Ask For Help


Here is a beautifully written letter by Brenda Chapman, Director at DreamWorks Animation.

Chapman’s feature film credits include Brave (co-director and writer), The Prince of Egypt (co-director), Chicken Run, and Who Framed Roger Rabbit, to name a few.

On February 1st, 2012, Chapman wrote a great blog post calling all animation artists to participate in The Animator Letters Project. Read it here.

letter-to-willie-final_page_1_editLetter to Willie final pg 2_edit Letter to Willie final_Page_3_edit Letter to Willie final_Page_4_editTranscript:

Oct. 28, 2013

Dear Willie,

I’ve tried to sit down & write this so many times, but I always feel that what I’m writing either makes no sense or it’s too much. I’ve been in the animation industry for nearly 30 years…and I still feel like I have so much to learn.

When I arrived at CalArts in 1984 (after being rejected when I tried for 1983), I didn’t really have a clue.  I hadn’t been an animation geek – that is…I didn’t know who the 9 Old Men were, I had never read an animation book nor had I tried to animate or make my own film. I just loved to draw and watch Bugs Bunny cartoons after school and see the old Disney animated films in the theater. So I was behind when I started at CalArts. Most of my classmates had an idea of how to animate already. So I asked a lot of questions – and I wasn’t afraid to ask for help with things I didn’t understand. I have a deep gratitude for the patience of the teachers – and the mentoring of the upperclassman (Steve Moore, Kevin Lima, Kirk Wise, Ron Hughart & Dale Macbeth – to name a few).

I was incredibly naive. Good was good. Bad was bad. I’m still learning to cope with all the shades of gray after all these years. I went into the animation world with eyes wide, a smile on my face and a determination to do what I loved to do.

DIC was my first job working the summers while I was still at CalArts. Then I made it into Disney when I graduated in 1987.

Again, I asked a lot of questions & sought help when I was out of my depth… which was often – and still is! I was incredibly fortunate to have wonderful mentors who didn’t see me as the token woman in story (for which I was hired by the exec in charge at the time), but as a new young story artist bringing my own ideas to the game. People like Joe Ranft, Roger Allers, Ed Gombert, Vance Gerry, Gary Trousdale and Burny Mattinson. I was truly very lucky.

But the main thing that I feel I’ve had in my corner for all these years is something my mother taught me… and I didn’t even realize it until lately. She taught me resilience. She taught me to get back up when I got knocked down. Giving up was just never an option. I know it has nothing directly to do with the craft/art of animation that we all love. But it’s a way to look at life, I suppose, that helps you make it through the hard stuff and achieve whatever your passion is. Things may change direction (sometimes by choice, sometimes out of our control) – and if you’re open to it – that change could lead you to a better place. Just don’t let the direction change so much that you end up going backwards.

Ask questions. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Look for mentors from whom you can learn. Most importantly, be happy in doing what you love to do. Don’t let the struggles, the heartache or politics deter you. Look for the passion, the joy and the satisfaction of your own personal part of the bigger puzzle. Those 3 things combined with the struggle & heartache are what make us artists.

Wish you the best of luck in everything you try!

Brenda Chapman (signed)

P.S. The sad thing is, I don’t draw as much anymore – as you can tell by the little sketches. My change in direction has taken me more into writing…and I love that too!

We’re in Animation Magazine!

I am proud and honored to say that The Animator Letters Project got featured in the March 2013 issue of the prestigious animation publication, Animation Magazine!

If you are a professional animator, please consider writing a handwritten letter for this project. Find out how you can contribute here.

Special thanks to Ramin Zahed, the Editor in Chief of Animation Magazine, for supporting this project by bringing it to the attention of the animation industry.

Animation_Magazine_cropped(Scanned image via Animation Magazine with permission from the Editor in Chief, Ramin Zahed.)


Emotional Creatures

Here is a letter written by Steve Anderson, director at Walt Disney Animation Studios.

Anderson’s feature film credits include Winnie the Pooh, Meet the Robinsons, Bolt, and Tarzan, to name a few.

Listen to Anderson read his letter on the air with KCRW’s the Business:





Artists are emotional creatures. We feel things deeply. We see the world around us, react to it and base our work off of those reactions. Our work represents ourselves. It’s us. Not just what our bodies can produce but what our minds and hearts have to say.

We want people to like what we do. If we didn’t, we’d just draw, paint, sculpt, dance, act and write in our own living room with no documentation or recording of it. But we don’t do that because we want our work to be seen. We want to express ourselves to people and, in turn, produce a reaction in them. Our emotions create the art and our art creates emotions.

