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"HOW I BECAME A DISNEY ARTIST"

September 9, 2017
DreamHill Farms

The lecture was titled: ‘How I Became a Disney Artist’. I was hooked.

When I was a kid-still am some say-I wanted to be Jiminy Cricket. 

Man, he could do everything: dance, sing, jump; clever, sense of humor and even figured how to breath underwater. 

As I turned out, I never became Jiminy. But, I did recently meet a Disney artist, Peter Childs, who drew and animated him. 

Sometimes I like to venture from my rural sanctuary, farms-scape and go to the big city, not more than an hour away where the Disney lecturer was scheduled.

I have always been a big fan of Disney’s ‘First and Second Golden Age of Animation’. A time when there was two artistic standards in the world, Disney and everybody else who wanted to be Disney.

I knew well Mr. Childs’ work, but that day I reveled in his storytelling; how he became an artist, how he came to work for Disney, and all the relatable anecdotes; incidents that could have easily discourage yet encouraged him to persevere. 

It reminded me of something I learned early in my professional life. Talent is not the most important ingredient to achieve a high standard, you gotta really want it bad, obsession bad, and, you need to  always be working your butt off without any clear chance of rewards.

His first words that day were a wonderful teaser saying he knew a lot of great talents in his life, all had one thing in common: none ever got an engraved invitation to go the big party…they all snuck in through the back door.

He also talked that day about the power of individual pride, perseverance, prejudice, endurance, doors open and doors shut, and how to enjoy life regardless of dreams denied…or dreams fulfilled.  

“Curiosity”, he said, “is the fuel that gets you to climb hills each day.” Ventures he continues in retirement, constantly challenged to achieve something new. 

“Artists never cease exploring and producing until their last breath. Mr. Childs told, of when Picasso died at ninety-nine, his doctor said,” “Picasso should have died years earlier, but he was too busy working on projects.” 

I thought Mr. Childs would talk more about his work but he kept bending towards motivational factors of being an artist-frustrating at first many in the audience, but late rewarded in the end hearing about a universal story: Strategies of becoming better.

He told of how he got a job as a Disney artist being one of the most unlikely candidates. 

“Pride is a very powerful tool to accomplish great things,” he began. “You know pride…the same pride that can destroy the most talented people and begets misery. But pride can never be denied. You just have to know how to play it. Pride is like a pet dragon: either you control it, or it controls you. Only you decide.”

“I never intended to work for Disney.” He told. “When I was twenty, Disney wasn’t cool. And at twenty all you want is cool. After I graduated from college I opened my own little design studio, satisfying an urge of artistic hungers while trying to make a living for me and my wife who was still in graduate school. I tried getting a job in the small college town but soon learned the nature of prejudice in the work place…he paused for a longer moment than a dramatic emphasis suggest. 

Everyone in the audience looked up to be sure to capture his next sentence. I guess he speaks often enough and learned how key words can get folks attention on hot-button issues.

He told how even though he felt he was qualified there seemed to be an invisible door not letting him in. In one interview he described the reality of the situation: He recognized a girl he knew who graduated a year earlier working there. She came out into the hall after him.

“How did it go?” She asked

“I thought pretty well…She seemed to like my work.”

“Look,” she said in a serious tone, “She’s not going to hire you. She only hires women, sorry.”

Mr. Childs said he learned the truth as it was a similar situation everywhere he went. He was never going to get a design job in that town. 

So, he opened a small studio in an office the size of a big broom closet. A studio that eventually taught him everything he needed to know about his craft. He laughed saying he opened his own studio not because he was a visionary, but because it was the only way he could get a job.

“You can always find reasons for failure. But quite often that is the very reason for you to succeed.” he said as a reality-check.

 “For reasons you’ll never know, or should care, people often will not respond the way you want. It’s the way it always has been and will always be. All you can ever do is control how you respond…and that’s usually hard enough.”

“Rejections are the bricks which the road to proficiency is paved,” he acknowledged in a way that suggested he knew from experience.

“Professionally, people will react to you in one of two packages, they either greatly overestimate your abilities, or greatly underestimate them; never in between. So, you must set your own standards of excellence if you want to stay sane.”

“If you take control of your skills,” he said with a sharp tone, “Then you are always working toward new masteries. It takes a long time to turn a skill into proficiency, then able to create a product that people can appreciate. There is an uncomfortable lag between when you are good at something and when folks might tell you so. But even then, they often forget to tell you.”

“And there’s always this possibility that if you're good at something, and you can demonstrate such, people might not care. You may be good at something that doesn’t interest them, and you have to decide what to do with that reality.”

“This notion of always working toward acceptance and validation is a very inefficient way to grow.”

“Also, the idea that anyone is waiting around to make you rich and famous is a fool’s goal. You have to do that yourself, and without any real chance it will ever pay off. You do it….just because…”

“Doors of opportunities are mostly shut, and when they do open, it’s not for long. When they open you better be ready. You can’t say, ‘Oh, okay, now I think I want to do this, I am ready to learn how to do this.’ “

“Opportunity doesn’t look for potential, it looks for productivity.”

That's where pride comes in-it’s a great self-motivator. 

