Chris Oatley

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What is your name and your current occupation?
Chris Oatley. I was a Visual Development Artist and Character Designer at DisneyToon Studios (most recently designing characters for Disney’s ‘Planes’ franchise) before I left to start The Oatley Academy Of Concept Art & Illustration. At The Oatley Academy, I teach Composition, Color Theory and Digital Painting. I also have a Character Design Workshop coming up soon.

What are some of the crazier jobs you had before getting into animation?
At age sixteen I submitted my illustration portfolio along with a standard application for employment at my neighborhood Kroger and was immediately hired as a cake decorator. They also wanted me to do the in-store illustrations – china markers on the windows and what have you.  I think I started out at $12 an hour. It was way more than any of my friends were making at Bob Evans or Dippin’ Dots or wherever. It was my first job and I was already getting paid (well) to draw….until the US Department Of Labor called two days later and shut me down.  An industrial meat slicer was located within a certain proximity of the cake decorating station and thus there existed the possibility of accidental lacerations. The liability waiver I had signed didn’t count, legally, because I was a minor.  I was immediately demoted to bag boy. I liked bagging groceries because I could chit chat

with the customers. …but collecting shopping carts in the parking lot was not a task my spare frame was built to sustain.  I now find it ironic that drawing Ninja Turtles on cakes under the long shadow of an unplugged meat slicer was considered illegal while pushing huge, unwieldy trains of metal shopping carts between the customers’ vehicles, over blacktop in the blazing Kentucky summer while dressed in bluejeans and a claustrophobically-heavy, synthetic-blend Kroger shirt (with stylish, eight-inch-thick blue and white diagonal stripes, I might add) was completely fine.  I received my first paycheck at the end of the week and discovered that I had not only been demoted in position, but also in pay. “Bag boys make $5 an hour,” I was told when I objected to the significant pay-cut.  That was my fourth and final day as a Kroger employee.  After Kroger, I was hired to design and illustrate the menus for my friend Ryan’s parents’ new italian restaurant. Soon after, I became the bus boy and dish washer. The other bus boy/ dish washer thought it hilarious to spray me in the pants with hot water all the time.  After my patience for working in hot, wet pants ran out I was hired to design and illustrate ads for my friend Darran’s parents’ antique refinishing store. Subsequently, I was hired to reorganize the attic in the workshop. I spent the hottest hours of many summer days moving boxes and broken wood furniture while breathing sawdust in the dark.  This pattern continued. 1.) Professional, creative opportunity. 2.) Fall from grace on account on youth, inexperience and lack of options. 3.) Manual labor in the sweltering heat.

What are some of your favorite projects you’re proud to have been a part of?
I’m really proud of the recent work I did on the ‘Planes’ franchise.  I wish the haters would withhold judgement until they see the films that DTS will release over the next few years. I’m pretty sure the last film I worked on there will be the best film in the history of the studio. That movie hasn’t been officially announced yet so I can’t really talk about it but in the last version I saw before I left, the story was very, VERY strong.  I’m also very proud of “The Pixie Hollow Games.” That was the 22-minute special we did for Disney Channel a couple years ago.  I was able to invest in the earliest stages of visual development for that show. I did VisDev paintings for most of the new, principal characters and some of the new costumes, vehicles and props.  I helped to design some of the visual effects and I also worked with my friend Michael Simms to design and paint the logo for the marketing campaign. I even pitched an awesome idea for an iPad game based on the movie but that didn’t go very far.  I think it’s the best ‘Pixie Hollow’ film yet. We had to move super-fast because of the production schedule and everything just clicked together. The leadership on that crew was great. The crew’s creative energy was visceral. …inspiring.

How did you become interested in animation?
Some of my earliest memories are of a black-and-white-Walt explaining the process of animation….and I remember dropping everything to watch ‘Four Artists Paint One Tree’ every single time it was on TV.  I have a very early memory of a behind-the-scenes special about the Peanuts cartoons – the animated cartoons, I mean. In a shot where the cels were being photographed, I noticed that the characters had been broken apart onto layers. At first, I didn’t understand why Peppermint Patty’s head was cut off but I figured it out eventually.  Of course, I loved the many iterations of the making of the original Star Wars trilogy….and my ultimate creative hero is and always has been Jim Henson. So I’ve seen pretty much every Henson-based special ever made.  Animation, puppets, special effects… They all scratched the same itch.  All that is to say, I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t interested in animation. It has always been a dream of mine to work with The Jim Henson Company (It still is – if anyone from JHC is reading this!) and before Jim passed away in 1990, I was fixated on working with him. But afterward, the company seemed to fade away for quite a while. Now they’re back and doing some really great projects, of course. I wish to God they still had total control of The Muppets.  Point is, I saw ‘Beauty & The Beast’ in November of 1991 – a month before my 13th birthday. Getting bullied in school was status quo for me so I had developed this crusty shell around my emotions. …but when Belle threw herself over the Beast’s dead body and whispered “I love you.” …that shell cracked wide open.  The moment was doubly powerful because I was, throughout the movie, conscious of the fact that it was all drawing and painting. I knew how the illusion of life was created but that knowledge didn’t compromise the emotional effect.  My Mom took me to the bookstore right after the movie and we bought the then-new ‘Art Of Animation’ book that had a big section devoted to ‘Beauty & The Beast.’ I started copying Glen’s drawings and thought maybe I would try to be an animator.  I guess I never fully decided what I wanted to do because I became a Visual Development Artist by accident…

