Natalie Nourigat is a Story Artist at Walt Disney Animation Studios whose talents can be seen in Ralph Breaks the Internet. She created and directed her first short film Exchange Student, based on a childhood experience. Now streaming on Disney+ as part of the Short Circuit experimental films program, I had the chance to interview Natalie about her project during a recent visit to the studio in Burbank.
Alex: Without much dialogue, Exchange Student tells a powerful story that I think anyone who’s ever been in a school setting can relate to. What do you hope audiences take away from the short?
Natalie Nourigat: I feel like I came around to an understanding late in life that it’s very difficult when you don’t speak the language that everyone else is speaking and in the US, that’s a lot of people. I hope that kids who watch this, younger than me, will understand that it’s not enough to just be nice to everybody, to not bully people. It would be even better if they could reach out and introduce themselves to a new kid or invite them to play, sit next to them, ask them if they understand what’s going on in class, and just reach out in that way.
Alex: You chose a cel shaded look for the film. Can you talk about the decision behind that?
Natalie: I come from comics. I grew up watching 2D animation, I love both of them. Big, flat, graphic cel shaded, I eat it up. I was so excited to get to do a look like that at Disney. We have the benefit of incredible 3D animation, get to use our 3D animators here, but still use that final look that’s reminiscent of 2D.
Alex: In the intro, you talked about your background in comics and the color scheme of Exchange Student almost seems like what you might find in print when a printer doesn’t have the full range of colors. Was that part of the design conceit?
Natalie: I really love that style of animation that used watercolor backgrounds and cel shaded characters. So our backgrounds are fairly washed out and our characters get to be saturated. I love that because they get to pop out of the backgrounds.
Alex: There’s a lot of diversity here at Disney Animation. A lot of the filmmakers have produced films with characters that sort of look like them in some way. With yours, you chose to make the main character a black girl. Can you talk about the discussions behind that and why it was important to you?
Natalie: Representation on film is so important and a lot of main characters in US animation are white. I’m white but that doesn’t mean that I only like white people on film. For this story, I wanted it to be somebody who represented all of us. That’s tough because there’s not one character design that’s going to represent all people on earth. I wanted it to be somebody who could stand in for all of us and when I saw these designs from our Character Designer Nick Orsi, she was so charming. She was so relatable, and she looked so great we decided to go with that one.
Alex: There’s so many options when creating extra terrestrial aliens. Were there any specific sources of inspiration for the creatures in this short?
Natalie: I guess the closest one that comes to mind for me is the Muppets, the “Yup, yup, yup, yup” aliens because ours go “Wop, wop, wop, wop, wop.” Something really cartoony. I really wanted to push everything pretty far in the sense of being broad. Their school looks just like a human school. The games that they play look pretty familiar and the only thing that’s different is there are these goopy slug aliens instead of people.
Alex: I went to a Catholic school that didn’t have a lot of money and the walls were a weird mint green that felt like it was available on the cheap. The colors of the school walls have a similar yellow quality. Was that something specific from your upbringing that informed the school’s colors?
Natalie: That’s interesting. No, I think a lot of the color choices for the interior came from Dan Cooper, who was a really great thought partner on this film and painted a lot of the backgrounds. We were trying to differentiate the three areas of Kayla’s world so there’s the dark spooky forest, there’s the bright happy playground, and there’s the interior, which we went kind of yellow green just to differentiate it from the other two color palettes. But that’s interesting, I also went to a Catholic school, something drab about it.
Alex: The forest has some man eating plants. Was that just for comedic effect or was there a bigger inspiration behind it?
Natalie: I definitely wanted it to feel like, well, we talked about The Sandlot in an earlier interview. Like over the fence, that’s the boundary between safe and not safe. Or Little Red Riding Hood, don’t go into the woods, there’s something bad in there, you don’t know what it is until it’s too late. I also liked Alice in Wonderland, the kind of living plants and the anthropomorphic flowers. Those were all sources of inspiration.
Alex: I’ve never seen this level of peer-to-peer mentorship and cheerleading anywhere else other than Disney Animation. What’s it like not only having this opportunity but getting to support your colleagues through their projects?
Natalie: It’s fantastic. Making a film is an incredible honor and privilege but getting to share it with other people and help each other and have support when we need it just makes it a lot more fun. It’s like in the hero’s journey, there’s a step where the hero defeats the villain or gains the kernel of truth or the item or whatever it is, but the story’s not complete until they take it back to their community and share it. It’s like that final step that just makes it so much sweeter. Here, we get to take it back to our community. Here’s the stuff that I learned on my film, carry the torch further than I could carry it.
Alex: Disney Animation used to be very much a boys club and women who played a key role never got the recognition or credit during their time. Today, we have a woman leading the studio. How do you think that will shape the future of Disney Animation?
Natalie: I just read the most incredible book, Queens of Animation. It’s really good and it actually uncovered a lot of women for me that I didn’t even know were here in the thirties and forties in the story department. It’s amazing now to be able to walk into a story room like Ralph Breaks the Internet and have fifty-fifty parody and be listened to and have your ideas accepted. It’s just enriching everything we do if we can include diverse voices in that.
Alex has been blogging about Disney films since 2009 after a lifetime of fandom. He joined the Laughing Place team in 2014 and covers films across all of Disney’s brands, including Star Wars, Marvel, and Fox, in addition to books, music, toys, consumer products, and food. You can hear his voice as a member of the Laughing Place Podcast and his face can be seen on Laughing Place’s YouTube channel where he unboxes stuff.