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Chico State

Alumna Helped Bring Disney’s Encanto Characters to Life

Theresa Adolph stands in front of shelves of Disney Characters

Theresa Adolph grew up watching The Lion King and Aladdin on repeat. In preschool, she distinctively remembers all the other kids going outside to play while she stayed inside to perfect coloring within the lines. 

It’s no surprise then that her passion for animation and artwork led her to a dream career, one where her friends can now joke, “Can we talk about Bruno yet?”

Yes, that’s right. After a decade working as an animator, Adolph (Applied Computer Graphics, ’06), is now with Walt Disney Animation Studios and had a hand in Encanto, the Oscar-winning, blockbuster film that has been widely praised for its music, animation, voice acting, and cultural fidelity.

So, what is it like working on a pop culture phenomenon?

“Just like everyone else, I love the movie. It’s a great family story and it’s an incredible feeling to be part of such a hit. The team is amazing and working at Disney has been a dream come true,” said Adolph. “I wanted to work for Disney since I was a child, so I feel incredibly fortunate.”

Adolph, who knew she wanted to be a professional animator when she saw Toy Story in the 4th grade, kept thinking about her passion as she worked a number of graphic design jobs after graduating from Chico State. She kept replaying a conversation she had at a summer arts series class where she met Andrew Gordon, a directing animator at Pixar (the lead animator for the character Mike in “Monsters, Inc.”). She asked, “How can I do that?” and he recommended she enroll in Animation Mentor, an intense online animation school. 

So, in 2007, Adolph quit her full-time design job to focus on animation. She became a part-time barista at Starbucks and made coffee during the day, and continuously worked on her craft each night.

“It would have been easy to say, ‘It’s too expensive and it is too much of a time commitment. I can’t do this,’” said Adolph. “But I knew I would regret it if I didn’t do everything I could to figure out if I could do this career, and they taught me everything I needed to know to be a professional.”

After graduating from the animation school in 2009, Adolph kept working on her demo reel and applying to every studio that posted a job listing. She finally landed a professional gig as an animation intern at LAIKA/House in Portland, where she animated commercials for Toys “R” Us and M&Ms.

Once she got her foot in the door, Adolph didn’t stop. She landed jobs at Sony Picture Image Works, Electronic Arts, and Blue Sky Studio before landing ultimately at Walt Disney Animation Studios. She could list films like Ice Age 4, Rio 2, and Raya and the Last Dragon in her portfolio even before she started working on Encanto.

On Encanto, Adolph animated a variety of characters as well as the animals that appear in Antonio’s gift scene. Admittedly, her shots with Pepa and Félix were her favorite to work on, but there was a joy to all of it.

A computer animated still shot of a woman placing her finger over a man to ask him to be quiet.
Encanto‘s Pepa and Félix in the final frame of a scene that Theresa Adolph worked on. (Photo courtesy of Walt Disney Animation Studios)

“As animators, essentially our job is to bring the characters to life. Encanto was the first musical I worked on, and it was a challenge with all the singing and dancing in the film,” she said. “Disney actually brought in a live dance crew and they went through dance routines to the soundtrack and that helped our team create the appropriate moves for the characters that eventually ended up on screen.”

Asked what advice she would give current Chico State students who are about to begin their careers, Adolph said, “Everyone’s path is a little different, and it’s easy to get in a big hurry or compare yourself with others; but the best advice I could give is to just enjoy the journey.” 

Hers certainly continues. After Encanto, she served as an animator on Baymax!, an animated series about a healthcare bot that will premiere on Disney+ in 2022. She is currently working on Disney Animation’s upcoming feature Strange World, directed by Don Hall and co-directed and written by Qui Nguyen, which releases in November. From there, she’ll have an opportunity to request to work on new content, everything from feature-length movies to short films and even animation projects for Disney’s theme parks and rides.

While she’s eager to see what scene unfolds next, she’ll fill in all the details.

As Bruno told Mirabel, “you can’t hurry the future.”