On February 16, 2011 I had the wonderful opportunity to speak with a Mr. Jim Valeri. What follows is a view of the man, his art and Disney:
DragynAlly: Tell me a little bit about yourself
Jim Valeri: I am a Senior Manager for Design Disney America Creative Team for the stores in North America and I've been with the company , I spent a little time elsewhere but all in total I've been here for about 11 years. We have a team of five guys that work on not just the Vinylmation but all the creative in the store that ends up on product.
DA: That's awesome! So, it's not just Vinylmation it's other toys or products in the store.
JV: Yeah, we do a lot of creative development for, it essentially ends up on everything...apparel and homeware and stationary and what not. Vinylmation is our guilty pleasure but it's not the only thing we get to do.
DA: Got it! I always ask this...what sparked your love of Disney?
JV: What sparked my love of Disney? Well, I submitted my portfolio when I was 16.
JV: One of the neighbors on my friend's street, for a long while he worked in maintenance but I gave him my portfolio and asked him to show it to the people at Disney and they actually did it and they gave me some encouragement, they said, "You're not quite ready!" Go figure, at 16 I wasn't ready. But, you know, all you have to do is step into the park one time and you get taken to another world and you're hooked, so... I've always loved drawing, since I was a very young kid. I'm one of these people that, this is the only thing I ever wanted to do. I didn't go through "I want to be a fireman or policeman" phase, I went through "I want to be an artist" phase in first grade and never stopped.
DA: That's awesome. How long have you been working with Vinylmation? Since they first came out, I think, two years ago or...?
JV: No, actually, the parks began the whole, it was birthed with the parks and they graciously allowed us to get in on the action and carry them in the store. So it's been about a year, a little over a year, when we first heard about being able to work on them. We were all aware of them and several of the guys were collectors already so it wasn't hard to get us on board.
DA: That's awesome. You already answered this in a way but how long have you worked with Disney or working at Disney?
JV: Well, in some way, shape or form...I started as an intern in 1994, so 16 years. I don't think there's a year that went by that I didn't...if I wasn't actually working for the company full-time, I was freelancing. So yeah, I would say, I can say with all confidence, 16 years.
DA: Wow...and what have you done around the company besides Creative Director.
JV: Oh, you know, it's been awesome, it's a great place to work. I started out drawing Winnie the Pooh. Which at first I thought, "Oh no, Winnie the Pooh! I'd rather work on..." at the time it was like, you know, Hercules or one of these feature films but I was just happy to get my foot in the door. As it turned out, Winnie the Pooh at that time, was one of the biggest drivers of revenue for the company. So I had a lot of fun and it really helped me get foundational skills working on those guys. So I did a lot of character art and I did toys for awhile at Customer Products so I actually got to concept toys and see them on shelf and it was always a blast to see that. And illustration, I've designed books for publishing so it's been a nice well-rounded...I've done animatronic figures for Macy's in New York City, I built the Macy's windows, I did that a couple of times. It's been a blast, I just really never get tired of it.
DA:: That's awesome. So, how does the Vinylmation design process work? How do we start from idea in our heads to plastic toy we can all collect.
JV: Alright, well first we probe our minds for what we think would be a fun series. We also work closely with the parks and try and figure out what they're going to be having coming out so we don't duplicate efforts. We do discuss what is a viable possibility and then when we're clear that everyone is feeling like it's a good idea then we start the conceptualization. So the guys kind of get together and...I'll give Villains as an example because that's what's out now...we just start thinking about Villains that are favorites. I mean, it starts from your passion, and then it gets into, well ok, it allows us to think about how to mix up the assortment so that there's recognizable ones for our guest that's coming into the store and isn't maybe necessarily a Vinylmation...um, familiar with it but who doesn't want them to see something they recognize and respond to? Then from there we kind of tier them into second class and then obscure. We usually have to try out one or two obscure characters in each one because we also understand that there is a collector out there that is just rabid and will take any...they are steeped in the lore of Disney and so they love some of these characters that a lot of people would never even know. So we're trying to keep a nice balance there when we go forward. And then the guys will submit concepts and we'll kind of have a group critique and from there we'll continue to hone the process all the way to the final mechanical art which can be pretty intense but it's all part of the process.
DA: When you say "pretty intense" it's just time consuming or energy or both...?
