The new Disney+ original series, Sketchbook, is an educational documentary that takes us through the process and stories of some of the storytellers who brought our favorite characters to life at Walt Disney Animation Studios.
Each of the six episodes dives into the story of a different artist as they teach us how to draw an iconic Disney character of their choice. And one of those creators is Hyun Min Lee.
Lee mainly grew up in Seoul, South Korea, but also lived in Hong Kong and Malaysia for a few years. Eventually, she went to the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) and was recruited by the animation studio in 2007 as part of 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 his animation process and who was and is his main driving force. Below are some highlights from our chat, and be sure to watch the full video interview at the end of the article!
Interview with Hyun Min Lee Disney Sketchbook
*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 among the characters I wanted to draw. I think Olaf is kind of the quintessential character that symbolizes the way we work and make our movies at Disney. In the movie, he’s a snowman and made up of these snow particles, but he’s also a combination of Anna and Elsa’s love and memories rolled into one being so to speak. It was created by the directors who proposed it, Bill Schwab who did the original design for it, and then I was able to participate in the design process of this new version (in Frozen 2). And also Josh Gad who did his voice so brilliantly and all the animators. It is made up of all the love and hard work. It’s kind of like a mixture of all our little souls in a way. I like that he means it.
HR: How is your character creation process going?
Li: Often I do the eyes and the faces, definitely a focal part. I start by trimming them very slightly. I always like to use a red or blue colored pencil. This is always a great way to rough out the whole pose because it’s not just the face, but the full body figure and pose should really sing the emotion the character is feeling at the moment.
HR: Can you immediately visualize a character or are you more influenced by the voice actor?
Li: It’s definitely a mix. There is always a good starting point because we have the voice recorded by the actors, but we also have the storyboard which is drawn for this scene by the storyboard artist. And then there’s also this meeting called the show for the facilitators and that’s where we’re assigned a certain plan. The directors are going to go through it with us and tell us how the character feels, how important this shot is in the film. We take all that with us and then we start listening to the voice recording, we listen to it a thousand times at least I feel like it! And so when I do that often, I start by making little drawings that 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 will be a page where there will be tiny Olafs. Sometimes I’ll play it in front of the mirror.
HR: I need a video of you performing your scenes.
Li: I put them in a secret folder so no one can see them hopefully!
HR: What got you on the path to animation and how did you come to Disney?
Lee: I started out loving drawing and cartoons and my mom introduced me to a lot of Disney feature films and I loved watching them. And there were also these little specials that I was watching that were behind the scenes of some of the filming of the movies and I said, ok I want to do this. I started by saying ok, in college I’ll study astronomy and then I’ll do my drawings on the side.
My mom thought it would be fun but [she said] “I think you should pursue what you really want to do.” There weren’t many big animation programs in Korea and the art education was very traditional, but now there are a lot of big animation schools. But at the time there weren’t any and my mum thought ‘you like Disney, we should go to the States and see if that gives you a better head start and [help you] do the things you love.
Finally I got to CalArts, then I met some really great teachers, and then all of a sudden it became a crash course in everything I wanted to learn. I really got lucky. So when I was preparing to graduate from CalArts in 2007, that’s when Disney said “oh, we’re restarting the talent development program.” I think it was my dream come true where I was able to apply and get accepted. It was a weird moment when I wanted this for so long and felt like it got away from me, but suddenly it all clicked into place.
HR: You finally got there! And I know that was largely because of your mother.
Li: She loved that I drew and pursued art. In Korea, often, if you have very 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 do it”. There was a time in high school when I [told her], you know what I don’t want to go to America, I don’t want to be away from you. Your health is not good. And she actually got mad [and said] ‘It’s not about me or my health. I want you to do what you have to do,” and that would make her happy. She actually died when I was graduating from high school, but I think she was there the whole trip.
HR: What do you hope people take away from your story?
Li: I don’t even know how it started. As far back as 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 it was to be an animator or how animation was done, but I really felt like I needed to be a part of it somehow. I took a very circuitous route to get to where I could learn animation. I think it would be great for the public to [know] it is not a path. It is something that is possible and it is possible in all these different ways. Sometimes it takes longer, sometimes it takes less time. But there is an excitement and a hope in that.
HR: Is there anything that would surprise people in animation?
Li: What usually surprises people the most is how long it takes. It takes a lot of work and a lot of time. When we make our scenes, we really want to make them as high quality as possible. In a whole week, if we work really hard, we’re usually expected to do about two or three seconds of animation. The reason it takes so long is because we’re doing 24 frames per second and every twenty-fourth of a second we want the character to represent the moment and the emotion and the thought that they’re doing. So every part of their eyelashes or eyebrows or just the movement of their pupils. Or the corner of the mouth sometimes it’s just a pencil width higher or wider and that makes all the difference.
HR: How does it feel to be successful in a male-dominated field?
Li: It has certainly changed a lot in recent years. I think the big part of it is that there are so many more role models for people to follow. [up] for. And there are many more ways to showcase diversity in the studio. It’s helpful to have a role model so you can tell yourself, oh there’s someone like me where I’d like to be and maybe that means I can get there too. These days, I don’t feel much 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 it anymore. It is always forward and upward.
We also spoke with story animator Gabby Capili who appears in Sketchbook‘s first episode, so don’t forget to watch this interview as well! Sketchbook Now streaming all six episodes on Disney+.