By Zach Johnson
For Disney artist Steve Thompson, it’s not about what’s under the Christmas tree—it’s about what’s on it. For the last 15 years, he’s been designing detailed ornaments for shopDisney.com, recreating moments from classic films such as Cinderella and Peter Pan. For Thompson, who joined The Walt Disney Company as an animator in 1994, it’s a dream job—and it’s one that allows him to use his gifts to spread holiday cheer all year long. (A few of the ornaments from this year’s collection are already available on shopDisney.com, and D23 Gold Members and Gold Family Members get 10% off purchases of $50 or more!)
“I’m a huge ornament collector and a Disney fan, but I wasn’t really feeling too connected to the ornaments we were carrying back in 2005,” recalls Thompson. “So, one day I said, ‘What if we did really beautiful, sculpted moments from these films?’ To me, an ornament is something amazing that you hang on your tree. In that first year, we did a little bit of those. They sold really well, and the next year we did a little bit more. And all of a sudden, they seemed to just take off. Fans were really connecting to these true-to-story moments.”
Since then, the Sketchbook Ornament series has included new decorations featuring popular characters such as Aladdin, Dumbo, Buzz Lightyear, Jack Skellington, Mulan, Pinocchio, Rapunzel, Snow White, Tinker Bell, and Winnie the Pooh. “The need to come up with something to make the characters feel fresh and new every year is a huge challenge, especially for some of these films that have been around for so many years,” he says. “It’s up to me to figure out how we can make it not look like what we’ve seen. It’s daunting when I get started. I’m like, ‘Good, God! I have no ideas at all!’ But eventually, I’ll think of all these ideas. So, it’s a huge challenge, but it’s so rewarding when you see them finished.”
Thompson begins sketching his ideas more than a year before they go on sale. “I start off with the obvious moments: ‘What are the big moments in the film everyone connects to?’ But I also like to find those secondary moments. This year’s Ariel ornament is inspired by the scene where she’s in her pajamas and jumps on the bed in Eric’s castle for the first time… and nobody has done that! It’s such a cute moment! Even if it’s an obvious character, sometimes it’s an unexpected moment I’ll get excited about.” Thompson will then send his sketches to a sculptor, who will add dimension to his design. “The sculpting process takes a really long time. I always like to have enough time to make sure they look perfect,” he says.
Thompson will sometimes collaborate with in-house digital sculptors on the ornaments. “It’s great to be able to work with them, and they’ll usually work on the films that we have digital files for, like Frozen and Moana. We use the same files the animators do, so we can understand things like posing and expression. But the bulk of the ornaments are hand-sculpted,” he says. “Even though I’m not a sculptor, I know what things should look like in three dimensions. It’s a lot of back and forth. They might send me 100 photos of the same ornament from every possible angle, and I have to draw my notes from every single angle. It just keeps going back and forth and back and forth until the sculpting is done, and then it goes into painting. It’s a whole process, and I’m still involved all the way through the final paint. You have to love getting into the minutiae of that, and I want everything that ends up in the store to be something I’m proud of. And I want the ornaments on my tree, too! Sometimes it’s like, ‘What do I want on my tree? Who are we missing? What would be amazing and surprise fans?’ I know a lot of brands create Disney ornaments, but I feel like we’re doing them the best. And we’re doing characters you’re not going to get elsewhere.”
Thompson, who has attended every D23 Expo, particularly loves designing ornaments featuring unexpected characters. Over the years, he’s designed ornaments for Diana the Huntress, Mr. Toad, Peas-in-a-Pod, Roger Rabbit, and Timothy Q. Mouse, to name a few.
“I work with a merchant team and a great group of people who trust my opinion. They know I’m a huge Disney fan and I like to tap into what films fans are talking about,” Thompson says. “Some of the ’90s films I worked on are having a bit of a moment. I love the fact that I’ve now done a Pain and Panic Hercules ornament and added Meg and done Esmeralda from The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Those were the ones I’d been pushing for.”
Some ornaments are easier to pitch than others. “The Alice in Wonderland Doorknob—that was one I pitched for five years,” he reveals. “When they finally made it and it did really well, they brought it back three years in a row! It’s not an obvious character, but Alice in Wonderland also wouldn’t be that film without that character. As brief as he appears in the film, he is important. Sometimes you have a ‘random’ character that just makes a really great ornament. A good idea is always a good idea; it just might not be the right moment.”
This year’s Sketchbook Ornament collection introduces the Fairytale Moments series, featuring Disney Princesses like Anna, Aurora, Belle, Jasmine, Merida, Pocahontas, and Tiana. “We’re trying something a little different,” Thompson says. “Instead of just a figure with a cloth dress, all the Disney Princess ornaments have become figural story moments.” And the Legacy collection, under the Sketchbook Ornament umbrella, includes designs that honor the 50th and 80th anniversaries of The Artistocats and Fantastia, respectively.
Thompson began working on next year’s collection in March… but he can’t say much about it just yet. “It’s super rewarding and fun, and I hope to keep doing this. Next year’s ornaments are even better. I keep trying to one-up myself,” he says. However, Thompson is quick to point out that the Sketchbook Ornaments are not a solo effort. “I do design them, but I work with such talented artists, from the sculptors to the painters to the merchant team. It’s a team effort,” he says. “There are real people behind these magical little moments on your tree. We’re just as passionate about them as the people who buy them.”