JV: It can be time consuming and depending on the level of detail...you really have to be aware of the limitations of the form and the manufacturing limitations so we have to be cognizant of that so that we don't create something that's going to be a complete nightmare to execute. Thinking about how it's going to fit around the form and what's the back look like...so it takes some thoughtful, purposeful thought to really deliver something that we feel is at the level we want to deliver.
DA: Got it. When you're designing Vinyls do you start with paper and a pad or do you try to use a blank form and design it on there...?
JV: Yeah, we normally start with a blank form and in the interest of being environmentally friendly and green most of us don't even really work on paper anymore, we draw right on our computers. So, we start designing...most of the guys will start with a quick Photoshop rendering and then when that is worked out and then we work out how we're going to approach it. Then we'll glue it to Adobe Illustrator and then we'll do all the angles, top views, side views, color...we have to be aware of color limitations so we talk about the palette and all that stuff. Then at the end of the day we look at it all together and make sure it sort of hangs together, in a loose sort of way...I also am aware that every artist has their own 'hand' and I think one of the fun things about this whole genre is that everyone is going to have a little bit of a different approach, a little bit of a different look...over the course of many pieces you should be able to pick out somebody's style to a certain extent and I don't want to hide that. I think that's a neat thing, it's something that we try to honor as well when we design them.
DA: In this collection each artist got two or three Vinylmations to design, I noticed. Which ones are yours?
JV: I did Stromboli and Banzai, which is one of the hyenas from Lion King. The first round, people sort of auditioned for the character they wanted to do and if they had it nailed I would assign it to them. Going forward, what we kind of do is put all the names in a hat and we pick them based on a lottery system just because it simplifies the process and makes sure that everybody gets an equal shot at everybody. Unless they can make a really compelling case for why they want to do a certain character...which they can try all they want and sometimes I'll allow it and sometimes I won't... We try to make it a fairly even distribution among our teammates.
DA: That's cool. I really love this collection because I love Villains, they're actually some of my favorite characters.
JV: Oh, yeah...they're awesome and they've been a little bit undeserved lately so I'm glad we're able to do it. Actually, when we were talking with the parks initially, and we said "Have you guys planned a Villains series?" and they said "No but that's a great idea!" and we said "Really? You haven't done..." and we jumped on it as soon as we heard that because we kind of knew there was pent-up demand for it and we just love the whole thing as well.
DA: There definitely is. I know, I have friends who don't necessarily collect Vinyls but then they heard of the Villains collection and were like, "I need this!", so it was definitely, definitely a step in the right direction.
JV: Yeah, I'm glad, it was a good thing to go out for our first series with. I think it was a wise decision.
DA: Oh, so this is the first official store's only series?
DA: Oh my gosh, that's amazing!
JV: Yeah, yeah...and it's kind of neat the way it all...like we could see that there was hype building because people were starting to hear about it happening and then Japan released it first so that kind of made it visible to the world and even then though, all the information wasn't there so it was just hilarious to watch people speculate about "what's going to be the chaser?" and they were already thinking "what Villains are going to be in the next series?". So they are already talking about, speculating about things that they have no idea about, what we're doing or not doing. It's just neat because you can just see the excitement building and then when we released it, it was so well received we were just, we felt like it was, you know...confirmed...everything that we thought that was going to, did really well.
DA: This is awesome. That it is the first series. I am looking forward to many more because it used to be it was Park series only and you had to go to Disney World or if you were lucky a few stragglers would make their way to the store so this is definitely amazing.
JV: Right. Well, the cool part, too is that...as we go forward, we're going to be sharing stuff so you'll find stuff in the stores that might have only been available in the parks in prior years and you'll find some of our stuff at the parks as well so there will be some crossover. I mean, there is a strategy behind it that I can't speak to necessarily but it's going to be nice because we're going to actually be cooperating as well.
DA: That will be very cool. So because this was the first attempt for the stores to do Vinylmation was there pressure to get it perfect or did you just have a feeling if you did something good it would be well-received or....?
JV: Oh, we just went out in exuberant naivete, we were so excited. It was nice though because the parks having had done this for a couple years, they knew all of the...they held our hand and they helped us avoid pitfalls they had fallen into and really gave us technical advice on how to make them work so that was really helpful. We didn't feel like we were out in the cold. As far as the pressure, I never really felt any, I never felt any pressure. As soon as I first started seeing the first designs, I knew they were going to do fine. I knew they were going to do really well because we saw how well they were selling for the parks and we felt our designs were really up there with everything else that had been out there before. We're just excited that it worked out the way it did.
