Disney Animation Studios --> Nara Youn

It's F I N A L L Y  time to share the thing I'm most proud of on kenNERDdy so far in my dorky career -- interviewing Disney animator, Nara Youn! Last month he invited me for a private tour of Disney Animation Studios. I ate lunch in their extraordinary cafe, got to see how the magic happens and of course picked Nara's talented brain about all things you can think of Disney related.  Read all about how he landed what is a lot of people's dream job, what got him started with art, his personal life, and much more!

My name is Nara Youn. I'm currently an animator at Walt Disney Animation Studios. Before Walt Disney Animation I worked at Dreamworks as an animator as well. I've worked on projects such as Shrek, Madagascar, How to Train Your Dragon, & Megamind. Then - at Disney I caught the tail end of Frozen, so I worked very little on Frozen. I worked a tiny bit on Kung Fu Panda as well. Big Hero 6, Zootopia, and most recently Moana but I am currently working on Wreck It Ralph 2. I'ts kind of the ultimate nerd movie - Wreck It Ralph 2, haha. 

What got you into the animation industry? 

I have always liked animation. It was one of those things that growing up I had a passion for without knowing. There's three movies that I watched until the tapes completely broke: Lion King, Little Mermaid and Sword in the Stone. Oh - and Duck Tales! I really liked it for some reason. That was when I didn't speak too much English, either. My parents let me watch as much TV as I could because it would help me learn English. It was very educational for me so I would remember the lines as noises but didn't understand what they meant. It was a fun experience watching them later on - in college - and watching them all over again. It was like watching a whole new different movie because now I understood everything that was being said. I have always been interested in Disney movies. I started to pursue it more when Toy Story and Monsters Inc came out. Before those movies - old Classic Disney films felt so magical. I never understood how someone could draw all of those frames and I never considered that would be something I might be doing -- it didn't seem realistic. But then I saw Toy Story and Monsters Inc and I totally fell in love with it. More so with Monsters Inc. I'm obsessed. It was one of those things that helped me connect the dots -- the characters were very simplisitic in a design sense. They're circles and squares but the animators would bring them to life -- these simple characters. They're so lovable too that I just really wanted to try it out. I then went to school --Ringling School of Art and Design and that's how it all started.

How did you land the job here, then?

It took a little while to get to Disney. I just studied really, really hard in college. I was definitely not the best student starting because I never had official art training. I did art really well -- I drew in high school and I was considered one of the better students but it was because I was in a small school in Russia where the class was 40 students. There were maybe 5 good artists there and I was among them. I wasn't that challenged but then I went to college and my roommate was, what I consider, one of the best artists out of the entire class. He was this ambidextrous guy who could draw amazingly with both hands. After college he became a concept artist for Blue Sky Studios. He's super talented. He kind of influenced me heavily and pushed me to study as hard as I did.

That's a truly remarkable roommate! 

Yeah. I thought I had made the wrong decision to come to art school. I was thinking, "Oh my God..I suck at art" haha. I think it's always good to have someone to push you further. It certainly was the case for me. Without him or without other artists that influenced me I wouldn't have pushed myself the way I did. College was just studying, drawing and figure drawing. Luckily I did well in school and right after graduating I got hired by Dreamworks. That's how my animation career started. That was my first job - in San Francisco. I worked on Shrek the Third as my first movie. As far as how I got to Disney - it's a long story. I was really happy at Dreamworks. But then my mother had to undergo cancer surgery in 2011. I grew up abroad with my family travelling, and with college being in America (My parents are Korean so they were in Korea.) .. so for about 9-10 years I lived away from home and I only saw my parents once every two years. All of a sudden I had this feeling of depression where I might not see my mother for a really long time. When she was diagnosed with Stage 3 cancer - I decided I need to drop everything and I just wanted to be with my family to take a break. I felt like I needed it anyway. I left Dreamworks to be with my family and while I was in Korea with them I decided that I'm going to keep my Korean citizenship and do my military service for two years.

What a difference! 

Haha, I know. The good thing was ..by the way Koreans hate doing military service. If it wasn't required nobody would do it is all I'm gonna say. I did it because I wanted to keep my citizenship. It was always something that was hanging over me so I had to do it. The good thing was that I got rid of all my excess weight that I gained at my job for the last five years! I got to stay until my mom's surgery was all done and her chemotherarpy was finished too. I'm really glad I did it because now she's completely okay. I feel that my deprived family time has been recharged. The funny thing is that around the time I was finishing service and was ready to start my career... I was all ready to come back to Dreamworks. They had a spot open for me. We were talking and discussing the start date and boom - two months before I"m ready to fly out...Dreamworks was going through some problems. It was around that time when they laid off about 250 artists due to downsizing. They told me that they are really sorry but this is what's happening. It was understandable and I'm glad they told me in advance because it would have been terrible to move all the way over there just to hear that news. I started looking for other studios that I would be happy working with. At the time it was the Oscar season, around February, and this short movie called, "Paper Man",  had just come out and won the Oscars. I watched it and it blew me away.  I was already impressed with, "Tangled", coming out. It was so inspiring seeing that but then Paper Man had this unique 2D mixed with 3D style. When I saw that I knew I really wanted to do that. I felt like that feeling when I was a student and I just get into, "absorb" mode. I applied to Disney as soon as I watched it and I got in, thankfully. They hired me for the end of Frozen. I was helping out with that and it was great because they didn't give me too much responsibility in terms of the shots they gave me. It was more like, "Use these shots to learn our tools, to learn our software and learn our programming."