But there are days when our emotions get the best of us. They let us down. They didn’t give us the strength and motivation that we need when we’re discouraged or struggling. They convince us that we are “no good”. That we have no talent. Or that the talent we do have us not as much as, or as good as, the talent of another person.

Ultimately, the struggles that we have- the creative blocks we all face- come from comparing ourselves to others. I’m not as good as that person. I’m not as successful as that person. That person is at the level I want to be at and I don’t have it in me to get there. I do this constantly. But I realized a few years ago that what I SHOULD be doing is comparing myself to myself. I find that when I step back and evaluate where I’ve come from, and where I am in relation to that. I feel much healthier. Block out all those other people and focus on YOUR work. Are you better today than you were yesterday? Were you better yesterday than you were the day before? Better than you were six months ago? A year ago? Twenty years ago? If the answer is “yes”, then you’re on the right path. If the answer is “no” you’ve got work to do. But the only person you have to be better than is yourself. That constant growth, improvement and evolution is the mark of a healthy artist. Instead of looking around the room to see what everyone else is doing, keep your eyes on your own paper. YOU have to be the best artist you can be and the only person that can drive that evolution is YOU!

Steve Anderson

Need to Create

Here is a letter written by Daniel Gonzales, animator at Walt Disney Animation Studios.

Gonzales’s feature film credits include Wreck it Ralph, and Cars 2 as well as promo for Toy Story 3. Be sure to check out his blog, where you will find a goldmine of wonderful advise.



October, 2011

To all aspiring artist,

Deep down inside you, inside all of us artists…at one point in our lives we’ve all discovered a huge desire to create. A desire so unexplainable and strong, it’s what makes us artist.

I would wake in the middle of the night as a child with the need to draw, the need to un-load ideas and images from my mind. And that still happens till this day!

To all you who want to be animators..first and foremost, you must find and recognize the same desire to create. Not only for others but to create for yourself. To create for the primal need to just create. Don’t create for the sole reason and purpose of entertainment: to make others laugh and cry. Create to appeal to yourself. I guarantee that your work will connect to more people when you are creating a piece that makes you laugh or cry or think. You’ll be creating from the heart and NOT creating from the assumptions of what might make someone laugh/cry/think.

Stay away from cliche’s. The best tool for original ideas come from your mind, memories and your childhood.

When you ask others to critique your work, remember you’re doing this to ONLY improve technique, skill, execution. You will never grow as an artist if you are always asking others if your work is “good”. Your work becomes good when it connects to you! Most importantly YOU.

When your work is so intwined with your thoughts and your heart that the thought of asking if someone else likes it is pointless.

ask others= improve skill

ask yourself= to improve concept.

Artist never have asked permission to try something new and crazy. Let alone ask if it’s good. Picasso, Mozart, Dali, Monet, Van Gogh, Goya, Buddy Holly, the Beatles, Wagner, John Cage and many more…they just DID IT.

To imphasis the point that the greatest work/ meaning/ originality come from within, here is Edvard Munch’s description of his inspiration for the painting, “The Scream”.

“I was walking along a path with two friends, the sun was setting, suddenly the sky turned blood red. I paused, feeling exhausted, and leaned on the fence. There was blood and tongues of fire above the blue-black fjord of the city. My friends walked on, and I stood there trembling with anxiety and I sensed an infinite scream passing through nature….” – Edvard Munch

As long as you take your desire and never stop improving your technique, you will never be less than what you want. It’s not about where you end up, what studio you work at, how much money you make. It’s whether or not you are happy with what you are creating.

I never grew up with much of anything. Single parent home in a forgotten run down neighbor hood! As a child I knew more people who have been to prison then to college. Seeing poverty and drive-by shootings was unremarkable to me.

I would find comfort in drawing, pushing myself and my skills to communicate my ideas. I knew my desire was my ticket to get out. Over time people took pleasure in my art, but I never made it for them. It was not them but for me. I needed to draw. Soon then I learned to paint and then to build, and then to animate. I didn’t learn for the sake of learning how to animate, but because I needed to express myself and animation offered another/ different opportunity to do just that, express myself. This mindset has carried me through highschool, college at CCA, 3 years at Pixar, and now mentoring @ Animation Mentor. Most would be content and settle..I can’t.

I need to create, I need to satisfy my artistic desire to continue to express myself until the day I die.

To you aspiring artists/animators out there, never settle down until you are satisfied. And if you find yourself satisfied, you might want to check your inspiration, and desire.

You might of lost it.

Good luck to all. Start at the top and work your way up. Never stop. Patience is the key to all artists!


