Drawing breath

Special to The Times

In Disney's current animated feature "Brother Bear," much of the dramatic action centers on Denahi (voice by Jason Raize), the Ice Age hunter who seeks revenge against the bear he believes killed his older and younger brothers. Animating Denahi was a difficult, unglamorous assignment -- humans are notoriously hard to animate, and the advertising for the film focused on Rutt and Tuke, the comic Moose brothers. But Ruben Aquino is used to tough tasks.

One of Disney's top animators, he brought life to the evil Ursula in "The Little Mermaid"; Maurice, Belle's dotty father in "Beauty and the Beast"; the adult Simba in "The Lion King"; Shang, the army leader in "Mulan"; and both David, the laid-back surfer, and Pleakley, the frenetic, one-eyed alien, in "Lilo and Stitch." The first five demanded careful observation, an exceptional knowledge of anatomy and subtle acting; for Pleakley, Aquino had to invent a walk and a run for a three-legged alien.

Despite this impressive body of work, the quiet Okinawa-born artist rarely appears in front of the camera. DreamWorks artist Pres Romanillos, who worked closely with Aquino when Aquino animated Shan Yu, the villain in "Mulan," notes that "because Ruben is soft-spoken and not someone who toots his own horn, people have tended to overlook him. Yet he ranks among the very top animators and draftsmen working today. Every character he's worked on has been solidly drawn and entertaining -- there's a sincerity to his animation that makes them very appealing."

Aquino has often been assigned to "straight" characters, who attract less attention than the villains and clowns. But effective animation of those characters, who generally serve as the spine of the story, demands careful observation and fine drawing. Aquino, who originally studied to be an architect ("my father didn't want me to be a starving artist"), talked about the challenges of animating his "Brother Bear" character in a recent phone interview from the Disney Studio in Florida.

"Denahi experiences a wide range of emotions: Initially, he's happy. He loves his brothers and enjoys teasing his younger brother Kenai," Aquino explains. "That love turns to grief, when his older brother Sitka dies, and when he thinks the same bear killed Kenai, his grief turns to anger. Through the middle of the movie, Denahi descends from relative civilization to barbarism, but it's an internal journey, presented through mime without any dialogue, which was an interesting challenge."

An ancient Native American, Denahi is drawn with strong Asian features, a specialty of Aquino's. Except for racial caricatures of the Japanese during World War II, American studios have generally avoided Asian and Asian American characters in animation. The narrower eyes and different facial proportions were supposedly unexpressive and hard to animate -- beliefs Aquino dismisses. "I never doubted that an Asian face could be as expressive as any other, and I don't know why some people have assumed that it isn't."

Aquino took pains to ensure each of the Asian males had a strong individual presence that would distinguish him from the other two. "After doing Shang, it was a challenge to make David and Denahi different. David looks quite different, because his design is based on the drawings of [directors] Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois," Aquino says. Because he is a Native American, Denahi's facial features are a little softer and rounder, but the shape of his eyes and head are very similar to Shang's. Notes Aquino: As the prototypical military leader, Shang is very controlled and understated; Denahi's an outdoorsy, macho kind of guy. David's a surfer and kind of macho, too, but you get the impression he isn't the sharpest guy around. "Denahi is more serious. He has to be: He lives in an environment that presents life-and-death situations."

In the details

At left are some of Aquino's drawings from "Brother Bear" and his commentary about them:

According to Aquino, this scene from the beginning of "Brother Bear" wasn't particularly difficult, but offers an example of "how two animators work together. Kenai, the youngest of the three brothers, is disappointed in the totem he's received. Denahi teases him, throwing a wreath of flowers on his head, and skipping around. Kenai slowly loses his temper and pushes Denahi away, who realizes he's gone too far.

"Ideally, when you've got a scene with a lot of interaction between two characters, one person animates them both. But it was so hard to learn to draw these characters, John Hurst animated Kenai," Aquino says. "In a two-character scene, usually the one who's more important drives the scene: That animator goes first.

"Here, Denahi has most of the dialogue, but when they make contact, Kenai initiates the action -- he pushes Denahi. So John went first and blocked in where he thought Denahi should be, based on the story boards. The drawings he scribbled of Denahi were really rough, but the scene got such a good laugh, I tried to keep as much as of what he'd done as I could."

The movements presented Aquino with two challenges: moving Denahi in perspective around his brother and coordinating his work with Hurst. "Animating Denahi skipping was kind of tricky in its mechanics. Locomotion is one of the hardest things to animate, and locomotion in perspective is particularly difficult. "When your character goes around in a circle, he has to lean in a little bit; which is kind of tricky to pull off," Aquino adds. "I tried not make his movements too graceful -- he's not someone who skips around ordinarily -- it also makes them funny. When Denahi enters, Kenai isn't doing a lot, then he begins a slow burn. Denahi pauses on the word 'sweet,' and Kenai explodes. Both characters couldn't be too active at the same time: the audience has to know where to focus its attention."

For The Record Los Angeles Times Thursday November 13, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 33 words Type of Material: Correction 'Mulan' animator -- An article about Disney animator Ruben Aquino in Wednesday's Calendar mistakenly said he had animated the character Shan Yu in "Mulan." Artist Pres Romanillos was the animator for that character.
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