Where are you from and how did you get into the animation business?
When the Disney Florida studio was still operational, they had a studio tour attraction where you could go spy on the real animators while a pretend animator did a drawing demo and explained the basics of the process. Back then, there was no Internet as we now think of it. …and no Blu-Ray special features. Only the TV specials on Disney channel and ABC. So a peek inside a working animation studio was like the eighth wonder of the world. I almost exploded from awesomeness-overload. When the tour group moved on, my family and I stayed behind and asked the pretend animator how to get a job as a real animator.  He took us back, literally behind-the-scenes, down this gray hallway to a tiny office where he gave me a list with descriptions of all the different jobs for artists at the studio. (That was probably the first time I ever learned what clean-up artists or inbetweeners were.)  There was also a list of recommended art schools with little blurbs about each one. …and I think there were a couple of pages that talked about drawing fundamentals and what skills to acquire.  It was just a few photocopied pages stapled at the corner but it was like he’d just handed me the Dead Sea Scrolls.  I applied to CalArts, Ringling, RISD, SVA, SCAD and a few others.  I picked The Columbus College Of Art and Design because they were closest to home and they offered me the biggest scholarship.  I didn’t end up pursuing hand-drawn animation in art school. I got derailed by rumors that hand-drawn animation was being replaced by “computer animation” so I chose illustration as my major. I guess it seemed like the safer bet?  In a way, it was. Because the animation department was part of the ‘Media Studies’ program so I would have wasted a ton of credit hours learning photography (which meant developing film), video editing and software that would become obsolete a year after I graduated.  The illustration department emphasized the fundamentals so I chose the better path in spite of my confusion. Actually, drawing, painting and the other fundamentals hijacked my career plans a couple of times. More on this later…  After graduating, I realized pretty quickly that I didn’t want to be a freelance illustrator. I didn’t want to draw caricatures of celebrities for the rest of my life (Not that there’s anything wrong with that…). And my work was too weird and dark for children’s publishing. The only place for me to go was animation or concept design. ‘Monsters, Inc.’ and ‘Finding Nemo’ confirmed in my heart that I wanted to tell deeply emotional stories. …so I did the only thing I could think of: More school.  I enrolled at Ohio State to pursue my master’s degree in animation – CG this time around. I learned to animate and directed half of a (pretty good) animated short which I later abandoned when I was gently nudged out of graduate school… But before I get to that, I need to back up for a second… There was a small animation shop in Columbus, Ohio called ‘Hot Donut Productions.’ “HDP” came out of ‘Character Builders,’ the previous Ohio-based animation studio that Jeff Smith (of ‘Bone’ fame) helped to create.  They were working on ‘The Aristocats 2’ a hand-drawn, direct-to-DVD feature which, apparently, was a really good movie. The wave of CG obsession hit the direct to DVD market several years after it hit theatrical so there was still a lot of drawing going on in the DTV niche….until 2006 when the then-president of DisneyToons called and told Hot Donut to do the movie in computer animation instead….as if HDP could just press the magic “computerize” button…But that wasn’t the only impossible task that was dropped on HDP because of that phone call. They were told that CG fur was too expensive soooo… …no CG fur.  So what do you do when you need to make a CG movie about cats but you can’t have any CG fur?  I guess you call Chris Oatley?  I didn’t get it either.  Joking aside, the truth is that I owe my career to a friend of mine by the name of Steve Galgas. Steve and I were in art school together and he had just quit his job at HDP to move with his partner Mike (now a modeler at Pixar) to Dallas, Texas so Mike could work on ‘The Ant Bully.’ HDP called Steve and asked him to recommend someone. He recommended me and I was hired immediately.  Fortunately, I had a good idea of how to solve the problem. And it wasn’t my idea. I loved the original ‘Ice Age’ film and I had been researching how they achieved the fur look on a budget.  It was my understanding that Blue Sky attached small, textured “cards” in rows (at an angle like half-fallen dominoes) to the character models. The cards had Alpha Channels that gave them a “hair” silhouette. It wasn’t a fur sim but it looked really good for a low-budget solution.  My thought was that with the Ice Age faux-CG-fur technique we could animate by hand the whiskers and perhaps some additional groups of looser strands of hair to make the fur a little more organic looking. (I actually thought we could probably convince Disney to let us put some dynamics on the characters. At least the whiskers and the tufts of hair on their cheeks.)  So I did some concept paintings, pitched the concept and Disney liked my work. Now, here’s an important detail: Hot Donut had agreed to CG-ify ‘Aristocats 2’ as long as Disney would pay for all the extra costs. So, because I was one of those “extra costs,” I didn’t invoice Hot Donut when I was done. I invoiced Disney directly. So I emailed Cindy in accounting and asked her who else I could talk to about doing more VisDev work for Disney. She referred me to someone who told me that they loved my work but things had just become complicated at DTS.  Disney bought Pixar.  John Lasseter and Ed Catmull just took over animation and announced that they were shutting down the Circle 7 Studio “immediately.”  Thus, I assume, some folks at DTS were concerned that they might suffer the same fate as Circle 7.  A year later, I was really struggling at Ohio State. The graduate program there is based more on scholarship than filmmaking. I just wanted to do what I do now with my website which is make things and talk about how I made them. But that approach was never considered scholarly enough for OSU.  I had been in graduate school for three years and I had started four different thesis projects. I had one on timing vs. spacing, one developing a “digital puppetry” technique like what Henson does now with ‘Sid The Science Kid‘ and I finally found an acceptable “contribution to the current state of the art” – a thesis about the design influences of the UPA artists and how to apply those approaches to CG. But it was too little too late. My funding ran out and we couldn’t afford to pay out of pocket for another year, let alone two… So I sent an email to one of my advisors on a Monday at noon and at 6:45 the following night the phone rang. …and it was the Tinker Bell team. JL loved the Tink project and after a major story overhaul, they were crewing up again. They hired me to do VisDev paintings of props.  Two weeks later I was on a plane to Burbank.

