18. Ruben Aquino

A great animator should be able to jump into many different bodies and be able to create something completely new yet sincere. Their characters should have a personality, walk, movements, behaviors, expressions, behaviors, characteristics, and emotions that are unique to that character but still reamin believable and sincere. This is an important part of what Disney animation is all about and to achieve this you have to do tons of research and be able to connect with many different characters. When trying to do this an ideal role model is Ruben Aquino, number 18 on our countdown and the subject of today’s post.

Ruben Aquino is unique in that he has avoided the trap of typecasting throughout his career and has the reputation of always doing something different. He also is a very hard worker and has a very strong work effort as well as the ability to connect with many different types of characters and give an assignment his all. Aquino did the mean, ugly seawitch Ursula in Litlte Mermaid yet he also animated the strong but at-first-inmature Adult Simba’s coming of age and triumph. He also has been known to get great results of the complicated task of believable, realistic humans such as Maurice in Beauty and the Beast and Captain Shang in Mulan. Ruben also has a reputation for being a very friendly, encouraging, and sincere man who has no ego and great passion for his art.

Ruben A. Aquino was born in December 1953 and grew up in Philadelphia, Pennsylvannia. While he loved cartoons and was fascinated by the art of animation his parents were practical and tried to steer him in the direction of a career that would make money. This encouraged teenage Ruben to decide on a career in architecture which he studied at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. However when he graduated from college in 1975 he found that a recession made it tough to find a job in the field so he moved to Hawaii, where he would discover things were even worse. Aquino unhappily ended up working at a print shop in Hawaii, a job that would continue for 4 years until his boss(aware of his unhappiness) told him about a small animation studio starting up on the island. The young artist jumped at the opportunity and was immediately hired.

Around 1980 Ruben Aquino moved to Los Angeles, California where he started working at Hanna-Barbara on TV Shows such as the Smurfs but soon after a bit was laid off. Around this time he began to take a class with the Animation Guild taught by Disney legend Art Babbitt and Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston’s book the Illusion of Life was realized. Both really opened Aquino’s eyes and really inspired him as an artist.  In 1982 he was hired by Disney as a clean-up artist and began being mentored by Eric Larson.  However a stirke occured over the animation industry that year about moving work overseas and no work could be done at Disney while it took place. Ruben took this as an opportunity by locking himself in his apartment and working very hard and laborously on a pencil test with characters from the Black Cauldron. When work resumed he used this test to get him promoted to the position of animator and Cauldron would end up being his first screen credit at Disney. He also helped out as an animator on the Great Mouse Detective.

On Oliver and Company Ruben Aquino made his debut as a supervising animator by serving as the lead on Francis the bulldog, Einsten the great dane, and Rita. Probably his most notable sequence animating is the film is animating Rita in the hip street song Streets of Gold. After Oliver Aquino moved on to Mermaid and was originially assigned to Triton(Andreas Deja would do it in the final film but Ruben did some great designs of the character) but after Glen Keane was reassigned to Ariel after being blown away by Jodi Benson’s vocal performance on Part of Your World and Rob Minkoff moved into directing things lined up to lead to him becoming the supervising animator on Ursula the Seawitch. The casting was very successful and Ursula remains the animator’s favorite character done in his career. “When animating Ursula, I was inspired mainly by the voice and by the story ketches, but of course, I also worked very closely with the
directors (John Musker & Ron Clements) to realize their vision,” wrote Ruben. “Given a great voice, the scenes almost animate themselves, and that definitely was the case with Pat Carroll’s amazing vocal performance. I also did a
lot of research on octopus locomotion to make sure Ursula’s movements were convincing.”

After the success of Urusla Ruben Aquino moved on to supervise first Jake the kangaroo rat in Rescuers Down Under and then Maurice in Beauty and the Beast. He then would skip working on Aladdin to become the first animator on the upcoming(and at that stage of production unpopular with the animators) Lion King so he could do more research on the movements of lions and wildebeest in the wild. In the final film Ruben supervised the animation of Adult Simba as well as did a test of a wildebeest running to give the CG animators a feel for the locomotion. “I worked closely with Mark Henn and Tony Fucile mainly to make sure the character design of adult Simba worked with cub Simba and Mufasa (Tony
did a design pass on Adult Simba that became the basis for the final design– the mane design is almost identical to Mufasa’s),” reflects the animator on his work on the film. “For the animation, I listened to Matthew Broderick’s vocal tracks over and over again, listening to all the nuances of his performance to inspire the acting. I also acted out  the scenes myself before starting to animate (acting out the scene helps me to feel the emotions & thought processes of the character, which is the basis of the performance), but of course I was limited somewhat by not being a quadruped– but I got close enough…. I also did a lot of preliminary thumbnail sketches to plan out the actions before doing the full-size animation drawings.” After Lion King Aquino moved to Florida to serve as a key piece in making the young studio talented enough to make feature films. Although he was brought there to work on Mulan first he supervised the animation of Powhatan in Pocahontas, the only Florida unit on the film. On Mulan Ruben brilliantly and convincingly animated both Mulan’s moth Fa Li and the commanding and disciplined Captain Shang.

