Disney Animation has created beloved movies such as Tangled, Winnie the Pooh, and Bolt, and CCAD alumni have worked on story boarding, sketching, and programming for all of these hit features. We got a chance to talk to seven of our graduates about what it’s like to work with CCAD peers in this creative environment.
Meet Director Nathan Greno (Illustration 1993–1996), Story Artist Ben Lane (Illustration 1996), Character Designer Chris Oatley (Illustration 2001), Story Artist Ryan Green (Media Studies 2003), Story Artist Fawn Veerasunthorn (Media Studies 2005), CG Layout Artist Joaquin Baldwin (Media Studies 2006), and Stereoscopic Artist Trainee Darren Simpson (Media Studies 2011).
Q) What is it like to work with other CCAD alumni?
Nathan Greno (NG): For me, it’s always a pleasure to be working with CCAD alumni. CCAD teaches a strong work ethic and a strong work ethic, gets the job done on time.
Ben Lane (BL): It’s a bit like old soldiers who can share war stories of late nights, rubylith, and scars from dull X-Acto blades. We grumble about the young punks who have it so easy these days with them computers, unseasonably warm winters, and the ability to tote their entire portfolio on miniscule flash drives. In all seriousness, it’s nice to have a common background with people, especially when starting a new job in LA. It’s comforting to know there are people who have been in the same trenches.
Chris Oatley (CO): The CCAD alumni who have made it to Disney are top talent. Ryan Green and Fawn Veerasunthorn are not only some of my best friends at the studio, but they are also some of the most talented people I know. It’s ridiculous and inspiring.
Ryan Green (RG): I feel that we have a bond, not just because we came from the same school, but because the animation jobs we wanted were unfortunately in a city other than Columbus. We all had to venture away from home, a little naive of the rules of the LA animation industry. Some of us had more roundabout career paths than others, but in the end, we kept learning and making connections until we were finally invited into the Disney family. By the nature of our school’s distance from LA, every CCAD animation student who wants to work for Disney will have to deal with a similar journey, and I think all alumni are aware and empathetic to that fact.
Fawn Veerasunthorn (FV): Most of the people I work with went to school in southern California, so I feel this instant bond whenever I meet another CCAD alum working at Disney or other studios. It is a small group of us, but a strong one. Even if we’re from various majors, we all fought through the same tough foundation year that allowed us to be where we are today.
Joaquin Baldwin (JB): Because we are all in different departments, I don’t really work directly with any other CCAD alumni. It’s great to know that they are around in the same studio.
Darren Simpson (DS): It’s exciting knowing that there are people in the same building that graduated from the same college. I have a friend here in particular that graduated the same year as me, and we were roommates freshman year. To eventually reconnect in a professional environment is very nice.
Q) Why do you think Disney Animation has a lot of CCAD alumni?
NG: CCAD focuses on teaching the fundamentals. Every artist that works at the Disney Animation Studios need a strong fundamental structure to succeed. It’s been over a decade since I attended classes at CCAD, but what I learned there I use every day. The technology will change over the years, but the fundamentals stay the same.
BL: CCAD has a great program. Any artist could benefit from the foundation year alone. I think Disney recognizes that quality in the students and sees the school as a good source to draw its future employees.
CO: Disney Animation is still all about strong drawing and painting. If you submit a portfolio to Disney, people will go nuts for beautiful life drawings or plein air paintings. A high value is placed on classical art skill because it’s an inextricable part of the Disney legacy, regardless of the pervasive obsession with [Computer Graphics].
RG: Disney artists who come from CCAD embody the school’s foundation program. These individuals have found strength in their drawing, painting, or design skills and deliver high-quality craftsmanship on the job.
FV: CCAD focuses so much on the strong foundation in drawing, color, and design. Those are very important skills to have regardless of the department you’re working for. Not many schools emphasize them. Technology will always be changing, but the principles you learned from color concept classes will always be relevant in your career.
