Interview with Industry: Disney Animator, Andrew Chesworth
Andrew Chesworth, previously working at design studio Make, now works as an animator for Disney Studios. He has worked on films such as Wreck-it Ralph, Frozen, Zootopia and most recently Moana, as well as many others. Andrew is a fantastic example of someone who has worked his way up through the industry to achieve his dreams. His talent, work ethic and love for his job is truly admirable. Here Andrew shares his experiences, how he came to be an animator for one of the worlds biggest film animation company’s and some tasty tips for all those who love animation!
Andrew Chesworth’s work on brilliant film Moana.
Tell us about yourself…
I’m an animator living and working in Burbank, CA. I’m a product of 1980s and 1990s American culture, growing up on a steady diet of Disney, Spielberg and Lucas. I was born in New England, but my parents moved several times throughout the east coast and Midwest during my childhood. I learned quickly how to be adaptable to starting over. I went to art school at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. The number of animators that graduated with me in 2007 one could count on their hands.
How did you get involved in Animation?
I was one of the many animators out there who began drawing at a young age. As soon my brain transitioned me from consuming crayons to scrawling images with them, I was hooked with that act of creativity. I recall vividly pausing animated films like Roger Rabbit and Beauty and the Beast on the VHS player, and mimicking the pictures I would see on the screen, particularly the funny breakdown and in-between drawings that made me laugh. Animation and drawing almost seemed like one and the same thing to me.
During my adolescence, the live action adventure films of the 1980s and 1990s really fueled my love of movies, visual effects, and general film-making wizardry. For a while I thought I wanted to be a CG visual effects artist, and I would go back and forth between that and being a character animator. The Pixar movies were becoming quite impressive by the time I graduated from high school, and those fueled my desire to pursue the latter interest. I was lukewarm about Disney at the time, despite my love of hand-drawn animation, because digital technology was so exciting, and seemed to have a lot of overlap with my love of movies, video games, and tinkering on the computer.
I began my career at a small production studio in Minneapolis called Make. I interned there between third and fourth year of our college program. I applied to Pixar and Disney, of course, but didn’t receive a reply. Immediately following graduation, I began a full-time position at Make as a concept designer, animation lead, and occasional director. It was an incredibly exciting 4 and a half years working with my close friends from school, and being thrown into the deep end of the guerrilla-style production environment of short format commercial work.
Disney Character Illustration – Andrew Chesworth 2012
What has been the biggest hurdle you have faced?
Early on, I just felt like I wasn’t going to meet the people in California who would see potential in me that could lead to an opportunity. I was also afraid of how I’d be able to transfer the skills I’d acquired from a generalist system to a highly specialized feature studio pipeline. When I felt like I was starting to get the hang of succeeding within the parameters required for commercial work, I was approaching my late 20s, and wanted to give the Disney-Pixar career one more shot after a few years of applying and getting silence.
I visited the Disney studio in the fall of 2011 during a trip to Comic-Con, and met a recruiter there. I was finally able to start a conversation and get some direct feedback about where I needed to focus and grow. Perhaps now with more online schools and ever-increasing social media presences, the landscape has changed a bit, but I’d wager the principles of face-to-face communication and feedback will only yield positive insights. What hasn’t changed is the importance of putting in the time to generate a strong body of work, and of keeping an open ear to feedback that will help you improve. It takes a long time to hone your craft, but if you’re addicted to your passion, the work ethic will come naturally.
As an Animator, what does your day-to-day consist of?
Practically speaking, it begins with a trip to the gym, some time to refresh, a morning coffee, small talk, and a lot of email perusing. I am generally a morning person, and like to be at the studio to establish my groove before the cacophony of the day begins. When a Disney film is in the thick of production, sometimes entire days go by of just animating a shot, with maybe two or three check-ins with supervisors and the directors throughout the week. Rounds with supervisors often occur at the desk, and dailies is a more formal setting that tries to be efficient with everyone’s time to discuss how much the animation is hitting the point of the moment in the film.
Many days involve conversations with friends and co-workers to collect valuable insights that will improve your work, as well as filming video reference to ease the brain-load of guesswork that happens when conceiving a performance. It’s fun to discover nuggets of performance beyond the most base Vaudevillian instincts of the imagination, as well as keep fresh on the truths in body mechanics and convincing weight. I find I like to look at reference of professional actors I admire whose work could be relevant to the character I’m animating, just because there’s only so much I can do with my own body and I’m not a trained actor in the traditional sense. Animation is as much dissecting and reproducing acting, as it is acting. It’s the acting version of being a sketchbook lurker in a coffee shop or public park.
What are the most challenging and most enjoyable films you have worked on?
