We Interviewed Andrew Chesworth - Character Animator at Walt Disney Animation Studios

Posted at Nov 3rd, 2013 by AnimDesk.

Andrew Chesworth - Character Animator at Walt Disney Animation Studios

Andrew Chesworth is an animator currently working for Walt Disney Animation Studios. He was born in Dover, Delaware and moved around to many different cities as his life and career grew.

Growing up drawing a lot of cartoons, Andrew decided to enroll at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, where he studied animation. After trying his luck (twice), Andrew managed to get into Disney’s Talent Development Program in September of 2011. Now he works full-time at Disney on new and upcoming animated films.

His career has also involved personal animation projects, animation direction, and other animated short films as part of film festivals and various collaborations.

Andrew’s latest projects involve Lauren MacMullan's short film "Get a Horse!" which opened in front of Disney's recent film "Frozen". He worked under the animation supervision of Eric Goldberg and Adam Green on the Mickey Mouse cartoon reconstruction. He worked on "Frozen" and "Wreck-It Ralph" for the past year and more yet to come!

Andrew Chesworth - Interview with Walt Disney Animator

Thank you very much Andrew Chesworth for this interview, we would like to start with you by telling us about yourself. Where are you from, and how do you summaries the growing up part?

I was born in Dover, Delaware. My family moved around a lot in the first ten years of my life. My dad worked in insurance claims and accepted frequent opportunities. I lived in Maryland, Ohio, New York, Illinois, Minnesota (for art school) and now California (for Disney).

Growing up, did you draw a lot? What style did you like the most? Did you have a favorite movie?

I began to draw at the age of three. I realized that instead of eating my crayons I could create things with them. The first thing I drew was a locomotive. It was just a rectangle, two triangles, and two circles.

As a little kid, it was the 1940's Disney style that I enjoyed the most. The Mickey, Donald and Goofy shorts from that era played every morning on the Disney Channel. The appeal, whimsy and sense of fun of that style always enchanted me. Dumbo has been one of my favorite Disney films since I was about four, after watching it for the first time on a borrowed VHS from a neighbor.

Did you go to Art School when you decided to learn animation? Which one was it?

I found out about the Minneapolis College of Art and Design (MCAD) at a portfolio fair in downtown Chicago, when I was a senior in high school. I was looking for a school in the Midwest that was relatively close to home and less expensive than Cal Arts.

I got a letter from Cal Arts and I knew it was the "Disney school", but at the time I was intimidated by their cost of tuition. I visited the MCAD campus with my dad and I really liked the feel of it. The idiosyncratic fine art aspect of the school combined with the animation curriculum was a really fun experience.

I have lifelong friends as a result of my four years learning there, and also formed the relationships that led to my first studio job at Make.

How and when did you realize that you wanted to become an Animator?

I think I knew as soon as I was able to understand what animation was. Animation, and specifically drawing, was what I spent most of my time thinking about as a kid. I can't remember a time in my conscious life where it wasn't what I wanted to do.

In high school, I briefly turned my back on animation because I thought it was an uncool and impractical endeavor. Most of my close friends were brilliant academics who would go on to study electrical and aerospace engineering, biology, and computer science. I was the odd duck who was really into the art of animation and filmmaking. When it was time to choose a college, that's when I hit the ground running and fully embraced animation as a career.

Did you have a natural talent or was it a skill you had to push yourself to learn in order to acquire?

I think drawing came naturally, even though I wasn't that great at solid construction. I could render things pretty well, and see something in my head and put it on the page. I remember my classmates in elementary school frequently asked me to draw them.

A lot of animators were "that kid" in school - the one who could draw. I had other friends who could draw well, and we would hang out after school and just draw characters and stories all over sheets of Xerox paper.

I don't think I could draw 'classically' well until I got to college. At MCAD my fine art instructors really taught me how to build a drawing, to loosen up, construct it properly, and hone the skill of observing life. I still push myself to stay in that mindset. They also corrected my clumsy and awkward design skills. I'm very grateful for the education.

