Marlon West can’t remember a time he wasn’t interested in film, and animation, in particular. After graduating University City High School, he attended Columbia College in Chicago, where he studied film and writing, then moved on to animate Encyclopedia Brittanica films, a Beastie Boys music video and even Michael Jackson’s "California Raisins" commercial.
Now, he is the head of effects animation at Walt Disney Animation Studios. That means he is in charge of the animation of any non-character elements in a movie, such as fire or rain. West has worked on such films as “The Lion King,” “Tarzan,” “The Princess and the Frog,” the Academy Award-winning “Frozen” and a myriad other feature and short-length animated films for Disney.
This week, West will get to visit his mom back in University City as he comes to town to receive an award from Cinema St. Louis at the St. Louis International Film Festival, the Charles Guggenheim Award, for his contributions to the industry.
At 7:30 p.m., Thursday, West will give a behind-the-scenes look at his latest work on “Moana,” Disney’s newest animated feature coming out Nov. 23.
The animation industry has changed significantly since West started at Disney in 1993, when his first eight films involved hand-drawn effects animation. Now, the majority of his work is done through computer graphic animation.
“When it shifted completely, it was a big change in the studio. Relatively few of us were willing and able to make the shift from hand-drawn to CG,” West said. “As an effects artist, it was easier for us because you don’t see our artwork the way you see character animation. Our drawings are always blurred; it was about getting pretty pixels on the screen.”
Most animated films are on a five-year production schedule. In the first years, there is a skeleton crew working on research, writing, storyboarding and general prep for the final year of production, where hundreds of animators converge on a film to make it come to life.
“All animation is creating something one frame at a time that doesn’t exist in the real world,” West said. “You make a product more complicated and it doesn’t become much faster. Our films become much richer looking and the level of realism and complexity that you get on screen catches right up with the time you’d be saving by using a computer.”
In the case of “Moana,” West saw a challenge like he had never seen before: hundreds of scenes set on the open ocean. Normally, West said, you would animate a few dozen scenes featuring water in a Disney movie.
The film is set in present-day Tahiti and features the story of a young woman, Moana, who comes from a seafaring people and must embark on a journey across the ocean to save her people. Animating the ocean and large-scale lava scenes were the biggest challenges of the film, West said, because the water itself is a character in the movie.
West said he has been proud to work on Disney movies that “do right by their people,” referring specifically to the amount of research that went into researching Tahitian culture.
And for those of you wondering, we did ask about the big animation mysteries of our time: just how many “Easter Eggs,” hidden messages or character references, does West get to put in the films he works on?
West said that there were far too many moving parts in most of the films he animated for shady subliminal messages to be implanted into the film, but he did admit to a few character “Easter Eggs” he is proud of. You’ll have to listen to the full interview to find out which ones:
What: Behind the Scenes of Disney’s Moana
When: 7:30 p.m., Thursday
Where: Webster University’s Moore Auditorium, 470 E Lockwood Ave., Webster Groves
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