Former Disney animator and designer channels personal adversity into a quest to make animation instruction affordable to everyone.
There are scores of supremely talented artists and illustrators in the animation business these days. And then there is Aaron Blaise. Mentored at Disney by the legendary Glen Keane, the veteran artist and co-director of Brother Bear spent 21 years at the venerable studio, 15 at Feature Animation in Florida before coming to Los Angeles when the Orlando studio closed in 2004. He was respected and admired as one of the true Disney greats – his animal and creature work are breathtakingly beautiful.
But his perspective on career, and more importantly, on life, changed rather abruptly with the tragic loss of his wife to breast cancer. Then, after leaving Disney and regrouping with his family back in Florida, he was sent packing on a Friday morning along with nearly 300 other artists with the abrupt shuttering of Digital Domain’s Port St. Lucie operations, where he’d spent three years with colleague Chuck Williams building the animation studio and developing the feature film The Legend of Tembo.
Then, while calmly taking stock of his life while sipping coffee on the backyard porch, Blaise came to the conclusion it was time to start fresh and never again have his professional fate determined by an anonymous executive. He decided it was time to focus outward and share his passion for illustration and animation with artists around the world, many who had no chance ever to afford increasingly costly media arts education.
Starting with a modest effort and simple website, three years later, Blaise and business partner Nick Burch now reach several hundred thousand students worldwide through their www.CreatureArtTeacher.com website and YouTube channel, offering video training in animation and illustration through courses priced at $75 or less.
I recently had a chance to talk to Blaise about his career, from the tough times to the rewarding times and his determination to break animation instruction down to its basics and make it accessible to anyone with the desire to learn.
Dan Sarto: You had a storybook career at Disney Feature Animation. What spurred you to leave the cozy studio confines?
Aaron Blaise: I was with Disney for 21 years. It was indeed nice and cozy. 15 of those years were at the studio in Orlando. Everything was great. Then they decided to shut that studio down and transfer everything out to Los Angeles [The studio closed in 2004]. That was a really big blow. We’d put together a real family unit – we’d all started at the same time and had 15 years together. Then in one fell swoop, every got fired except 10 of us, who got transferred to Los Angeles. So that was the first big blow of being a survivor while your friends and their families get thrown to the wind. That was hard.
So I went to California – this was after Brother Bear – and we started developing a film called King of the Elves. It was a Philip K. Dick fantasy sci-fi short story. John Lasseter loved it. It was going well. And then, my wife was diagnosed with breast cancer. We fought and fought and fought but two years later she passed away.
DS: I’m so sorry.
AB: Obviously, that hit me really, really hard. It was a huge blow. I struggled for two years to take care of my wife and my family. The studio became secondary in my life. But I kept the work going as well. Once she passed away, I realized I identified myself in two ways – my wife and family, and my career. And with her gone, that part of my life felt very hollow. I needed to connect with my kids again, who were 16 and 14. They had just lost their mother and were having a hard time.
So I decided that even though I loved Disney and the great ride I’d had, I was going to leave the studio and go back to Florida, which is my home state. John and Ed Catmull saw that I was struggling and said I could step away from the movie and stay at Disney. But I told them I think I need to do something more drastic. So I left Disney.
The very next day after giving notice at Disney, I was cleaning out my office and got an email saying there was a studio in Florida that was looking for a director. I thought wow, that could be an interesting new start, back in my home state. I went out and interviewed and ended up getting the job. I went back to Florida and joined up with Digital Domain, hoping to find myself and find my family.
Chuck Williams, my producer at Disney, became my directing partner. He had left Disney as well when the film got shut down. We ended up becoming the creative heads of the new Digitla Domain studio. We spent a year developing four film ideas, from which we picked one, The Legend of Tembo. We started producing it and things were going great. We were building a studio again, trying to follow the same model we had in Florida with Disney. A really great family atmosphere.
We were two years into making Tembo when we showed up for work on a Friday and the studio had shut their doors and gone bankrupt. Now, I was truly without a job.
DS: That was a disastrous studio closing. I remember that very well. I’m sure that was another big blow.
AB: It was. Absolutely. Another huge blow. I’d gone all in. I’d bought a big house, which I then had to sell. Now, I thought, now what am I going to do? I thought of going back to LA. I’d even interviewed again with Disney and they wanted me to come back. But I turned the job down, which I couldn’t believe I actually did. But I came to the conclusion that I wanted to do something different. I didn’t want my life to be in the hands of an executive any more.
I remember that morning. I was sitting on my back porch, drinking my coffee thinking, “What can I do?” And I realized, there are a ton of young professionals coming into the business. I’ve got 27 years of experience that I might be able to leverage and share…and make a living off of.
Nick Burch [Aaron’s partner in The Art of Aaron Blaise] whom I had met earlier, began talking and decided to put together a website to start sharing my experiences as an artist an animator. That was three years ago and it’s grown substantially into what it is now. The idea has always been to share, make a living at it and make it affordable for everyone.
DS: You’ve gotten to a point where passing along your vast knowledge scratches a different creative itch than digging into yet another big studio project.
AB: Exactly. It was kind of a mid-life crisis. All of a sudden, I was faced with the fact of starting over again. I don’t want it to sound like I’m diminishing in any way what Disney has meant to me. Disney was a fantastic, wonderful and beautiful part of my life. I’m eternally thankful to them. But it’s also nice to be able to step out and stand out. I want to make a difference. It’s what every person having a mid-life crisis goes through. You want to know that you’re making some type of difference in the world.
