Utahn Mark Hofeling dropped a few Easter eggs in Disney's "Descendants 2."
The native Salt Laker is the production designer on the big Disney Channel sequel, which continues the live-action musical odyssey of the teenage children of various heroes and villains in Disney's animated classics. Hofeling is the guy responsible for what all the sets look like in the over-the-top world in "Descendants," and he's grateful for the creative freedom he had, working alongside director Kenny Ortega.
"We turned it up to 11 and broke up the knob," Hofeling said. "I think the magic is there."
And he knows something about Disney magic. His credits include more than 20 Disney Channel movies, including all the "High School Musicals," "Teen Beach Movie," "Minutemen," "Let It Shine" and "Starstruck."
In "Descendants" and its sequel, the heroes live in Auradon, which is filled with strong blues, reds and yellows, along with a lot of pastels and softer colors. The villains are exiled to the Isle of the Lost, which is filled with blacks, purples and acid greens, along with "an added layer of soot and smoke and grit, and we called that palette 'dirty candy.' "
It was a collaborative effort, including input from the folks at Disney.
"In the case of the 'Descendants' movies, there's an added sensitivity," Hofeling said. "We're taking heritage characters that are very precious to the Magic Kingdom and putting them in positions they haven't been in before."
"Descendants 2" picks up the story from the first TV movie. Maleficent's daughter, Mal (Dove Cameron); the Evil Queen's daughter, Evie (Sofia Carson), Cruella DeVil's son, Carlos (Cameron Boyce); and Jafar's son, Jay (Booboo Stewart) are still in adjusting to life in Auradon, where they go to school with the heroes' kids. And Mal feels the weight of expectations as the girlfriend of King Ben (Mitchell Hope), the son of Belle and Beast.
And there are several new villains, including the sons of Captain Hook and Gaston, and Uma (China Anne McClain), the daughter of Ursula the sea witch. She's determined to break all the villains out of the Isle of the Lost so they can overwhelm the heroes.
It's a bright, goofy and entertaining musical that features six original songs, two songs from the first "Descendants" and a cover of "Kiss the Girl" from "The Little Mermaid."
And there are some added bonuses — Easter eggs — if you pay close attention.
"The viewers of these movies tend to watch them repeatedly," Hofeling said. "It's always fun to try to make it a new experience every time by hiding a little something there."
Like the painting in the Isle of the Lost beauty salon, run by Dizzy (Anna Cathcart), the daughter of Cinderella's evil stepsister, Drizella.
"Definitely, a few people turned their heads to the side when I hung a giant portrait of a cat in the hair salon with the name 'Lucifer' underneath it," Hofeling said. "You kind of have to be a bit of a Disney nut to know exactly who that is."
(It's the cat that belonged to the wicked stepmother — Dizzy's grandmother — in "Cinderella.")
And there are smaller Easter eggs that will be harder to catch. Like the book about proper manners for ladies that Mal is reluctantly reading.
"One of the headings in this book is, 'Turning wool to thread — how modern techniques can save you a hundred years or more,' " Hofeling said. "Who knows if anybody will ever see that, but the mandate that I give the art department is, 'Let's make this world that detailed.' "
It was a major effort to carry that detailed work through the massive sets.
"We filled the biggest soundstage in Vancouver with sets," Hofeling said. "We have built some epic stuff on Disney Channel movies, but we've never done that."
"I think the first 'Descendants' was the first time we really completely created the universe," Hofeling said.
For a Disney Channel movie, he has 8-12 prep time, and then he has to be ready to make changes on the fly.
"It's like a moon mission, these movies are planned so carefully," he said. "All that planning is great, but even on the most perfect, flawless, well-oiled machine of a movie, something's going to happen. It's going to rain or an actor's going to be late and you're going to have to adapt.
"This is the most expensive art form in the world. The cost of all these professional being here is thousands of dollars an hour. So you can't lose an hour of a shoot day. You have to do something."
Hofeling is doing exactly what he's wanted to do since he was 9.
"I knew I wanted to be a production designer," he said. "I know, it's super-specific." And, for a 9-year-old, "super-weird."
But his career path was set in 1977 when his father took him to see the original "Star Wars."
"My eyes were popping out of my head," Hofeling said. "Just like that — I got it. It was so hypnotic and so compelling that I knew that I had to go through the looking glass and make magic. And 10 years later, I was working in the art department."
He went to Highland High and spent a couple of years taking classes at the University of Utah, before he moved to Los Angeles, got an entry-level job and worked his way up.
"And then, probably far sooner than I should have, I sold myself to Leucadia Films in Salt Lake City as a production designer," he said. "And they bit, because they had very few options that were so affordable. So I started making mistakes on their dime and trying to learn from them."
More than 50 films later, he's currently in Toronto, where he's the production designer on the upcoming "Disney's Zombies," another musical. And he's still amazed to be part of it.
"Standing on the set, I can still see the magic in it," Hofeling said. "I can't tell you how many crew people — hardbitten old grips and electricians with toolbelts and pot bellies — come up to me and say, 'Oh my God, this is the most fun I've ever had at work. I don't want to work on another kind of movie.'
"Most people who work in the industry, at some level, have some sense of the magic this industry is capable of creating. Maybe that's why they got into it. But it's refreshing to see it happening in front of you."