A Disney animator’s advice for young artists on mistakes, learning and mastery

Chad walked away from an animation career at Disney because the pressure to perform had slowly robbed him of the joy he felt when animating and drawing. He shares his tips for budding artists and animators on embracing imperfection and looking for learning opportunities.

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By Chad Stewart | Founder of The Animation Course

One of the most heartbreaking things I see as a teacher, parent, or animator is a young person putting so much pressure on themselves that they lose the joy that attracted them to an art form (or activity) in the first place.

As a young animation student I was drawn into a sequence of excitement, opportunity, achievement, and comparison (to those more advanced than myself), and then to insecurity and frustration. Each time I saw someone’s animation I had to know if I could do better. If I could be more valuable. As if becoming more adept at a certain skill had any bearing on who I was or my value as a person. But I continued to put pressure on myself to understand complicated concepts instantly and execute them effortlessly. Little by little that pressure robbed me of the joy I felt when animating. And it continued not just through school, but well into my career. Until finally I couldn’t keep up with it.

Why I said goodbye to Disney

After four years working for Walt Disney Feature Animation in the late ‘90’s, I found myself cleaning out my desk and saying goodbye to the job that had been my dream since 6th grade. While I had talent, I couldn’t draw or animate as well as the other artists there, some who were my age, but many who had been animating for decades. And instead of approaching my position with a humble curiosity, I had instead withdrawn into myself hoping that I could somehow pull some animation off on my own that would ‘Wow!’ those around me, which of course I couldn’t.  

As a result, I found myself without a position on the newest film, without the opportunity to learn from those who had so much more skill than myself, and without a desire to continue animating, a process that had always fascinated me and something I truly loved to do.  

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What had I done wrong?

I had expected to learn too much too quickly. I had attached my character and self-worth to a skill that took thousands of hours to master. I had abandoned the joy of learning.

I finally gave up putting that unachievable pressure on myself and I have enjoyed animating in the world of film over the last 26 years, although I still feel it sneak up on me every once in a while. Now I see the pressure in new places, the eyes of my children and my students.  

I think with the technological advancements today it makes it even harder for this next generation. A world of information and opportunity is at their fingertips.  Almost everything is effortless… and yet there are still things in life that are truly hard to master. Growing up and maturing. Learning to interact with people. Knowing thyself. And, in the case of my students, animation.  

When the moviegoer watches an animated movie, they ingest years of work from hundreds of people in a couple of hours. Unfortunately, sometimes a student will expect the same level of skill and expertise from themselves that they see on the screen.  

I make it a point to always take the pressure off an assignment. Each of them is at a different point in their journey. Each is valuable. And it’s getting them excited about the journey that is the real key.  

If they're passionate, then doing something wrong becomes a fantastic opportunity to learn. 

And not a discouragement, but rather a moment to build momentum. If we embrace failure and mistakes as the catalyst for understanding and disconnect it from our value as people then we have a learning model that is powerful, and enjoyable!  At least it was that way for me.

Tips for budding animators and artists

1. Find a mentor on YouTube or Instagram, someone you can follow and be inspired by, who encourages artists to create.

2. Take the pressure off assignments or the marks you'll get. Focus on animating and drawing for the love of the art.

3. If you mess up or need to start an artwork again, see it as an opportunity to learn.

4. Know that it takes years of work by hundreds of creatives to make an animated movie that you watch in a few hours. Do not expect the same level of skill for yourself as what you've seen onscreen. That's a combined effort.

5. Watch animation or Disney Pixar behind the scenes for particular movies that show the process.

Chad had some great advice. What's your favourite tip? Tell us in the comments below.

The Animation Course

  • Chad runs a 5-level animation course and a 2-level drawing class for 11 to 18-year-olds. You can opt for live or pre-recorded classes, with or without grading.
  • Live classes include weekly meet-ups via Adobe connect, live chat and full access to tech support.
  • The introductory courses offer the underpinning principles of animation, while the later courses dig into storyboarding and learning about the software that produces animated film.
  • Courses fill up, so you can reserve your spot here.

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Chad Stewart
Contributor

Chad is an artist and animator who has over 27 years of experience in the feature animation world in 2D (hand drawn) and 3D (computer). He has worked with Disney Pixar on projects well-loved movies like Polar Express, Emperor’s New Groove, Tarzan, and the Smurfs movies. He has been a traditional animator, a 3D animator, and has supervised other animators on multiple films. Chad founded an online course for children called The Animation Course.

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