JB: I have no clue! I think it’s all due to random chance, depending mostly on the amount of available positions. Our studio has been hiring a lot of new people lately.
DS: There are a lot of passionate artists from CCAD doing many great things. I feel that having a desire to be in your respective profession will get you anywhere you want to be.
Q) Any advice for current students or fellow alumni who want to become involved with Disney?
NG: It takes a lot of hard work to become an artist at the Disney Animation Studios. It’s not easy to get in the door, but it’s a goal worth fighting for. At Disney it’s possible to create films that will be loved worldwide. Tangled is a film I will be proud of for the rest of my life. Our animated films inspire toys, theme park rides, and attractions. It’s an amazing place to work. Aim high and never stop fighting for your goals.
BL: Many people who work in the animation industry, including some of Disney’s best artists, have websites, post on twitter, and regularly blog. Google search these guys and study their work, read what they have to say, contact them (if their contact info is readily available), and get their opinion of your work. The only caveat I would add is that they may not respond—these guys are busy. If you don’t hear anything, don’t get discouraged, but don’t become a pest, either. Also, start a website, or a blog or anything accessible via the internet. It doesn’t entirely replace having a portfolio, but it comes in handy when getting opinions of your work.
CO: Do great work and be great to work with. Every investment of time, money, and energy that you make as a professional artist should be in service of one or both of these goals. So the next time you start to get overwhelmed or depressed, just ask yourself: Is this (time, energy, emotional, financial) investment helping me to focus on one of the two principles for success in the industry?
RG: Get personally involved with artists who do what you want to do. Be proactive. Use the internet to your advantage. If you want to be a Disney story artist, find a current Disney story artist’s website, study his/her work, and email him/her questions about what it takes to get into that specific position. Show your work and ask for a brutally honest critique. If that professional feels you’re not quite up to par yet, then make new samples and get a new critique in a few months. Ultimately, keep communicating with professionals and don’t stop making new art.
FV: The internet has opened up a new world full of great references to study. I’d recommend for students to look up artist’s blogs that are currently working in the industry, and don’t be shy to ask for their advice. Lastly, keep on practicing and never be discouraged by rejections.
JB: Definitely try for the talent development program. I would say it’s even better than being hired regularly, because they train you, give you tons of free classes, have you meet other departments and great people, and they pay you for it all. It’s also easier to get in since they expect you to prove yourself once in, rather than depend entirely on previous work experience like most of the other standard positions.
DS: It’s not required, but it helps living close to the studios. I think being around the studios and creative people fuels creativity further. Also, be persistent when trying to achieve a goal, and be open minded. You will never know which skill of yours will eventually get your foot in the door—It took me by surprise.
Q) Why do you love your job/working in a creative environment?
NG: I can’t imagine not working in a creative environment. I don’t have an easy job, but I have a very rewarding one. I can’t imagine doing anything else in the world. I’ve been at Disney Animation for 16 years. There’s no other place I’d rather work.
BL: I love working with like-minded people. It’s amazing to be surrounded by so many artists who are passionate about animation, telling stories, and creating entertainment. The caliber of talent at Disney is humbling, and I can’t help but be inspired to be a better artist.
CO: I make a living from my imagination. It’s what I was born to do, so the privilege to do that 24/7 is overwhelmingly awesome. I’m also a people person. Some folks are made to go off into the woods, live life in a log cabin and paint lakes—that’s not me. I am made to collaborate, encourage, challenge, argue, etc. So to be released to just be myself in an environment where I can learn from and be challenged by everyone…well, it’s a dream come true.
RG: Animation is a collaborative medium, especially at a studio like Disney. For me, doing my art amongst creative peers is not only inspiring and informative, but in a racehorse kind of way, keeps me focused on being the best I can be, offering the best solutions for our films.
FV: Disney Animation has a long line of legacy and knowledge that has been passed along from one generation to the next. I learn so much from my colleagues each day, and they inspire me to be better at my craft.
