Disney's 'Encanto': Jamal Sims And Kai Martinez On Choreographing And Exploring Diversity
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Film , Interviews

Disney's 'Encanto': Jamal Sims And Kai Martinez On Choreographing And Exploring Diversity

Disney's animated musical Encanto is bringing more representation to theaters as the studio's first film set in Colombia and featuring Colombian characters.

Disney employed the help of. acclaimed choreographer Jamal Sims and animation reference consultant Kai Martinez to bring their vision to life.

Shadow and Act talked with Sims and Martinez about what it was like to work on the film and why they feel the film will help viewers learn more about the world around them.

Shadow and Act: What interested you in working on Encanto? What made you sign onto the project?

Jamal Sims: For me, it was an opportunity to work with our amazing directors Jared Bush, Byron Howard and Charise Castro Smith and the whole team. That was a big part for me. But even more so than that was the idea of bringing a diverse story to the world to Disney. [That] was huge for me because I just believe that we that's exactly what the world needs right now. And it's about family. So all those elements for me were what got me.

Kai Martinez: Jamal hit me up about this project…a little over a year ago. And as soon as I even heard Disney, Colombian, animated, everything--I was just completely signed on. I didn't even care what obstacle or what [I'd have to overcome]. I was completely sold because I am a first-generation-born Colombian-American. So for me, this was not just an opportunity to dance and work on a project on that side, but also to bring my cultural background to help represent Columbia in such a positive light that only Disney can really do.

I did want to ask since you are Colombian-American, about Disney's greater focus on diversity. We've seen the company start to make more films about diverse characters like The Princess and the Frog, Mulan, Moana, etc. How does it feel to be a part of Disney's first Colombian-set film and how do you hope Disney capitalizes on Latin American representation in the future?

Martinez: Oh man. It was it's so beautiful to see a heroine who's relatable. You know, she's not a princess needing a prince. It centers around family, which is huge in Latin culture, not just Colombia. Family is everything. Our family dynamics are very complicated at times, and the hierarchies of our, of our family are very similar to what was portrayed. It's very important. For the world to see each other and learn from each other. So to be able to have not just an educational piece, but it's also entertaining and it's done is such a beautiful way.

People learn from this--you know, I watched Moana and I learned from that culture. I watched Raya [and the Last Dragon], I watched Mulan and you learn from these cultures. I really respect and appreciate that everyone in the production team was so diligent about making sure it was authentic. They asked questions. They went to Colombia. They even made sure that the skeleton crew [the group of dancers portraying the characters] were Latinx. They were very diligent about that. So I'm really proud of that…because it just shows we're taking a step in the right direction, as far as representation.

Speaking of cultural accuracies, Disney has started doing more of that with their latest short film, Us Again, in which the characters have their cultural backgrounds infused into the film in several different ways. Were there certain cultural aspects that were paramount in nailing with the dance sequences? Were there specific things you guys worked on with Disney to capture that authenticity?

Sims: Dance, for us, is another way to tell the story with movement and without having to say a way. We wanted to be able to tell this story if [the characters] weren't singing a lyric, you knew where they were and where they came from. And then what I found out through research and then bringing this amazing, beautiful Colombia assistant on was that, you know, the dances and the movement from Colombia differ depending on which region that you you're from. So we wanted to make sure with some of the characters that we knew exactly where they were from, by the way that they move. So that was the way we incorporated some of the different styles from the cumbia, to salsa, to joropo, and we were able to influence those characters' moves by those styles of dance.

Martinez: Yeah. And I think, um, just to piggyback off of what Jamal said, it's being able to represent the different types of dance through the different characters. We were able to dive into each character and get their personalities and, and even by the way their clothes are made, everything is so intentional to represent the diversity of Colombia that we were able to then just personify their characteristics through, through movement.

I have to tell you, Jamal, that I am of you and your Drag Race work. As a Drag Race superfan, I wanted to know what it’s been like to work on the show and how Drag Race and Encanto add to your portfolio of work. What has it been like to explore dance through these different mediums?

Sims: Working on Drag Race for me is like...I call it a bonus, right? Because I've known Ru since I was 21, so I've known him for almost 30 years and to be able to bring these beautiful souls to television--it's about diversity right? It's about representation and showing the world that all of these different types of people exist and they're talented and they're magical. And so this is that job [such a] bonus because of the amount of love that they're receiving right now is amazing. Some of these queens have gone on to be superstars. They're starring in movies, now they have albums coming out and it's so rewarding for me because I was a part of that process to help them tell the story. So the same thing with this--it's just another opportunity of a community that hasn't been put on the big screen. And that's kind of where I exist--I love the opportunity to be able to do that. And a lot of it is through dance, so that's how it all wraps together.

Encanto is in theaters now.

Shadow and Act is a website dedicated to cinema, television and web content of Africa and its global Diaspora. With daily news, interviews, in-depth investigations into the audiovisual industry, and more, Shadow and Act promotes content created by and about people of African descent throughout the world.

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