After Mulan Ruben Aquino first did some additional animation for Tarzan and then supervising Pleaky the Alein and David in Lilo and Stitch. Following that he supervised the brother Denahi in Brother Bear and did a test for a cancelled combination film about Abraham Lincoln before returning to the Burbank studio when the Florida Studio shut down. When back in Burbank he began supervising animation on the CG film Meet the Robinsons, where he animated Mildred(director of the Orphanage) and Mr. Willerstein(the science teacher.) Although Ruben currently primarily does hand-drawn I personally feel he transcends very well into 3d and I’d like to see him do a combination of the two mediums.  Then Aquino returned to his roots by supervising Tiana’s parents in Princess and the Frog and then animating on Winnie the Pooh. He is currently working at Disney as an animator on an upcoming feature film.

Style wise Ruben Aquino’s work is very well-sculpted and you’ll find alot of geometry in his designs(perhaps a reflection of his architectural background.) When he animates he first very carefully studies the characteristics of the character’s voice and puts this together with a believable design that clearly matches the character’s personality. Here Ruben speaks of his process: “I base the movements of a character on their personality and physical characteristics (as well as their emotional state); no two characters will walk or move in the same way (for that matter, the same character
will move differently depending on their emotional state as well). I avoid formulas as much as possible, while staying true to the principles of Disney animation (squash & stretch, weight & inertia, exaggeration, etc.) to make the animation believable. I always do a lot of research on any character I animate, and that helps with the believability, too.” Yes research is a top priority to him and it very much shows in his characters. Look at the way Maurice walks and compare it to the way Shang walks. Maurice is a bit crazy and different so he has a walk and movements that are a bit more crooked and don’t always match with everyone else’s, showing is intelligent but unique personality. On the other hand Shang is a confident and focused soldier who has no tolerance for nonsense so therefore he walks very straight and confidentally as well as moves in a way that is very contained and shows little emotion. Thumbnails are also an important part of Ruben’s process and he uses them to organize his ideas and plan for his scenes. Thumbnails are very convenient because they let you figure out all the communication and movement problems in your scene without worrying too much about timing or wasting footage and also are a great way to focus on finding new ideas. Sincerity and believability too are important to Ruben and he stresses always doing something original. This is very much apparent in his performance of Ursula. Study one of her scenes frame by frame and you’ll see expressions and movements that have never been used in another Disney character. Also she’s very effective because of how well-conceived she is and the believability of her gestures. Genius!

In terms of influence Ruben Aquino has been one of the most consistent and versatile animators of the second generation. Like I said before he’s one of the best ever at never repeating himself and creating something completely new as well as well-done.  This puts Aquino in a league with Frank Thomas, Bill Tytla, Glen Keane, and Andreas Deja who had the great reputation of being excellent actors and being able to do every assignment very well. Also he proved alot of people in his generation that an animator can avoid the trap of typecasting and doing similar types of characters twice. For example I could see Ruben as an inspiration when Andreas Deja turned down the opportunity to supervise Frollo and Hades so he wouldn’t keep doing Disney villians(since then the only villian he’s animated is the one in Enchanted.)

As for inspiration Ruben Aquino has had a huge impact on me. He really has inspired me to try to avoid formulas and doing the same thing twice and instead try to do something that’s a completely new challenge and stands on its own. Also I learned from Ruben the importance of both research and thumbnails. I have talked with him a few times and I can say he’s very helpful, approachable, and encouraging. While many other animators have egos he’s very modest and seems to appreciate praise of his work very much. Last I learned from Aquino that believability is crucial when animating a character and that you need to work as hard as you can to put that up on screen. Thank you Ruben Aquino for being an inspiration to me, your contributions to Disney animation, and most importantly the hard work and devotion you’ve given to the Disney studio.


6 Responses to “18. Ruben Aquino”

  1. I love this series and am so pleased that you bounce back and forth between the old masters and young ones. I know all about Les Clark’s life, but am completely ignorant of Reuben Aquino. It’s a necessity to read you blog. I’ll try to promote it more on my own.

  2. great article… one correct, however… Ruben grew up in Okinawa, Japan and still maintains a close relationship with all of us from that island….

  3. This is a great piece about Ruben Aquino. We grew up together, and I can tell you, Ruben did not grow up in Philadelphia. Ruben grew up on the island of Okinawa, Japan. We went to school together from Kindergarten to 12th grade on Okinawa. Otherwise your article is awesome!

  4. These are in fact impressive ideas in on the topic of blogging.
    You have touched some good factors here. Any
    way keep up wrinting.

  5. […] is a letter written by Ruben Aquino, Supervising Animator at Walt Disney Animation […]

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