I’d been doing some lecturing at colleges, looking at college prices, which are absolutely insane, obscene actually, and it occurred to me there was an opportunity here to do something good, to help people and make a living at the same time. And that’s what we’ve been doing here.
DS: There are certainly a large number of media arts programs around the world, both public and private. The costs are often substantial. The question of whether or not it’s worth the cost is a discussion for another day. But for most people, the cost of education remains prohibitive. Tell us about your training materials and how students get access to the curriculum.
AB: We decided it would take time to grow this business. We have been determined to just keep at it and build a program a piece at a time. We knew social media would play a vital role. I wanted to leverage off my own experience, all the things I’d learned myself over the years, not necessarily focusing on how college programs were structured.
I’d spent years under Glen Keane. When I was an intern, Glen was my mentor. He personally taught me how to animate when I was an illustrator. He had a wonderful style of teaching. He taught me what I needed to know, then gave me the chance to do it. That helped me to determine my approach to training. What do students really need to know? What do I think about on a daily basis? Those were the things I decided I was going to start teaching.
We also looked at the pricing of education around the globe and determined we wanted to price our materials so that someone anywhere in the world, say in India, could afford it. If they can afford it, anyone can afford it. People complain we’re pricing courses too low. Well, no, we’re pricing it so people can afford it. And if the quality is there, then everyone will come.
Now, we have literally hundreds of thousands of people that are following us. They’re not going to get the one-on-one teaching they get other places. But what they will get is the equivalent of a video book, that they can use over and over, with me sitting there talking about whatever the subject may be.
We get great feedback from all over the world, from people who tell us they can’t afford to go to college, but they have our videos and have learned so much from the lessons.
DS: So if I’m a student, how are your materials delivered? Are they available all as self-paced lessons, are they released on a schedule based on an overall curriculum? You purchase them individually, as a group, as a subscription?
AB: It’s really simple. Our animation course is a series of 12 videos on the fundamentals of animation. It covers everything I do as an animator. Students purchase the set, download or stream the videos and work through them at their own pace. That also includes all the asset files used within the lessons and pdfs of all the drawings I do.
Some courses are short one hour lessons – how to paint clouds, how to paint water. Some, like the animation course, are 26 hours or more of instruction. And it’s only $75. It took us three solid months to build that course. It’s been a great course – we’re getting great reviews and it’s doing very well for us.
DS: Is it a teacher’s responsibility to try and make artists out of all their students as opposed to telling some honestly that maybe they should try another line of study?
AB: It’s a tough call. We’ve all seen students who all they’ve ever wanted to do was animate for Disney, or do character designs for Pixar and who we all know, artistically, would be better off making a living as a plumber. The responsibility weights greater in my mind on a college institution that is charging $40k a year, bringing in students they know won’t be able to make a career at a level to offset the amount of money they are spending for their education. That’s one of the great things about what we’re doing. At $50 or $75, our students aren’t hugely impacted financially regardless of whether or not they go on to a career in the business.
DS: What are you hoping your students learn from your courses?
AB: No matter what medium I’m teaching, the first thing I do is try to take the mystery out of things. I try to break it down in a way that shows there’s a simple process involved. That’s what I want to get across. The process. Once someone learns the process, then whether it’s illustration or animation, it’s trying to teach people how to “see.” So much of both illustration and animation is not seeing how it’s done right, but seeing when it’s done wrong. I start from the beginning. And usually with 4, 5 or 6 steps you have a finished piece of work.
Results will vary person by person obviously, but I do believe everybody can learn to draw, paint, even animate. It’s really about learning how to let go of preconceived notions and then learning how to see differently. Then you take that information and get it to come out of your hand. Also, I use examples. I hate explaining. I like to show.
DS: How has the industry’s evolution from 2D to 3D CG changed your own evolution as an artist and animator and how has that changed the way animation principles are taught?
AB: On one hand, everything has changed. On the other hand, nothing has changed. Obviously, everything has changed moving from the 2D world to the 3D world. 10 years ago I started working with Photoshop. The possibilities Photoshop enables in digital media are endless. It’s just incredible what you can do. You’re only restricted by what you can come up with in your mind. Now, the thing that hasn’t changed is just that – the mind. The principles of art and drawing, none of those have changed. The tools have changed but not the mindset. The input is still organic – it’s still from my brain, still from my hand. The most elaborate CG film doesn’t start from a keyboard – its starts with ideas in someone’s mind, working with a pencil, a paintbrush or a stylus to create a design.
It’s frustrating sometimes. I’ll sit down to do a painting using my Cintiq. My process is really no different than it was before I did things digitally. Then someone will see the finished work and say, “Did you do that in pastel?” and I’ll reply, “No, I did it digitally.” Then they’ll say, “Ohhhh.” [voice drowning down then laughs]. There’s this weird perception out there that if a computer is involved, somehow we just push a few buttons and the machine does all the work.
DS: So what’s next for your educational program – where do you anticipate growth?
AB: I’d love for our site, in the next five years, to become a major education hub. We’d like to bring in people much more qualified than me to teach things like storyboarding or editing. I also still want to make films, even if they’re shorts. One of my pet peeves going back to when I was in school was having instructors who hadn’t done a freelance job in 20 years.
But ultimately, we’ve been growing significantly over the last year and are looking forward to offering more courses and expanding our program into new things wherever possible.
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.