Priscillano Romanillos dies at 47; animator of ‘Mulan’ villain and other Disney and DreamWorks characters

Priscillano “Pres” Romanillos, the animator who brought to life the athletic Native American Little Creek in DreamWorks’ “Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron” and the evil Shan-Yu in Disney’s “Mulan,” has died. He was 47.

For the record: An obituary of animator Priscillano “Pres” Romanillos in Wednesday’s LATExtra section misspelled his wife Jeannine’s name as Jeanine.

Romanillos died at his home in Tujunga on Saturday, surrounded by his family, friends and pets. The cause of death was complications from leukemia.

During his 21-year career, Romanillos earned the respect of his fellow artists for his exceptional drawing ability and his enthusiasm for the art of animation.

“I first met Pres during production on ‘The Little Mermaid,’ when he was an animation trainee, straight out of art school,” said Disney supervising animator Ruben Aquino. “From the very beginning, I was impressed by his beautiful draftsmanship, but even more by his incredible passion for animation.”

Born in Zamboanga in the Philippines on Jan. 11, 1963, Romanillos came to the United States with his family in 1971 and grew up in the Queens borough of New York City. When he was 9, his older brother Bob started a correspondence course in art but lost interest in it. Romanillos began doing the assignments and later attended the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan.

After graduating, he came to Walt Disney Studios in 1989 as an animation trainee on “The Little Mermaid.” He served as an assistant animator on “The Rescuers Down Under,” “Beauty and the Beast” and “Aladdin,” and was promoted to animator on the 1995 film " Pocahontas,” working on the title character.

“Pres was a man who loved to draw,” said Glen Keane, who served as a mentor to Romanillos.

“When he came to the edge of his paper, his pencil didn’t stop; he continued to draw characters onto the wood of his animation desk.” That desk now sits in the Disney Animation Research Library.

“When the time came to do ‘Pocahontas,’ Pres was up for promotion,” said Eric Goldberg, who directed the film with Mike Gabriel. “His first test scene was of Pocahontas’ dainty foot dipping into the water at the start of the song ‘Just Around the Riverbend.’ It was so beautiful, Mike and I glanced at each other briefly and said, ‘Yep, you’re an animator.’”

At Disney’s Florida studio, Romanillos created his most memorable character, Shan-Yu, the brutal leader of the Hun army. Richard Corliss wrote in Time magazine: “The villain, a crazed, WWF-style hulkster named Shan-Yu, has no comic irony softening his brute trapezoidal lines. He’s just an evil machine with vampire teeth. The Wall, the vast plains and hills, the Forbidden City itself, all cringe at his shadow.”

“Mulan” co-director Barry Cook said Romanillos “was such a gentle soul, it was amazing to see that villain come out of him as an animator and a performer. Shan-Yu had no comedic elements. He was a straight villain who needed to feel like a real threat to our heroine. Pres pulled that off in an amazing way.”

In an interview at the film’s opening in 1998, Romanillos described the character.

“The challenge in animating him was to convey his weight and gravity: He’s like a force of impending doom,” he said. “Unconsciously, I would scowl all day while I was drawing him. When I worked on Pocahontas, I would go home feeling sexy; with Shan-Yu, my wife was always asking, ‘Why are you so angry?’”

After “Mulan,” Romanillos moved to DreamWorks, where he animated various characters for “The Road to El Dorado” (2000), “Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas” (2003), “Shrek 2" (2004) and “Madagascar” (2005). One of his most memorable characters was in 2002’s “Spirit”: Little Creek, the clever, mischievous Lakota Indian who befriends Spirit.

In 2006, Romanillos began drawing “Life as a Pickle,” a blog about the cats, dogs, rabbits and other pets he and his wife rescued from animal shelters. The main character was Pickle, a cartoon based on their chubby, aging rat terrier. Romanillos used his canine alter-ego to offer a slightly befuddled dog’s-eye view of the world.

Romanillos and fellow animation artist Scott Johnston went to Salamanca, Spain, in 2007 to help establish the Enne animation studio and train artists. Romanillos directed “The Old Chair,” a short film featuring drawn and computer-generated versions of Pickle and other characters from the blog.

During production, he was diagnosed with leukemia and returned to the United States. Following a bone marrow transplant, he did his final animation work, for Disney’s “The Princess and the Frog” and for DreamWorks’ “Shrek Forever After.”

“Pres was one of the most respected and beloved artists at our studio,” said DreamWorks Animation chief executive Jeffrey Katzenberg. “All of us in the animation community deeply mourn the loss of Pres ... though his memory and legacy will forever exist in the characters he brought to life through his art.”

Romanillos is survived by Jeanine, his wife of 14 years. Plans for a life celebration are pending.