What’s a typical day like for you with regards to your job?
I block out time to respond to emails and tweets from my subscribers pretty much every day. …and I always have several blog posts and podcast episodes in the works.  But I spend the majority of my time online working with (or for) my Oatley Academy students.  I’ve been teaching sessions of Painting Drama (my flagship course on composition) since August. That’s been one of the most fulfilling experiences of my life.  The highlight of each month is when we all meet together for a huge live session. We do group critiques, I usually have a timely lesson for the group and then any student that needs personal mentorship receives it there. It’s always an inspiring, emotional, hilarious experience.  One of the best things about starting my own business every day is different. My routine is almost entirely project-based.  Right now, I’m finishing my new Digital Painting Workshop which is called “Animals, Atmosphere and How Not To Kill Your Painting.”  I’m also preparing for the first offering of Painting Drama 2: Advanced Color Theory for Visual Storytellers – lots of reading, research and designing lessons.  Actually, I had PD2 almost ready to go but I decided to make some major changes to increase the difficulty and tailor it more specifically to the students who will be taking it. It’s going to be awesome.  If you’re interested in what my daily routine was like before I left Disney, check out this blog post.

What part of your job do you like best? Why?
Seeing my students achieve amazing artistic, emotional and professional results during their time at Oatley Academy.  One of my students AJ Nazzaro said “The proof is in the work.” He was talking about why artists should take Painting Drama. I think he’s exactly right.  There’s just nothing like hearing the pride in their voices when they know that they have faced an incredibly difficult artistic and emotional challenge and succeeded. To see their risks rewarded… To see them finding their identities as artists and professionals… To see them break ahead of the pack… It’s inspiring beyond words.

What part of your job do you like least? Why?
Taxes and the buttheads who send mean emails. I assume the “Why?” is self-evident.

What kind of technology do you work with on a daily basis?
Markers, pencils, sketchbook. Photoshop. WordPress. Screenflow. Garageband. iMovie. The Blue Snowball. The 21” Wacom Cintiq. I just sold my 12” Cintiq and bought a Wacom Intuos5. I have never loved a tablet but the Intuos5 might be the first. Oh, and I have an amazing set of noise-canceling headphones by Audio Technica. They are essential for productivity in my preferred work environment – the coffee-shop. I could go on and on about awesome Apps for iOS devices…

What is the most difficult part for you about being in the business?
Pitching and pitching and pitching spec projects while receiving lots of encouragement but experiencing little to no progress.