That’s a tough one to answer, because every project I’ve worked on has involved incredible people, assignments I’m incredibly grateful to have been entrusted with, and experiences I will carry with me the rest of my life. I think from a personal progress standpoint, I felt like I was finally “getting” things by the time I animated on Moana. Things that I struggled with on Wreck-It Ralph, especially in terms of polish and mechanics, I feel I was getting faster at achieving the results I anticipated or could see in my head. I also felt my acting becoming more confident and controlled.
I think Moana will have a special place in my heart for encapsulating so many Disney personalities from my childhood: John Musker, Ron Clements, Eric Goldberg, Mark Henn, and many other amazing artists who contributed to the animated films I grew up with. The Disney DNA is strong in that film, and I had a fantastic time working on it. The most challenging film was probably Zootopia, because the story process on that film affected production most dramatically (in terms of throwing out finished work.) Really, that’s the most painful part of any production, seeing your work thrown out, and months of your working life, in order for the film to tell the story in a better way. The quality of the people, and the confidence that the team has the movie’s best interests at heart, is what gets you through those difficult creative periods.
Andrew Chesworth cropped screen shot from Zootopia
As an Animator, what would you say is your biggest accomplishment and biggest regret ?
My biggest accomplishment is probably getting to say that I achieved my childhood dream of becoming a Disney animator. That’s all I wanted since I was four years old, essentially before I really even knew what it meant. I don’t really have specific regrets as an animator. There are plenty of regrets about how I could have been a more conscientious person in a given situation. Animation is a team sport, and it’s important in a large collaboration with so many talented, hardworking people to do well by them. It’s important to really listen to people and make their lives easier as a result of your contributions. Animation takes a lot out of you, and it’s a very demanding profession, but people keep coming back for more because it’s so rewarding. It’s like any creative endeavor, you just want to continue making things and continuing to learn and experience new challenges.
Favourite thing about your job?
That I get to draw a paycheck for creating animation. It still seems crazy to me, even after 12 years of working in the industry.
We have to ask…favorite film?
My favorite film changes all the time, but I can list some that have been at the top throughout my life and continue to be in my top ten. Pinocchio, Fargo, No Country for Old Men, Back to the Future, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Raising Arizona, The Incredibles, The Iron Giant, The Empire Strikes Back, Terminator 2. They all remain in the top because they all have something compelling to say, and are incredibly charismatic in how they weave audiovisual elements together to tell entertaining stories.
What makes a film stand out to you?
A point of view that feels personal, reinforced with good taste in design, sound, and timing. A film that mixes wit with sincerity, and drama with comedy, will always have a range that makes me return for more.
Andrew Chesworth Animation still from Disney’s Wreck-it Ralph
If someone wants to pursue a career as an Animator, how would you recommend they go about
Emulate the virtues of the best work you see, and be your best self regarding the things you like and want to make. Don’t be afraid to put in the time. It’s like practicing an instrument or developing a mind for being a writer. You just have to keep making mediocre things until those things become good and eventually great. Finish things and move on to the next challenge, and be willing to understand what can be better next time. Work smarter, not just harder. Be a generous collaborator and a good listener. Empathize with the challenges of your clients and co-workers. Take care of your mind and body, because animation will put a lot of stress on them.
Do you have any tips for young Animators?
You either enjoy it or you don’t. Don’t try and make yourself enjoy something you don’t feel inclined to spend your time doing. Identify what you like most about being creative and focus on that. If animation is truly your passion and you understand what the reality of the work is and what it takes, you are probably already the kind of person who will have an exciting and rewarding career that you will love every step of the way.
What are the biggest mistakes you notice beginners make?
Easy answers are no substitute for learning by doing. When you do it, you figure out what you don’t know, and then answers become more helpful. It’s a compounding process of doing, hitting walls, asking things, trying again, and realizing that more and more things slowly start to make sense until they become second nature. Sometimes things become so second-nature it’s hard to explain them later. Every beginner animator is an over-actor, though. Restraint comes with making more things and realizing that honest performances tend to involve less fussy, unnecessary business. Watch live actors and caricature the focus in their choices, and the clear purpose of each choice.
Any other advice you would like to voice to help the next generation of Animators?
Bring your own life experiences and points of view to the table. Animation is frequently repetitive, often for commercial reasons, and it’s very exciting when a fresh point of view enters the fray. It’s like being a writer; cultivate a way of looking at the world and processing it, so that good choices instinctively come out in your work. Travel. Read. Engage conversations with strangers when the right opportunity presents itself. Everyone is a character. Pay attention to the basic motivations and desires of people, and what makes them tick. You’ll be able to think like an actor and conceive of an outcome to a situation. It’s exciting when you realize that life is full of experiences that can make you a more informed artist. Animation is just a means of sharing ideas and presenting them in an creative way, so really dig dip for those exciting ideas.
If you want to find out more about Andrew or see some of his other work please check out his website by clicking here.
Interview edited by Katherine Selway.
(Feature image courtesy of Walt Disney)