DA: Yeah, it turned out amazing and I know people are after them in droves so it's really cool. Let me see...
JV: Thank you!
DA: I was going to ask who decides which characters will be Vinyls but with this series I noticed that it was a different span of generations of Villains. That really impressed me too because you had the classic Villains, even from Steamboat Willy, to the Disney renaissance, some of the more modern Villains.
DA: So, what made that happen?
JV: First, we kind of sat down and tried to identify all of our Villains that we could, first just by memory. Trying to go by what comes to the top of our mind. Then we would go back and we would research and we would go "Oh gosh, yeah, I forgot about that Villain from..." you know, from some movie that may or may not have been a big deal for Disney but nonetheless, these characters are always so incredibly thought-out and well designed that you can't wait to go through the whole repertoire. We did actually start designing the first series and we wanted to kind of mix it up. We really wanted to have some strong ones going out but we didn't want to have all the top ones right out the door. A lot of it was driven by people's favorites. What they had a passion for. That's always going to result in the best work, when you're designing to your passion.
DA: When did the idea to start a store Vinylmation collection start and when did this whole process, creating the Villains Vinyls, start?
JV: You mean, for the stores or in general? For the stores, I think it was about a year ago, maybe a little more than that, is when we first heard we were going to be able to do it and then I think the entire development of the first series might have took 9 months. Probably because we were learning, in the process, I don't know if it's always going to take that long but from concept to having the hot little samples in our hands, probably about 9 months.
DA: 9 months...
JV: So it's not an insignificant amount of effort that goes into it, it takes some thought and some back end...quality control and then there's packaging that goes into it. There's all kinds of aspects into it that you don't necessarily think about going forward when you first start. You learn real quickly that the whole thing has to orchestrate pretty well.
DA: Got it. Does having to conform to the Mickey Mouse shape of the Vinylmation sort of hinder the creative process or does sort of having that confinement make you even more creative?
JV: You absolutely nailed it. It hinders you in a glorious way. Creativity in general, is something that people think well, the best thing for a "Creative" is to have an absolute blue sky or a white page and that's not always the case. Sometimes the white page can be daunting. As well with these figures...yeah, you're working on a limited form and sometimes you're trying to figure out how to get a skinny character on this chubby form or this non-human character on this humanoid form and you think "Oh, I'll never figure this out..." and the more you apply yourself to it and try to come up with creative solutions, actually the constriction becomes your friend, in a way. Sort of an odd antithesis to what you would think. To some degree, restriction helps focus your creativity. I would definitely fall on that side of the philosophy.
DA: And you had both a human form and an animal form to get on a Vinylmation. So how were they different, how were they alike?
JV: Well, you just have to approach it with an open mind and you're doing a lot of aesthetic shortcuts. One thing I've learned in doing character art all these years is there are a lot of what I call "cheats". If you look at Mickey Mouse, his ears don't go in perspective with his head. When he turns his head his ears stay stuck in the same position because the animators learned early on that it would be an absolute animation nightmare to try to animate those ears in the proper perspective every time they did it. But it didn't matter because in the animation he's no less alive and he no less feels like a real character because of that cheat. So when it comes to these Vinylmations you're trying to communicate an emotion or the essence of a character and you can do that in a bunch of different ways. Even if it doesn't necessarily conform. Like an animal doesn't conform to a standing biped but there are ways to communicate "animal" without having to necessarily put them on all fours. It's another one of those challenges but it's fun to approach and I'm always amazed at some of the solutions these guys come up with.
DA: Well, I'll admit Banzai is actually my favorite from the collection and I'm not just saying that because you're here...
JV: Ah now Dana, you're just buttering me up!
DA: Yes, yes I am, actually!
DA: Yeah, he's actually my favorite and goodness knows why but I do love him and I thought he turned out really well.
JV: Well, here's the thing...one of the advantages of being sort of a character guy from way back is that as with animating, it's about acting. The best animators in Disney history were the best actors. They would actually have a mirror in front of their drawing desks and they would do facial expressions in that mirror to really capture what they were drawing. And so I kind of feel the same way when I'm drawing a character or when I'm working with the guys here and they understand this, too. It's like there's these little nuances in facial expressions that can give you a little extra something, you know?
