Jennifer Lee Clark Spencer

The creative director of Disney Animation opens up about the evolution of the studio, the Disney+ revolution and what Spider-Man: Next Generation has changed in the industry.

At the beginning of the week in Annecy, we discovered the first very impressive images of Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse. How the first film, new generation, with its style that was unlike anything else, created a jolt among major animation studios? Did it challenge preconceived ideas about what the public would accept, visually speaking?
Jennifer Lee 🙁Laughs.) We really like what they’ve done visually, it almost looks like hand-drawn animation, even though there’s a lot of 3D here. And at Disney, we are open to everything. However, we will not launch a project on the basis of visual style alone: ​​what matters is finding the look that best suits each film. That said, I think the future is a mix between 2D and 3D. Here: recently, we made this very beautiful short film, Far from the tree, which almost looks like a watercolor painting. This technology was developed specifically for this film and now we have it in stock. Which means that if we need it for another film, we can use it and make it evolve further.

Clark Spencer: Honestly everyone was excited by the first visuals ofAcross the Spider-Verse and what offered new generation. But as Jen says, we let the directors decide what story they want to tell and how they want to tell it. Because if we start to launch projects only thought out on the basis of a technique, and then we look for the story, we will irremediably crash. So we’re not saying that we couldn’t try something like that visually, but we’re not going to force a visual style just for fun. It has to correspond to the scenario and the emotions that the team of designer production and the director want to pass. Disney is constantly evolving and there are so many projects in the works, I’m sure audiences will be very excited for what’s coming out of the studio in the near future.

Jennifer, you became Creative Director of Walt Disney Animation Studios in 2018, four years ago. And since an animated film takes years to see the light of day, I imagine that we will only just begin to see the effects of your leadership.
JL: You are right. I remember when I got this job, the teamEncanto had just returned from a scouting trip and was in the early stages of writing the script, even though the concept for the film was already there. Avalonia, the strange journey was just getting started… The thing is, these are people I’ve been working with for ten years, even before I became creative director. It’s not like I landed in unknown territory! What I particularly wanted to develop was the collaboration between people who have a lot of experience and have been at Disney for decades, and young talent. It’s something that has always been in Disney’s DNA, but that I wanted to reinforce. Some artists only started working with us in 2019 or 2020. Their stories are coming soon, and I can’t wait for you to see what they’re up to.

During the Disney presentation in Annecy, you talked a lot about inclusiveness and diversity within the studio… Do you think that the fact that you are a woman, in an environment traditionally led by men, already sends a message?
JL: In my opinion, it goes beyond being a woman. I am not the only one with a position of responsibility at Disney. But the lack of women in key positions in animation – and I’m not talking only about us – may have been a problem in the past. So I think it inspires others, it sends a clear message to them: you can do it too. What was important to me when I got this job was being able to tell stories that come from all over the world, with different voices and points of view. Disney should be a place where you belong, where you connect with others. The fact that I am in this position certainly facilitates this aspect. And it will only continue: our story trust has never been so diverse and so strong. We challenge each other, respectfully, but shamelessly (Laughter.) And our different points of view add up. I had never seen this in my professional life until a few years ago. It’s palpable.

ANNECY FESTIVAL/T. jaffre

For just under three years, you have had to simultaneously manage the industrial and philosophical revolution that is Disney+. As you have to constantly feed the beast, do you see Disney+ productions as slightly less important than feature films?
CS: Oh no, not at all. From the beginning, it was made clear that Walt Disney Animation Studios is a brand, and that it should not be damaged in any way. The message sent to all the teams was clear: the animation must be at the level of feature films. Otherwise, it was going to backfire on us in the long run. On the other hand, you have to imagine stories that don’t cost as much in terms of environments. But that doesn’t stop anything, just be smart. And then we all realized very quickly that it was a great testing ground if we were tackling new licenses. Visually of course, but also in terms of pure production and technology. Impossible to do that for a long time! In addition, we learn a new form of storytelling with the series. And that gives us the opportunity to put young talents to work who are very, very hungry (Laughter.) It’s the perfect place to grow an artist, rather than jumping straight into features that are obviously very big and very complex to make. So to sum up: we absolutely have to develop as a company, and it’s not by making one or two films a year that we can really get there.

JL: And I will add that before, other branches of Disney dealt with series or releases direct to video. And it changes everything that series like Baymax and Zootopia+ be made “at home”. The directors of the films from which these series are inspired are at the head of the projects, they have a say in the artistic direction. And that is unprecedented in the history of Disney. They would never let anyone hurt their babies!

How is the collaboration with Pixar going today?
JL: With Pete Docter, who is my counterpart at Pixar, we see each other every month. But that’s not enough: the two companies show each other their projects in the early stages of development, even when nothing is animated yet. It’s a way to avoid having ideas that are too similar, but also to give each other feedback. We are always takers of a good remark! So we share ideas and technologies, but the limit is our talents. What defines us, what sets the tone for Disney and Pixar, are our respective directors. They have theirs, we have ours. We do not overlap, but we consider that we are part of the same family. It’s healthy competition.

CS: When Disney acquired Pixar, Bob Iger assured that the two studios would remain independent of each other. It was a very important decision that not everyone would have taken. With hindsight, it was a brilliant idea since it actually pushes us, each in our corner, to develop our own identity and our own corporate culture. If we had merged, Disney would be a totally different company and in my opinion, we would not be as strong as being separated from Pixar.

Impossible to leave you without wondering about the fact thatAvalonia, the strange journey will not be released in theaters in France but only on Disney+. Do you understand the outcry of French operators, and how do you choose which film will be deprived of cinema?
JL: I wish I could answer that question, but unfortunately our work is only about the creative aspect. This decision was made for us. The world of distribution is a kind of parallel universe for me, I don’t know anything about it. And all we can do is go back to work and keep working on the movie. We only know how to do that. Obviously, we have a commitment to cinemas, but we also have a commitment to Disney+… What I can tell you is that we want as many people as possible to have access to our films, and that the quality will not vary if a film is shown in theaters or on our platform. But we have the deepest respect for the opinions that are expressed. We listen to everything that is said on the subject, and obviously, it affects us.

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