Film, News & Commentary, Screen

Zootopia animator gets inside the heads of Disney's menagerie

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“I am a people watcher. I don’t want that to sound creepy but it’s just fun watching them,” says Philip To, a 32 year old “character animator” from Sydney who, for the past 14 months has been working at Disney in Los Angeles, mostly on its new, animated feature Zootopia.
It’s To’s job to create the appearance and the movement of characters invented by the movie’s writers and voiced by its actors — hence his non-creepy interest in how people move.
“You draw what you know,” he says.
Lately To has been at his computer working on Zootopia. The film will be released next week and features Ginnifer Goodwin as the voice of small-town rabbit cop who moves to the big city, Zootopia, and gets caught up with a con-artist fox voiced by Jason Bateman. It also features the voices of Idris Elba and Shakira.
Not that To meets the actors, or bases the cartoon characters’ looks or mannerisms on them; the voice tracks are recorded long before the character animators get to work.
“I am a character animator so we bring to the table the performance of the character. We give them life,” says To. “You get issued a sequence and then you go back to your desk and play the audio over and over. You have to get inside the character’s head.
“It’s long hours but it’s a filmmaker and director-driven studio so it’s very creative. It’s a collaborative process.”
He and the rest of the animation crew can be working on more than one project at a time. To has also been assigned to Moana –Disney’s upcoming South Pacific themed animated feature.
He previously worked at DreamWorks for two years but says getting the job at Disney is a “dream come true”.
To grew up as a ’90s kid watching the rush of Pixar films that include Toy Story, Monsters Inc, and The Incredibles. He says that while Pixar certainly made its impact on him as a kid, “Disney has rekindled what is great about animation”.
“I loved drawing as a kid but I never thought I could get a job doing it.”
To’s progress as a graduate of the University of NSW’s digital media, video, design and animation course in 2003 to a character animator at Walt Disney Animation Studios saw him jump from project to project in Australia before snagging a job in the studio that has created the most famous cartoon characters in the world.
His university course opened doors to local studios working on a range of video games, kid’s cartoons, and the Animalia children’s TV series, but his way of getting into the big pond of animation was by going online.
“I’d been a jack of all trades but I realised I had a strong ambition for character animation.”
To did an 18 month online course “on my own dime” with the online animation school, Animation Mentor. He says this was the only way as an Australian he could get to work with tutors from the big US studios. Getting in their faces led to his first gig in California and now he’s at the Mouse factory.
Zootopia is released on March 17

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