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Disney Animator Jose Zelaya Learned to Draw During Salvadoran Civil War

Jose Zelaya, character designer

Photo of Jose Zelaya, character designer, in the production offices of Disney's show "The Lion Guard." Rick Rowell / Disney Junior

When Jose Zelaya was 6 years old, while living through the ravages of the civil war in El Salvador, he told his mother that one day he would work for Mickey Mouse. Zelaya made it happen - over 30 years later, he is a character designer at Disney animating “The Lion Guard: Return of the Roar.”

“I grew up drawing war pictures with people shooting each other,”said Zelaya in an interview with NBC Latino. “It was so normal to see a helicopter being shot down and then drawing it. I still grew up thinking we lived in a good world because watching cartoons taught me that.”

Disney, Recess
Image of the characters from Disney's cartoon "Recess." Disney

Zelaya was born in San Miguel, El Salvador in 1975; he moved to the capitol shortly after. While he drew graphic images of gunfights in the street or buildings burning, he also contrasted his art with animals he found in the forest. He remembers exploring forests and streams in search of colorful fish and lizards, which found their way into his drawings.

“I knew there was no future for my dreams as an illustrator in El Salvador, and my mother knew that,” he said. “So, my mother moved us to California for better opportunities for me to achieve my dream.”

In 1989, Zelaya, his parents, his brother and his sister moved to Los Angeles. In high school, Zelaya resorted to creating timelines and visual projects in place of essays and written tests.

"The Lion Guard: Return of the Roar"
"The Lion Guard: Return of the Roar," stars Rob Lowe, Gabrielle Union and James Earl Jones, reprising his iconic role as Mufasa. Disney Junior

“Drawing came really easy to me, especially because it became a means of surviving bullies,” Zelaya said. “I was identified as one of the kids that could draw, so they targeted me and would mess with me until I drew something for them.”

At just 20 years old, Zelaya got his first major role animating for one of Disney’s staple Saturday morning cartoons, “Recess.” He designed the character Spinelli, whom he based off his friend “Mara” from middle school.

“In 1996, when I broke into the industry, animators were regarded as rock stars,” he said proudly. “At the time it was very easy for me to start working because there was a huge demand for animators; it was like the animation boom.”

"An Extremely Goofy Movie"
Zelaya worked on several Goofy movies. This is an image from "An Extremely Goofy Movie." Disney

Since starting, Zelaya has helped create myriad movies and TV shows. He has worked on Futurama, the Lilo & Stitch TV series and An Extremely Goofy Movie. In his more than 20 years of experience in the business, he said technology has changed the competitiveness of the industry, creating new opportunities for aspiring animators.

"There are a lot more tools to pick up on the television skills and designing skills," he said. "I believe nowadays it is easier than ever because, if you have the passion, to start a career."

Because cartoons taught Zelaya to have faith in finding good-natured people in the world, entering cartoon animation became more than just his career. Animation is an opportunity for Zelaya to give children an educational escape.

“Especially in shows for kids, we have an opportunity to make a difference by educating children about working as a team, pushing positive ideas and giving them better influences through animation,” Zelaya said. “It’s necessary to show children how to cherish important moments in life.”

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