SHENANGO VALLEY —
Enchanted by animated films as a child, Sharon native Brittney Lee is living her dream in Los Angeles.
Drawn to whimsy early in life, Miss Lee’s artwork spreads light and cheer with depictions of colorful birds, romantic cityscapes, lovely cartoonish ladies and kitty cats inspired by her feline muse Popoki, whose likeness helps pay his share of the rent in the City of Angels.
Miss Lee, 27, works in visual development at Disney Animation Studios. It’s a job she declared her wish for in a fifth-grade class assignment.
“I like things that are fanciful. It’s probably what drew me to Disney,” Miss Lee said.
Miss Lee is a daughter of Paula K. Lee, Sharon, and the late Ivor J. Lee II, and her proud mother said she knew early on Brittney was talented.
Even as a young child, Miss Lee was “always artistic.”
She painted an oil portrait of Mickey Mouse with Mrs. Lee’s sister at about 4 years old, and later on she made little flip books and characters out of paper for friends and her teachers, Mrs. Lee said. Many teachers kept Miss Lee’s creations because they knew someday she’d make it as an artist, her mother said.
“A lot of her dreams have come true,” Mrs. Lee said.
Mrs. Lee said several people in her family – she’s a Holcombe from the Jamestown area – are artistic and her younger daughter Lainey is a graphic designer in New York.
Miss Lee said her mother’s sense of style influences the characters she draws, as well.
It all began when Miss Lee saw “The Little Mermaid” at 6 years old.
“I think we saw it seven times in the theater. I ended up so fascinated by it,” Miss Lee said.
In fact, one of her early drawings was featured on a Disney Channel segment where Mickey Mouse’s hand put kids’ pictures on a refrigerator between shows.
“I drew like a maniac all of these little mermaid drawings and they put it on TV,” Miss Lee said.
The influence is still apparent, as many of her pieces include her favorite daughters of the sea.
And a lot of the people who worked on the beloved film still work at the studio, like Glen Keane. The character designer and supervising animator for Ariel in the movie, Keane played a large role in inspiring Miss Lee.
“He’s a superstar for everyone in the animation industry,” she said.
She was honored when Keane bought her paper sculpture based on that film at a charity auction. The piece was larger than most she does and took about 32 hours to finish over two months.
Miss Lee got into making 3D pictures with paper about two years ago in what she called a “fluke.”
After seeing a couple of artists who sculpt in paper, she found examples online.
“I thought it was really interesting but never thought I would have any outlet for it.”
While preparing for a convention more focused on arts and crafts, Miss Lee said she bought a couple little lanterns because she wanted to paint on the glass, thinking it might be fun.
However, once she started painting she realized it was “the most horrible experience.”
“I quickly decided that it was not going to fly and tried to think of something else to do to use (the lanterns).”
Miss Lee decided to try making a paper sculpture inside and created a scene with faces and birds on each side.
“It took forever,” she said of that first paper piece, which she still has.
After she posted photos of the lantern on her blog, “people really responded to it.”
And she’s been working with paper more and more ever since, often on things that pay tribute to the movies that inspired her. In addition to “The Little Mermaid,” Miss Lee’s created paper sculptures with scenes from “The Lion King,” “Edward Scissorhands” and “Harry Potter.”
Cutting shapes and assembling them gives her a chance to exercise the other side of her brain, Miss Lee said, noting that she always liked math and physics in school.
“I enjoy it. The medium of paper translates well with the way that I paint,” Miss Lee said, adding that she taught herself and came up with a process pretty quickly.
She begins by laying out the design in a computer program and then takes the template to a light table to trace and cut out sheets of paper.
Miss Lee cuts everything by hand, usually with a crafting knife.
“A good, sharp blade makes all the difference,” she said.
When people ask if that drives her crazy, she explains that it’s an escape.
“It’s such a nice break from the computer for me. I sit there pretty much all day every day.” Miss Lee said.
The paper cutting is “sort of therapeutic” and gives her a chance to zone out and listen to music, the artist said.
Miss Lee starts off construction as if the design is for a flat, single image and then makes a paper box in which to set the pieces. She attaches the elements of the design to the background with loops of paper that raise them up.
She often sculpts birds because there are so many different types and it’s easy to expand on them and exaggerate in different ways.
“You can really push the shapes and colors of feathers and can make them as crazy as you want and it always ends up looking like fun,” Miss Lee said.
If she needs ideas, sometimes she goes to Disneyland. Fashion, interior design and food – particularly stylized photos - give her motivation to create, as well.
“I pull inspiration from everywhere,” Miss Lee said.
At home or at the office, she’s creating.
“I basically spend all of my time painting or drawing,” she said of her nine-hour days at the studio. “It keeps me happy.”
Most of her painting is done digitally on computer monitors at work and at home. It’s cheaper and faster than working with paint or ink.
“I’m drawing with a pen on fake paper,” she explained.
Sometimes she likes to do watercolor and wash paintings, but she has much less time to use different mediums.
Miss Lee helps figure out what characters look like and what they wear and designs environments and backgrounds for Disney projects in the works.
She helps provide inspiration for the story team and animators.
As she gets more involved in specific projects that get to “crunch time,” her schedule will likely become more rigorous.
Visual development artists have more freedom than the animators do, and Miss Lee said she’s always been drawn to classic Disney style.
“I’ve been drawing since I was a little kid,” she said. “That’s why I do what I do now.”
She’s worked for the entertainment powerhouse for a little over a year and did some work on 2012’s “Wreck-It Ralph.” The movie will be Miss Lee’s first film credit.
She graduated at the top of her class from Sharon High in 2002 and went on to major in film and animation at Rochester (N.Y.) Institute of Technology, which is where she met her fiancé David Suroviec, who’s from the Erie area.
Miss Lee’s first book credit is for a paperback story based on a recent Disney hit.
She drew the pictures for “Tangled: A Dazzling Day.”
In what little spare time she has, Miss Lee is also working on a fairy tale anthology that will be an interactive e-book of paper art published by Spacedog Books in San Francisco, where she used to live. She called the project “a labor of love.”
Her work is also often on display at group shows like the ones at Gallery Nucleus, Alhambra, Calif., where two paper sculptures of Miss Lee’s hang in a Harry Potter Tribute Exhibition.
“It’s really awesome,” Miss Lee said of seeing her art hanging. “It’s interesting to see other people looking at it. Everybody gets something different from it.”
And this year, Miss Lee will have her own table at Comic-Con, the annual convention in San Diego that draws fans of all sorts of media from all over the world. The event is July 21-24.
Check out Brittney Lee’s work at her website at www.britsketch.blogspot.com