Bill Perkins


What is your name and your current occupation?
Bill Perkins, Visual Development, Walt Disney Animation Studio.  I also currently teach Color Theory at LAAFA, and Color and Lighting at CDA. I also host my own painting workshops that I announce through e-mail and facebook.

What are some of the crazier jobs you had before getting into animation?
I wouldn’t say that my jobs were crazy, kinda normal really, Summer camp on Catalina Island (fun escape,) I had a sign business through high school into college (first entrepreneurial experience,) Chart House restaurant (crazy people, great fun!) Fine Artist (sold my artwork through galleries) Art instructor (drawing and painting various disciplines.)

What are some of your favorite projects you’re proud to have been a part of?
Pre-animation, having my work accepted into the Springville museum and national watercolor society shows.  Creating a group show at the Monterey Peninsula museum of art featuring mine and three other artist work based on or three month painting  trip through France, Italy, and Spain. As far as animation goes, I will never forget the buzz of energy around the studio during Little Mermaid.  On Rescuers Down Under, Dan Hansen, Razoul Azadani, and I changed the layout process while embracing new technology, and accomplished more with a smaller team.  I am proud of my work as well as the animators and clean-up artists on Aladdin, together we shared the pains that come with growth.  Space jam was another massive accomplishment, driven by a small crew of fearless renegades at Space Jam Animation.  I was fortunate enough to work with Jim Kamarud and his team at Character Builders.  I started my own design studio and he gave me the opportunity and challenge to design a style guide that would communicate the artistic targets and requirement for Disney’s 101 Dalmatians, sequel to a talented crew of artists in Tokyo that would have to stand alone without an art director on site.  I was proud of an amazing team of artists at ILM that I was fortunate enough to assemble for Frankenstein. And of corse my family, a project constantly in process. 

How did you become interested in animation?
After working solo as a fine artist for 5 or 6 years, and realizing the success of the group show, where it would have been impossible for any of us to do on our own, I wanted to explore a collaborative art.  Animation seemed like it would be interesting in that regard.  I had grown up in a neighborhood with some of the older Disney employees but never put the connection together until I was five years out of college.  We were also experiencing a recession and some of my galleries were not doing well.  I had five years to focus on my own work and personal artistic growth so I knew going into a collaborative art I still had my own artistic identity outside animation.  That was and is still very important to me.
Where are you from and how did you get into the animation business?
I went to school through high school in Glendale California, then went to Art Center College, and moved to the South Bay.
I applied at Disney just as they moved the animation department off the lot.  So my application went to the main lot and I received a rejection form letter right away.  Once I realized the situation I sent a portfolio to the animation studio.  It sat around there for a few weeks.  They opened it up and looked at it while we were on the phone on a Wednesday, I went in to sign papers that Friday, and my first day of work was the following Monday. I was offered either the background or the layout department.  I knew that I would learn more in the layout department so that is where I went and mentored with Dan Hansen.
What’s a typical day like for you with regards to your job?
At Disney, the visual development department works on various projects at once, both in and outside of the immediate studio.  We are assigned tasks by the art directors on the various shows.  For the most part we work on project to project, sometimes we work on multiple projects at once.  Other projects could come through WDI, or video games, or books.  My work for the features and shorts consists of first concept work (drawings and digital paintings) and sometimes designing individual assets which go into an art packet to offer production a visual target.
What part of your job do you like best? Why?
A: I really like the potential for growth and invention through necessity in the production process.  Although since the concept period of Visual Development is sometimes preproduction the growth comes in learning about the subjects and surroundings the stories and inventing believable worlds specific to the directors point of view.  The visual storytelling aspect makes it very different than illustration or fine art, from video games and books as well to some degree.  It also helps when you work with talented and inspired artists and I am very lucky in that department.
What part of your job do you like least? Why?
The commute.
What is the most difficult part for you about being in the business?
The political climate at large studios is really sketchy.  I have work with different studios as well as had my own,  and at the end of the day I would rather work with good people in difficult situations than with difficult people in good situations.

What kind of technology do you work with on a daily basis?

Personally photoshop and tracking software that we all upload our work through.  Creativity trump technology, but technology makes our lives easier and more creative, so I am constantly curious.

In your travels, have you had any brushes with animation greatness?
I never had to go far to do so.  When I was small my mother worked at Whites art store in Montrose California.  Many of the Disney artists bought supplies there and had shows of their work.  I knew who they were when I was young.  My father was in advertising and would often hang at the same local haunts in Talouca lake as June Forrey, Mel Blanc and others so when I went in with him I knew who they were but too shy to introduce myself.  I was pretty young.  I grew up on the same block as Cardin Walker, who ran the studio when Walt passed and Al Talifarro, a fx animator.  Marc Davis came to Art Center one time and showed his sketches for the pirates of the Caribbean ride.  When I started at Disney, Frank and Ollie would come into work once a week to play music in the studio at lunch, and Herb Ryman would come into the Wednesday night drawing at the WDI sculpture room.

Describe a tough situation you had in life.
Personal life excluded, I’ll keep this to animation.  1. Working with two first time directors on two different projects and companies, who had no business being directors, and making the decision to quit their projects.
2. The misunderstandings, legal and political fall out during and after Aladdin.  3. On the good side, moving into digital compositing on Rescuers Down Under.  The technology was new and at the time, no one had ever done what we did on that show.  We had good teamwork that helped us get through it. Then when we finished we couldn’t reveal what we had done.  I was so proud of that accomplishment.  4. Another tough situation was Space Jam.  I was asked to go in initially as a consultant and was ushered into the Art Directors office who had just been fired.  52 minutes of animation had to be in theaters in eight months and non of the visuals had been bought off on by Ivan Reitman.  Oh did I mention it was going to be done through eighteen studios located all over the globe.  It wasn’t outstanding visually but hardly anyone besides most of our team believed it could be done.  We got a lot of promises from a lot of local hot shots in the meetings but we weren’t getting any support outside the conference room.
Any side projects or you’re working on or hobbies you’d like to share details of?
I am in the slow process of putting two books together.  One on color and the other on design.
Any unusual talents or hobbies like tying a cherry stem with your tongue or metallurgy?
Is there any advice you can give for an aspiring animation student or artist trying to break into the business?
Observe the world more deeply, never stop drawing or painting.  The best advice I received when I got into this business (and asked the same question) came from Ken O’Conner.  He had already retired and I called him at home and asked him what I would need to know.  His answer was, “a little bit of everything”.  I didn’t get it right away but now I do.  In order to create believable worlds or characters that are interesting and credible, you have to research thoroughly.  So observe the world and creatures, behaviors, and desires, and fears more deeply and never stop drawing.

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  1. Your sense of color and light is astonishing!

  2. Bill,
    Thanks so much for doing this interview and sharing with us about your amazing career in animation. Your classes and workshops (at LAAFA and also at Associates in Art back in the day) have been among the best I have ever taken. You have been a real inspiration as a teacher and artist.
    I am really looking forward to your books on color and design. Please let us know when these will published, as I want to be the first in line to buy them.

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