Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Interview: Behind the Scenes of Vinylmation with Artist Ron Cohee

Like many of you, it didn't take me long to get completely hooked on the craze that is Vinylmation. For me, it all started back during our Disney World trip in late 2011. At that point, I had never even heard of them and, when I arrived at the parks, I remember thinking "what are these Vinylmations and why are people going nuts for them?" However, with all the hype, I couldn't resist but get a couple once I saw the original Toy Story series one blind box set. What started out as "oh I'll just get one or two" has turned into "I need every single Pixar related release."

There's something just so thrilling about opening that "blind box", having no idea which character is inside. Who's behind the foil? Is it "the chaser" or the elusive "variant?" You never know…and that's the fun of it!

Vinylmations are designed by a variety of talented artists. For years now though, I have seen the name of Ron Cohee attached to many of my favorite Vinylmations and his work has continued to stand out to me even more than the rest. His amazing stye has become something I now always look forward to seeing more of. His latest work, featured in the upcoming Toy Story series two, will be available at D-Street locations & at the on September 12th and at
Disney Stores on September 15th.

Within the last couple weeks, I've had the fantastic opportunity to be in contact with Ron and he was kind enough to take part in this interview about the making of Vinylmations and his career as a Disney Design Group artist.

Lets get to it!  

 Ron, it's an absolute honor to have you here on my blog. Thank you very much for taking the time to answer a few questions! 
Thanks so much for the opportunity, Dan! I really enjoy your blog; the enthusiasm you convey is so inspiring. 

First off, for those who aren't familiar, what exactly is the Disney Design Group (DDG)? Is there any relationship with Disney Consumer Products (DCP)? 
 The Disney Design Group is a talented team of graphic designers and character artists located here in Central Florida, begun in large part by a man Walt Disney himself hired, named Ralph Kent (he has a window on Main Street at the Magic Kingdom). Our products - which range from toys, collectibles and gallery art to clothing, hats and even shower curtains - are exclusively designed for the Disney Parks and Resorts. Our colleagues at DCP - in Glendale, CA - create incredible and thorough style guides surrounding a new film property, for example, and will provide that art for licensees around the world to follow. Consistency being of utmost importance, we will also follow these guides in our product designs. We do, however, strive to make our products unique in order to differentiate them from what you can find "outside the berm" of the parks. So whenever possible and appropriate, we go to great lengths to incorporate the various characters into the settings and attractions found in the theme parks, as well as continually create fresh and original style guides of our own. 

 In regards to the Toy Story Series Two Vinylmations coming out soon, I have to say, I was very impressed with the selection of characters chosen. Most, if not all, were on my shortlist of ones I had hoped would be included. With so many characters within a franchise such as Toy Story to choose from, how are they ultimately narrowed down and chosen to be made? Are you involved in that decision making process?  
The Vinylmation program, much like Disney pins, is a broad and collaborative effort that involves a great deal of strategy and long-term planning. Our Principle Graphic Designer, Thomas Scott, has been passionately guiding this line of collectibles since its infancy, and he works with us (along with our team of merchandisers and planners) to carefully determine the characters and properties that will be represented over the course of many years. Strategically, it’s best to release a good mix of both primary and secondary characters in each series, to keep from running through all the most popular or obvious ones too soon; of equal importance is the overall design and balance of the set as a whole. 

You work along side many other Disney Vinylmation artists, how is it decided as to who gets what assignment?  
Great question! We each have our passions and strengths, and as we’ve come to know each other better over the years, it’s become more obvious which characters or subjects are the most fun for particular artists (certain artists are especially knowledgeable about Marvel properties, for example, and can provide a higher level of attention and authority to those items). That being said, it is desirable to get a fresh approach now and then, and so people often get a chance to try new and surprising things.

