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Illustration of a dad and his two toddlers watching a movie screen together in the dark Ashlie Juarbe

What Two Toddlers and Nine Old Men Taught Me About Animation

Having children inspired me to aim for timelessness over trends.

Like many in my millennial generation, I grew up with a healthy dose of Disney magic. I remember bouncing along with King Louis in The Jungle Book, never wanting to grow up with Peter Pan, and following Pocahontas around the river bend. In 1995, animation would change forever with the film Toy Story. The technological achievements in 3D character animation and rendering set a new standard, a new aesthetic, and new possibilities for storytelling, which would continue to evolve from film to film.

Twenty five years and 3 Toy Story movies later, it’s 7am and my twin one-year-olds are having a meltdown. Why? Because why not? They’re twinfants. I, myself, am not yet dressed, certainly haven’t brushed my teeth, and already I’m resigned to the fact that breakfast for me is not happening. I need to get their breakfast ready before I leave for work, where I spend my days doing motion graphics design. So I do the one thing I know for a fact always calms them down: I turn on Coco.

Miguel and Hector from Disney’s “Coco” dance and sing before a cheering crowd. The animation is fun and light-hearted as the characters move with and ease and fluidity that personifies the importance of music in their lives.
Miguel and Hector from Disney’s “Coco” dance and sing before a cheering crowd. The animation is fun and light-hearted as the characters move with and ease and fluidity that personifies the importance of music in their lives.
García, Bernal G, Anthony Gonzalez, Benjamin Bratt, Darla K. Anderson, Lee Unkrich, Adrian Molina, and Matthew Aldrich. Coco, 2018.

Within seconds of hearing the Latin rendition of the Disney animation score, their wailing turns to awe as they wipe away their tears and focus on the story unfolding before them. They don’t understand the nuances of the relationship between Miguel and Hector, but all those years ago, did I really understand why Jafar craved power? It didn’t matter. We all get locked in for reasons that go beyond story, by the universal and unbiased qualities that lie at the heart of what makes great animation.

There is little debate about the important influence Disney animated films have had on western animation. Most significant are the practices and teachings of Disney’s Nine Old Men. This group of animators worked on the earliest Disney films, developing the personalities and characteristics for many of Disney’s most iconic characters including Mickey, Tinker Bell, Pinocchio, and Captain Hook. Perhaps the most enduring part of their legacy comes from a book published by two of the men, Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas, titled The Illusion of Life: Disney Animation. The book focuses on the foundational elements of Disney animation, most notably the Twelve Basic Principles of Animation.

Miguel rolls across the floor quickly. His limbs continue to follow and flail as he comes to rest. His guitar comes sliding in next to him before friction brings it to rest. Many of the principles the Walt Disney animation team developed are on display here.
Miguel rolls across the floor quickly. His limbs continue to follow and flail as he comes to rest. His guitar comes sliding in next to him before friction brings it to rest. Many of the principles the Walt Disney animation team developed are on display here.
García, Bernal G, Anthony Gonzalez, Benjamin Bratt, Darla K. Anderson, Lee Unkrich, Adrian Molina, and Matthew Aldrich. Coco, 2018.

These basic principles are more than just rules to be followed like in a technical manual. They are the most crucial aspects in defining a character’s personality and story. The way they move within their world gives them charisma, charm, menace, weight, bravado, or timidity. These qualities become more significant than even their written dialogue, as they inform the ways in which a character talks and interacts within their world. It’s DNA visualized.

Despite being published over 30 years ago, the animation principles still serve as the basis for much of animation and motion design today. As a motion-designer, when I watch Coco with my children, I am noticing the detail in the set design, the way the colors play an important role in representing the Latin culture, the design intricacy on the bones of the characters, and how thousands of characters are rigged and operated independently within a single scene, all amidst the carefully designed lighting that brings emotion and scale to the Land of the Dead.

Miguel, with his dog Dante, first gazes upon the Land of the Dead. He is in awe at the vast enormity and scale of the space which is bathed in hues of purple and dotted with the glow of yellow-orange lights. The intricate structures that make up the buildings evoke the feeling of a cave has been cut by centuries of rushing waters: random, complex, and everlasting.
Miguel, with his dog Dante, first gazes upon the Land of the Dead. He is in awe at the vast enormity and scale of the space which is bathed in hues of purple and dotted with the glow of yellow-orange lights. The intricate structures that make up the buildings evoke the feeling of a cave has been cut by centuries of rushing waters: random, complex, and everlasting.
García, Bernal G, Anthony Gonzalez, Benjamin Bratt, Darla K. Anderson, Lee Unkrich, Adrian Molina, and Matthew Aldrich. Coco, 2018.

My children aren’t seeing any of that, and yet, there they sit, at full attention, slight grins on their faces, assuring me of their enjoyment as I steal the time to prepare their scrambled eggs, strawberries, and avocado. And while the nuances within Disney Pixar’s technological, thematic, and cultural evolution can be appreciated, what truly connects me to the film is the same thing that connects my children: the animation.

Designers are constantly on the hunt for something “new,” “unique,” or “groundbreaking”. With every video I work on, I inevitably approach it with a mindset of “how can I do this differently?” But after 16-weeks of paternity leave I found myself reorienting my approach. I had always taken into account the audience and the client in my designs—and that has not changed— but now I have a new party to satisfy: my children. Connecting with them is not about innovation—it is about executing the basics as flawlessly as possible. This harkens back to a nostalgic past—one that, in the desire to be on the leading edge of a constantly shifting industry, often gets left behind. A realization has taken hold in me that all my work is part of a history beyond this moment, and will be passed down to my children. I want my work to be universal and accessible, communicating in a language that all can understand.

I have been back at work for about two months now, and since my return, I have begun to focus my work on the principals of animation that ‘The Nine Old Men’ began laying out almost a century ago. It took a pair of one-year-olds to remind me that the bells-and-whistles of “new” aren’t what make good good, and sometimes to design for the future we need to look back to the classics.

Miguel and his family (both living and dead) celebrate Dios de los Muertos in a house courtyard. He is playing his guitar jubilantly surrounded by his entire family, who lift him up upon their shoulders to his pure joy.
Miguel and his family (both living and dead) celebrate Dios de los Muertos in a house courtyard. He is playing his guitar jubilantly surrounded by his entire family, who lift him up upon their shoulders to his pure joy.
García, Bernal G, Anthony Gonzalez, Benjamin Bratt, Darla K. Anderson, Lee Unkrich, Adrian Molina, and Matthew Aldrich. Coco, 2018.

Louis is a motion designer at Vox Media working with Vox Creative. He lives in Rockaway Beach, NY with his wife, twins and pup Indy.

Very special thanks to Laura Holder whose edits are the only reason anyone can comprehend this, as well as Ashlie Juarbe for her incredible and personally heart-warming illustration.