What was your first work you ever worked on? How did you get it at first?

My first job was illustrating a book for a friend of my dad. I was twelve years old. It felt good to have professional validation at such a young age, but now I can't look at those drawings. It's like a completely different person made them. It's an adolescent style that imitates classical cartoons in a clumsy, awkward, overly rendered way.

How did you end up working and animating for Walt Disney Animation Studios? What steps did you take?

I applied twice for the Talent Development Program between 2009 and 2011. A friend of mine from MCAD who graduated two years before me (Ke Jiang) got hired as a modeler in 2008.

He worked on Paperman and Wreck-It Ralph as well as other projects. He knows a recruiter at Disney and got me to talk to him in person during a visit so I could share my work.

I think that really helped to get them to take a second look at my application and consider me. I applied online in March of 2011, and got accepted in September of 2011. I've been there ever since!

What is a typical day looks like for you at Walt Disney Studios?

I grab a coffee from the common area on the second floor, which they call the 'Caffeine Patch' (a reference to Meet the Robinsons .) I go to my office, check my email and calendar for the day, and I also like to look at the latest updates on the server.

We have a program that catalogs all new submissions for every department and every project. It's inspiring to see the animation that people submit on a daily basis. It's great for staying up to date on a project and being influenced by the best work that other artists are creating.

When do you wake up and what do you on average everyday at the studio?

I usually wake up around 7am, and because I walk to work, I'm usually there between 8 and 8:30. It's uncommon to walk to work in LA County, but in Burbank it's quite a good setup.

What part of your job do you like best and why? What makes it so awesome?

The best part of my job is the amazing artists I work with. Everyone is so talented and so passionate, and sometimes you get so used to it that you forget that the rest of human civilization doesn't exist in the 'animation bubble' that we live in at Disney.

Sometimes you get so used to being surrounded by amazing artists that you forget that the rest of human civilization doesn't exist in the 'animation bubble' that we live in at Disney

Being a part of the Disney Animation legacy that began with Walt and the "Nine Old Men" is a rare privilege, and I am thankful for it every day.

How animators collaborate with each other at the studio? Do you guys also bond after work?

We eat, we drink, and we're merry. Getting creative people together can sometimes be like herding cats, but one of the amazing things about Disney is how they blend communal solidarity with individual expression.

Everyone brings their own point of view to the table, and it's fun to see artists complement each other's work with their own unique talents.

What are some of your favorite projects you're proud to have been a part of?

Lauren MacMullan's short film “Get a Horse!” is a real career high for me. Working with Lauren, Eric Goldberg, and Adam Green on a Mickey Mouse cartoon was something I was pinching myself about on a daily basis.

It vindicated all that time I spent as a kid drawing Mickey and the gang, and absorbing all those cartoons. Lauren and Eric are both geniuses with great minds for entertainment.

Eric's animation on the Genie in “Aladdin” is one of my favorite things ever put on a screen by an artist. Getting his feedback on my work and collaborating with him is something I'll appreciate for the rest of my life.

Rich Moore's film “Wreck It Ralph” was my first project at Disney and it was an amazing initiation. That movie fired on all cylinders: it had a sharp-witted director, it had the complete support and admiration of the crew that made it, it had a fantastic art style, and it was incredibly fun to animate. And on a practical level, the models and rigs were fantastic.

Andrew Chesworth - Animator on Wreck it Ralph Andrew Chesworth - Character Animator on Wreck it Ralph

The level of control over the digital characters was nothing short of beautiful to me. Disney should be damn proud of that film.

And most recently, Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck's film “Frozen” was a really special film to animate on. It was my first time animating naturalistic human characters in CG, and also my first time animating a Disney princess (and prince!) in a musical setting.

I even got to animate them singing to each other! It was like being a part of Cinderella, with all of the vibrant blue and magenta colors and the stately production design. It's a very classy film, with very endearing characters.

