What is your name and your current occupation?
Thomas Estrada. I’m a senior animator at Disney Interactive.
What are some of the crazier jobs you had before getting into animation?
Not really crazy, but the most unusual was working as a pest control technician for several years. Covering Hollywood and Encino, I killed the bugs of Gene Kelly, George Carlin, and Jaclyn Smith, among others.
What are some of your favorite projects you’re proud to have been a part of?
The Prince of Egypt, The Emperor’s New Groove, Treasure Planet, and the Toy Story 3 video game.
How did you become interested in animation?
As far back as I can remember, I loved to draw. I have memories of early grade school, drawing pictures of “Giant Robot” for school friends. I knew then that I wanted to this for a living.
Where are you from and how did you get into the animation business?
I grew up in the San Fernando Valley in Southern California. After graduating high school in 1988, I had no idea about how to actually be a professional artist. I enrolled into art classes at the community college, but was soon discouraged after a couple semesters, thinking a career in art required going to schools like Cal Arts or Otis Parsons, places I could never afford. So I quit school, found a regular job and did whatever freelance art I could find such as airbrushing t-shirts, drawing brochure covers and painting murals. Finally in the summer of 1996 my wife and I attended her family reunion and discovered she had a cousin who was a Disney animator. He gave me an honest assessment of my drawing skills, then graciously took me under his wing. He taught me 2d clean-up and advised me on building my portfolio. At this time, Disney had just finished “Hercules” and was not hiring, so in 1997 I applied at Dreamworks and was hired as an inbetweener on “The Prince of Egypt”. I suddenly went from spraying bugs on Faye Dunaway’s front lawn to drawing Moses on a feature animated film! I still can’t believe it happened.
What’s a typical day like for you with regards to your job?
I work with game designers to develop a list of various animations I create for our video game, including runs, jumps, combat as well as cinematics and cut scenes. I receive notes and feedback from art directors, supervisors and fellow animators during dailies and make multiple iterations until everything is approved. I spend the rest of the time working closely with programmers who implement my animations into the game.
What part of your job do you like best? Why?
I love the creativity. Collaborating with amazingly talented artists and developing the characters, coming up with all the motions to bring them to life. Being part of a team to create something you know is going to be great.
What part of your job do you like least? Why?
Sometimes pressure due to scheduling can limit the quality of your work. As anyone who takes pride in what they do, you hate to see something leave your hands before it should.
What is the most difficult part for you about being in the business?
I guess it’s this way in most industries nowadays, but the worry of getting cut between projects. The animation business in particular can be very political and super competitive. You have to remain focused and driven to stay employed. When you realize how quickly you can be out of a job, that’s the scary part.
What kind of technology do you work with on a daily basis?
I work exclusively in Maya these days. Although I have worked with 3dmax, Motion builder, and the DreamWorks software, Emo.
In your travels, have you had any brushes with animation greatness?
While at Dreamworks, I had the pleasure of meeting Chuck Jones during an intimate lecture he gave with Tom Sito. I have also been very fortunate to have personally worked under many animation giants such as Kristof Serrand, Ken Duncan, and Serguei Kouchnerov.
Describe a tough situation you had in life.
I can’t think of anything tough enough that’s worth mentioning.
Any side projects or you’re working on or hobbies you’d like to share details of?
I am currently painting a large mural for the kids at my church. It’s a two wall, floor to ceiling forest scene that stretches down a hallway about 30’ long.
Any unusual talents or hobbies like tying a cherry stem with your tongue or metallurgy?
Nothing unusual. I play guitar and drums, and enjoy camping and fishing.
Is there any advice you can give for an aspiring animation student or artist trying to break into the business?
If possible, find someone with real world experience in the field that is willing to give you honest critique of your work. Your mom doesn’t count (unless her name is Kathy Zielinski!) But more importantly, learn to really listen and take that criticism without getting bent. If there’s a piece on your demo reel that your mentor has suggested you drop, then by all means drop it! Whether you’re in school or working, don’t fall in love with your stuff so much that you can’t scrap it and start over. In this business your work is constantly being picked apart, many times you’re told to just trash it and do it again, especially when you’re starting out.