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Learn How Honest John from Disney's Pinocchio Was Made With RenderMan

Valentina Rosselli has shared the story behind the character Honest John from Disney's Pinocchio live-action adaptation, explaining how the creature's photoreal fur was made without scans.

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Ever since I was a child, I became inspired by art in all its forms: the work of Miyazaki and Otomo, the narratives of fantasy films, and the immersive video games, not only in their final product but also behind the scenes, deeply resonated with me. Anything from animatronics, prosthetics makeup, and computer graphics to hand-drawn animation made me dream of bringing stories and characters to life, which became my driving force.

After studying fine art, I pursued a Bachelor of Art in Design and Computer Generated Animation in Rome, where I learned a few aspects of filmmaking — from understanding screenwriting to mastering software. 

After my love for characters and narratives deepened, I craved the collaborative spirit I saw in industry documentaries, which led me to move abroad.

After honing my skills as a Generalist Artist in London's advertising scene, I found myself drawn to the film industry. Further deepening my expertise through the Stan Winston School of Character Art and advanced Mari Creature Workshops, I have focused my artistry on character development. What captivates me is not only seeing them come alive on screen but also contributing to a larger story.

So it began my career in visual effects and every project has been a privilege — from bringing Major Kusanagi and Kuze to life in Ghost in the Shell to working on Ivan the gorilla in The One and Only Ivan, a character that holds a special place in my heart.

Ivan wasn't only a technical challenge but a collaborative triumph, a true labor of love, and it ultimately earned us a Visual Effects Society Award win for Outstanding Animated Character in a Photoreal Feature in 2021. What makes this craft so magical lies in collaborating with clients, directors, and fellow artists, and pushing creative and technical boundaries together.

Today, I continue to train my eye for design and details, driven by the same spark I felt as a child, and that brought me here all those years ago. 

About the Honest John Character

I have been working in the character department at MPC since 2016, and it's been an incredible journey ever since. My passion for characters has been nurtured, allowing me to specialize in sculpting, texturing, lookdev, and concept development.

Over time, I became a Lead Texture and LookDev Artist, a role that involves building workflows, leading teams, and being hands-on with character builds.

Honest John was a particularly special project where I could wear both my leadership and hands-on hats. I was lucky enough to be involved right from the design stage and successively sculpt, texture, and lookdev his skin, and texture and lookdev of his fur.

It was challenging, rewarding, and ultimately, immensely satisfying to see him come to life on screen. In 2023, Honest John was nominated for the category of Outstanding Animated Character in a Photoreal Feature at the 21st Visual Effects Society Awards.


I am always quite methodical, and I study things thoroughly before I start a new project. I love science and biology, and I try to apply what I find to my everyday work. Fascinated by foxes' fur patterns and beautiful colors, I was delighted to work on Honest John. It all began with extensive research, which included museum visits, real-life photography, and a vast collection of reference materials that laid the basis for accuracy.

I sculpt mostly everything manually in Mudbox, preferring the default brush for its tactile connection to real clay. It's about weight distribution and micro-to-macro frequencies: every detail, no matter how small, contributes to the overall realism. Mari also takes a crucial part in refining any displacement detail. 

All his exposed skin areas were carefully sculpted: his nose, eyelids, the often-overlooked tongue, and underside of the paws also received the same attention, ensuring realism and tactile feeling. It might seem like a minor detail, but it goes a long way in making the fox feel truly alive. Every detail needs to have a reason to be there, to be faithful to reality.

The sculpted details are then brought to life with Mari and Katana, along with RenderMan. We were not provided with or used any 3D scans of foxes, so the character was created purely based on reference material.

His fur is another crucial part, and it needed to look photorealistic with a touch more saturation, as an homage to the deep red coat color palette of the original cartoon character. An integrated texture and lookdev workflow consisted of creating different layers of hair type, scattered together with probability to create accurate patterns and colors.

Main Challenges

Honest John's team was quite small and we managed to get the look of the character together quite quickly, in only a few weeks.
Our main challenge was to create a photorealistic humanoid fox character with human eyes and eyebrows, keeping the actor's eye color and key features.

The creative journey started with us creating fox animal eyes first and then exploring how human those could become. We played, between modeling and lookdev, with the ratio between iris size and amount of white sclera showing, as well as overall eyeball dimensions, trying to find the right balance between a fox and a human eye. 

Seek constructive feedback with an open mind; even critical feedback can be a gift. We never stop learning and growing, so always embrace different viewpoints and use them to fuel your passion for self-improvement.

Valentina Rosselli, Lead Texture and Look Development Artist

Interview conducted by Gloria Levine

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