“Wish” Head of Character and Animation Avneet Kaur on Populating a Richly Diverse World
This Thanksgiving, the new animated musical comedy Wish premiered in the midst of the studio’s 100th anniversary, and the inspiration for the film can be encapsulated by “When You Wish Upon a Star,” a song made famous in Disney’s second full-length feature, 1940’s Pinocchio.
Wish takes place in the magical kingdom of Rosas, in the Iberian Peninsula, a crossroads attracting settlers from around the world. Asha (voiced by Ariana DeBose) loves her country, her family and friends, and her baby goat Valentino (Alan Tudyk). Like everyone in Rosas, she is loyal to her king, Magnifico (Chris Pine), a powerful wizard. People come from around the world to give Magnifico their wishes for safekeeping, but are their wishes safe with him? When Asha discovers he is more about control than compassion, she looks up into the night sky and makes a wish, which summons one single star. Star, a small, bright ball of energy, is the symbol of hope, courage, and joy and is the catalyst that changes everything for Asha, her family and friends, and all the people of Rosas.
A twenty-year veteran of Disney Feature Animation, Avneet Kaur was head of character and technical animation on Wish, Disney’s 62nd feature. She led the character assets department, which included teams for character modeling, rigging, simulation, and look development. The challenge for her and her team was to bring together the elements to create believable and compelling 3D computer-animated characters within an aesthetic inspired by the best traditionally animated Disney classics.
The Credits spoke to Kaur about how she achieved a look that was both cutting-edge and an homage to the studio’s great legacy.
There are a lot of references to Disney’s artistic history in Wish. Color stylist and concept artist Eyvind Earle’s designs for Sleeping Beauty and the impressionistic storybook illustration style that art director Gustaf Tenggren used on Snow White, Pinocchio, and Fantasia are definitely inspirations.
Wish has a watercolor style with hand-drawn influences that was created by our artists at Disney Animation. We met with the directors early on, and our unifying vision was to craft a look for all the characters that were inspired by all of those beautiful illustrative works from films like those you just mentioned. The filmmakers really wanted the inspirational artwork to transition to the film’s characters very seamlessly, and this was made possible through a lot of research and development and some cutting edge artistry and technology that was pioneered for this film specifically. In pre-production, the leadership, which includes the directors, the production designer, and me as head of characters, the visual effects supervisor, and other heads of departments, all came together and worked for months to co-create what the stylized look for our film would be based on all of this inspiration.
How did the teams you were overseeing go forward in terms of achieving that goal?
We developed a new workflow that was one of its kind, because we had never done something like that before, and the goal was to accomplish the art direction developed specifically for this film. We did a series of experiments that ultimately resulted in a workflow made with compositing tools, and we also worked in the character asset departments and the teams I was overseeing. Together, we created a stylization package. All the departments worked together to come up with a system of handling all of the different situations in the film because the biggest challenge, in addition to the fact that it had to be inspired and do justice to all of the legacy we had, was the fact that we had many different ethnicities.
The story takes place in the Iberian peninsula, which historically was a crossroads of many different ethnicities and backgrounds. When you talk about designing cloth and hair, that means lots of different kinds to represent the different folks in the film, especially as it relates to crowd scenes.
The film takes place in the fictional trading port of Rosas, where people from all over the world gathered, and that was intentional because we wanted to reflect the diversity and represent many different ethnicities in the world. The ethnic diversity of the film was unprecedentedly huge, and the added stylization made it a very complex challenge. We had our main characters, our seven teens, and the many hundreds in the crowds were from four different ethnicities: African, European, East Asian, and Arab descent. Earlier on in the film, visual development collaborated very closely with my team on a design approach and strategy that respected the individuality and authenticity of these diverse ethnicities while making sure that the stylization felt cohesive. We prioritized the sense of modularity and multiculturalism for an outcome in the costumes and in the overall look. To have maximum diversity in garment, headgear, and hairstyle combinations, not just for the main characters but for the crowds, so our film includes many scenes of that rich diversity.
How did you break that down?
Based on the designs we had from visual development, our modeling team crafted 27 unique faces and diverse body types for the people of Rosas. Then, our simulation team, the one that tailors all of the clothing, created many modular garments that could be mixed and matched to create outfit variations within the ethnicities that we had because they demanded very specific designs. We were very careful about designing groups of accurate costumes. We had palettes of colors as well as patterns and textures that represented each ethnicity. For example, the characters of Arab descent were the ones heavily paired with jewelry, because that is a very integral part of their cultural identity. There was a lot of care from the design through the execution of the characters, so when they appeared on screen, you could recognize their heritage instantly. We made a conscious effort to be representative of the contemporary world today because our world is a melting pot of many different cultures and ethnicities, and that was in the spirit of looking forward to the next 100 years of Disney, as much as to pay homage to the past 100 years.
The crowd scenes are also a great way to reflect the aesthetic of the multiplane camera, used to such great effect in Pinocchio in 1940, in a modern way.
We created something that captured, as much as possible, the look of the multiplane camera by staging crowds in the foreground, mid-ground, and all the way to the background, in layers, with the very last layer almost blending with the architecture and the coloring of the world around it. That was absolutely intentional, not only to create the right art directional effect but to give the right importance to the foreground characters. As we get closer to the background, we lose some detail, which gives it a more watercolor feel and brings the film together visually.
What did you realize from studying Disney’s history that will help you going forward?
I’ve been at Disney Animation for almost 20 years now, and I had the honor to work through many wonderful CG films. The one thing I’ve realized is we just keep pushing the limits of what we are able to create on every single film. Wish is being released at the 100-year anniversary, and it pays homage to our past 100 years of Disney legacy, but it has a spirit and heart of its own. Every time you are presented with a new challenge to make a film like this at Disney Animation, you almost have to start on a new slate. The tools and techniques, the philosophy of creating all of that, is a brand new challenge in every film. Every film pushes the envelope of what we can do that we haven’t done before. That is something I really love about Disney.
Wish is in theaters nationwide.
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Featured image: Ariana DeBose as Asha and Alan Tudyk as the pajama-wearing goat, Valentino, in Wish. Courtesy Walt Disney Studios.