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Mark Henn
Photo by Eric Charbonneau/Invision/AP Images
Mark Henn

Disney’s animator of heroines

Movies | Mark Henn talks about creating Disney’s leading ladies, his Christian faith, and his work on Frozen

Mark Henn, a Christian, has been an animator at Disney for 33 years. While he has animated many of Disney’s best-known characters (from Goofy to Winnie the Pooh to the mice in The Rescuers), he has the reputation as the animator of heroines. He animated Belle from Beauty and the Beast, Ariel from Little Mermaid, Jasmine from Aladdin,Mulan from Mulan,and Tiana from Princess and the Frog.Now for Disney’s new animated film Frozen (in theaters Wednesday), Henn served as one of the lead animators, overseeing the development of all of the characters.

Can you talk in more detail about the kind of work you did in Frozen, and whether there was a particular character you were drawn to? I worked with the animators as a consultant, mentor, cheerleader. I touched all of the characters at different times. I helped them make scenes stronger, make the expressions stronger. Marshmallow, Olaf, Ana, Elsa, Kristoph, Sven … I’m kind of partial to the leading ladies in our films. That’s been a big part of my résumé. This film presented a unique challenge—not one [leading lady], but two. They’re sisters, but they’re very different.

You’ve worked in two-dimensional animation and now three-dimensional. As technology has changed, has the artistic process changed for you? If you think of the difference between hand-drawn animation and computer-generated animation—you have two completely different tools but the same end result: to make a character come to life. I did some computer animation—Meet the Robinsons was my first computer-animated film. The only thing that changed for me was the tool, getting proficient enough to use the tool.

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I’ve been here 33 years now. I bring that skill set to help the younger animators think like a Disney animator. I don’t see a difference between hand-drawn animation and computer-generated animation from that point of view. The heart and mind of the animator is the same. And that’s what I’m trying to pass on to the new group of artists.

I’ve heard animators describe their job as acting. Think of us like a theater troupe—that’s very much like an animated film. Over time as you get to know one another you learn each other’s strengths. Some people are great at comedy. You have other people who are more into the dramatic, more emotional acting. You have some typecasting among animators.

Being an animator is the best of both worlds. I love drawing. I love performing and acting, but I don’t have to be on the screen myself.

Speaking of typecasting among animators, how did you end up animating all the leading ladies? I don’t know other than I grew up the oldest of three kids—my other two siblings are sisters. I grew up with girls and I’m probably more comfortable walking into a room with a bunch of girls than a bunch of guys. I fell in love with Snow White and Cinderella. But I’ve also done mice and dogs and Winnie the Pooh and Pete [in the Mickey Mouse short Get a Horse! that will be shown before Frozen; see video clip below].

How does your faith play into your work, into character development and storytelling? It’s a global impact as well as day-to-day and scene-to-scene. I’m very blessed. … This has been my boyhood dream to be a Disney animator. I’ve seen a lot of change and a lot of ups and downs. I was almost fired at one point. God has been incredibly gracious to allow me to be here, and I feel like this is where I’m supposed to be.

In the minutiae—it’s those daily struggles—you’re fighting a scene, the same things everyone deals with. He’s gotten me through many a tough day and tough scene and tough production schedule.

It’s nice to work for a company—we’re not a church organization or a faith-based organization—but the basic values we want to put across in our films are right in line with my faith.

I noticed Frozen had themes about self-sacrifice and the importance of family. Parents need to do a little work and glean out those things and talk about them with their kids. [The themes] are there. The parents have the responsibility to look for them.

Emily Belz
Emily Belz

Emily, who has covered everything from political infighting to pet salons for The Indianapolis Star, The Hill, and the New York Daily News, reports for WORLD from New York City. Follow Emily on Twitter @emzleb.

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