Here’s some advice from the youngest Disney artist. It’s no fairy tale.

When Brian Kesinger, a precocious cartoonist, was in secondary school sending applications to colleges, on a whim he also mailed a packet of drawings to Walt Disney Studios, hoping to get a few words of advice.

Man sketching on computer monitor (Courtesy of Disney)
Brian Kesinger (Courtesy photo)

Instead, he got a phone call and a job offer, which he eagerly accepted. At age 18, he became the youngest artist ever at the storied workplace that has produced animated movies such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Pinocchio, Beauty and the Beast and Zootopia.

That was 20 years ago, and the Disney storyboard artist is still at it, relishing a creative job that is so much fun “it’s hard to call it work.” His credits include Tarzan, Wreck-It Ralph and Tangled, as well as Zootopia.

Paying it forward

Today, Kesinger enjoys mentoring young artists. He recently held a workshop via video link for young Iraqi student artists, teachers and animators who gathered in Baghdad for the long-distance class.

Kesinger explained that a single animated movie can take four years to make, with half that time spent researching and developing the story. For Zootopia, he even practiced drawing live animals brought into the California studio.

Sound, music, sound effects and camera angles all add to the viewing experience of someone looking at his drawings, he said. Kesinger likens making an animated movie to an orchestra producing a sound no musician can make alone.

He urged the Iraqi students and artists to keep a personal sketchbook with them at all times and pay less attention to others’ comic book characters or manga stars and instead focus on their own daily life. “A lot of animation is observation,” he said.

It matters little whether an animator draws on a computer or by hand as long as they understand not only how to draw but how to perform, he added. “A really good animator can make an audience fall in love with a bouncing ball just as much as … a talking snowman.”

When a student lamented the absence of top animation companies like Disney in Baghdad, Kesinger replied, “You have a good-sized group right here. If you work together, share your work and make each other better, something can grow out of that.”

“I couldn’t afford an expensive art school,” he said. “My teacher told me, ‘It’s not the school that matters, but the student.'”

To a young woman who asked what special attribute made Disney hire him at 18, Kesinger said he’d been drawing constantly since he was a little kid and heeded the teachers who told him how hard he’d have to work to build a successful career.

“That’s how I got hired at 18, just that personal drive and energy and desire to actually make the dream come true,” Kesinger said. “Keep drawing, everyone.”