Daniel Gonzales III

Go With Your Gut

Here is a letter written by Jeff Joe, Senior Character Animator at PDI/ DreamWorks Animation.

Joe’s feature film credits include Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted, Megamind, Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa, Bee Movie, Shrek the Third, Over the Hedge, Madagascar, Shrek 2, Ice Age, Mousehunt and A Simple Wish.


PDI/ DreamWorks

April 10, 2011

Dear Mr. Downs,

Thank you for this opportunity for me to tell my story on how I got started in the animation industry.

I currently work at PDI/ DreamWorks in Redwood City, CA. Each day as I sit down at my desk, I have to pinch myself to make sure I’m not dreaming. If you asked me 20 years ago what I would be doing, I would never have guessed I’d be making cartoons for a living and getting paid for it.

Having talked with my fellow co-workers, I realize that each one had a different way of breaking into the industry. I came to the conclusion that there is no cookie cutter way of doing it- the only thing is to follow your gut and never let go of that which really makes you happy.

Me? What really makes me happy is movies. Watching movies, making home movies, collecting movie-related things…and I also have always loved drawing. Not that I was ever good at either, but these two passions kept me thriving. But how do you make a living doing these things? Who knew that you could actually marry these two passions and get…animation?

I certainly had no clue. And I certainly didn’t have the guts to tell my parents that I wanted to have a career out of either of these passions. For me, the career path was going to be…pre-law. Because law school was the “safe” choice. But if you ever met me, you’d quickly realize I’m anything BUT the litigating, lawyering type. I’m too much of a wiseguy to take any of that seriously. But I didn’t tell my parents. For all they cared, I was a good boy, taking all the necessary pre-law, political courses that my college offered.

Then, in 1993, my Senior year, when I’m supposed to have started applying for law school, JURASSIC PARK came out. It blew my mind. It wouldn’t surprise me if I actually cut class to see this (I cut class a lot in pre-law). CGI was in such an infantile stage at that point. But I knew THAT’S what I wanted to do for a living.

So I researched computer animation schools and found one, The School of Visual Arts (SVA), in New York City, that offered an M.F.A. (Masters of Fine Arts) in computer arts in two years. I swallowed hard and asked my parents if I could apply to this school. Just as long as I got into one law school. To my surprise, they let me go through with it.

I started this new path in 1994 and since then, I never looked back. My instructors at SVA were also animation supervisors and founders at Blue Sky Studios in New York, and they’re the ones who gave me my first break.

My point is- go with your gut, ’cause you never know what life will bring you.

-Jeff Joe

Keep the Sails Pointed in the Direction of Your Goals

Here is a letter written by Jim Vanderkeyl, animator at DreamWorks Animation SKG.

Vanderkeyl’s feature film credits include Kung Fu Panda I & II, Flushed Away, Over The Hedge, Shak Tale, Stuart Little 2, The Iron Giant, and Space Jam to name a few. Be sure to check out his website where you can find some of his amazing caricature work!



To all aspiring animators

I thought I would write this letter, not so much as a letter of inspiration but perhaps more of a letter of persistance…

When you have a passion for something its more like a huge wave that carries you over the rough spots and keeps you going. Just having the passion alive and dreaming about it somehow leads you to where you want to go.

I always drew as a kid. My mother recognized the passion and encouraged it. My father, seeing this as positive, was sort of invisible in the background and provided the funds to allow this to happen. After all, this was childhood and all should explore during these years. I drew lots of cartoons, portraits, and everything that I saw. I loved the Disney cartoons- and so did my Dad. He was always enthusiastic when another Goofy short came on the television. His enjoyment always stuck with me and struck me that this art form could give so much pleasure to even adults. I would also have to say that being in Canada at that time, the school system was highly encouraging. I had the beingness of an artist according to my school, to my friends, and to my mother.

That is, until it was time to start seriously thinking of one’s career; one’s mode of making a living. I came from a family of engineers. My Dad and his brothers became engineers after the war (II), his friends became engineers and my brother followed in his footsteps.

So at 13, 14, it was time to put my crayons down and start thinking of getting real. We had moved to the states in Rhode Island. We were in a middle, upper middle class neighborhood and we were being prepared for the factories and corporations. Art was a luxury for the rich.

Meanwhile, I submitted a drawing to the Famous Artist School Course. If I was selected I could take their correspondence course. My father reluctantly agreed that he would pay for the course and enrolled me. Soon the books came in the mail and I was so excited! There in lay all the information about drawing and design that I wasn’t getting at school. I was itching to get at them, but my Dad said “Don’t open those yet, I have to make a phone call first.” I remember him talking to Rhode Island School of Design and asking them if this course would guarantee that I get into their school. The guy said that he could not make that promise. My Dad was disappointed. So he promptly packed up the books and sent them on their merry way back to the distribution center. I never got to open them.

