Walt Disney Animation Studios goes to great lengths to build true-to-life environments as the settings for their films. For the movie Encanto they enlisted the help of the Colombian Cultural Trust. This group of experts consulted with the filmmakers on subjects such as architecture, clothing, indigenous culture, food, and of course plants. The botanist who helped advise the animators can count the Missouri Botanical Garden as one of the places that shaped his career path.
Felipe Zapata is a native Colombian who now studies evolutionary biology at the University of California Los Angeles. Zapata earned his PhD at the University of Missouri St. Louis, working closely with Garden botanists during his studies. His expertise helped animators understand and accurately depict the plants of Colombia in the film.
We spoke to Dr. Zapata about the process of working with Disney filmmakers, and the importance of getting plant representation right.
Q: How did you come to work with Disney on the movie Encanto?
A: A colleague of mine who used to work at the UCLA Botanical Garden met someone from Walt Disney Animation Studios who was interested to meet a biologist who could talk about plants from Colombia. Because I am a biologist who works in plant evolution and I am from Colombia, it was basically the perfect match. My colleague shared my information with this person and then I received a phone call.
Q: What can you tell us about the process of consulting on the plants and environment in the movie?
A: The process was really interesting! Since 2019, I started to meet with a very large team of people from Disney Animation (including folks from animation, production design, etc) to talk about Colombia’s plants. In some meetings, I was just talking and showing images from different plants and ecosystems from Colombia, in other meetings the team had specific questions about particular plant species or habitats. Initially, the Disney team was particularly interested in the wax palm (Ceroxylon quindiuense) and they wanted to learn details about its morphology, ecology, etc. They also wanted to learn about the Cloud Forest, the place where this palm tree species occurs, and other common plants one could find in this ecosystem. It was very interesting to me that the team wanted to learn very specific details about plants from the canopy, the understory, notable flowers, dominant species, and in general about the physiognomy of the cloud forest.
In later meetings, we started to talk about other places in Colombia, such as the Chocó Rain Forest, the Amazon, and the Paramos. Again, we talked about distinctive plants from those ecosystems and the general physiognomy of these habitats. A recurrent theme in all our meetings was the very detailed questions the team had prepared for me about general plant morphology, including leaf colors, leaf shapes, leaf attachment to the stems (phyllotaxis), flower variation, flower symmetry, etc. It was truly fascinating for me to see the level of detail and how careful were the team of illustrators and animators to get things right!
In other meetings, we were going through photos that the team had put together and they wanted to know the names of plant species and where in Colombia one could find them. Lastly, a few times we talked about distinctive animals from Colombia and I was able to bring and share my different field guides (birds, mammals, etc). The whole experience was absolutely fascinating! I loved working with Disney Animation Studios! Everyone was (and still is) extremely friendly.
Q: Do the plants in the film represent a certain type of ecosystem or habitat found in Colombia?
A: Yes, most of the movie happens in a town somewhere in the mountains of Colombia, surrounded by the Cloud Forest. This is an ecosystem that one can find throughout the three branches of The Andes in Colombia, approximately between 1500-3000 m above sea level. In addition, the town itself is a good representation of how many people live in small towns in Colombia, and it shows some of the plants people cultivate, such as coffee and corn, among others. However, one can also have a glimpse into other ecosystems of Colombia in short scenes of the movie, such as the lowland forests around Caño Cristales (in the Amazonian region), the Choco Rain Forest, and there are even quick shots of a few plants from the Paramo ecosystem.
Q: Were there any plants from Colombia you were particularly excited to see represented in the film?
A: Yes, of course! I was super excited to see the wax palm. It is such a beautiful plant (it is also Colombia’s national tree) and I think Disney did an amazing job portraying it. There are very few places remaining in Colombia where one could see a pristine forest of wax palms, so it was great to see this plant in its native habitat playing a central role in the movie. As a botanist, I was also paying attention to details in the background that most people perhaps may not be paying much attention, and I was so excited to see one of my favorite plants, Cecropia trees. These are landmark trees in the Andes, so easy to identify from the distance because of their large, silvery leaves. I also enjoyed the lovely representation of riverweeds in a couple of scenes (Macarenia clavigera). There were also other plants that the Disney team captured beautifully which we had discussed in our meetings, including members of the plant families Melastomataceae, Araceae, and Heliconiaceae, among others.
Q: Why is this sort of representation important in movies like this?
A: I think this sort of representation in movies like this one is important because it can accomplish a few things. First, I believe this sort of realistic representation respects and acknowledges the local biodiversity and culture of other countries (in this case, Colombia) in a genuine way. This in turn exposes people who watch the movie to a more autochthonous perspective of a country and its attributes rather than to an “outsider perspective.”
Second, for many people this sort of representation could empower and develop a sense of belonging when they identify themselves or their local environments represented in a truthful way. This could potentially foster learning by local people about their biodiversity, history, and culture.
Lastly, I believe movies which could reach a broad and worldwide audience like this one are ideal vehicles for disseminating accurate scientific information (also historical and cultural information). Popularization of science, even if subtle, can generate awe and wonder, which in turn can result in a new generation of scientists and develop general interest in science by local communities or even political authorities.
Q: What drew you to St. Louis and the Missouri Botanical Garden for your botanical studies?
A: For my PhD, I wanted to work under the guidance of Dr. Peter Stevens and Dr. Elizabeth (Toby) Kellogg and they happened to be in St. Louis as faculty members at UMSL back then. They were also affiliated faculty at the Missouri Botanical Garden so this was a perfect confluence of events! I was extremely lucky to accomplish my dream of working with Dr. Stevens and Dr. Kellogg and concurrently have access to the unique resources (collections, library, staff, students) at the Missouri Botanical Garden, one of the botanical gardens that has played such a significant role in research and training in the tropics.
Q: How did the Missouri Botanical Garden influence your career path?
A: Being a graduate student at the Missouri Botanical Garden and becoming part of the vibrant scientific community in St. Louis definitely marked my career. I had access to a series of unique resources at the Missouri Botanical Garden, from rare books to an exquisite collection of herbarium specimens, which enabled me to achieve my research goals. I also had the chance to interact with great people, from staff to visitors, from whom I learned a lot. Some of them are now my good friends, colleagues, and collaborators.
In addition, “the Garden” was basically a central hub for students and researchers across St. Louis interested in plant evolution, so I got to meet and work with folks from different universities. I left St. Louis several years ago, but it’s fun to run into other Garden alumni in conferences or professional meetings and immediately share memories of our time in St. Louis. Clearly, for all of us spending time in St. Louis and the Garden was a significant milestone of our careers.
Q: What past experiences helped you in advising on the plants in Encanto?
A: The movie is about Colombia and my consulting work was based on my personal experience as a Colombian biologist. I relied on my personal memories, travels, and experiences growing up and exploring Colombia to consult with Disney Animation Studios.
Q: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
A: I hope that everyone watches the movie and maybe after reading this, realize that Walt Disney Animation Studios puts so much effort in investigating and consulting with different people “to get things right”. In the same way that I was a consultant on plants and biodiversity, there were at least 9 other Colombians -we were all part of the Colombian Cultural Trust- who worked with Disney Animation Studios consulting on local architecture, food, clothing, representation of the Afro-Colombians, indigenous cultures, etc. The investigation was thorough and the final product reflects that.
Senior Digital Media Specialist