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The Last Wish Animators on Designing Characters  

Ethan in Strange World

Ethan in Strange World

Courtesy of Jin Kim/Disney

French and Belgian comics inspired the characters in Disney Animation’s Strange World, which follows three generations of explorers, including teen Ethan. “He’s designed to have more realistic proportions, in contrast to other, wiry Disney teens like Hiro Hamada or Mowgli,” explains director Don Hall. “He’s biracial, and we wanted his skin tone to reflect both his mother, Meridian, and father, Searcher, and our team worked with Black hair experts to get his locks just right.” Textiles, he adds, took a cue from woven fabrics from environments like the Himalayas, with buttons and ties instead of zippers. “Given Ethan’s journey from unsettled teen to conservationist, we opted for a kind of laid-back, ‘granola’ vibe, with his green cutoff farm pants being the only subtle clue as to his internal conflict with his father’s expectations for him.” His vest is deep blue with red trim. “I liked it because it looked heroic, like Superman or Flash Gordon. That’s what Ethan is to me: a hero — a funny, warm, empathetic, impulsive, gay teenage hero who finds his destiny in making the world a better place.”

Mei Lee in Turning Red

Mei Lee in Turning Red

Courtesy of Disney

“I wanted Mei Lee to feel like a real tween girl but also push her expressiveness and animation into areas Pixar has never explored before,” says director Domee Shi, describing her protagonist — who turns into a red panda when excited — as a “colorful, exaggerated version of my 13-year-old self.” She adds, “Since she’s Chinese Canadian, I designed her to be a blend of Eastern anime and Western animation. Mei is also a celebration of all the features that I was teased for while growing up: small eyes, chubby cheeks, chunky legs and patchy eyebrows. I hope that audiences see themselves, or girls or women they know, in Mei.”

After 11 years, DreamWorks Animation’s Puss in Boots franchise returned to theaters, with a look that director Joel Crawford describes as “a more painterly, ‘spaghetti Western’ fairy tale world yet grounded in the Shrek universe. For Puss in particular, the challenge was to convey a range of emotions through his look and physicality.” In the story, the eponymous feline learns that he’s down to the last of his nine lives and must confront his mortality.

“We intentionally wanted the look of his beard and weary eyes to convey a vulnerability in this once-great legend, almost as if he’s lamenting the loss of his once larger-than-life gato. His shoulders slump, the spark is gone in his eyes,” the director says of the character’s look at this point in the story. “As he gradually becomes more self-aware of what it means to appreciate the life he’s been given, Puss himself starts to come back to life.”

The inner strength of young Maisie as she stands up to burly sea-monster hunters was part of her design inspiration. “We leaned into that and emphasized the size differences. Her small stature would amplify her big personality,” says Chris Williams, director of the Netflix original. “In her costuming, we wanted to suggest her adventurous spirit, as well as a sense of history, so we added images of sea monsters on Maisie’s bag that she embroidered when she was younger. She also starts out the movie wearing a leather vest and knife belt, but as the story progresses, these things are stripped away. In the end, it’s not Maisie’s desire for conquest that drives her — it’s an inner fortitude and strong sense of right and wrong.”

Kat (Wendell & Wild)

Five years after the once-happy child lost her parents in an accident, Kat, now a tough 13-year-old, has served time in juvenile prison and arrives at Rust Bank Catholic School for Girls. “Kat transforms her school uniform and herself with safety pins, makeup, her hair — now two huge green puffs — monster boots and brow rings. Then she struts down the hall, music blasting, as a towering Afro punk, terrifying nuns, inspiring the students. We thought of her punk look as a suit of armor,” director Henry Selick explains of his stop-motion protagonist in the Netflix release. “Initially, character designer Pablo Lobato and I looked to real people for inspiration for Kat’s facial design, but we needed something more iconic. Pablo remembered that Picasso, [Amedeo] Modigliani and other modernists of that time had been inspired by wooden masks from Gabon, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea and the Ivory Coast. After careful research, he found masks that felt like Kat and became the direct inspiration for her face.”

This story first appeared in a Jan. stand-alone issue of   magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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