 After the artist is determined and the selection of characters in a series is finalized, what is the remaining process from concept art to final product? What's a standard time frame in order to complete a series? 
I like to quickly paint rough digital concepts first in order to see how they look together. The next step is creating vector art on a digital Vinylmation template, showing all angles and calling out every color. After the designs are approved by Thomas (and Pixar, in this case) they are sent to the factory, where the art is carefully applied one detail at a time - the entire process from concept to shelf usually takes several months to a year. 

 On average, how many versions of a character's design do you feel you typically go through before reaching a look that you and your team are happy with?
 Since we work in tight collaboration on these, there isn’t much that goes by the wayside. Occasionally, there will be some that don’t make it into a series for one reason or another - but you never know when they might fit in later, so no design is forgotten or disposed of. When samples start coming in from the factory, each artist is responsible for checking the details and making any notes or corrections necessary for complete accuracy. 

I know you've designed a LOT of Vinylmations, but if you had to choose one (or a series) that you had the most fun with and/or connected with the most, what would it be and why? Which do you remember being the most challenging?  
I’ve certainly had the privilege of working on quite a few - though I’m not nearly as prolific as some of the other artists. I would have to say the ones I enjoyed the most were probably Carl and Ellie, just because of the sheer emotional power of their sequence together in Up; I also loved working on the Haunted Mansion Stretching Portraits, as a big Marc Davis fan. I’d say the Hydra from Hercules was as challenging as it was fun, due to the twisting necks and tricky negative space. 

Designing Vinylmations is not the only thing keeping you busy. You have quite the impressive online portfolio! I've had a blast exploring it and seeing all the work you've done for the Disney over the years. Can you talk about some of your other projects that you've been involved with?  
Thanks so much! Working as a character artist at DDG, I’ve been given so many opportunities over the past few years to work with the most amazing artists on such wonderful products. Presently, I’m part of the Softlines team, so I design a lot of art used on clothing and other apparel - you may have seen a shirt I designed with the characters from Monsters, Inc. opening doors into our theme parks, for example. I’ve also been involved in some larger storybook programs, so called because they involve a visual celebration of our characters, parks and attractions in one large image. We work on all different kinds of items, though, no matter what team you belong to, and we often get to collaborate with the creators of the original content at the studios. For example, we’ve worked with both Pixar and Lucasfilm to create the “Cars as Star Wars” line of die-cast toys [series one & two]- I basically did the rough designs, and with help from Ben Butcher and Jay Ward, helped steer them in the right direction. As a matter of fact, any chance to work with our friends at Pixar is always a joy. They have a genuine and vested interest in helping us to be good stewards of their characters in merchandise, as do all our partners. (Note: I also found out that Ron designed a favorite of mine in my collection, the Pixar "Disney Heroes" figure pack. Such great work!)

 Switching gears just a little, I'm interested in getting to know more about you and your success story. What was your path to Disney and how did it eventually lead you to where you are today designing merchandise?  
Long story, but I’ll keep it short! I attended the California Institute of the Arts from 1992-1994, and then worked at Disney Feature Animation for ten years, transferring to the Florida studio at one point along the way. After the studio closed in 2004, I worked at a smaller studio started by former Disney artists and added to my skills. I also kept busy freelancing for Disney Publishing and Walt Disney Imagineering; some of the buses at Walt Disney World are wrapped with my art, as is much of Disney’s Art of Animation Resort. DDG graciously added me to their team in 2011.

 Lastly, for those possibly interested in finding a career in Disney merchandising (with the Disney Design Group and/or Disney Consumer Products), do you have any advice on how to get started?
I would advise anyone to get as much artistic education and life experience as possible; try to observe and capture as much from real life as you can, filling your sketchbook with people, animals and structures - anything that propels you forward and helps you grow as an artist. Study the masterpieces of the past - fine art and sculpture as well as film, animation and caricature. Gesture, life drawing, anatomy and composition are a must, especially for a character artist. Learn as much as you can about color and design, and learn how to paint and sculpt digitally. Above all, never give up. I still have my rejection letters to remind myself that perseverance and faith make all the difference in the world!

If you'd like to learn more about Ron and his stunning body of work, visit his online portfolio at

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