Veteran animator Aaron Blaise is used to bringing things to life. For 20+ years he’s brought characters to life for movies such as Mulan and Beauty and the Beast. Now he’s spearheading his largest project to date: helping others breathe life into their passions by becoming a mentor to anyone with a love of art.
It Begins with Roadkill
Blaise has been drawing for as long as he can remember, and his childhood projects were not your average popsicle stick crafts. Inspired by John James Audubon, who made detailed drawings of the birds he shot, Blaise pinned dead birds to his walls as models for his paintings. “I was never a hunter; I couldn’t kill anything. But anything I found on the side of the road was fair game!” he laughed.
Blaise loved drawing animals; from the time he was young, he dreamed of being a National Geographic staff illustrator. The best path to that dream, he thought, was to study illustration. At Ringling College of Art and Design, he received a strong grounding in the fundamentals. But he soon realized National Geographic used mostly freelance artists. With no dream job to turn to, he looked for other options.
Discovered by Disney
When Disney came to Ringling College of Art and Design to find interns, it was big news: this was their first time visiting non-animation schools. Blaise submitted his portfolio and won a position in Disney’s highly competitive program, one of only eight interns selected nationwide. They paired him with legendary Disney animator Glen Keane. Blaise was constantly at Keane’s side. “He instilled this fascination, love, passion in animation,” Blaise explained. “All of a sudden I could take my love of animals and art and fold it into this new art form that includes movement and timing and music and acting and wraps it all up into one. I just got hooked!”
At the end of his internship, Disney offered him a job at its new Florida studio. “We were supposed to be doing Mickey, Donald, and Goofy short cartoons, but we never did a single one,” Blaise said. “The studio in California realized they needed help with features, so we worked on the Little Mermaid and Rescuers Down Under. And Glen Keane asked me to work with him to animate the Beast in Beauty and the Beast.” After that, he worked on Aladdin, The Lion King, Pocahontas, Mulan—almost every animated Disney movie for two decades.
Brother Bear: From Violinist to Conductor
Blaise moved from animating to directing for the highly acclaimed and Oscar nominated Brother Bear. “If you think about an orchestra,” he said, “the animator is like the violin player and the director is the conductor. As an animator, I’d work on a film for nine months and move on to another movie. But with directing, I’m deeply involved in story, design, casting, recording, environments—every aspect of the film. There’s a real headiness to that. Your job never gets boring.”
Unfortunately for Blaise, Disney’s animation studios were oversized, with more than 2000 animation staffers across three studios, and it was becoming difficult to maintain. “With the full crew on, we were burning about $860,000 a week in salaries alone. When you’re burning almost a million bucks a week, you’ve got to make sure that when you finish, you have another movie coming in behind it. We were finding it more and more difficult to do that.” Disney decided to downsize.
Searching and Finding Answers
Blaise was one of the few retained from the Florida animation studio, and he was transferred to California. It was a difficult time for him. “I had some personal things happen. I lost my wife to cancer. A lot of things in my life turned upside down.” Blaise decided it was time to leave Disney to do something different. And he found an answer back in his home state of Florida.
A new company called Digital Domain was starting an animation studio, and Blaise was one of several people hired as creative heads of Studio. He and his directing partner started developing an animated elephant movie called The Legend of Tembo. They invested a great deal of effort and heart into it; it was a story they were building together from the ground up. They were two years into making the film when Digital Domain suddenly went bankrupt and Blaise found himself without a job again. He sold his house and started over.
On the Upward Trajectory
Blaise went back to freelancing to pay the bills. He got a phone call from a company in London, BlinkInk, asking if he would design the characters, and be co-animation supervisor for a British television commercial, The Bear and the Hare. For the commercial, Blaise along with a crew of his ex-Disney collegues created entirely hand drawn old-fashioned animation which was then digitized, colored, and printed out onto thick boards. Using stop animation technology against real sets, they built a beautiful story of animal friendship. The commercial went viral.
After The Bear and the Hare, Blaise started his own movie project, Art Story, an animated film about a boy and his grandfather, trapped in a world of master paintings. He and his business partner raised $365K on Kickstarter with 1700 donors. But this was just the start for a full-scale animated film; typical budgets are closer to $80M. Blaise used the Kickstarter funding to finance the movie’s first steps, with plans to find additional studio financing.
The Art of Aaron Blaise:
The Art of Aaron Blaise is another new project. This one allows Blaise to mentor thousands of people at once. “The inspiration for it came from me sitting there without a job, thinking back to my days with Glen Keane. He was wonderful at inspiring people, at giving them the tools they needed to succeed. I wanted to see if I could start doing the same thing he did for me, but on a worldwide scale.”
Where else can you learn from a master animator and animal artist the tips that bring his art to life? With art tutorials on animation as well as fine art, he has a website (The Art of Aaron Blaise) and YouTube channel (Aaron’s Art Tips) with a worldwide following. He hopes to develop workshops, television programs, and more in the future.
Blaise long ago moved from traditional animation to drawing on a Cintiq tablet, but he still works on the same desk he used at Disney. The history of The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast, and so many more films flavors his new projects. The past informs the present as Blaise continues to reinvent himself, stronger and better each time.
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