Visual Development Artist Jennifer Stratton made her directorial debut with Zenith, an animated short from Walt Disney Animation Studios’ Short Circuit program. During a recent visit to Disney Animation in Burbank, I had the opportunity to meet Jennifer and ask her about the inspiration behind her film.
Alex: What was it like being at D23 Expo and other film festivals where you got to watch an audience react to the grandeur of this short?
Jennifer Stratton: Especially at D23, I think because I was inspired so much by Fantasia, that that fan base was already kind of set to react to that. That was really exciting. It’s really amazing to show it to people outside of the studio because, of course we all work on films everyday so it becomes everyday life. So when you see people who don’t work in the industry, how they react to things and it still has that sense of magic to it, it makes you feel really good and it kind of helps set you back in the real world and what it’s like to see these films. It was really amazing.
Alex: Your film has amazing original music. Being Fantasia inspired, when you approached it were you looking at a particular classic piece?
Jennifer: I definitely had the musical soundtrack in mind since I pitched it. That was definitely going to be a main focus for me. I was in band growing up and there was a piece for Lord of the Rings that I played in a festival. When you’re playing in a band you’re surrounded by everyone else playing and it’s like you’re immersed in the music and it was a very grand, epic song. I definitely pointed my composer to that as well as I also like synthetic music. Movies that focus on outer space tend to use that a lot so that was a goal of ours was to figure out a way to combine that and use themes for each of the characters kind of combining that traditional instrumental sound with the more synthetic spacey sound.
Alex: Your short seems like a more technical film than other Short Circuit projects, especially having characters that are celestial beings and made of negative space. What was the inspiration and the concept behind that?
Jennifer: I definitely took a lot of my interests in life. I tend to watch a lot of documentaries and I grew up in an area where I was surrounded by nature and it was just a combination of all those things along with the music. I think I have always been so inspired by Fantasia and I really miss that we don’t do more experimental things like that. That was something I really wanted to do was just show off the imagery and take a risk with how we did that, do something different. I like to try to make things unique. I think it was just great combining my interests with the goal of that idea.
Alex: Was there one moment of Fantasia that this was born out of for you?
Jennifer: My favorite parts are the section with Chernabog where he was calling up the demons and it was just very abstract. Characters would transform into each other and the music went along with that part of the animation. I think I’ve kept that with me. I hadn’t watched Fantasia since I was little for a while and then I rewatched it and that was the part that stuck out to me the most and that I recalled the best.
Alex: The short doesn’t have a narrative per se, but at the end of it you feel something powerful. What was your intention for what the audience goes through?
Jennifer: I wanted to draw in the audience in the beginning. In the beginning I wanted to build the short up from a very small section of the character. It started out as a meteor and very low color, low lighting, and build upon that. Kind of be drawn in with the building up of the music and experience this build up of emotion and energy. And then when the black hole comes everything kind of gets crazy and then to have that end with the stag becoming part of the universe. I just wanted the audience to go on a journey with the character, feel that transition of emotion and energy throughout the film.
Alex: You have conscious opportunities to use color in a canvas that’s otherwise white specs. Can you talk about why you used the colors that are in the film?
Jennifer: We definitely looked to a lot of NASA imagery. We use a buildup of color to again show that transition throughout the short. I think a lot of it had to do with my Art Director, actually. I had certain images in mind and when he came on, the artwork he came back with was really vibrant and rich and that kind of shifted the short into a little bit different art direction in terms of color palette. Every step of the way, the shorts all change with everyone’s input. I think it just ended up working out really well to have all the colors to balance out that dark background.
Alex: There’s a famous art illusion of a young woman who becomes an old woman when turned upside down. With the black hole, depending on the shot I felt like I was seeing it differently. Sometimes it looked like the Phantom Blot with a hood on and other times it seemed like it was three dimensional beyond an area of light like a lion mane. Was that intentionally or did it happen organically?
Jennifer: I think it was partially intentional in that this character is supposed to evolve and grow throughout the short. We also did, just because of a technical challenge we faced in how we created the character. We had to create him in different parts and we had to shift how those sections all fit together per shot and just to get the angle the correct read. So the character doesn’t stay consistent because we had to move everything around per shot. So I think your view of the character will change throughout the short.
Alex: The collaboration of Walt Disney Animation Studios and the way you all seem to root for one another is very inspiring. What’s it like having your peers root for your success and then turning around to cheer on the next Short Circuit project?
Jennifer: I think all of the directors each round, we kind of share that experience, we form a bond and we are definitely there supporting each other. I had two former Short Circuit directors be mentors for me and so I kind of leaned on their experience and then I tried to do the same after I finished mine. Even now, we’re picking new ideas. I think it’s great, we want to share with them what we faced and try to help them avoid some of the issues that we came across. You feel so grateful for what everyone put into your film that you want to give some of that back.
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.