Animator Ethan Hurd Talks About Breathing Life Into Disney’s Planes

No compensation was received for this post. I attended a press junket, which facilitated the writing of this post. Accommodations were provided.

Animation is not the art of drawings that move but the art of movements that are drawn
-Norman McLaren 

I can’t watch an animated film, particularly one produced by the Walt Disney Studios, without taking note of how striking the animation is.  Technological advances mean that animators like Ethan Hurd are relying heavily on software such as the Maya 3D to give characters their unique look, features, distinguishing marks, and character.

Ethan Hurd

Photo Credit: Lindsay Frank

During my recent visit to Disney Toon Studios, I sat down with the talented artist who’s work includes Shrek (and the film’s subsequent sequels), Toy Story 2, and Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs.  Hurd, who served as the Assistant Supervising Animator for Disney Planes, was originally trained in hand-drawn animation at California Institute of the Arts.  Despite the industry’s shift towards computer animation, Hurd still feels strongly about the importance of knowing how to draw (even if it seems like computers do all of the work).


If you’ve ever wondered how an animated film like Planes is created, it begins as a roughly sketched black and white drawing.  The characters are drawn out from every angle possible (also know as rigging) and then Hurd uses Maya 3D to refine their movements and facial features.  Planes has a striking semblance to the Cars films and Hurd acknowledged that the animators did in fact reference those films and speak with the Pixar team to ensure continuity.

As you can imagine, Planes (like Cars) are inanimate, lifeless objects, so giving them a believable personality was one of Hurd’s challenges. Through the advance of technology and references to the voice actors, he and his team were able to create emotion through the planes’ facial expressions (eye and mouth movements).


Having spoken with a number of filmmakers at Disney, Pixar, and Disney Toon Studios, I’ve learned just how much research is put into the films so that the story and its characters are believable.  The team that worked on Disney Planes consulted with pilots, for example, to achieve realism (more on that when I share my interview with the director and producer of the film).

After our “animation 101” “crash” course (hehe), we had an opportunity to sit with Hurd and move Dusty, the crop duster aspiring to race around the world in the largest air race.  My attempt to animated Dusty instilled a new appreciation for these animators, where a a short 13 second clip can take 1 week to complete.

Disney Planes soars into theaters on August 9th, 2013.

Images: Disney, unless otherwise noted.


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