The people who created the film are very good-natured people themselves, with an appreciation for the great Disney musical fairy tales. It was a very challenging film to animate, and I think everyone learned a great deal from the experience.

What's your animation workflow looks like while animating? Have you adopted any “rituals” while animating?

I usually decide after I'm issued a shot if I'm going to film reference for it, or if I'm just going to act it out at my desk and "feel" it out. If a shot involves a lot of mechanics or realistic behavior, then reference is generally a must.

Whether I approach a shot from reference or come up with a graphic solution, I always like to work in stepped key-frames. This really allows me to focus on the poses that communicate the story beat in the most entertaining and clear way.

I like the challenge of making each scene as simple as it can possibly be, while also milking the part that's most compelling about it.

Does Disney provide constant training to animators? How do they keep the level higher?

We have fine art drawing classes available to us twice a week, and frequent seminars from animators that instill the value systems of the department. These talks could be about appeal, design, acting, tools, technology, filmmaking, and more.

They are sometimes project-specific, but no matter what there is always something to learn. The great thing about the computer system at Disney is that almost all presentations are archived so they can be watched again in the future, or seen for the first time by new people.

Do you find yourself watching a film you've been apart of at home, cinema, or at friends place?

I saw “Wreck-It Ralph” four times in the theaters, and since then I haven't watched it once all the way through. I own the Blu-ray and have flipped through some scenes, but it's only been a year since it came out. I'm sure I'll watch it again in the not too distant future.

It's a little strange when my shots come up. However, I'm getting more used to accepting them as just part of the film. The film moves along and is so entertaining it just washes over you. “Get a Horse!” and “Frozen” come out together in just a couple of weeks, so I'll be at the cinemas again very soon.

Do you look for imperfections in your work or just enjoy the film as you watch it?

All I see are the imperfections in my scenes.

Tell us a little about the tools that you are using, what's your preferences? Plugins? Methods?

We use Maya, so at times we are at the mercy of Autodesk's latest release. But because of this, we also benefit from the amazing history of that dense software package.

CG animators coming in generally don't have to re-learn the interface they were accustomed to from school. And because of ease of scripting for Maya, Disney has some absolutely incredibly tools of their own for selecting and keying the characters.

What is your favorite 2D or 3D animated film(s) of all and why?

My favorite 2D films are a tie between “Pinocchio” and “The Iron Giant” .

Disney's film is an absolute masterpiece of the classical animation art form, just gushing with charm and amazing music.

Brad Bird's film is probably the most sophisticated and intelligent filmmaking ever applied to traditional animation. It made me want more!

My favorite CG films are a tie between “The Incredibles” and “Ratatouille” . What can I say? The animation, voice acting, art direction, and filmmaking are just flawlessly executed. Brad Bird and Pixar are gifts to the art form.

What are your thoughts about Japanese Animation? Are you a fan or prefer good old American Animation?

Variety is the spice of life. I love all kinds of animation styles and mediums.

I think a lot of generic anime is too uptight and stilted for my taste, but the richer works from entities like Studio Ghibli, Studio 4C, Satoshi Kon, the “Cowboy Bebop” franchise, and Production I.G are just amazing to me.

I love how different the flavor of the work is compared to conventional American animation.

I also enjoy that they tell dynamic, mature stories. I would love to see the firepower of an American studio tackle material like that. How amazing would that be? Brad Bird gave us a taste of that in his films.

What is the most difficult part for you about being in the animation business?

It's very time-consuming work, and it takes so long to get projects off the ground that you might work on only a few amazing things in your lifetime (if you're lucky!) There are so many different types of projects to explore, and so little time.

Animation is expensive in every conceivable meaning of the word. It is generally a massive team sport if you want to make anything longer than a few minutes, so using the medium as a form of personal expression is exceptionally hard.

It takes a rare kind of insane person to use animation (of a feature quality) to tell a personal story the way a live-action filmmaker would.

Have you ever had a character/scene that was too difficult for you to animate?

I think every scene is hard. There's always something I don't know how to do and have to figure out. Animating Princess Anna was the hardest challenge I've had to date.

