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Interview: Animator Andrew Lawson Talks ‘Encanto’

November 24, 2021Ben MK

Being surrounded by people whom you perceive to be more talented than you isn't easy. It's a feeling that may be familiar to avid users of social media. And in Disney's Encanto, it's a situation that the animated film's lead character, Mirabel (Stephanie Beatriz), identifies with as well. The only member of the magically gifted Madrigal family without any extraordinary abilities, Mirabel knows what it's like to be jealous of her kin's superior strength, healing powers and extra-sensitive hearing. But when it appears that a prophecy about the Madrigals losing their magical abilities may be coming true, it's up to Mirabel to find a way to stop it, as she embarks on a journey of self-discovery that will forever change the way both she and her family view one another.

I caught up with animator Andrew Lawson to chat about Encanto, how the filmmaking team ensured that their portrayal of Colombian culture was authentic, and what it was like making the movie during the pandemic.

The last time I spoke with you was earlier this year for Raya and the Last Dragon, and back then you mentioned that you were about to start work on this film. What has it been like working on Encanto, since it was produced entirely during the pandemic?

Lawson: It's actually starting to become somewhat normal, if that makes any sense. Raya and the Last Dragon was about one third, one quarter maybe, at the studio, and then the rest of it [was completed] at home. So we definitely got used to the process. And then Encanto was done fully at home. So the whole crew was pretty much accustomed to working from home. It's starting to not seem weird at all. I think it's gonna to be weird going back to the studio, cuz we're gonna to have to reacclimatize to that. But I think everyone has fallen into step with the process, so it's really no different talking to someone over the Zoom calls than it is face-to-face.

The movie is heavily influenced by Colombian culture. In terms of art, books or other films, where did you and the animation and design team draw your inspiration from, and what kind of research went into creating a look that was as authentic as possible?

Lawson: Our story team and the directors went to Colombia. They spent a lot of time there. They met and worked with a lot of experts and locals in the area, a lot of whom were kind enough to share their time and talk to the animation crew. We had multiple meetings with people from there that would go over and help us understand, teach us the little nuances of the culture, and behavioral things that are different. And they coached us through the whole process. They were there from the very beginning all the way through the end. So more so than books, it was people, which was great. Because the people are the ones that are living it from day to day, and they're by far the most up-to-date reference of authenticity for the culture. So that's usually what we lean on the most.

There are so many characters in the movie. Did you have any favorites among the ones that you worked on?

Lawson: I really liked working with Bruno. He was funny and quirky. He offered a lot of answers and questions at the same time, so I feel that he kept me very engaged. You're always wanting to see what he comes up with next. So pretty much everything with him I found amusing and entertaining.

On a similar note, was there a character or a scene that was especially challenging to work on?

Lawson: I did some work towards the end of the film with Mirabel and the climactic moments. Those are not so much difficult, but you need to really pay attention to the subtleties of the acting, cuz you really want to hit the right notes for those points in the movie. Because they're small and they're subtle, and the audience is gonna be focused on the characters and their acting. So it's very important to make sure that you get it just right.

You've worked on several other Disney animated films prior to this one, most notably Raya and the Last Dragon, of course. But what made Encanto unique for you?

Lawson: I feel that Raya was more of a lone protagonist, [even though] Sisu and Tuk Tuk were there. Whereas in Encanto, there's very much a familial feel to the whole movie. [Mirabel]'s always surrounded by lots of family, and the interactions between the different members of the family are constantly in play. So one feels like an ensemble setting, whereas Raya was more of on her own journey by herself. I felt like that was the biggest difference.

Encanto also has a lot of music and songs in it, thanks to Lin-Manuel Miranda. Was that more fun to play with as an animator, as opposed to a more dramatic, action-packed movie?

Lawson: I think it's apples and oranges. Both have different elements that are interesting to play with. It's great that we are shuffling it up and not just doing just musicals or just action films. Variety being the spice of life, as they say. It's really just finding the nuance and entertainment in whatever you are trying to get across.

Last but not least, what do you personally hope viewers will take away from Encanto?

Lawson: For me, it's a sense of getting to know your family more. We grow up with whatever your family may consist of, but sometimes you grow apart or you don't fully understand where the other person's coming from. It's always great to reunite or to get to know each other even better. And, hopefully, people see that, not just as family, but as friends as well. It's just taking the time to get to know the people around you a little bit more.

Encanto is in theaters now.

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