I find myself standing in the middle of an office decorated with all things Disney. Next to me, Chris Sonnenburg, Executive Producer of Rapunzel’s Tangled Adventure, shows off an Instagram page dedicated to a stuffed toy Pascal, Rapunzel’s chameleon buddy, who takes photos with the cast and crew from the show. Pascal clearly seems to have a ton of fun, and so does Chris. We quickly bounce around the room as he enthusiastically shows me other artwork and mementos on the walls. There’s a story and purpose for everything.
Chris has a rich history with Disney and started as a character animator. I ask Chris what inspired him to pursue animation. Chris smiles and takes me to another corner of the office and points to some original 1980s corkboard cutouts of Star Wars characters. “This,” he says proudly. “Star Wars really affected me at a young age. It really allowed me to see an epic story in movie form.” Chris tells me he also had a passion for drawing as a child and loved to watch Disney movies and go to Disneyland.
Chris expresses all these things he loved were compartmentalized at that time. It wasn’t until at the end of high school that a college recruiter really helped him connect the dots. The recruiter “said there were these people called animators. I had no idea that job existed! Walt Disney was always the face for all his movies, so I thought he did them all himself! I had never put together that there was a team of artists who created these things.”
The recruiter explained to Chris there was a school called Cal Arts where he could become an animator–he was determined to visit. After taking a tour of the school with his mother, Chris knew for certain that this was the place he wanted to attend.
While Chris was at Cal Arts, he was able to attend a lecture taught by his idol, Glen Keane, a Disney great who has worked on movies like The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin. “Glen taught me that animation wasn’t just manipulating shapes. It was passion and story-driven. I remember sitting in the audience and Glen was explaining how they were trying to get the animation right for Marahute, the giant eagle from The Rescuers Down Under. They videotaped this hawk wrangler who was showing off a bird.” Chris said Glen noticed he stopped filming the bird for reference and panned up to the hawk wrangler instead. “The man had so much passion for these birds,” Chris explained, “Glen wanted to draw [Marahute] as if this guy was drawing it himself. If he could get only half the dedication and passion this man had for his birds, he’d have done his job right.” This resonated deeply with Chris. “[Glen] was talking on my level. I wanted to tell stories like this.”
This led Chris to start his career at Disney Animation. He started as a character animator on Pocahontas and would later work on Hunchback of Notre Dame, Hercules, Tarzan, The Emperor’s New Groove, Fantasia 2000, and Home on the Range. “I basically grew up at Disney Feature Animation.” Chris smiles, “I met my wife while working on Hercules. It was the most fun time…I can sit down and watch the movie and know exactly what was going on in my life in each scene. It’s pretty neat to have a visual token of your life.”
Chris later went on to do story boarding for Gravity Falls at Disney Channel and then to Disney Toon Studios to work on the Planes franchise. “There I got the call from Disney Channel. They said they were planning on doing a TV series based on Tangled, and asked if I had any ideas. I said yes, I think I can do that. And that’s when we started developing the show.”
We will continue Chris’s Tangled adventure in Part 2! For now, make sure to follow Pascal on Instagram @followpascal!
Formerly authored by Iain C. at Partners