Disney Sketchbook: A chat with Disney story artist Gabby Capili

In this episode of Sketchbook, Gabby draws "Kuzco" from The Emperor's New Groove, a character she has loved since she was a kid.
In this episode of Sketchbook, Gabby draws "Kuzco" from The Emperor's New Groove, a character she has loved since she was a kid. /

Disney+ has released a new original series, Sketchbook. The instructional documentary gives us an inside look into the process and stories of some of the talented artists at Walt Disney Animation Studios.

Each of the six episodes dives into a different animator’s story as they teach us how to draw an iconic Disney character of their choosing. One of those artistic creators is Gabby Capili.

After graduating from California Institute of the Arts (CalArts), she received a call from a Disney recruiter to come in for an interview. It was during a difficult time as her beloved grandmother was dying. When a song from Moana, in which her grandmother Tala comes to her in the form of a manta ray, played on her way to the interview, Capili knew she was on the right path.

In the show’s first episode, Capili teaches us how to draw her favorite character, Kuzco, from The Emperor’s New Groove.

Hidden Remote had the chance to speak with Capili about her artistic journey and what it’s like to work in the animation industry. Below are some highlights from our chat, and be sure to check out the full video interview at the end of the post!

Gabby Capili Disney Sketchbook interview

*The interview below has been edited for length and clarity

Hidden Remote: Why did you choose to draw Kuzco and why is he your favorite character?

Gabby Capili: There’s a few reasons. First reason, I had a strict dad [but] he pulled me out of school for my birthday when I was in the fourth grade and brought me to see The Emperor’s New Groove during school hours. That’s a big reason, very special memory.

Another one is that he’s so cool. He starts off at the beginning of the film as like the villain of the film and by the end of it through power and friendship and love he becomes a good role model. And then the third one is, I don’t know if you’ve heard the joke of like to be a Disney princess or here’s what the Disney princess have in common. It’s like trapped in a tower, an evil person is trying to take their reign.

Ariel falls into this, and Cinderella falls under this, and even Rapunzel falls into this. But Kuzco also falls in all those categories so that was always a little joke I liked is Kuzco is my favorite Disney princess.

HR: How does it feel to be able to contribute to an industry that’s predominantly male-dominated?

Capili: I thought when I was growing up that it was just going to be me and that I’d be the only brown girl in the room. But I never am. There’s always a lot women, there’s always a lot of queer people, and there’s always a lot of brown people in the rooms that I’m in and I feel really lucky about that.

I thought it was going to be harder and scarier for me in the animation industry, and it has felt very welcoming in a way that I didn’t think would happen when I was a kid. Things are changing. Like all my friends in school were – one of my best friends, she’s Iraqi from Dubai, and she’s in the industry with me. And then another one was Chinese from New York City. Another young lady is from Japan. So we’re coming in big waves. We’re here now. It’s cool.

HR: Animation wasn’t your first choice. So how did you find yourself in this field?

Capili: It was comics. My dad was a comic book collector and so I got into comics from a very young age. It was my first love, my greatest love. And I didn’t think that I could do art. And I kind of fell into animation. I went to CalArts because it was where all of my favorite artists who made my favorite movies went. But somehow in my 19/20 year old brain I didn’t realize that it was a film school, an animation school. So I remember my very first animation class my teacher sat us down and went ‘Ok so we’re all in the business of making movies here.’ And I remember thinking ‘Oh, are we? Ok, I’ll write that down.’ So it was a surprise to me, but it’s fun.

HR: In what capacity did you work on Encanto?

Capili: I was a story apprentice. And at Disney that means you come in not really knowing anything. I got taught for three months. I had a mentor that I was paired with. Her name is Tani, she’s amazing. She taught me perspective, and composition, and how to draw. And then after that I did three months on three different productions. And so as an apprentice I was on Encanto. I was in the story rooms, I was in story rooms, helped come up with ideas, did little practice assignments to gear me up to get ready to be on a production as a story artist instead of a story apprentice.

In this episode of Sketchbook, Gabby draws “Kuzco” from The Emperor’s New Groove, a character she has loved since she was a kid.
In this episode of Sketchbook, Gabby draws “Kuzco” from The Emperor’s New Groove, a character she has loved since she was a kid. /

HR: What did you learn from the apprenticeship?

Capili: Tani worked with me a lot on eyebrows. That sounds silly but I was good at expressions and making a character look how I wanted them to feel to the audience. But there are so many little micro-adjustments in a face that really sell an emotion. So Tani always pushed me on, you’re good at this, [but] you can be great at this. Push it a little bit further, fix this eyebrow, draw a mouth line here. It made a huge difference. So learning the things that I’m already good at – don’t relax on them. Push it even further because then you can be even better.

HR: What is your drawing process like?

Capili: I draw circle that represents the head. I draw the circle very lightly because it’s just an idea of where the head should be. So I draw a circle and then I go eyes. And then when the eyes are locked, when the eyes look right for me I’m like, ok the rest will fall into place.

HR: Going forward, what do you hope to contribute to the industry and Disney?

Capili: I think honestly the only thing that I can hope to bring is just my life experience, my unique perspective as the person that I am. Like the only thing that I really want to contribute is the perspective that I have that only I have. I can offer it to you in the hopes that it will help other people find catharsis somehow. The things that I’ve learned. Offer them up so that somebody else doesn’t have as hard a time learning them or doesn’t have to search as hard.

HR: What do you hope the audience takes away from Sketchbook?

Capili: From my episode in particular, I just hope everybody believes in themselves. I spent a lot of time not believing in myself and that was a waste of time. You’ve got to be your own cheerleader. You can do things that are hard and you can do things that are scary. You can do it wrong. You can draw Kuzco incorrectly and that’s ok. You can try again if you want to. But you don’t have to. You did [try] and that’s good.

We also spoke with story animator Hyun Min Lee who appears in Sketchbook‘s second episode, so be sure to check out that interview as well! Sketchbook is now streaming all six episodes on Disney+.

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