He told of how at a moment of weakness, he applied to Disney on a whim one day. 

“Sometimes you get an urge. It usually passes quickly. But sometimes you think an urge is like a vision from God or something, a mystic vibration that you get tuned into, but unsure how you're supposed to react.”

“One day in my little studio,” he began, “I was feeling a little discouraged. I had hit a dry spell, which often happens in any business. In a moment of creative doubts I decided to write a letter to Disney offering my talents.” 

“I wasn’t satisfied with any of my existing drawings pinned all around my studio so decided to draw one of Disney characters, each character telling how great this kid was as an artist and they should hire him.”

He paused, then, “I didn’t think any more of it, figuring some guy with a tie in an office would just throw it in a box with thousands of other such requests.” 

“Soon,” he continued, “I got busy again at my studio with new challenges and new clients. I was riding high.” He paused.

“Then a few months later, I got a letter with the recognizable logo from Disney addressed to me. I think I waited a few hours before I opened it, imagining all the possibilities of what could have been written within; from ‘congratulations’ to ‘don’t ever write us again’.” 

As it turned out, it was from their employment department saying that they were so baffled by the drawing I sent, ‘…After much discussion, we decided to forward it to the Art Department for comments’. 

“That was it. No conclusions, no closure only…nothing.”

He then told how months went by again, forgetting about it until another letter arrived, again with the Disney logo, but this time with the subhead: Art Dept. 

“They were ruthless.” He admitted. “After the first sentence I hated them. I felt I would never watch another Disney film or ever go to their theme parks.”

“The art director there told me how much they loved seeing good drawings of their characters, and then proceeded to suggest that mine was not anywhere close to good. Went on to tell me how great all their artists were; at least twenty years experience; crowned with all kinds of artistic degrees and awards; then compared my two years work experience along with thin references and no awards.”

Mr. Childs as a storyteller had established story’s greatest dynamic: Contrast.

He was silent while everyone appreciated the impossibility of him ever working for Disney, but they all knew that he did. How?

He said that letter really made him very angry. “They were right of course, I wasn’t very good, terrible in fact. But at first I didn’t have the eye to notice. Pride told me to get mad…the same pride that told me I needed to get my butt in gear and get a lot better…the same pride that told me to get revenge.”

So, he set a goal: as long as it would take, he would one day convince Disney he was worthy. He imagined their letter, one day: ‘Mr. Childs, We are pleased to inform you we would like you to be part of Disney artistic history.”

Then he told of his true motivation, “I rehearsed so many times my response…variations of the same theme. I would throw their offer back in their face and tell them ‘Thanks but no thanks’. I don’t really want to work for Disney. I am better off with my own great studio thank you very much.” 

“It felt good. My pride had been satisfied, my anger had been vindicated. My goal was not only to get better, but be better than Disney and one day tell them so.” 

“So…for the next few years, when I had a break from my studio work, I would create a piece of artwork and send it to them, convinced that this will be the one that will turn their heads.”

“I always received a direct response from the same art director, usually like; ‘Getting better, but not there yet. Often frustrated, pride made me ever more determined. It became a game.”

“About three years later, my studio had become very successful; finally had all the breaks I worked for. The studio was well known and thriving. I was living my destiny.”

“Then…I got that letter from Disney:” ‘…We would like to talk to you about a position we have in mind for you…’ 

"Ouch," he pained.

“Life,” he said, “is not like stories in the movies. Life is not a carefully crafted sequencing of progressions unfolding. Life bumbles, fumbles and tumbles along. When you get discouraged, bad things just keep piling on until you feel you're gonna break. You wait for relief but storm clouds keep rolling in torrents. 

Then one day, when you least expect, you see the sun. Good times come and come in blinding rays to the point you can’t decide which one to embrace; like being in a country buffet, its all good, but what do you taste first.”

“After years of hard work building up a successful studio, why then did Disney have to call my name. Why not when I needed it most?” Mr. Childs asked the audience, as if one of us might know.

“But…when doors open you must make a decision, only one.” 

I guess it’s like that old Monkees' song, ‘LOOK OUT TOMORROW’, about being in love with two people. ‘Wishing tomorrow would never come…so I don’t have to decide which one to choose’. 

“But,” he ended his story, “To most peoples’ objection, I decided to Disney-it, and, as they say, it made all the difference.”

His epilogue gave us all something real to ponder: 

“Sometimes good things happen to us, and we assume that we have turned the corner of being ordinary and the rewards of good things will always continue, which makes it hard when we return to the ordinary. It’s hard to figure out if blessings are rewards for good things done, or are they encouragement for good things yet done.”

I’ll think about that conundrum for eternity.

I figure many in the audience that day could easily relate to Mr. Child’s story. I know I did…I’m just a sucker for a good perseverance-story. It always inspires me to…well, persevere! 

          (This is a true story, the name Peter Child’s is fictitious to obscure identity)

6,651 - 356 - 13 - US
Bing spent 25 years in the Film Entertainment business. He also spent 10 years teaching university students visual storytelling and other production components of filmaking where he developed a curriculum entitled "Visual Language'.
He now lives in the rural farming landscapes of Kentucky where he spends time writing when farm chores allow.

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