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Inside Disney’s Newest Artist-Authored Kid's Book, ‘Holly’s Day at the Pool’

Disney Animator Benson Shum’s tale of a young hippo’s fear of the water is latest in studio’s unique artist showcase series.

All images courtesy of Disney Feature Animation.

A young hippo who’s afraid to swim, with an overactive imagination hard at work conjuring up icebergs and all sorts of scary critters…that’s Holly Hippo, the star of Disney animator Benson Shum’s new kid’s book, “Holly’s Day at the Pool.” Four years in the making, “Holly’s Day at the Pool” is the third release in Walt Disney Animation Studios’ Artist Showcase book series, original books that shine a light on some of the studio’s animated film production talent. The intersection of kid’s books and Disney artists is long and storied, including studio greats like Mary Blair and Bill Pete – after the Disney-Pixar merger, John Lasseter felt Disney’s book publishing arm was the perfect partner for a program featuring some of the studio’s great artists, applying their creative skills far outside the film world they’re primarily known for. The first book in the series, Lorelay Bové’s “No Slurping, No Burping!: A Tale of Table Manners,” was released in 2014 – Shum’s book, released yesterday by Disney Publishing Worldwide, will be followed by Paul Briggs’ “Catch My Breath” slated for published later this year.

According to Jessica Julius, a senior creative executive at Disney Animation known around the studio as a die-hard bookworm, she was approached back in 2009 to get the program off the ground. “I was really excited when they approached me and asked me if I could help. I thought, ‘What an amazing opportunity to work in a medium that I love, and help artists around me who I admire so much, find an outlet for their personal work.’ We started the program from scratch – there was no groundwork already laid so it has been quite a learning curve. Every year we learn from what’s already happened.”

Starting with 25 book proposals submitted in 2010, Disney Animation has subsequently solicited proposals every year to 18 months since – artists must provide a cover and interior spread that showcases the art, in as final form as possible. Notes Julius, “We need to see what they are imagining the book to look like. Who are the characters? What is the basic storyline? It can be as simple as a couple of sentences about the beginning, middle and end. It can be from somebody who wants to take a stab at writing, or doesn’t necessarily want to write it themselves. The parameters are wide open.”

Benson Shum.

For Shum, an animator at the studio who has worked on films such as Frozen, Big Hero 6, Zootopia and Moana, “Holly’s Day at the Pool” started, of all places, at a Vancouver bus stop. His three-year-old niece was transitioning from taking baths to showers and was scared of the water getting in her eyes and ears. He explains, “She was really scared. She didn’t like it at all. It seemed such an interesting concept, because as adults, we sometimes forget that something as little as water droplets from a shower can be a really big deal to a little kid. It’s like a big waterfall raining down on them. It’s a big new experience. I wanted to explore what a child’s imagination would be like in that kind of world, and how they would overcome their fear.”

Shum pitched the idea in 2012. He’d heard of the publishing program and decided to develop and submit a project. He describes how, “When I first heard of the program, I got real interested in trying it out. I’d gotten really into painting the previous couple of years, and was putting little stories alongside each of my pieces. When the opportunity came to apply, I said, ‘Yeah, I want to do this!’ I started to think of ideas and then the subject of my niece came up. I wanted to know what it would be like to turn that story into a book.”

For Shum, the process started with the main character. “I started off with a character. I would do character sketches, character poses, then the storytelling part. For example, I would try to put Holly in the position where she looked very scared. I’d try to draw out that pose, working on paper with pencil and pen. From there I’d create the world around her, then start to write the story around all that. But the characters came first,” he explains.

From there, he would sometimes do paintings with Holly in different situations. Says the animator, “Sometimes I would paint in watercolor and ink, then the same thing in gouache. Eventually, I moved onto the computer after everything with the story was set.” He adds that he had to learn certain fundamentals about children’s book visual development he’d never considered before. According to the animator, “I went to a couple children's book seminars and they talked about how important the page turn is. That’s something I learned. For example, I had to pay attention to, ‘How do I make the child or parent want to see what happens next?’ I also learned a lot from working with the publishing team about how to place text within a page, which is very important, so that everything flows and makes you turn the page to see what happens next.”

Looking back at the past four years of the project, Shum notes that the world of publishing is not the same as the world of animation. “The biggest challenge was learning how the publishing world works and how to lay out a print page. It’s very different from laying out characters on a screen. In animation, you look at the composition as one shot. When you’re laying out characters on a page spread, you need to make sure you’re leading the eye to the right, to where you turn the page. That took me quite some time to learn.”

Both Julius and Shum are excited about the book’s release and are appreciative of the opportunity the studio has provided. Says the animator, “I’m so grateful to have this opportunity. I’m taking what I know from animation and applying it to a different medium. It has been a lot of fun.” Julius chimes in, noting, “I’m really excited about Benson’s book. The whole program is so unique within the studio. Everybody who's gone through it has loved their experience and felt like they've grown as an artist. It’s phenomenal how much support it’s received from John and all the studio leadership. They’re providing the chance for our artists to stretch creatively, in their own original way that isn't on a studio project, and I think that's really cool.”

Dan Sarto's picture

Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.