It was my first set back.

I lost the desire to become an artist.   My art teacher was furious with me when I stopped trying…She gave me low grades and pulled me aside and asked me why I was not giving it my best. I felt so ashamed, that I started to try again and regrouped and got the grades that were expected of me. I was feeding off the energy of people who believed in me and I guess that was the first around people that encouraged you.   So I went to school, studied painting, but all the while my father and brother treated me as though I had abandoned the cause- the cause of ENGINEERING! I was now different than “them” and I was on my own. I had to somehow navigate my way through and try to make a living as an artist without the “support” from the male figures in my family.

So what happened was after I graduated from college somehow my ship sailed to better and better opportunities…because my goal was to be an artist- the carrier wave I was talking about. I landed a job as a caricature artist, first on the East coast then on the West coast in California. And while I was taking art extension classes at UCLA, I learned about animation classes with the animation union. I enrolled in that. Somehow because of good luck, timing and preperation, I was able to get into animation and a whole new world opened up. At the age of 32 I was working for Disney as an inbetweener! I was a cleanup artist! It was very difficult to be an animator because once you were in cleanup you were thought of as staying there- FOREVER! More obsticles! Well after 6 years of believeing this I tried my hand in animation and found out I could actually do it! An opportunity came at Warner Bros to become an animator and I took it.- started animating at the age of 39!

Soo guess what I am trying to say is…keep the sails pointed in the direction of your goals. You may detour and you may come across some storms, but eventually you reach your destination. Sometimes its a matter of your beliefe in yourself over riding what others think of you- until they see yourself as you so..the artist.

I ran out of room!

Jim Vanderkeyl


Here is a letter written by Austin Madison, animator at Pixar Animation Studios.

Madison’s feature film credits include Brave, Toy Story 3, Ratatouille, and UP. Be sure to check out his blog, and also follow him on Twitter @munchanka.

Read what Madison had to say about The Animator Letters Project on his blog, after Letters of Note featured it on their website.

Listen to Madison read his letter on the air with KCRW’s the Business:



May 17, 2011

To Whom it May Inspire,

I, like many of you artists out there, constantly shift between two states. The first (and far more preferable of the two) is white-hot, “in the zone” seat-of-the-pants, firing on all cylinders creative mode. This is when you lay your pen down and the ideas pour out like wine from a royal chalice! This happens about 3% of the time.

The other 97% of the time I am in the frustrated, struggling, office-corner-full-of-crumpled-up-paper mode. The important thing is to slog diligently through this quagmire of discouragement and despair. Put on some audio commentary and listen to the stories of professionals who have been making films for decades going through the same slings and arrows of outrageous production problems.

In a word: PERSIST.

PERSIST on telling your story. PERSIST on reaching your audience. PERSIST on staying true to your vision. Remember what Peter Jackson said, “Pain is temporary. Film is forever.” And he of all people should know.

So next time you hit writer’s block, or your computer crashes and you lose an entire night’s work because you didn’t hit save (always hit save), just remember: you’re never far from that next burst of divine creativity. Work through that 97% of murky abyssmal mediocrity to get to that 3% which everyone will remember you for!

I guarantee you, the art will be well worth the work!

Your friend and mine,

Austin Madison


Don’t Give Up!

Here is a letter written by Aaron Hartline, animator at Pixar Animation Studios.

Hartline’s feature film credits include Brave, Cars 2, Toy Story 3, UP, Ice Age 1-3, Horton Hears a Who and Robots. You can check out his blog, and his Daily Post-it doodles. You can also follow him on Twitter @TheDailyPostit.

Read what Hartline has to say about the letter on his blog after it was featured on the Letters of Note website.

This is the letter that not only encouraged me to follow my dreams of becoming an animator, but also inspired me to start this project as well.


Hi Willie –

Thank you for the kind words! Reading your letter, all I could think was DON’T GIVE UP! If you really love it, then don’t let anyone tell you it’s too hard, that you will fail.

When I took a tour at Disney right out of Highschool, I showed the tour guide/animator my work. She said ‘It’s easier to get a job as a professional basketball player than getting a animator position at Walt Disney Studios‘. My mom said ‘Are you sure you want to do this?’ I was so angry. So motivated. I knew if I worked hard that one day..some day..I could do it! Took me 14 years of trying but it happened.

You can do it Willie!!

Work hard and really want it!

Check out I teach there. It’s a great school w teachers who are professional working animators at the major studios.

Hope to be working with you one day.



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