Character sketches plaster the walls of a Cal State Fullerton alumnus’ office in the Walt Disney Animation Studios in Burbank.
Wayne Unten, 34, leans forward in his chair and points out the variations of lines and creases on the face of a 3-D model of Elsa, the ice queen, from Disney’s upcoming feature Frozen. Unten uses human body language, like the way someone’s lips and eyebrows to reveal how a character is feeling, which he translates into his animation.
“Even this little line that people don’t even think about, it means a lot,” Unten said.
The Disney animation supervisor is responsible for helping create characters like Elsa, Bolt and Ralph from Wreck-it Ralph.
Growing up, he related to characters in movies such as The Iron Giant (1999) and Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989). These films sparked his interest in animation.
While taking general education classes at Cal State Long Beach, Unten thought about transferring to CSUF to pursue animation.
His parents supported the decision, but were unsure about the job security as an art major.
He lived in Torrance at the time and had to weigh the costs of transferring to a new school.
“It was me that was saying, ‘This is what I want to do, but I can’t because its too big of a dream,’” Unten said.
When Unten transferred to CSUF, he was met with other students who acquired the same passion for animation as he did.
Unten joined the Pencil Mileage Club, where animators and illustrators discuss their common interest, and met fellow artists whom he’s still friends with. It is this club where Unten also met his wife, Eren.
Although Unten’s field of study was traditional hand-drawn animation, he also delved into computer generated animation. He formed a small clique of dedicated animators who brought their computer towers and monitors to campus everyday and worked on their craft in the computer labs.
“The guys would design these slings that they would put over their shoulder and walk around with this giant CPU,” Dana Lamb, CSUF Professor in Entertainment Art & Animation, said.
Lamb described Unten as a natural talent and an animator who had the “whole package.” His creative ideas matched up to his drawing and animation skills.
“An animator can be good at some things, but you rarely find someone who’s good at all of the things,” Lamb said.
While attending CSUF, Unten took a class on Maya, an animation and model program used to render 3-D motional effects. After finishing the program, it wasn’t enough. He wanted to learn more.
After graduating, Unten spent his days working with his father doing construction. At night, he would read an archaic book on 3-D modeling and rigging.
Unten said the experience he gained learning the basics of rigging helped him be more expressive with his animation and eventually led him to getting his job at Disney.
“I feel any experience, as long as you’re learning, it will eventually help you in the end,” Unten said.
Unten took up an apprenticeship under Disney animator, John Ripa, who was behind the animation of characters like Quasimodo from The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Pocahontas and Tarzan.
For nine months, Unten picked up skills under Ripa’s expertise, who learned under Glen Keane animation supervisor for Fox and the Hound, Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid.
Knowledge is passed down from “generation to generation.” Keane apprenticed under Ollie Johnston (Fantasia, Pinocchio, Peter Pan), who apprenticed under Fred Moore (Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Dumbo, Alice in Wonderland).
Since his humble beginnings with 2007’s Meet the Robinsons, Unten constantly learns from the world that surrounds him.
He takes these observations and translates them into his art, whether its emulating his dog’s personality into the animated character Bolt or learning about pixel art to understand how an 8-bit character like Ralph should move.
In his latest animation, Frozen, as part of his research, Unten traveled to Wyoming to study its snowfall. He also watched videos to observe the mannerisms of royalty to portray the film’s ice queen, Elsa.
But when the movie releases in theaters November, Unten said his job isn’t to make the audience notice small details like the subtle facial animations.
“There are going to be a lot of people crying in this one,” Unten said. “Good tears, good tears.”