“Never give up and never stop learning. The animation industry is competitive, but if you truly love what you do and you’re willing to put in the time and effort, I do strongly believe that you will get a break.” — Kira Lehtomaki, Animation Supervisor, Disney's Zootopia
by Marciana Romero '17
Recently I, a sophomore design student at Cornish, was given an amazing opportunity: to attend a special presentation on the animation in Disney’s new movie, Zootopia — as well as conduct an interview with Animation Supervisor Kira Lehtomaki. Kira Lehtomaki has a bit of a fairy tale story herself. At the age of five she was inspired by Disney’s Sleeping Beauty and knew she wanted to be a “draw-er” for them when she grew up. That was a dream she didn’t let go of her entire life, and it paid off. She now works alongside people she’s admired for years and has worked on Bolt, Tangled, Wreck-It-Ralph, Paperman, Frozen and now as an animation supervisor for the main character of Zootopia.
Two other student journalists and I stayed behind after the presentation and had a little round table with her, asking our questions one by one. I prepared a few questions for her focused on the path to becoming an animator, even asking a few fellow students I knew were interested in the career about questions they had individually regarding the animation industry.
Do you think there was anything unconventional you did or any part of your portfolio that helped you get to where you are?
Kira Lehtomaki: I do feel like having a well rounded education is really great. Doing that is very important because you get the idea of “I like animation” or “I like modeling” or “I like character design.” So you have an idea of what part of the pipeline you like to do, because there are so many jobs.
What are some of the biggest struggles that you’ve found yourself having to overcome to get to your place as an animation supervisor?
KL: When I got to Disney I came in as a trainee… and then I was a fix animator on Bolt … and that was a really great job because that developed my eye for animation. I was framing through professional animators work looking for all these little details. Honestly I could not see what was wrong with them at first, and slowly I started to be able to see that. So I did that, and then I was promoted to be an animator on Tangled, and again everybody in leadership doesn’t care if you’re a trainee or a veteran animator. They give everybody a chance. So they gave me these wonderful opportunities on Tangled and I got some really key scenes on that movie. Then my work on that got me really great scenes on Wreck-It Ralph and on Frozen, and then I was asked to be an animation supervisor. So I feel like had very much a fairy tale career at Disney. I have no complaints and… I mean the work is very hard and there’s a lot of hours that are put into it, but I didn’t feel like there was ever an obstacle to me becoming a supervisor. I felt like everybody was presenting me with the opportunities to succeed.
Before making it to Disney, Kira Lehtomaki spent time doing computer science, because that’s where the future of animation seemed like it was going at the time. That ended up being true, and even though it was a struggle, she felt it really helped her to know the technical side of things. One thing she really emphasized while I was talking to her is that not everybody’s path is going to be the same. She even told me that one of the head animators used to be a plumber. She said not to worry about not being the place you think you should be at this point in your life, because every experience you have will help you in your ability to be an animator. I followed these ideas with a question I thought might resonate with a lot of aspiring animators.
A lot of aspiring animators feel discouraged about how competitive the industry is, what’s some advice you’d give to people who felt like maybe that was out of reach for them?
(As she listens to this questions, Kira sighs compassionately, nods, and whispers softly, “Yeah… yeah.”)
KL: I would say never give up and never stop learning. The animation industry is competitive but if you truly love what you do, and you’re willing to put in the time and the effort, I do strongly believe that you will get a break. . . A lot of times we seek potential in people. A lot of times we’re in reviews for people that are applying to be trainees and we don’t always pick the people that have the most polished animation or the most beautiful work. Sometimes it’s the people who technically have areas to grow, but you see that entertainment. The most important thing, especially for being an animator, is that you want to know what the character is thinking and you want to have that entertainment value… so I would just say if you’re feeling like you’re being bogged down by all these other people that have all these beautiful reels and whatever, think about what makes you special and what kind of unique quality can you bring to your work, and sort of emphasize that in whatever portfolio or demo reel you have. Because the likelihood is that people will notice that and they will see that spark in it, and that is what will get you the job.