CARMEN ESQUER: Tell us about your history with Disney.
VALERIE EDWARDS: I started working for the company 21 years ago. And before that, I worked in the film and the robotics industries.
CE: Were you an artist while in school?
VE: I actually studied science. I thought I’d be a doctor, and switched over to art. My father was an artist. He was actually one of the animators on Sleeping Beauty, so I am a second-generation Disney artist. His name is George Edwards, and he worked for [Disney Legend] Marc Davis, one of Walt’s “Nine Old Men.”
CE: Did you start working at Disney because of him?
VE: Oh, certainly. My father imparted many of the things that he learned in animation to me. But I was also raised by my mom, a historian, so it was nice to have the combination of art and history.
CE: How closely did you work with Blaine Gibson, who created all of the figures for the living presidents?
VE: Blaine had retired by the time I got here. But not long after I started working here, they set up some meetings with me and Blaine so he could check out the new kid. So I actually flew out to Arizona to meet Blaine and spend some time with him.
CE: What was your first impression of him?
VE: He’s great. He’s the nicest man. We just hit it off. After that, I would fly out to Arizona, and then he would show me stuff and different ways and methods of going at robotic figures that he chose to follow. And since then in my career, he’s just always been sort of abreast of what’s going on here, because I still talk to him all the time.
CE: What materials did you use to create President Barack Obama’s figure?
VE: I use plastilina, which is a real traditional sculptural medium. It’s a foil-based clay, so it’s just very, very traditional.
CE: Describe what your process was like.
VE: My focus on this was his head. So I started out by getting all the information that I could find on his features and close-ups. I surfed the ‘net, looking for all the different angles and views, because you need every angle and view you can imagine. I compiled that kind of research first. And we actually went through a verbal flow chart of the ABCs so that we could see the movement, how his face changes when he speaks and all that, to see how the muscles move. We also watched a lot of debates…
CE: How long did it take to build the figure?
VE: I think we were thinking about six weeks for his head, but that’s off and on with the different divisions that we have, because we have meetings where everyone gets to voice their concerns. We’re a team. So we speak as a team.
CE: What important thing did you learn from Blaine?
VE: Gee whiz, now that’s a tough one, because there are so many things. Every sculptor has their own techniques, but he certainly taught me some that I hadn’t tried, and now that I pass on to sculptors that I meet that are younger, and they probably didn’t learn in school. There’s all kinds of really nifty little tricks of the trade. He’s a particularly wonderful guy to learn from because of his history and his absolutely unique style, which set the precedent for everything, from Pirates to just everything. And so much of that came from his animation background and his ability to capture a likeness or caricature. But where do you start with a guy like Blaine?
CE: Was his work ethic inspiring?
VE: Well, I’ve been blessed that my mentor here for 17 years was John Hench, and I saw him almost daily. So I found that with people like these great gentlemen, of course, that started and knew from the beginning the ways of the Company and the ethics and the values, that it was more than a job. It was a whole ideal that they lived and breathed. They were just philosophers, but they were the kindest, most gentle, compassionate people you’d ever want to meet, just the epitome of kind and generous, and generous with all their knowledge, which was important, because they were so willing to sit with you, no matter who you are, and help you. They were great.
CE: Has Blaine seen your sculpture?
VE: Yes, of course.
CE: What did he say about it?
VE: Oh, he’s always very kind with me.
CE: Did he give you feedback?
VE: Of course. Yeah, he mentors me, so that means take a look at this, and then we’d stand back and look at things together, talk about things…
CE: Is it nerve-racking, knowing the President of the United States will see it, too?
VE: Yes! You want to do a great job, and everybody knows what he looks like. Looking at him is almost second nature for most people, because he’s on the nightly news and in daily newspapers. Everyone will recognize the way this man looks.
CE: What was the most challenging part of his face?
VE: Somebody else asked me that question. I think the challenge of any human is everybody’s so specifically different, and he’s a very handsome man, and he has this flawless complexion. Sometimes its more difficult when someone is handsome and has a flawless complexion, because there’s no beards, there’s no scars, there’s nothing to hide behind. So there’s not really a large margin for error at all.
CE: Are you happy with the end result?
VE: I think we all did a great job. There are some really nice new techniques with the skin — which is made out of silicone — that we’re doing, and it’s really nice.
CE: When you go see the show, knowing what you know about how much work goes into it, what is your experience like?
VE: I love to look at all the work of my friends and my mentors. There’s so much in there, in the pre-show even, and all the work of the Imagineers that are no longer here. And then, of course, looking at people enjoying it, and having a great time, that’s the best part ever.