Black Animator Thrives at Disney

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Though it took Disney decades to give the world an African-American princess, the company has been casting African-Americans in leading roles in its business for quite some time now.

One of those leaders, Marlon West, first went to Hollywood with a cartoon he created of an oxygen molecule walking through a forest of nose hairs. It was among the many scientific illustrations in his portfolio that he’d created at his first animation gig at Encyclopedia Britannica.

Now, two decades later, he can add the title of Supervisor of Special Effects to his resume after working on Disney’s latest animated movie, “Princess and the Frog.”

West was primarily responsible for translating the “magic” of the New Orleans-inspired story onto the big screen. From the sparkling fireflies and the glistening waters of the bayou to Disney’s signature pixie dust and the villain’s smoke-shooting fingertips, West orchestrated it all, integrating computer-generated special effects with good old-fashioned cartooning.

“I’m really proud that it has resonated with people and people like it,” said West, who is especially proud that kids in New Orleans took to the film. “Just to hear them laughing at it—to jokes that aren’t funny to me anymore because I’ve seen the movie 20 or 30 times by the time it came out—but to hear them laughing at it fresh or them being moved by what you did, it’s the whole reason any of us do any of this stuff.”

When discussing the film, West is modest about the magnitude of his role and credits his team and their creativity.

“I am always delighted when someone comes up with something I didn’t think of,” he said. “I know that scene had to be cool, and what I had in my mind was cool, but what [some of the other animators] did was really cool, so it’s really nice when people come up with something you didn’t think of. I’m exceedingly proud of the movie and all our efforts on it.”

With 17 years with Disney under his belt, West hopes to keep creating magic for children and adults around the world. He’s looking forward to the Spring 2011 release of a new Winnie the Pooh movie under his supervision currently in the production phase—even if there’s not a lot of glitz and glamour to his new assignment.
“Winnie doesn’t have any bling,” said West. “This is really a throwback version of Winnie the Pooh—the leaves are blowing [and] he gets into some honey and some mud puddles and things like that, but no sparkle. He’ll just be handling the sticky situations.”