GLENDALE — If you look closely at Toothless, the black dragon in the new animated film “How to Train Your Dragon,” you might see a passing resemblance to a black leopard that prowled Fresno’s Chaffee Zoo in the late ’90s.
That’s because 1995 Clovis West graduate Aimee Marsh — who worked as a story artist on the DreamWorks film — says the hours she spent sketching the large cat inspired her work on the film.
As a story artist for the animation company, her job is to take portions of a script, get input from the director, or directors, and turn those words into a series of rough drawings that show how the scene will look.
Through hundreds of drawings — for a scene that may last only a couple of minutes — Marsh must set the tone, show the actions of the characters and create the points of view that will eventually be fully animated and then filmed.
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In “How to Train Your Dragon,” Marsh worked on a key scene in which wimpy Viking Hiccup meets the injured Toothless at an enclosed cove. This is a pivotal scene because it’s the first time the film’s main characters come together.
Marsh has had little time to enjoy “Dragon’s” success because she’s moved on to new projects, including the feature film “Puss in Boots” slated for 2011.
Marsh’s artistic inspiration comes from varied sources: “Star Wars,” Norman Rockwell, comic books, “Bambi,” “I Dream of Jeannie” and Disney animation giants Bill Peet and Marc Davis.
The biggest influence was the 1951 Disney animated film “Alice in Wonderland.”
“I remember being at a church function and we were watching the movie. The moment where the Cheshire Cat disappears and leaves his grin that turns into the crescent moon, I looked up and the real moon was doing the exact same thing,” Marsh says during an interview at the ivy-covered DreamWorks complex. “Something in my 4-year-old head put it together that, ‘I want to do that’ — whatever that is.”
Growing up, she drew her own stories.
“I was always drawing people and putting them in my own little stories. At the time, people thought I was a little weird. Now I realize I was just preparing for what I am doing now,” Marsh says.
Her love for the art form continued through four years at California State University, Fresno and then at San Francisco’s Academy of Art Institute. After graduation, she used the time working in retail and teaching at the art school to expand her portfolio.
“I applied at DreamWorks and completed an animation test scene. A few weeks later, I had an interview over the phone and they liked what I had to say and I got hired,” Marsh says.
She has worked for DreamWorks for about four years. She’s thankful to work for a company that’s become an animation leader with such movies as “Shrek” and “Kung Fu Panda.”
No pun intended, she calls working for the company “a dream realized.”