Which film(s) was that on? And how did you tackle that problem(s)?

That was for “Frozen”. I often used live reference of myself or my girlfriend acting out a particular situation. I tried my best to contain the broad choices in my animation to bring it to the desired level of naturalism.

Sometimes I would tone it back too far, to the point that it looked dead and rotoscoped. Then I had to amp some of the caricature back up to find the appeal and simplicity (the reason we like to watch animation in the first place!) It was just a lot of doing it, doing it, doing it until it was right. That's the only way to learn and overcome.

Tell us about directing animation, when did you start directing and what project have you been involved with?

All of my professional directing gigs were at Make, a studio in Minneapolis that I worked at from 2006-2011.

The first thing I ever directed professionally was a public service announcement called “Spilled Oil”. It was actually four years before the devastating Gulf incident in 2011.

It was all on Xerox paper with pencil and sharpie, and it was just Aaron Quist and me (both 22 years old at the time) working on it over a five-week period.

That same summer of 2007 I directed a 5-minute western-themed animation to showcase the commercial sponsors for the AICP chapter in Minneapolis. It was a pretty fun project with incredibly bizarre character designs and cartoon situations. I love the music in it. Steve Horner does fantastic work.

I directed an episode of “The Glumpers, a popular web series now that seems to have legs overseas. Aaron Quist created most of the characters and invented the universe of that franchise.

Aaron Quist also created a short called “Fruitless Efforts, which he storyboarded and I directed the animation for. Probably the strangest thing I've ever worked on. It still makes me laugh.

There was a documentary I worked on called “Invisible to You”, where I directed a short 2D-animated sequence to illustrate a story told by a victim of domestic abuse.

It was very heavy subject matter narrated by the real-life victim, and so I was tasked with designing the characters and directing the sequence in a way that was both visually compelling and respectful of the parties involved.

Andrew Chesworth - Character Animator on Trudee from Invisible to You

The landmark-directing project for me was “Palm Springs”, a film noir-themed short that introduced the 2010 (and 2011) Palm Springs International ShortFest.

I got to sink my teeth into every aspect of the production: writing the script, designing the characters, storyboarding and editing the sequences, casting and directing the voices, and staging and keying most of the animation.

How directing makes you feel compared to animating a feature film?

Directing is satisfying if you get to express your point of view clearly onscreen. When directing for a client, it's great when you can comfortably align yourself with their vision to give them the best possible representation of it that you have to offer.

Animating is more micro and specific, and directing is more macro and relevant to the overall quality of a project.

I think it's valuable to have the experience of a director's responsibility. Leading a film is extremely difficult and socially complex. It inspires empathy for other directors who are struggling to navigate the labyrinthine avenues of mass film making.

I think it's valuable to have the experience of a director's responsibility. Leading a film is extremely difficult and socially complex.

It is also valuable to have the experience of a pure animator, giving someone else's project the best possible work you have to offer. You never know exactly how a project will be received, and so it is always to your benefit to do your best work with the best attitude. There is always something to learn and grow from.

Changing seats changes the person?

It will mature you, if anything. And expand your empathy.

Have you ever thought about directing a Disney movie? Did you ever get a chance to do so?

I like animating, and the current lineup of filmmakers at Disney is terrific.

To me, directing is a means toward personal expression. If I didn't absolutely feel connected to the story I was telling, I would have no interest in going through the half-decade slog of directing an animated feature. However, my taste in storytelling is definitely in alignment with some of the films Disney and Pixar have made in their history.

Who influenced you the most in the animation industry? Who is or was your ultimate Mentor during the early stages?

Brad Bird, easily. When I was in college, “The Incredibles” came out in theaters, and I connected the dots that he was also responsible for “ The Iron Giant” .

I couldn't believe the same person was responsible for two of my favorite animated films. He made me believe animation could be jaw dropping at telling good stories.

His films set the bar so high, almost no one can reach it. Kind of like how Milt Kahl set the bar so high with his animation, it seemed like only he could reach it.

