Midtown Raleigh News

Sanderson graduate brings characters to life on screen

Shaofu Zhang, holding an Oscar, poses with Patrick Osborne, director of the Oscar-winning animated short film, “Feast,” the morning after the Academy Awards. Zhang, who works for Disney, graduated from Sanderson High School in 2002.
Shaofu Zhang, holding an Oscar, poses with Patrick Osborne, director of the Oscar-winning animated short film, “Feast,” the morning after the Academy Awards. Zhang, who works for Disney, graduated from Sanderson High School in 2002. COURTESY OF SHAOFU ZHANG

When Shaofu Zhang first met a boy named Hiro Hamada and his robot pal Baymax, they weren’t yet the stars of Disney’s hit animated film “Big Hero 6.”

Instead, they were characters looking to be brought to life on the big screen by a team of hundreds, including animators like Zhang.

In his role at Disney, Zhang, a 2002 graduate of Sanderson High School in Raleigh, works on anything to do with how a character moves across the screen, whether it’s a heartfelt moment or a major action sequence.

When characters first cross his desk, they’re largely a wooden presence. Zhang and his coworkers put the zip in characters’ steps, finessing the movements that will captivate an audience.

“It’s like your little baby,” said Zhang, 30. “It’s really cool to go from zero to this living character.”

In February, “Big Hero 6” brought home an Oscar for best animated feature film, while another film Zhang worked on at Disney, “Feast,” won for best animated short film.

Zhang, who joined Disney in 2014, said it’s a delight to see projects he helped build gain such recognition.

But that doesn’t mean he can watch them yet without an artist’s critical eyes. He still wonders about things he could have done differently or hopes to experiment with the next time.

“There’s always new things to do,” he said.

Zhang grew up loving the movies, especially films with big effects, such as “Jurassic Park” or the “Terminator” movies.

After graduating from Sanderson, he went to UNC Wilmington, where he focused on live action filmmaking.

He interned on the sets of television shows and landed a job in the industry, but he quickly realized he didn’t love the live action world. When he came home from long days, he found himself playing with effects programs into the night.

Zhang returned to school, at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, to study animation.

Now, when’s he working, he’s thrilled knowing he’s creating a magical experience for children and adults alike.

“It’s that same feeling I used to get when I was watching ‘Aladdin’ and ‘Lion King’ and these classic movies that inspired me,” he said.

While in school, Zhang tied for gold in the best short film category at the Student Academy Awards for a film he co-directed called “Dragonboy.”

Zhang said he loves working for Disney. He tells his students in an animation class he teaches that all the talent in the world won’t make them successful, though. It all comes down to hard work.

“You have to really dig in there. Sometimes you feel like you’re bleeding on the inside, but then you see it on the big screen and it’s magical,” he said.

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