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Disney Animator Offers Behind-the-Scenes Glimpse of Making Magic

Darrin Butters talked about what goes into making animated films on Wednesday, November 7, in the Bordy Theater. Photo/Grace Cooper ’19
By Hannah Lacava, G’19

Darrin Butters, who worked as an animator on Disney blockbusters Tangled, Frozen, and Zootopia, gave students an inside look at the soon-to-be-released Ralph Breaks the Internet Wednesday, November 7, in the Bill Bordy Theater.

Butters, who was hired by Disney in 1997, spoke at length about the process that went into making Disney’s follow-up to 2012’s Wreck It Ralph, which takes place inside the Internet itself.

“We had to ask ourselves, ‘How are we going to make our animated version of the Internet feel like the real Internet?’” Butters said of the animation team’s early conversations.

“Research is key to the richness and believability of Disney films,” Butters continued. “As part of our research for Ralph Breaks the Internet, we visited a building that houses millions of Internet connections. It was just miles and miles of wires and thousands of boxes. This began to inspire our vision of what the Internet would look like.”

Butters illustrated his discussion with exclusive clips from the film, which received a positive response from students.

“I was a huge fan of the first movie,” said Grace Cooper ’19, a Media Arts Production major. “So it was awesome to see the clips, but it was even more special to have the context Mr. Butters was able to provide.”

Butters also provided insights into the animation process at large.

“Animators start by receiving a storyboard that’s cut together with the voice actors’ dialogue,” he said. “All of the voice acting is completed before animators start their work. Some animators jump right in, but I prefer to shoot video references.”

A “video reference” refers to a short video in which the animator acts out the scene his or herself and films it. This is one arena where Butters’ multifaceted creative background comes into play.

“When I was growing up, I did magic, I did small town theatre, and I did puppetry,” shared Butters. “In all of these, you’re transporting people to another world through your performance; you’re creating an illusion. These skills come together perfectly in animation.”

As it turns out, it was Butters multifaceted background, not his self-taught animation skills, that landed him a job at Disney.

“The guy who interviewed me was the director of Dinosaur,” Butters said. “He looked at my animation demo and was kind of like, ‘Yeah, you can do animation. But your background in ventriloquism and theatre and juggling and magic, this is something that we can’t teach. It looks like you have something you want to show an audience.’ And that’s what got me in.”

Throughout his time working for the animation giant, Butters developed a niche for himself.

“I’ve become one of the guys they go to for a funny button on the end of the scene,” said Butters. “Like in Tangled when Flynn Rider says ‘He’s a bad horse!’ That was me.

Butters also spoke to the teamwork that goes into every Disney project.

“I do the funny stuff, but we also have cuteness experts, or people who specialize in scenes that make you cry, or people with dance backgrounds who do dancing scenes, and so on.”

Students were inspired by Butters’ story. Comedic Arts major Hannah Mittermeier ’21 especially related to the animator’s eclectic background.

“I’ve dabbled in a lot of crafts throughout my life, and my main fear has always been that I wouldn’t be able to hone that into one thing,” said Mittermeier. “But [Butters’] story proved to me that I can cite all of those skills in an interview and it might actually get me a job.”

For others, the animation process itself was of particular interest.

“As someone who’s really interested in writing and acting in the animation world, it was interesting to hear about what goes into every single part of creating a piece.” said Comedic Arts major Brandon Ratcliff ‘ 20. “I never knew that animators themselves acted out scenes. It’s funny because even if voice actors or writers have their own vision of it, it’s true that they’re not the ones who end up drawing it.”

For those eager to catch a glimpse of Butters’ latest work, Ralph Breaks the Internet hits theaters this Thanksgiving.



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