In my early years, Tom Schroeder was my most supportive mentor. He is a very successful and distinct independent animation filmmaker, and he also taught my first animation class at MCAD.

I freelanced for him on his projects while I was in school, and to this day we remain closely in touch.

What are your thoughts about animation nowadays? Do they become harder to produce or animate due to higher competition between the companies?

I think animated films are less ballsy than they were in the last decade. You had “The Incredibles”, “Ratatouille”, “Wall-E”, “Coraline” and “Up” released in this unbelievable 5-year window. And all of those films had fearless, dedicated directors with sincere passions they had to bring to the screen. Those films were extremely confident in their choices and resonated (both creatively and financially) with audiences.

I think the industry overall is more cautious, and more averse to risk. The films are more expensive and companies feel the audience is less guaranteed to pay for a type of story they aren't familiar with.

This causes directors and writers to be a little more handcuffed and sensitive to circumstances; perhaps more fearful. There is a lot of concern among studio artists of the potential of cutting overhead, downsizing, and sending work overseas.

The realities of new media make it easier for smaller entities to get their work distributed. The business model of 200 million dollar theatrical features with narrow opening weekend margins and three to five-year production schedules is not ironclad in the future.

The benefit that Disney, Pixar, DreamWorks, Blue Sky and Illumination have is brand and franchise recognition. In the near future this prevents artists (at least en masse) from hitting the unemployment lines. It's important to have all of the studios enjoying success with their films. High tides float all boats!

Have you ever thought about going solo? Becoming an animation entrepreneur and create your own film, online school?

I don't think I have the stamina to be a businessman! The creative side is too much fun. I have taught in the past and enjoy it very much, though. And I always like to have some kind of personal project going on.

What are your thoughts about online animation schools? Do they mass produce Animators or really make a change?

Anything that gives people a solid and realistic animation education without putting them in terrible debt is good. They have my support.

2D animation vs. 3D animation what are your thoughts on this endless battle?

It's funny that people see it as a battle. That's a bit dramatic for my taste. They are just two different things, and they both are better at certain types of things.

2D is more personal, more direct, and I would dare say (when it's done by really skilled craftsmen) more "artful". It requires a higher level of sensitive hand-craftsmanship, and fewer people can do it at the level that is necessary to make a truly breathtaking piece of animated art like “Pinocchio”, “101 Dalmatians" or “Sleeping Beauty”.

CG is slicker, more detailed, more modern, but much less personal. It takes a hell of a lot more work to make CG feel even as remotely as organic as hand-drawn animation.

CG is a lot more conducive to having visual consistency in a mass-produced feature film, and you can have grander set pieces because of the technology. Directors can also stage it more like a live action film because it's easier to adjust elements that have already been created.

In that way, CG makes more sense as a business model to a large corporation. You can control more things, and businesses thrive on their ability to control their elements. This is probably a blessing and a curse to CG filmmakers.

Tell the audience and us a little bit about your latest projects, what are you working on as for 2013-2014?

I'm still putting together a teaser for my independent short film “The Brave Locomotive” (which I began well before I was even hired at Disney), and in the meantime I started doing production work on Disney's next feature “Big Hero 6”. That's all I can say!

Andrew Chesworth - Animator and Creator of The Brave Locomotive Andrew Chesworth - Creator of Samson from The Brave Locomotive

If you could choose to work with any artist (past, present) from the animation business, who would it be and why?

Milt Kahl from the past, because his animation stood out to me as a kid before I even knew whom he was. It's just so damn nice to watch. I wish I could draw like that.

Glen Keane from the present, because I missed the boat on “Tangled” and I'm very sad that I didn't get to learn from him directly.

Lastly, is there any advice you can give to an aspiring animation student or artist trying to get into the animation or gaming business?

You have to love animating a lot in order to keep doing it! It's a hard, rewarding life. But stay inspired, enjoy observing life, and consume quality media to remind yourself why you love animation.