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Visual Development Artist and Alumnus Nick Orsi Shares His Disney Experience

Students were excited to learn the ins and outs of life as a character artist

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A packed theater at 79 New Montgomery for alumnus and visual development artist Nick Orsi (pictured center). Photo courtesy of Becky Johnson.

Academy of Art University alumnus Nick Orsi shared his experience as a character artist for Walt Disney Animation Studios with a group of enthusiastic Academy students last month. Orsi graduated from the Academy with a degree in 2-D animation and continued on as an intern with Walt Disney Animation Studios in Southern California. He assisted on his first feature film, Zootopia, produced by Disney and directed by Byron Howard (Bolt, Tangled), Rich Moore (Wreck-It-Ralph, The Simpsons) and Jared Bush.

Disney’s 55th animated film, written by Bush and Phil Johnston (Wreck-It-Ralph), follows Judy Hopp (Ginnifer Goodwin) who wants more than anything to be a police officer. However, in the utopic land, the traditional candidates for police officers are much larger animals. Judy ends up becoming a “meter maid,” instead of the glorious hero she wishes to be. While out on the job, she meets Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman) and together they must solve a seemingly controversial conspiracy. The land Zootopia in and of itself proclaims that anyone can be anything and Judy lives by this treasured ideal.

Orsi spoke fondly of his time at Disney and his evolution as an artist in not only his creative abilities, but his work ethic as well. The studio is made up of a hybrid of artists with senior artists who have worked with the company for a long time and some newer, fresher artists to create the perfect balance amongst the development team.

The initial challenges the Zootopia team faced when creating a film with a cast of all animal characters was how to draw them on two legs and how that would look. The team wondered what parts of the animal would be appealing to look at. Eventually, the decision to put the proper clothing on the characters helped and also brought back the nostalgic tone of Disney’s Robin Hood, which also had an allanimal cast, walking on two legs in full clothing.

Zootopia has been four years in the making and Orsi shared the evolution of animation at such a well known magical company. He spoke of the inspiration and teamwork that the writers and animators go through when trying to create the perfect story. He works long hours and really focuses on what the company wants and what will live up to the studio appeal.

The job of an animator involves working with writers, directors and producers when the film is far from being completed. Orsi has worked with other studios and says that the way Disney operates is quite unique and has found that he prefers the way they work through a project. “You’re being conditioned just like you would in boot camp or training. You’re being conditioned to identify your potential ... and bring it out and bring it up to a level that you may be able to work at Disney,” he said. It’s hard work and working for a large company as a creative professional, artists are trained to assess the work and then the team ultimately decides whether they want to keep an artist on the team or not.

Orsi’s career at Disney began where many start: a summer internship. After meeting a representative on campus, he decided to apply. “[That] summer internship was sort of where I fell for Disney. … I was exposed to a lot of the artists that worked there and what the work environment was like and what films [they were developing] down the line and a lot of those films that were down the line are what brought me back,” Orsi shared.

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Alumnus and visual development artist Nick Orsi, Graduate Director of 2-D Animation Sherrie Sinclair and Director of the School of Visual Development Nicolás Villarreal. Photo courtesy of Becky Johnson.

During the course of his internship, he learned to appreciate how the studio functioned and then continued on as an apprentice, learning more and more about being a character environment artist. “I could see the studio was changing and I knew it was going to be a really exciting place to work. That was the most important thing I took from summer ... it was only three months [and] I fought my way back in.”

Orsi always made sure to create many drawings during his apprenticeship. He recommends that students make sure when submitting sketches that not only are they solid drawings, but that a prospective artist’s work tells a story containing a character, environment and motivation.

Upon experimenting and creating various situations and sketches for characters appearing in Zootopia, Disney promoted Orsi to a character artist position. With his help, characters for the film, like Judy Hopp and Nick Wilde, evolved. Judy Hopp originally started out as a much more hard-boiled detective type (almost reminiscent of The Great Mouse Detective or The Rescuers) and altered her look to something a bit more sleek and that of a modern detective who can take on anything that is thrown at her. Nick Wilde, the con artist character that Judy must team up with, was more cunning and more stereotypically sneaky and fox-like at first. He has since evolved and during some of the select clips Orsi shared, it is clear that this character is much more of a well-thought out personality. Disney knew that Orsi could take on new tasks and challenges and thus, he stuck out from other contenders at the time.

Orsi gave a lot of credit to the Academy in regards to preparing him and guiding him to achieve the position that he’s in right now. “I was in the fine art department quite a bit ... it does come down to the relationships with teachers and going to workshops and really just dedicating all the time I wasn’t eating or sleeping to trying to get better even if it wasn’t something I could learn in a class. Sherrie was really the most important relationship that I made.”

Sherrie Sinclair, graduate director of 2-D animation, was there to guide him creatively. Orsi was even allowed to have a makeshift curriculum due to the fact that the Academy didn’t yet have their visual development major created yet. Henry Yen, Orsi’s foundations instructor, taught him the basics and how to observe a subject and translate how to bring that to paper.

A big lesson that Orsi learned while at the Academy, and later on at Disney, was to never be finished setting goals for himself. As soon as one goal was met, he made sure to have another goal set up that he could work towards. Orsi shared that it’s his hard work and dedication to his craft that has gotten him this far. He always had countless sketches to show his supervisors at Disney and whether or not they liked a design or an idea, seeing as he always had so many for them to choose from, there was always something that they liked. “I learned from studying what we had done in the past but also [had] an opinion on what I felt we could be doing. Seeing a character and wondering, ‘What if it was this?’ and making sure it fits in the world of Disney.”

Working for the legendary company for a while now, Orsi has learned to work with other departments, having to sometimes communicate how the joints in a character move and knows that others count on him to put in his best effort. Artists find their stride by not only drawing the types of animated characters that they like from previous Disney films, but creating a blend of all the different styles of animation, making it a new and unique way to build a character. “Every artist that comes in has their own influence and their influences are all over the place,” said Orsi, “and it’s really the artists visualizing the director’s ideas that makes something either original or traditional. … We give ideas to the ideas. We enhance the ideas."