JV: It's speaking to you, it's saying something about the characters' personality so I think that's what people respond to as well, you know?
DA: You can tell that it was Banzai and not the other two hyenas, which is very cool!
JV: Yeah, those little nuances...if you capture them...if you nail it, you nail it. It's always nice to hear people respond to that and be able to really pick it out right away. That's one of the things we test. If you have to kind of search your brain to figure out what character that is then we take it as a possibility that maybe we didn't design it right so we go back to the drawing board and go "No no, we want it to be obvious who that is as much as possible, at first glance."
DA: Well, I noticed that even if I couldn't guess right away if I just knew who the character was as soon as I knew that, I could see it. Like with Steamboat Willy, Pete...I did know that was him but I didn't remember him from the cartoon and as soon as I looked him up I was like "Oh yes...yeah, that's Pete".
JV: Yeah...definitely. That's fun, too to go back and look it up. That's sort of a nice little side benefit of the series, too. It makes people go "Wow, I'm not sure who that character is" and they're going to go research it and find out. We live in a day now where it's so easy to figure out who these characters are and where they came from that I think it helps people to start appreciating the incredible history of this company and the entertainment that its been putting out for whatever, 80 years. That's neat that people are so interested that they go back and go "Now, I want to reacquaint myself with this character...or with this film..."
DA: Oh, definitely, and you find yourself looking at them and trying to figure out where they came from..."Oh, that's the Villian from here..." so it's very cool. Which one of the series is your favorite?
JV: My favorite. Oddly enough, I love Ratcliffe.
DA: Oh yeeaaahhh...
JV: Remember that? I just love the...and that's Enrique Pita, my buddy over here designed that...and I just feel like that expression is so over the top hilarious, that it gives me joy to look at. And I enjoyed designing, personally, Stromboli because, I said this to other people, he's this fiery Italian Villain but in a way, he reminds me of my father, he was also a fiery Italian character and looked a lot like him actually. So I felt like I was sort of doing homage to my father when I was designing that one. So it's funny, these little things that you glom onto that attract you and you would never know it unless you bothered to ask, like you just did.
(This is where I was told I had 5 minutes left.)
DA: Got it. Well then, let me get to my final question and I will let you go. I was going to say...are you a collector, do you love Vinyls as much as the fans do?
JV: I will say that I wasn't a collector when I started. I could give you the answer that we think we want to hear but I wasn't a collector and now I'm totally interested in it. I wasn't much of a collector of anything, to be honest with you. I was the anomoly because all of the other guys on my team are and are perfectly comfortable spending half of their income on these figures. Yeah, I'm a big fan now. I've always liked the Vinylmation genre but there's something about these characters that make you want to have them all. So I think I'm going to be spending some cash going forward. Because they don't give them to us for free, you know.
DA: Yeah. Oh, and my final question is: what is your hope for the future of Disney Store Vinyls and your hope for your future at Disney?
JV: Oh, well, my hope for Vinyls is that it's got a long, long life and that we can keep coming up with interesting, compelling series ideas. I don't think we can, personally, exhaust the amount of characters and properties and movies and stuff in our arsenal. I just want to make sure that we're aware of what the fans are wanting and what they're interested in and that we're sensitive to that so that it goes on for as long as we can have it go on. And I'm not just saying that from a business standpoint. Obviously, the longer we can make the series work the better it is for the bottom line but from a personal standpoint in designing it, it's one of the favorite things I get to do here so I want that to go on for a long time.
And as far as my hope for the future in Disney Store...I tell you what...I never get tired of going into a store whether I'm doing a store check or driving around my own neighborhood and going into my neighborhood store and seeing something on the shelf that I either designed or helped design or had a hand in designing. I never lose the thrill of that so I just want to keep doing that as long as I can. That's basically it, it's nothing fancy, it's just, we need to make sure that we are putting stuff out there that people love because there is some meaning to that that I really embrace.
DA: Awesome. Thank you so much for your time today. It was great talking to you and getting the inside scoop on Disney Vinyls!
JV: You're welcome! You had some great questions, I appreciate it. Thanks Dana!