel (Stephanie Beatriz) is a kind, humble 15-year-old who lives with her family in the mountains of Colombia in a magical house, in a vibrant town, in a wondrous, charmed place called an encanto.

“In addition,” Lehtomaki says, “because Jamal and Kai made such specific character choices in the choreography, their work influenced our character development and animation throughout the rest of the film.” Kai performed the role of Dolores in the “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” reference video. “Because Dolores has the gift of super hearing, Kai thought of Dolores like a cat – each step would be careful, quick and quiet – to not upset her ears. The directors loved this idea, and you will see Dolores always stepping with the balls of her feet first, rather than the more common heel-toe method, throughout the film.” The end result in the choreography is like that in other parts of Encanto – animation with outstanding visual, cultural and/or emotional detail.


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