As a Creative Executive at Disney Animation, Jessica Julius regularly works on commercial hits such as Wreck-It Ralph. See what it’s like to create feel-good favorites for a living, how to make it in the industry, and what it’s really like to work for the most famous mouse we know!
Congratulations on both the commercial and critical success of Wreck-It Ralph! Tell us about your role in its development. What were some of the decisions you made?
Thank you! We are so proud of Ralph. I did a ton of early research for the film, on everything from the history of video games to military combat roles to the psychology of our characters. And once we got into the actual story, I gave notes on script drafts and screening reels.
What lesson or lessons have you learned from films that weren’t as successful as Wreck-It Ralph?
It’s all about the story. If you dedicate the time and resources and energy to creating the best possible story, with characters you really care about – no matter how long that process takes – then you’ll usually end up with a great movie to be proud of. And quite often “success” has nothing to do with actual quality – sometimes it comes down to timing in the marketplace or other external factors out of our control.
It seems that the most successful animated films appeal to parents as much as their children. When did this trend start, and why is it more important than ever to engage the entire family?
We like to say that we make movies that we – the adults creating the content – actually want to watch. It just so happens that kids like them too! And it’s true. Kids are smarter than they’re often given credit for, and if you condescend to them, they know it. Focus on making the world, story & characters entertaining and compelling, and the audience will come.
Why does music play such a critical role in animated films?
The same reason it does in a live-action movie – because music stirs the soul! In a musical, whether animated or live-action, songs are most effective when used to communicate a character’s extreme emotional state, the point where a character is feeling something so intensely she can’t help but break into song. And songs can do a lot of the heavy lifting of the storytelling itself.
Is there a live-action film that you think would have worked better in animation, and vice versa?
Oh, good question! I think each medium – and animation is a medium, not a genre as it’s so often mislabeled – brings it’s own merits to a story, and any story could work in either medium. It depends more on which audience(s) you’re hoping to draw. That being said, I’m not really into extreme motion capture films, like Polar Express, Beowulf or Christmas Carol. My feeling is that if you’re going to go to such lengths to make an animated film look like live-action, why not just shoot it in live-action? I don’t think the animation adds anything, and in fact it distances me emotionally from the story & characters.
We’ve heard that there’s a skills shortage when it comes to making animated films in Hollywood, do you agree? What advice would you give students who may have the talent to fill those unfilled jobs or want to break into the business?
Focus on the fundamentals. Anyone can use the widely available tools to create animation, but something gets lost if you don’t know how to actually put pencil to paper. Knowing the fundamental skills will help deepen and refine your storytelling sills.
Other than entertaining audiences, what positive contributions do films make to our society?
Movies can show us people, places, ways of being that are outside our own experiences and help us see the world – even some tiny piece of it – in a new or different way. In my opinion, good films make us think about our place in the world and how we want to live our lives, even if only for a moment.
How did you first become involved with The Exchange? Do you have any favorite or memorable interactions with The Exchange that you could share with us?
I constantly conduct huge research projects for our films, and oftentimes that involves hunting down an expert consultant to bring in for discussions with our filmmakers. The Exchange has become an invaluable resource in this, particularly when it comes to science-related subjects. I can’t remember the first project I used the Exchange for (I’ve used them so much over the years!), and I generally can’t talk about the projects we have in development, but what I can say is that they connected us with some amazing snow & ice experts who inspired us tremendously on our 2013 release, Frozen, both in story & visual development.
What can you tell us about Frozen, the next film in the Disney animation pipeline?
It’s going to be incredibly beautiful and I really feel it will be a fantastic film. It has so much heart and humor, and tells such a unique and wonderful story. I think (I hope!) that audiences will fall in love with the characters, and will stand alongside the best of what Disney Animation has to offer.
What does it take to be successful in a job like yours?
Patience. Dedication. Passion for storytelling. A sense of humor. And the ability to dig deeper than you ever thought you could to support & help create the worlds, characters and stories of our filmmakers.