In your travels, have you had any brushes with animation greatness?
Another great thing about both my previous and current jobs is that I encounter animation greatness all the time. My wife and I just went on a long road trip together and while I was in Nashville, TN I had an inspiring lunch with the living legend Tom Bancroft. When we got to Dallas, TX my super-talented friends Sarah Marino and Shane Richardson gave us a tour of the ReelFX Studio.  I also did Q&A’s at CCAD and SCAD. I met many passionate, talented artists at both of those schools. It was super-inspiring.

Describe a tough situation you had in life.
At Disney, I was trying to pursue a writer/ director role but it was just exhausting. I wrote a spec script and several outlines for shorts and nothing ever went anywhere. I received a lot of mixed messages from people of influence in the industry. Their intentions were good. They were trying to help. It was all just super-confusing.  I was told by a few people I needed to move into story. …basically back up and start my career completely over doing something I’m not good at. That was pretty overwhelming.  At one point I met with a pretty high-up exec at Disney and she encouraged me to keep pitching ideas because maybe I might become a director in ten more years. While I appreciated her valuable time and her encouragement, ten years of moving in circles for a chance to gamble just didn’t seem fulfilling to me. …or wise.  I often wonder if nobody knew what to do with me because I’m this weird writer/ painter hybrid… It’s important to note that the years of frustration helped me to finally pinpoint the itch I was actually trying to scratch.  And that itch was the same then as it was when I decided I didn’t want to be a freelance illustrator almost ten years earlier – storytelling.  The only thing that ever made sense to me was what Doug TenNapel told me to do. Sherm Cohen later confirmed it. Tell my own dang stories.  If I was willing to sacrifice animation and sound I could scratch that itch immediately without anyone’s permission. So I started a webcomic.  The combined work load of the comic, my websites and my day job at Disney would have killed me. So I shelved the comic, backed off the throttle on one of my sites (Paper Wings) and started turning into an online art school.  Putting the comic on hold right after I realized how badly I wanted to make it was extremely difficult. I still sort of grieve it sometimes.  About a year before I left Disney, the gears were already turning on Oatley Academy. That’s a whole long story of it’s own, but basically, I realized that my career was upside-down. The two things I was most passionate about – teaching and storytelling – were always taking a back seat to my day job. Now, don’t get me wrong. My day job was awesome, too. It’s just that teaching and storytelling is more fulfilling.  I’m better at teaching and communicating than I am at anything else. So it only made sense to build the school first. (Also, it’s nigh-impossible for even the most popular comic creators to make a living with indie comics.)  The response to the launch of The Oatley Academy was amazing. Nobody has ever responded to my art as strongly as thousands of people have responded to my teaching. That was the confirmation my wife and I needed to take the plunge, leave Disney and try to do the academy full time.  The Oatley Academy is now my full-time job. …and I love this job more than I ever thought I could love any job.  I don’t have time for the comic yet because Oatley Academy is my main (and pretty much my only) thing right now. And it will remain primary because it’s the most fulfilling thing I’ve ever done. …way more fulfilling than making comics.  But yes, I still plan to make my comic. I’m hoping that I can carve out enough time in 2014 to finish the first book but I’ll just have to play it by ear.  That’s more than one difficult thing but I guess my point is that it was a really challenging season of life.

Any side projects you’re working on that you’d like to share details of?
As often as possible, I blog and podcast about creator-owned comics with my friend Lora Innes (who created the successful web comic known as ‘The Dreamer’).  We recently interviewed Ryan Woodward about his career as a story artist and his animated iPad comic ‘Bottom Of The Ninth.’ It is a fantastic interview.  You can check out the Paper Wings site.

Any unusual talents or hobbies like tying a cherry stem with your tongue or metallurgy?I have ninja-like abilities when it comes to swatting flies.

Is there any advice you can give for an aspiring animation student or artist trying to break into the business?
I have two websites and podcasts devoted to providing this kind of advice and I highly recommend checking those out. and  But I was on Eric Canete’s blog the other day and found this quote from Moebius that simultaneously defined my life and raised the bar higher than I’d ever considered. I’m not sure if I’ve ever found an art quote that resonated with me on such a deep, personal level.. …so I’ll leave you with this.

“Today, in our field, there is so much talent and recognition that we are reaching a saturation point. An artist should no longer strive only for breathtaking craftsmanship; he should, instead, try to help us live better, either by dressing the wounds that are constantly being opened by society, or by offering solutions to get us out of the mess we’re in…But it’s going to be difficult and we have a lot of work to do.” – Jean ‘Moebius’ Giraud

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