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Andreas Deja takes a “Different” approach to the art of character design

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Andreas Deja takes a “Different” approach to the art of character design

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When you look at Mama Odie, what do you see?

Mama Odie poses with her seeing eye snake
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved

Okay, for starters, she’s one of the more memorable characters from Disney’s “The Princess and the Frog” (FYI: Sales of the DVD version of Walt Disney Animation Studios’ return to hand-drawn animation have been surprisingly strong.  Since “The Princess and the Frog” hit store shelves back on March 16th, over 3.1 million units have been sold). But there’s more to Mama Odie than meets the eye.

Like – for example – that this bayou version of a Fairy Godmother doesn’t actually have any eyes. Just a dark pair of glasses to hide the fact that Mama Odie is blind.

Mama Odie from Disney's The Princess and the Frog
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved

So given that audiences typically look toward an animated character’s eyes in order to determine emotional change, how do you then get an emotionally effective performance out of an essentially eyeless character?

For Mama Odie’s supervising animator Andreas Deja, the answer was simple. You just add a few wrinkles to the area directly above this character’s eyebrows and PRESTO! This 197-year-old blind lady is now able to register all sorts of emotion.

John Musker, Ron Clements, Andreas Deja and Peter Del Vecchio at the premiere of "Tiana y el Sapo" in Spain
(L to R) John Musker, Ron Clements, Andreas Deja and Peter Del Vecchio
at the premiere of "Tiana y el  Sapo" in Madrid, Spain. Photo by Carlos Alvarez.
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved

Speaking in front of a hall full of students & parents at a recent Ryman Arts career event, Andreas talked about all the care & thought he put into designing Mama Odie.

“I’d never worked on a character like this before. (Mama Odie)’s not really a sorceress who uses voodoo. She’s more of the fairy godmother type,” Deja explained. “Plus she’s the oldest character that I’ve ever animated. So I wanted to find some interesting ways to show her age.”

Andreas Deja was the supervising animator for Mama Odie in Disney's "The Princess and the Frog"
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved

What Andreas eventually decided to do was contrast flesh and bone. As in: Mama Odie has very wide hips, while – at the same time – narrow bony arms.

“And figuring that – after she’d lived 197 years – most of Mama Odie’s hair would be gone … Well, that’s why I put kind of a wrap around her head. And that hat stays on Mama Odie’s head for the entire movie except for three frames toward the end of ‘Dig a Little Deeper.’ That’s when she does a hop in this musical number. And – just for an instant – Mama Odie’s hat comes off of her head. And that’s when you see she has nothing but fuzz left,” Deja laughed.

Andreas put this amount of care & thought into every aspect of “The Princess and the Frog” that he worked on. Which included Mama Odie’s seeing-eye snake, Juju.

Mama Odie talks to her seeing eye snake Juju
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved

“I didn’t want people looking up at the screen and saying ‘That’s the snake from Jungle Book,’ “ Deja continued. “Which is why I made some very deliberate design choices with this character. Because Kaa had a long snout and beady little pupils, I designed Juju with a short snout and big Roger Rabbit-type eyes.”

Which – as far as snakes go – then made Juju a cute, almost cuddly kind of a reptile.

The cover of Andreas Deja's sketch book "A Different Stripe"

And speaking of taking unusual looking animals and then making them look appealing … This coming Saturday night, Van Eaton Galleries will be holding a special event in honor of this Disney animator’s new sketchbook, "A Different Stripe: Andreas Deja's Animal Sketchbook."

This event (which will be held at 13613 Ventura Boulevard in Sherman Oaks, CA) kicks off with Andreas leading a discussion from 4 to 5 p.m. Then – from 5 to 7 p.m. – Deja will be signing copies of “A Different Stripe.” And while visitors are waiting for Andreas to personalize their copy of his latest sketchbook, they’re welcome to check out many of the original paintings & sketches that are used to illustrate this paperback.

Which – as you can see – wittily transition from nature as it actually is …

Lion sketches by Disney animator Andreas Deja

… to nature as it might be …

Lion sketches from Andreas Deja's vivid imagination

Please be advised that space (especially for the discussion portion of Saturday’s “A Different Stripe” event) is extremely limited. So if you’d like to attend, you need to call Van Eaton Galleries at (818)788-2357 and RSVP ASAP.

For further information on the “A Different Stripe: Andreas Deja's Animal Sketchbook” event, please click on this link.

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