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UT-Austin alum reveals the animated magic of Disney's 'Encanto': 'It's going to blow people away'

Eric Webb
Austin 360

Disney’s latest animated fantasy, “Encanto,” transports you to a more magical world. Think of Jay Jackson as one of the spellcasters. 

Jackson, an animator from Austin who’s now based in Burbank, served as environment look development supervisor on the film, which is in theaters this weekend. (More on what that title means in a bit.) But before he was bringing imagination to life for the House of Mouse, he grew up in North Austin and went to Westview Middle School. After some time in California and San Antonio, Jackson came back to attend the University of Texas. 

While he was in college working on a biology degree, Jackson says he doodled a lot in class and interned at Austin Film Festival. “I always thought in the back of my mind, ‘Oh, it would be fun to work in film,’ but I never thought it was a viable career path, really,” he says.  

Former Austinite Jay Jackson worked on the animation team that helped bring "Encanto" to life.

Later, a friend he worked with at a summer camp got a job with animation studio DreamWorks, which Jackson says opened up his eyes to the career possibilities out there. After a stint in grad school at Texas A&M to learn the animation trade, he scored an apprenticeship at Disney. Since 2014, he’s worked on movies like “Zooptopia,” “Frozen II” and “Ralph Breaks the Internet.” 

His latest: the world of “Encanto,” directed by Byron Howard, Jared Bush and Charise Castro Smith, with original songs from “Hamilton” star Lin-Manuel Miranda. In the animated movie, a family named the Madrigals live in a charmed town hidden in the mountains of Colombia. Their living house glows with magic and contains entire worlds behind each door. Every Madrigal child receives a superpower, like Isabela, who can make flowers sprout out of thin air, and Luisa, who is super strong. Their younger sister, Mirabel, never received a special gift, sadly. When the family’s magic is threatened, though, she’s the only one who can unspool the mystery and save their home. 

Before the film came out, we talked to Jackson about how he went from doodling at UT to working at Disney. This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

I saw "Encanto” — it was absolutely gorgeous. You were environment look development supervisor. After someone sees the movie, what would you tell them to be like, “That was what I did — that was me"? 

Environments is composed of three departments, and it's modeling, look development and set extension. So I was over one of the three. Essentially, we get everything from modeling, so before we touch it, everything just looks like flat gray plastic. And we do everything else to it to make it have all the color, and all the fine detail and texture, every blade of grass. We also determine the material properties — how much light shines through this leaf, in what areas, and you know, the magic of the glowing doors pulsating, and on a candle when it's pulsating. That kind of procedural motion. This film was a huge challenge. You saw, just with the amount of detail everywhere, and all the different environments. 

Disney's "Encanto" features songs from Lin-Manuel Miranda.

Would you say that this is the biggest project you've worked on? 

Yeah, it was definitely the most challenging, and I would say the most ambitious, and I think most rewarding of all of them so far. I was environments right before this on “Frozen II.” I would say, though, "Encanto” is even larger, in a sense. But what's funny is when I first started, they're like, "Oh, you know, it's about a family and a house. There's not going to be many environments or whatever.” 

Just a house! Just a regular, non-living house. What do you look at for reference when you're developing all this stuff? Or is it just purely imagination? Do you have any type of real-life modeling you're looking at? 

We got a lot of our reference from when the directors ... went on a research trip to Colombia, and they got a lot of photo reference and video reference of everything from the streets in Barichara. (It helped us answer questions like) what do the sidewalks look like and what's the different types of plants? We had an actual plant consultant from Colombia come and talk to us about all the different species. Literally every plant you see is an actual Colombian plant. 

Was there anything that you had to represent visually that was particularly stumping or a technical challenge, where you thought, “I don't know how to make this look like what it's supposed to look like”? 

I think there were two really major challenges. One (was) the glowing doors. It took a lot of development time to just figure out how to do that in a viable way. And the other one was, it kind of went by quick, and there was a lot going on, but during Isabela’s song, if you look in the background, (you’ll see what we call) a flower Jumbotron. It's literally like a Jumbotron, but with different kinds of flowers. Creating the different designs going up, that was extremely challenging to figure out how to (do). It was a big collaboration, we worked closely with effects.  

It almost sounds like the things that are more fantastical, that don't have a real-world analog, maybe are in some ways more challenging.

That's a really good point. When you have something kind of real to refer to, it's always easier, versus when you don't know what you're shooting for. 

You've gone from doodling to figuring out how to make glowing doors appear plausible. Are there any kind of artistic white whales you have?  

I can't talk too much about it, but the project I'm on (now) is like that, where it's really challenging. ... I think in general, I've always just been interested in how we can continue to evolve the medium and push it every year. And actually, that's one thing that attracted me a lot to Disney Animation. Everyone's all focused on that — how do we elevate every single film visually?  

When you're talking about a movie like "Encanto” or “Frozen II” that's a musical, where most of the visually dazzling moments occur in the context of song, do you all have the actual songs that you're working off of? Do you listen to them while you're trying to map the visual parts of it together?  

Well, for the longest time, they record it with scratch. It depends; I know Lin-Manuel sang a lot of them, so we had temp Lin-Manuel songs. And he'll sing the different women's parts, which is really funny. For a while, we're just dealing with that. It was pretty late in the game when we got the final audio.  

The Madrigals' casita in “Encanto” is more than a house — it’s alive — embodying the same magic that has blessed the Madrigal children for two generations.

You were working with, basically, demos. 

Yeah, totally. And they kept changing the songs a lot. Like Mirabel’s "I want” song ... that one changed a good amount. And the final song changed a bunch. 

Is there anything that you wish more people knew?  

I would say for anyone, really (try) to see it in a theater, if possible. I really think it's going to blow people away, all the detail in it. We actually saw it last night, but it was an outdoor theater. So, the screen was kind of small.  

Oh! There's rat poop somewhere in the film. But it's hard to see.