Once upon a dream — An interview with Disney animator Kira Lehtomaki

I was three years old when I saw Sleeping Beauty,” Disney animator Kira Lehtomaki says, “When Briar Rose was dancing and singing in the forest with the animals, I said, I want to do that!”

Lehtomaki certainly isn’t the first child to watch a Disney movie and find enchantment, but she is one of the few who stuck with it and found a way to turn that dream into a reality.

“By the time I got to kindergarten, I remember—I still have the paper actually, because I’m a hoarder and I keep everything—they had a little worksheet [that asked]: What do you want to be when you grow up?” Lehtomaki recounts. “I wrote: A drawer for Disney.

“As long as I’ve been conscious, I’ve wanted to do this.”

Like most budding animators, Lehtomaki toyed around with simple animation like flip books and doodles, but it wasn’t until college that Lehtomaki saw her path develop.

“I didn’t have the most direct path to the studio. When I was looking to go to colleges, CG [computer graphic] animation hadn’t really come to the forefront,” Lehtomaki says. “I was a 2-D girl, hardcore, through and through. … That is what I loved in animation, The Little Mermaid and Aladdin; those were the movies that got me as a kid.

“I come from a very scientific family, my Dad is an electrical engineer, my Mom is a chemist, [art school] was just a very foreign idea.”

Which lead Lehtomaki to the University of Washington, a major university that could provide a well-rounded education.

“I ended up doing computer science,” Lehtomaki says. “It really taught me how to think. Technical stuff is often just as creative as artistic stuff.”

And animation, particularly computer-generated animation, is the perfect hybrid of the scientific and the artistic, and Lehtomaki saw a chance to pursue the burgeoning medium.

“There was a school called Animation Mentor, and it was an online school … started by two Pixar animators and one animator from Industrial Light and Magic,” Lehtomaki explains. “They had this idea, this groundbreaking idea, that they would get professional animators in all the major studios to mentor people online.”

The 18-month online course was the first of its kind. Throughout the six classes students were paired with animators who provided feedback on the students work. In Lehtomaki’s final class, she was paired with animator James Brown.

“[Brown] taught me something about kind of getting a fleshy quality in the animation of the eyes, like doing really detailed stuff with the eyes,” Lehtomaki says. “If you’re going to do an eye dart, you can do that over a couple of frames, and that will give a snappy quality to it. But then you’ve got to change the shape of the lid around the eyes so that it feels fleshy.”

This a-ha moment was echoed a few years later when Lehtomaki was working for Disney on Tangled (2010).

”I got to work with Glenn Keane,” Lehtomaki says. “He would always say to us, ‘If you’re going to make a mistake, don’t make it in the eyes because that is where everybody is looking.’

“[That] further reinforced this idea that spending a lot of time and doing detail—really minuscule movements in the eyes—really gives more life to that character.”

Lehtomaki turned those crucial lessons into a career at Disney and since 2005, Lehtomaki has worked as an animator on Bolt (2008), Tangled, Wreck-It Ralph (2012), and Frozen (2013).

“Animators are just actors,” Lehtomaki explains. “We’re either actors with a pencil or a mouse. We have the voice actor come in and provide the vocal performance, and then we’re really responsible for the physical performance. … We have to move the characters to make you believe that voice is coming out of them.

“Just like actors, there are certain people who are really good at comedy and there are some that are really good at subtle, emotional stuff. And so, we cast animators accordingly.

“I tend to get cast [for] mostly the girl characters, because I love doing that stuff. They really do cater towards what you like, and I grew up with the princess-fairy-tale-musical, that was just my cup of tea. But I’ve gotten this weird reputation for doing scenes where people are angry or crying. And I’m a very happy person and I laugh all the time, but there must be something really cathartic about it, so I like the really emotional, angry, sad scenes. And if you can add singing on top of that, it’s like my heaven. It’s like the perfect cocktail.”

"Zootopia" stars Judy Hopps who dreams of being the first bunny to join the Zootopia Police Force.
“Zootopia” stars Judy Hopps who dreams of being the first bunny to join the Zootopia Police Force. ©2015 Disney. All Rights Reserved.

Before the animation can begin, development and design work must take place. Lehtomaki says that the average Disney animator works on a project for roughly one year, but for Zootopia, Lehtomaki stepped into the shoes of an animation supervisor for the character of Judy Hopps.

“Byron Howard [one of Zootopia’s writers and directors] birthed this film,” Lehtomaki says. “He was on the film the longest … five years.

“I was on the film for about two and half years—which is really long for an animator. I came along before animation started, about a year before any of the other animators rolled on.”

Before Hopps’s animation team—roughly 70 individuals—begin making Hopps move and talk, Lehtomaki works with designers and sculptors to determine what the character’s final design will look like.

“I came on to work with a character designer [Cory Loftis], who had worked with the director to decide what Judy was going to look like, but that was just a 2-D drawing,” Lehtomaki explains. “Then we had the modeler who sculpted her digitally inside the computer, and then we had the rigger [David Suroviec] put the skeleton in her, so that we, as animators, could move her around.”

While Lehtomaki’s team is developing the character’s design, the script continues to develop within the studio. For Zootopia, a late change of protagonist bumped Lehtomaki’s team up to lead.

“The story is fluid the whole way,” Lehtomaki says. “[Disney has] a story trust—a bunch of directors, young talent, veteran talent—where they’re always pushing and pulling on the story ideas, trying to make it as best as possible.

“We had done a significant amount of animation, and the story was great but there was something that just wasn’t quite firing as well as it should be,” Lehtomaki continues. “Somebody said, ‘You know what, this would really work better if we saw this through Judy’s eyes and not Nick’s.’ That was a really tough decision, but they wanted to do what was the best thing for the story and so they said, ‘OK, we’re going to make Judy the main character.’”

Considering that Judy Hopps dreams big and works hard to make that dream a reality, Lehtomaki makes for a perfect real world parallel. From that little girl in Seattle, Washington, enchanted by Briar Rose dancing with her animal friends, to the hallowed halls of the Disney Animation Studio in Burbank, California, where those very images were created, Lehtomaki’s dream is now her reality.

“I’m a huge Disney nerd. I have lived, eaten, slept Disney things ever since I was very, very little,” Lehtomaki says. “To work on the Burbank studios … especially in the old animation building … I think there is pixie dust in here.”

Zootopia is currently in wide release.

ZOOTOPIA – Character Concept Art of Judy Hopps by Cory Loftis (Character Design Supervisor). ©2015 Disney. All Rights Reserved.
ZOOTOPIA – Character Concept Art of Judy Hopps by Cory Loftis (Character Design Supervisor). ©2015 Disney. All Rights Reserved.