At just 19 years old, Steve Thompson began his lifelong career at The Walt Disney Company when, upon submitting his portfolio to Disney at a year-end review at his school, he was offered a position with the company as a Senior Character Artist. “I was hoping for some positive feedback or maybe even a summer internship!” he says.
It fulfilled a dream he had had since childhood. Inspired by the Greats like Michelangelo, Van Gogh and Picasso, as well as Disney artists, Thompson always dreamt about working in animation design. His career in arts began by studying at the California Institute of the Arts. “Even from a young age I was drawing, and I had a really specific desire about wanting to work for Disney,” he says.
Thompson started working in animation design but as filmmaking changed, so did his career path. Now, Thompson is the principal animation designer at The Walt Disney Company and works on character products from Mickey Mouse to Star Wars, and creates collectibles like snow globes,figurines and holiday ornaments.
Here, the artist shares with us a preview of his keynote speech at Phoenix Design Week this October and life as a Disney artist.
WHAT’S A TYPICAL DAY LIKE FOR YOU?
There’s no real typical day, but generally there’s meetings and a lot of drawing. I might go over to the studio and meet with filmmakers if there’s a new film coming out, or we might get a story pitch or a small screening to help get us excited about the types of products that we might want to help create.
I work with sculptors directly. We have digital sculptors in-house, so it might be working directly with them by doing overlays on their work or, honestly, just sitting in their office and saying move this and change this. In between all of that, I might be working on approving something or starting a concept. So it’s a busy schedule with a lot to juggle, but it’s really rewarding.
HOW DO YOU LIKE PRODUCT DESIGN V. ANIMATION?
It took me a minute to figure it out. Animation design back in the early 2000s was still all hand-drawn, which is what I love doing. I love drawing, and they started to phase out the animation department moving to computer animation, which I wasn’t really interested in, so I found bits and pieces of work around the company and then this job came up. I figured I really didn’t have anything to lose and I loved buying products and I love drawing and so I thought, you know, let’s be completely open to this opportunity—I ended up loving what I do. And so my whole life I thought, ‘I want to animate, I need to animate.’ And then when it came down to finding this job, I realized that it’s just that I love drawing. I’m drawing every single day; it was this odd, seamless transition, but it’s somewhere I never thought I would end up.
WHAT’S THE BIGGEST MISCONCEPTION ABOUT YOUR JOB?
At the end of the day, it’s a job (animation designer) with deadlines and a lot of business behind it. It can be high pressure. I think sometimes a perception people have is that we’re just sitting around drawing cartoons all day, like it’s all fun all the time and it is, it is a lot of fun, but it is a serious career.
WHAT DO YOU LOVE MOST ABOUT YOUR CAREER?
I like it when something we’ve been working on for so long finally ends up in stores or online and you see how people are reacting. We work sometimes 12 to 16 months out, so if there’s a big project we’re working on we’ve all seen it, and internally we’re really excited about it, but you still never know how the public is going to respond to it, and so I think that, ultimately, is really rewarding.
If it’s a positive response, that’s the best you can hope for, and if there’s some not so positive responses, it can be a learning opportunity to make something better in the future. That audience feedback and response is always really exciting, and I want people to see what I’m working on now—but it’s all top secret!
CAN YOU SHARE SOME OF WHAT YOU’LL BE TALKING ABOUT AT PHOENIX DESIGN WEEK?
I’m definitely going to start off with how I got into the industry and getting started, but really the tone of my talk is based on something my high school art teacher told me when I was a sophomore in high school. She said if you want to get better with drawing, you need to start drawing from life. And so the topic of my talk is the literal sense of life drawing and how that can improve you as an artist.
I’ll also cover how my career’s gone and how I’m figuratively drawing from life experience, things I’ve learned, mistakes that I’ve made and how I’ve overcome them.
I’ll cover artists who inspire me and how that has led to how people can discover their own unique artistic voice or style as well as how to stay inspired.
WHO ARE SOME ARTISTS THAT HAVE INSPIRED YOU?
A few artists that really inspire me are Disney Artists Mary Blair and Glen Keane. Mary Blair was an artist at the Disney company at a time when there were not too many women working in animation design. Walt loved her work and she went on to be the art director on such films as Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan. Her work is colorful, almost childlike. But her use of color and design is legendary.
Glen Keane was the lead animator on characters Like Ariel, Beast, Pocahontas and Aladdin, to name a few. His drawing ability is awe-inspiring. you actually believe that the character he draws are living, breathing creations. Even if it’s just one drawing or frame at a time.
WHAT ARE SOME OTHER WAYS YOU STAY INSPIRED?
I found a hobby outside of art, which is doing trapeze. So I’ve been doing it at nighttime, away from work. I go to a circus school and have an opportunity on occasion to perform and it’s so outside of what I normally do and it keeps me so creatively inspired that I can’t help but take that inspiration back to my daily job as an animation designer. I think it’s important to find a creative outlet to keep you from getting artist’s block.
[With trapeze] I found I was facing fears in a way that I never did before… it changed me, like, even so much as coming to Phoenix and giving this really long talk. Public speaking is something that, in the past, I never would have said yes to—it can be terrifying.
In my career I learned that I don't want to say no to an opportunity just because I'm afraid of it. And that, ultimately, going through that fear makes you a stronger person and makes saying yes sometimes that much more rewarding.
WHAT IS YOUR CREATIVE PROCESS LIKE?
I always start with the source material. I go right back to the film and to the characters because, at the end of the day, when somebody looks at something I’ve designed, I’m hoping they have an emotional connection to it. So it’s finding moments in the film or the way a character’s expressing themself and putting it into the product. And so I might review the film a little bit and then I just start drawing… there’s these little teeny doodles that may look like scribbles to other people, but to me it’s like, it’s just like the first burst of energy. I’m just throwing ideas down on paper or coming up with different compositions, arrangement, some characters.
If I find a good idea I’ll clean it up and make it presentable… and then it goes into sculpting and I work directly with the sculptures to make sure that the piece turns out exactly how I imagined it in my animation designs. And then they work with painters to make sure the colors are all right. So from the very initial thought of it being a product to the very, very final production, I’m super hands-on just to make sure that that vision stays clear all the way through.
Phoenix Design Week kicks off October 5-12th and offers a weekend conference, events, and workshops for local creatives. Early bird tickets, which are limited to 100, for the Beyond Design Conference are currently available at phxdw.com.