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Disney Animator - Stephen Dahler

Stephen Dahler is a Blue Sky veteran who has now made his home at Disney Animation. He has worked on many amazing titles and has a wealth of experience to share with you. Enjoy this interview, and if you would like to be mentored by Steve personally, you can apply below.


What is your process when you first get cast a shot? What is the first thing you like to do?

When I first get a shot/shots I tend to check out the boards and layout to see if I have any questions or ideas I can bring to the directors. Sometimes they are questions about characters' motivations or an idea to pitch. Sometimes it's more technical like continuity between shots or maybe the camera feels off. And then after being kicked off before I do anything else I like to open up the file and get everything set up. Push characters around into their starting positions and really get a feel of the space Im working in. It helps to feel the set's impact on the characters… tight hallway… big open space… low ceiling… steps… room full of stuff.

What’s your favorite thing about being an animator?

My favorite thing about being an animator for me is its professional play. We are making movies about make-believe worlds and characters just like we did when we were kids! Can’t beat that as a job

What do you do when you get stuck or are having difficulties with a shot?

Depends on the shot. Most of the time it's just stepping away from the computer and go take a walk. If something isn’t working ill talk it out with another animator or two to see what they think isn't working. Or maybe if it's a mechanics-heavy shot I'll go and shoot some reference to get a better feel of what I was trying to accomplish in the first place because maybe I was missing a simple component or timing of that action.

What is the hardest shot you have ever animated and what is the shot you are most proud of?

The hardest would have to be one I did on Spies in Disguise. It was a mechanic's shot of the 2 main characters running into a building with a battle going on and they had to stop and hide behind a wall and then take off an slide behind another half wall all while the camera was running behind them like a handheld shot. It was a ton of collaboration between me and the Camera guy to get the staging and the timing right because if the camera or the characters moved too soon or late they would get a weird yoyo feeling in the frame. It was a blast to work on but really tough to get the feeling right. As for my favorite Id have to say my first packet of shots at Disney. Being new to the studio right in the middle of production on Encanto I put a lot of pressure on myself to do a good job and show what I can do and I feel like I was really able to nail it. The shots had a good mix of mechanics and nonverbal acting and even some props. It ended up in the trailers and it's one of the shots that really has stuck with me over the years.

Have you gotten burnt out? if so how do you deal with it?

Totally. It's hard not to in creative jobs, especially when OT hits. The things I try to do when feeling burnout outside of taking time off is… I'll make sure when the day is over I don't think about work or even try to be on a computer. I'll go play a sport or spend time with my wife and son. Basically, anything that isn’t animation. And then most important is getting SLEEP!

What is your advice for people starting out or at the early stage of their animation careers?

Outside of the obvious work-hard type stuff… Id say to listen to the feedback you get openly. Be a good person. And network. The industry is small and people know people everywhere. Once you start building that network it can really help you with both your work and your jobs. But also because it is small words can get around if you have a big ego or don't listen to feedback well and can keep you from getting jobs. When starting somewhere new ask around for approximate salary ranges to make sure you aren’t getting undercut. Also never work for “experience” “exposure” or “for free”!

Lastly, everyone’s golden question, what advice would you give someone who’s goal is to work at Disney?

That's hard to answer. Obviously being a good animator is step 1 but I think it's difficult to answer because everyone’s path to getting to a place like Disney, or any of the other big studios, is totally different. There are all different skill sets and experience levels. People are from all over the world and have all different sorts of education and job histories. But the thing I'd say everyone has in common is a real understanding of animation as an art form. So getting that understanding of how animation works and applying it to your own work will go a long way to achieving those goals.

If you enjoyed this interview - Check out this awesome shot, broken down by Steve, showcasing one of his animations during his time at Blue Sky Studios. There are so many golden nuggets of information in here, a great example of how to tackle complex shots when you get the chance to work on them.

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