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Enjoy Magazine

In Good Character

04/01/2010 02:16PM ● By Emily Miranda

Story by Kerri Regan


He’s one of Hollywood’s most widely recognized actors, but you won’t find the paparazzi stalking him on Oscar night.

In “The Lion King,” Russ Edmonds brought the newborn cub Simba to life, when Rafiki lifted him up for all the kingdom to see at Pride Rock. He created Prince Naveen the frog, Stella the dog and Marcel the cat in Disney’s latest blockbuster, “Princess and the Frog.” His characters are household names to anyone who has watched a Disney movie in the past 20 years.

Yet unlike the movie stars who lend their voices to these characters, this acclaimed animator enjoys relative anonymity at his ranch near Red Bluff, where he and his wife, Angela, operate Edmonds Studios.

Russ accumulated numerous film credits for Walt Disney Animation Studios in the 1980s and 1990s, giving life to characters that included Max in “The Little Mermaid,” horse Philippe in “Beauty and the Beast,” mother lion Sarabi in “The Lion King” and mother ape Kala in “Tarzan.” But in 2003, Disney disbanded its hand-drawing animation team and started using computer-generated animation. Fortunately for Edmonds, that philosophy was reversed for “Princess and the Frog” – “they brought the old guard back in to make this film,” Angela says.

Hand drawing lends magic to a movie that simply can’t be replicated by a computer, Russ says. “It’s what made the company, from Mickey Mouse on up,” he says, adding that when he went back into the studio, “I couldn’t even find a pencil sharpener.”

“Princess and the Frog” involved about 40 rough animators who have to “draw and think alike,” Russ says. “They give us a storyboard panel and say, ‘Here, we want you to make them act.’ They call us actors with a pencil.”

Edmonds has to create 24 rough drawings for every second of film. “It’s definitely a lot of pencil mileage,” Angela says. His tool of choice is a turquoise Sanford 4B pencil, and he goes through “handfuls” for each film.

It’s an animator’s job to ensure that every character is completely believable. Mouths must synchronize perfectly with the words they’re speaking, facial expressions must convey the right emotion, movements must be so authentic that the viewer believes the character is alive. Edmonds studied ape anatomy in depth to create the mother for “Tarzan.” When making “Beauty and the Beast,” he took horseback lessons to become familiar with how Philippe’s body should behave. “You have to understand how they move and their bone structure,” Russ says.

These equine studies led the Edmondses to the North State. Riding lessons evolved into horse ownership (“it was my angle for getting a horse,” Angela admits), and they became involved in the equestrian sport of cutting. They came up north for shows periodically, and they ended up buying 140 acres west of Red Bluff, where they built a house that’s designed especially for the work they do. The Australian ranch house is wired for computers in every room, and it’s set up so they can hang eight-foot panels on the walls when they’re in the midst of a project. A built-in drawing table sits in the middle of the great room. Eight dogs and eight horses keep them company.

At Edmonds Studios, the couple does animation for other studios, individuals, small businesses and advertisers. They’re also working together to animate some of Angela’s oil paintings. Angela, who began her career as a layout artist for Walt Disney Feature Animation, is an impressionist painter of animals. “We want to see if we can make them come to life,” Russ says. They’ll show the results at the Red Bluff Art Gallery in July.

Living on a rural ranch can pose some interesting challenges for moviemakers, like the time they walked out to the pasture and found a horse shaking a FedEx box full of original drawings in its teeth. “It grounds you. Life goes on,” says Angela, who, like her husband of 20 years, attended California Institute of the Arts.

They frequently travel between the Red Bluff ranch and their apartment in Burbank, which Russ describes as a “computer lab with a drawing board and a bed.” Down in Southern California, he’s working on an excerpt from “Princess and the Frog” for the Oscars, and his next major project is a “Winnie the Pooh” movie featuring the original Pooh character, “when he was just a stuffed animal who had very little brain,” Russ says. “Older people are going to remember him.” The film is planned for release next spring.

Reflecting on the characters that he has brought to life, Edmonds says he’s partial to Phoebus, the love interest in “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” – “a lot of me came out in him” – for which he was nominated for the 1996 Annie Award for “Outstanding Individual Achievement for Animation.”

He also has a soft spot in his heart for Oliver and Dodger from “Oliver and Co.,” which was his “first time to step up and be an animator.” Another favorite is sheepdog Max from “The Little Mermaid.” “We bought a sheepdog cross because of him,” Russ says.

“I can’t believe all these characters have come to life,” Russ says.

Adds Angela: “It’s all magic, and that’s how it’s supposed to be.” Illustrations courtesy of Edmonds Studios, © DISNEY