While it only started as a summer job for Maria Gonzalez when she was a teenager, animation soon became her true passion in life.
Gonzalez, who moved to the U.S. from Madrid, Spain with her family at the age of seven, actually wanted to become an orthopedic surgeon. Her father, who worked as an animator, helped get her a position painting cels while she was still in high school.
“It’s funny because there are four kids in my family and we all seem to have inherited some kind of artistic inclination,” Gonzalez told me during a phone interview. “But I really liked medicine and wanted to be a doctor.”
Gonzalez continued her animation work while she studied biology at Cal State Northridge. When she earned her undergraduate degree, she decided she was enjoying animation too much to let it go and pursue a full-time career in medicine.
In 1989, Gonzalez joined the Walt Disney team for her very first full-length feature animated film, “Oliver and Company.” Since then, she has worked with Disney on different occasions over her 20-year animation career including on movies such as “The Little Mermaid,” “Pocahontas,” and “Hercules.”
Most recently, Gonzalez returned to Disney after five years to lead the animation team in charge of color styling and compositing for the new film “The Princess and the Frog.” This is Disney’s first 2-D hand-drawn animated film since 2004’s “Home on the Range,” which Gonzalez also contributed.
During our interview, Gonzalez talked about what her role as the Head of Color Styling and Compositing entails and why she thinks there is still room for 2-D animation in a medium dominated by computer-generated films.
What does it mean to be the Head of Color Styling and Compositing?
We get all the final color elements for the backgrounds and characters and do lighting for them and merge them all together so they can be in the same world. We work very closely with the art directors to set up the scenes.
How many people were on your team?
I had a crew of 10 stylists. Some of the people I had worked previously with at Disney.
What kinds of cartoons would you watch in Madrid before you came to the U.S.?
We used to watch “The Flintstones” a lot. When I first arrived to America and I saw the show I didn’t like the voices [in English] because they didn’t seem like the right ones to me. Fred wasn’t talking like Fred. I’ve always enjoyed the Disney classics, too. I saw “Snow White” and “Bambi” when I was a little kid. The first time I saw “Mary Poppins” it was in Spanish.
This is Disney’s first 2-D feature film in five years. Do you still think this type of animation can compete with 3-D?
I’ve always believed there is room for both. It’s such a different medium. What you can achieve with 2-D is very difficult to achieve with 3-D. The way we generate the artwork and what we do with it is just very different from 3-D. I think you can tell compelling stories with both. It was very exciting for me to come back to Disney and bring my experience. I had worked with these directors [Ron Clements and John Musker] before and really enjoyed the process. What I do is a blend of artistic and technical work. Technically, what I do is not very different from 3-D when it comes to lighting.
A lot of emphasis has been put on the fact that this is the first African American princess in Disney’s history. As an animator, did you think about how groundbreaking that was during your work?
It was very exciting, but to me it’s about the entire story and how it evolved more so than focusing on the heritage of the heroine. I just thought it was very clever how everyone put the whole story together and how all the characters interacted with each other.
As someone with a Spanish background, were there any animated characters that you could relate to as a child?
Thinking back, I identified with Snow White a lot because she had dark hair. I would say you could identify with any of the [Disney] princesses, if allow yourself to get caught up in their story. I never thought about how blond and white they were. All little girls identified with wanting to find Prince Charming.