Disney+‘s new original series, Sketchbook, is an instructional documentary that takes us into the process and stories of some of story animators that have brought our favorite characters to life at Walt Disney Animation Studios
Each of the six episodes dives into a different artist’s story as they teach us how to draw an iconic Disney character of their choosing. And one of those creators is Hyun Min Lee.
Lee was primarily raised in Seoul, South Korea but also lived in Hong Kong and Malaysia for a few years. Eventually she made her way to California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) and was recruited by the animation studio in 2007 through their talent development program.
Lee’s first assignment for Disney Animation was on the character of Louis, the jazz-playing alligator in The Princess and the Frog. She continues to work in hand-drawn animation, CG animation, and visual development.
In the second episode, Lee teaches us how to draw Olaf from Frozen and Frozen 2. Hidden Remote had the chance to speak with Lee about her process as an animator and who her main driving force was and is. Below are some highlights from our chat, and be sure to check out the full video interview at the end of the post!
Hyun Min Lee Disney Sketchbook interview
*The interview below has been edited for length and clarity
Hidden Remote: Why did you choose to draw Olaf for the Sketchbook episode?
Hyun Min Lee: Olaf was definitely number one amongst the characters I wanted to draw. I think Olaf is kind of like the quintessential character that symbolizes how we work and make our films at Disney. In the film he’s a snowman and made up of these snow particles, but he’s also a combination of the love and memories of Anna and Elsa put together into a being so to speak. He’s created by the directors who came up with him, Bill Schwab who did the original design for him, and then I got to take part in the designing process of this newer version (in Frozen 2). And also Josh Gad who did his voice so brilliantly and all the animators. He’s made up of all the love and hard work. It’s kind of like a mix of all of our little souls in a way. I love that he signifies that.
HR: What is your process like when creating a character?
Lee: A lot of times I do the eyes and the faces, definitely a focal part. I do start with roughing them out really lightly. I always like using a red or a blue colored pencil. It’s always a great way to rough out the entire pose because it’s not just the face, but the entire body silhouette and pose really need to sing out the emotion that the character is feeling at the time.
HR: Can you immediately visualize a character or are you more influenced by the voice actor?
Lee: It’s definitely a mixture. There’s always a great starting point because we have the voice recorded by the actors, but we also have the storyboard that’s drawn for that scene by the storyboard artist. And then there’s also this meeting called issuing for the animators and that’s when we get assigned a certain shot. The directors will go through it with us and tell us what the character is feeling, what kind of importance this shot has in the film. We take that all with us and then start listening to the vocal recording, listen to it a thousand times at least I feel like! And so when I do that a lot of times I’ll start by doing little drawings which I call thumbnails. Some people draw them bigger, I tend to draw them really tiny. But it’s a great, fun way to jot down my ideas really quickly. So there’s going to be a page where there’s tiny Olaf’s. Sometimes I’ll act it out in front of the mirror.
HR: I need a video of you acting out your scenes.
Lee: I put those in a secret folder so no one hopefully will see!
HR: What lead you down the animation path and how did you get to Disney?
Lee: I started with loving drawing and cartoons and my mom introduced me to a lot of the Disney feature films and I just loved watching those. And there were also these little specials that I would watch that would show the behind-the-scenes of some of the makings of the films and I said, ok I want to do that. I started out by saying ok, in college I’ll study astronomy and then I’ll do my drawings on the side.
My mom thought that would be fun but [she said] ‘I think you should pursue what you really want to do.’ There weren’t a lot of great animation programs in Korea and the art education was very traditional, but now there’s a lot of great animation schools. But at the time there weren’t and my mom thought ‘you love Disney, we should go to the states and let’s see if that gets you a better head start and [help you] do the things that you love.
Finally I got to CalArts and then I got to meet some really great teachers and then suddenly it just became a crash course of this is everything I wanted to learn. I had really lucky timing. So when I was geared up to graduate CalArts in 2007, that’s when Disney said ‘oh we’re restarting the talent development program again.’ I think that was my dream come true where I got to apply and get accepted. It was a weird moment where I’ve been wanting this for so long and it felt like it had been evading me, but suddenly everything clicked into place.
HR: You got there eventually! And I know a big part of that was because of your mom.
Lee: She was a big fan of me drawing and me pursuing art. In Korea a lot of times if you have really good grades, everyone wants you to be a lawyer or a doctor. But my mom said ‘this is what you want to do and I want you to find the best way to get there.’ There was a point in high school when I [told her], you know what I don’t want to go to America, I don’t want to be far away from you. Your health isn’t well. And she actually got upset [and said] ‘this isn’t about me or my health. I want you to do what you need to do,’ and that’s what would make her happy. She actually passed away as I was finishing high school but I think she was there all along throughout the journey.
HR: What do you hope people take away from your story?
Lee: I don’t even know how it started. Ever since I can remember I loved drawing and I loved watching cartoons. And I loved the characters and the stories. I didn’t even know what being an animator was or how animation was made, but I just really felt like I needed to be part of that somehow. I took a very roundabout way to getting to the place where I could learn animation. I think it would be great for the audience to [know] it’s not one path. It’s something that’s possible and it’s possible in all these different ways. Sometimes it takes longer, sometimes it takes shorter. But there’s an excitement and hope in that.
HR: Is there something that would surprise people about animation?
Lee: The thing that usually surprises people the most is how long it takes. It does take a lot of work and a lot of time. When we’re doing our scenes we really want to make it the best quality as much as possible. In a whole week if we work really hard, we’re usually expected to do about two or three seconds of animation. Why it takes so long is because we do 24 frames per second and every one twenty fourth of a second we want the character to be portraying the moment and the emotion and the thought that they’re doing. So every single part of their eyelash or eyebrow or just the movement of their pupils. Or the corner of the mouth sometimes it’s just one pencil width higher or wider and that makes all the difference.
HR: How does it feel to be successful in a male-dominated field?
Lee: It’s definitely changed a lot in the recent years. I think the great part of it is that there’s so many more role models for people to look [up] to. And there’s a lot more ways in which we can highlight the diversity in the studio. It’s helpful to have a role model so you can feel like, oh there’s someone like me in the spot where I’d love to be and that means maybe I can get there too. These days I don’t feel much of an imbalance anymore. So I think it’s going to get more diverse and to the point where we don’t really have to wonder and worry about that anymore. It’s always onwards and upwards.
We also spoke with story animator Gabby Capili who appears in Sketchbook‘s first episode, so be sure to check out that interview as well! Sketchbook is now streaming all six episodes on Disney+.