JB: I feel like I can provide a lot of creative input into the films we are making. There is a hierarchy here, but it doesn’t mean that only the directors and producers have a say on it all. I tend to be very vocal and push new ideas. I feel that if I was just creating the shots that I was assigned to without questioning them, I’d get bored very quickly.
DS: I love it because I get to be creative. In any creative environment with passionate people, you will get sucked up in a whirlwind of creative magic—and it feels great.
Q) What past experiences do you share and remember from being a student at CCAD? How has this impacted your professional career?
NG: CCAD really taught me the importance of getting the job done on time and putting the most into everything I do. I learned work ethic and skills at CCAD that I apply every day at the studio. Without CCAD, my artistic toolbox would be empty. I owe a lot to all of my instructors at CCAD. I worked hard while I was in Columbus, and my reward has been a successful career at the Disney Animation Studios.
BL: I had to explore a few different directions in art before settling on animation. CCAD exposed me to many different artistic paths and helped me discover where I wanted to go. Specifically, Ron Saks’ class on storyboarding opened my eyes to an exciting new world that I had never considered before.
CO: When I was at CCAD, the animation industry was getting turned upside-down by the likes of Woody, Buzz, and Shrek. Meaning, CG [Computer Graphics] was changing everything and art schools everywhere were trying to figure it out. The internet wasn’t really “The Internet” yet, so information moved more slowly. My teachers at CCAD knew something that has been proven true in my life over and over and over, that regardless of what changes are happening in any area of commercial art, the art part should always be your main focus. CCAD taught me to set unreachable high standards for myself and to focus on drawing and painting above all else. It took me six years to break into the industry, but ever since then I haven’t had a single day without work. I owe a great deal of that consistent success to CCAD. CCAD is unlike many art schools in that they don’t chase software trends. They focus on drawing, painting, color, composition, etc. That’s the important stuff. That’s the stuff that will get you through the long haul.
RG: Around my junior year, the Media Studies department invited Dr. Stuart Sumida, a paleontologist and animal locomotion expert, to give an intensive seminar at our school. In his “You Are What You Eat” presentation, he broke down and defined the differences between herbivores and carnivores and how their anatomy affects their movement and behavior. Fast forward to my current Disney project, a movie involving a fictitious animal. In what started as a casual conversation with my director about this animal’s movement, I was eventually asked to create a presentation for the team that would clarify how this animal would move and what features needed to be changed so the character would be more believable to the audience.
FV: During my junior year at CCAD, I took Mr. Tardino’s illustration class, despite being a Media Studies major. I learned so much about character development and story, that I went back and took it again the next semester. The knowledge I gained then has been very helpful to me as a story artist today.
JB: I remember a lot of cheap ramen. I remember freezing my butt off. I remember cleaning the ceramics lab as a student worker, and growing clay stalactites in my nostrils. I also remember picking the hard teachers on purpose so I’d be pushed harder, and always trying to do a bit more than what any assignment asked for. I think that CCAD was as much about learning art concepts and skills as it was about learning to be self dependent and self driven. In a creative work environment they look for people that can handle the tools well, but that are also able to take initiative and improve the tool set and quality of the work.
DS: Foundation year. We all have our own experiences and memories from foundation year, but it was a huge stepping stone for me. I learned a lot about so much, and I still have a lot of learning and growing to do. I’m always trying to better myself and discover/learn new ideas, techniques, etc.
Check out our alums’ websites for more information:
Ryan Green and Fawn Veerasunthorn have Bluefoot Studios
Tags: alumni news, Alumni Newsletter June 2012 Issue, animation, Ben Lane, christopher oatley, cinematic arts, class of 1981, class of 1996, Class of 2003, Class of 2005, class of 2006, class of 2008, class of 2011, Darren Simpson, Disney, Disney Animation Studios, employers we love, Fawn Veerasunthorn, illustration, Joaquin Baldwin, media studies, nathan greno, Ron Saks, Ryan Green, Walt Disney Animation
The alumni newsletter is published four times a year and features the latest news and information for the alumni of Columbus College of Art & Design.