We recently spoke with Jim Valeri, Senior Manager of Creative Resources at the Disney Store and Vinylmation artist, about all things Vinylmation and what he'd like to work on next.
FM: What is your background as a Disney artist?
Jim: I've been with the [Disney] company on and off for 16 years. I started in 1994, probably before many of you were born, as an intern and became a character artist, then moved onto designing toys, and now designing product in general for the Disney Store, and just trying to be a jack of all trades so to speak when it comes to art here.
FM: Where did the idea for the Villains series come from?
Jim: The Disney Parks originated Vinylmation and they've been doing it for a couple years. When we learned that we were going to have the opportunity to carry our own exclusive Vinylmation figurines we were meeting with them a lot. And we actually still continue to [meet] to see what they've done and what they have coming up so we didn't duplicate efforts. We were quizzing them about what they had done in the past and what they were planning on doing. We said, "Hey, have guys done any Villains? Are you planning on doing any Villains?" They were like, "No, we actually haven't! that's a good idea!" So we pounced on that one because we thought, wow, that was going to be a natural way to go out the box for us. It turned out to be a really good decision I think.
FM: How do you decide which characters become Vinylmations?
Jim: Your favorites come to mind, everyone has their personal favorites, and we throw that on the table. Then we started thinking about the more obscure movies, the ones that haven't been around for awhile, and everyone of course was like, "Oh yeah, I remember that Villain! I remember her!" I was great because you'd start brainstorming. When we realized how many we had to choose from, we had to at some point start editing. The first time around it was just trying to figure out which ones we thought we could have the strongest designs for. [The team] really kind of auditioned in the begining. They would volunteer to try Ursula or Kaa or one of these other characters, and we'd reconvene. If we thought the design was really strong and had a lot of potential we'd sign it that way. As things move on here and we keep designing for the future, we realized we needed to have a more democratic system to pick these things. So we try to get an idea of the assortment we want, and then we divide the characters up and put them in a hat and just start pulling names out of a hat so that people get an honest shot at doing what they want. Now, if someone really has a favorite and they're really passionate about it, definitely we'll take that into consideration because we just think that the more passionate you are about something the better job you're going to do.
FM: What inspires you when designing a Vinylmation?
Jim: First and foremost it's the entertainment, the story that it came from. And not just in Vinylmation, but in any product. If you do a successful product you need to somehow rehash the personality of that character as it was contextualized in the story. That's what people connect with, that feeling they had when they first saw the movie or whatever entertainment format it happened to be. I just look for the story telling opportunity. Personally a couple of them are close to my heart, and I've said this in a couple other interviews, Stromboli for instance visually looked a lot like my father. He was like this tempestuous Italian guy, you know, he'd be screaming one minute, and that was just the way he was. He wasn't mean or anything, don't get me wrong. But he looked a lot like him. When I was designing him I felt like I was channeling my pops.
FM: What challenges do you and your team face when working on a Vinylmation?
Jim: Well, you know, you'd think working on a single form like that across all these different characters and designs would be severely limiting, and it can be. But in reality when it comes to creativity, sometimes limitations are your friend. They force you to solve problems. They force you to come up with solutions that you otherwise wouldn't necessarily come up with. So it's interesting when you sit down and you're designing a skinny character or a non-human character on this Mickey form. It's like how do I solve that problem? It's just amazing the kind of solutions that come up out of that. And that's part of the creative process, dealing with those restrictions. A lot of times [limitations] can be your friend, and it just makes you do something that you wouldn't have otherwise done. So that's a challenge. And from a manufacturing standpoint, we have to be aware of limitations in manufacturing and color limitations and costing comes into play at some point because we just can't go bananas and put a billion colors on these things or super over the top detail. When it comes to design there's an elegance in simplicity. So all that kinda comes into play as we go about it.
FM: Are you surprised by the popularity of Vinylmations?
Jim: Actually, most of the guys on my team were collectors of this stuff in the first place. So obviously when they heard they were going to have a hand in designing it the excitement level was stellar. [Vinylmation are] one of those rare things because they have a really broad appeal. I know kids love them, all the way up to adults and older people. And you can't say that about a lot of products, so we kinda had that idea going in. So I'm not that surprised about how the response has been. I mean we're glad, because Villains was a strong theme, but we also knew the bar was high for the design. The Parks had been doing such a excellent job for so long, that we felt like we were being handed this mantle, and we better not blow it. We really felt a responsibility in coming to the table with some great designs. I think the whole team really stepped up.
FM: I agree! So the big question... when can we expect to see Villains series 2?
Jim: Wella... that information is classified! [Laughing]
FM: I had a feeling you were going to say that! [Laughing]
Jim: Yeah... [Laughing]
FM: So what would you like to work on next?
Jim: Personally, I love doing so many aspects of this job. I love illustrating, I love characters and the design part. I think Villains as a genre. There's so much low-hanging fruit there, and I think there is so much more we can do with it. I would personally like to see and be involved with, and I'm not saying this is happening, but I would like to see Villains as an entire group of product and just a focus on it and see what we can do with it because I really think there is some rich soil there.
FM: Do you have any advice for aspiring artists?
Jim: Yeah! I mean first of all just love what you do. I didn't go through the whole "I wanna be a fireman, I wanna be a cop, I wanna be a pilot" [phase]. I wanted to be an artist from first grade on. And I remember the drawing I did that I got feedback on from my teacher, and from that point on I was set. I was like, I know what I want to do. I think once you decide you know what you want to do just focus on it. Don't fall into this trap that there is this special gene out there called talent that you're either born with or born without. I think that is overplayed sometimes. I think the difference between good artists and people that give it up in the fourth grade is tenacity and practice and just a desire to get better and observe. My biggest thing is observe. If you're an artist that is what separates most really good desired artists from average ones or the average person. It's not that I can draw a perfect circle and that makes me some sort of ninja artist. It's that whenever I'm taking a walk or going to the store or doing my daily [activities] I observe things. I observe how light falls on a surface and the color of that light compared to the surrounding light or what the shape of snow looks like on a fence post. It's all these little details that you just internalize. And it just gives this greater body of knowledge that you have, and it eventually comes out in what you do.
FM: Lastly, anything you'd like to say to your fans or Vinylmation fans out there?
Jim: Um... I don't feel I have any fans.
FM: You do! [Laughing]
Jim: To Vinylmation fans in general I'd say just stay tuned and thank you for your support. And what I love about trolling some of the blogs and comments on sites is how people speculate on what's coming next. And just the anticipation... it also drives us. We actually do read that stuff. And we do see when people are saying, "I hope they do this or that!" We take that into account, you know, we like people's feedback. I would just encourage people to continue to find whatever avenues they can to let us know what they like and want to see, and we'll do what we can to make it happen.
FM: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us today!
Jim: Thank you! I really appreciate it!
You can follow Jim Valeri at his personal blog http://bigjiminy.blogspot.com