Chris Williams has found joy and challenge in almost every one of the projects he has worked on in his 24-year career with Disney Animation and he shared those stories with fans at the Van Isle Comic Con in Sidney Sunday evening.
The Oscar-winning director (he co-directed the animated film Big Hero 6) was the keynote speaker at the Comic Con, itself the first of its kind held in Sidney. To a sizable audience in the Charlie White Theatre, Williams recounted his rise in the animation world, his work at Disney and talked about the challenges in being creative after all this time. Williams has been to Sidney before, as his mom, Betty, lives in town.
“Vancouver Island is a home away from home,” he said.
Williams began his career in animation at Disney in 1992. He learned the craft at Sheridan College in Ontario, his home province. He said he knew early on that he had a knack for storytelling and it was his mom who encouraged him to give animation a try. He became an intern with Disney after college and said he was always taking his assignments and giving them a lot more story than what was called for. It was a reputation for doing that, that helped him land a full-time gig with Disney is story development.
The first big movie he worked on was Mulan.
“I learned that story is hard,” he joked. “The stories we are working on in animation, they can change, and that’s a big investment in time and money.”
And even after a lot of work going into each scene, parts can be cut out of the finished project. Still, he continued, he’s been able to celebrate the collaborative work the team he works with come up with — and even a few of the scenes he’s contributed to in many Disney animated films.
Williams included a variety of those scenes – and a few of the preliminary storyboards - in his presentation, thrilling fans with the back story to each one.
In each of his projects, Williams said there are characters he or others develop for the story. It’s easy to become attached to them, he noted, and the challenge in collaborating on a movie, is to ensure the character’s story grows and moves in a logical way. One of the characters he said he enjoyed a lot was Kronk in the irreverent The Emperor’s New Groove.
The emotional Williams teared up a few times during his talk, as he recounted how the characters he has worked on have a lot of his own personality in them. The movie Big Hero 6, for instance, is a story about loss and came at a time when Williams was dealing with the death of his father. Hence, the robot Baymax was another of his favourite characters.
His first movie as a director was Bolt. He said that at the time, Disney animation was in trouble and there were concerns about its future. A new collaboration with Pixar, however, revitalized the team.
Williams said that in Bolt, it was his first chance to work with voice actors directly.
Williams also found success with movies such as Frozen and most recently Moana. Getting to that level, he said, was about collaboration with a lot of different people in order to get the work done.
He said he feels directors get too much credit for the finished products — as there are hundreds of people whose work they rely on every step of the way.
Williams encouraged people interested in the field of animation to seek out the people who will question their work.
“Disagreement is good,” he said, noting that it must come from a place of respect and of a common goal. “It can enhance the chances of diversity in points of view and lead to a really good idea. Story is change.”
Williams screened the early scenes of his short film Glago’s Guest — a personal project of his from eight years ago that’s rarely been seen. He then showed the finished product to a delighted audience.
“We see ourselves as caretakers of the Disney legacy,” he said. “To keep that trust with viewers, we have to ensure that the work means something.”
Williams participated in a question-and-answer session with fans after his presentation and finished by signing autographs, bringing an end to the first Van Isle Comic Con in Sidney.