So it was kind of like training?

Yeah but they did need the work done so you couldn't just play around, haha. That's how I got in though. Ever since then I've been here now!

What's been your favorite film to work on at Disney?

My favorite movie is Moana. I love the story that it tells. Working with the directors, Ron and John, they were the directors on The Little Mermaid. They're legends. To see them everyday and play ping pong with them....seeing their work process.......I saw them work behind the scenes in DVD specials but then you get to see it firsthand and you're hearing their notes. Every note feels like a way to make your shot that much more amazing. I was all over again in student mode just begging to tell me more. I think Moana was my favorite experience, movie wise. But in terms of my favorite movie to work on - I really enjoyed animating on Big Hero 6. 

Particularly why? That's one of my all time favorite movies actually!

I just loved...the mix of the animation style. We can do very physical things there. You get to be a superhero kind of thing. I specialized in GoGo's animation. She's the closest I think to a real life superhero in that movie. I had so much fun with her. I also loved the tale of this young boy going through family issues // emotional trauma. Then having someone like Baymax to love and nurture him...it was amazing. Story vs the animation I had the most fun. I think as an audience, though, Moana was my favorite. 

If you could create your own movie, what would you want it to be about? Or what's a theme or story that you haven't seen made yet?

I'm a big fan of dance. I grew up break dancing when I was in high school. I love watching contemporary dance. There's a few contemporary dance animations that exists today and they are always the most inspiring things to watch for me. I feel like it's one of those things where physically you get to express emotions without any dialogue and that's what I find very beautiful about it. The way dancers make it look so easy but then when animators do it - they can push that even further. The thing about animation is that there are no boundaries to what you can make and do with that pencil or pen. That's what I would love to explore. There's already some amazing stories out there...Ryan Woodward did, "Thought of You"...that was completely beautiful with figure dancer sketches and it's about a male and female couple telling their story through dance. "Duet" that Glenn Keane did recently too. I just find dance related animation projects to be so inspiring so I would love to do something like that in the future.

I would be thrilled to see a movie about a dancer on the big screen. It may be because I'm a little biased having danced for almost two decades myself haha. I can't think of anything off the top of my head that's as big as Moana that is centered around dance.

I think Disney is as close as it comes though because we do work on musicals. It's nowhere near like the dancing artistry level to contemporary dancing though. It would be really cool to see that. I don't know how that would work in a feature length  movie. 

What challenges do you find or see others facing when creating a character and their ethnicity without seeming stereotypical or seeming like a caricature

Hm. That's a tough question haha. The directors and some of the key leadership in the art department will always travel to where a movie is based on and bring back key artifacts for the rest of the team to go off of. That's vital because they are the ones designing the characters and we want to make everything as authentic as possible. If we are creating something new - we want that culture to be authentic and true. With Moana - the Pacific culture - Ron and John wanted to stay as authentic as possible. They love that culture too. They were super excited to be there. For animators it's more of a challenge because we have about 70-80 animators that work on every film. We are all individual people. Somebody's from America, someone is from Korea, someone is from France, someone from Germany....we have to disguise all of that. Essentially what we are doing is acting. Animating is.........we draw how we think the character would move. The end result can't be, "Oh Moana feels a little German" No. Moana has to feel like Moana. Maui has to feel like Maui. The way he talks the way he moves has to feel like his character and not us.  There are definitely shots that we are like, "Oh, That's Zach!" or "Oh, that my friend Neko". There are shots that we can tell sometimes but we do our best....

Oh I can tell too. When I watched Moana I was like, "Damn Neko - that's so you."

Haha. We do our best though. It's inevitable in a way because we do act it out ourselves to use as reference. There's some complex mechanical movement that if we did it out of our heads it wouldn't look right. Shooting reference is the quickest way. Everybody usually uses that method - shooting reference. Then they make those movements authentic to the character we want to project it on. We don't do motion capture, though. We shoot reference so that we can see ourselves in our thinking process. We kinda use that as a guideline to sculpt how the characters move.

Motion Capture then is when someone is in a suit and it has all of the sensors attached?

Yeah. Disney does not use that ever. We don't want to do that. Stylistically we like to push for very fantasy-like poses and you can't always be grounded to that. We don't want to limit ourselves. We want to explore what's in our heads to see what could be. It's a challenge though. You know my Italian friend wants to act a certain way but he has to tone it down. But then the leadership team is there to help too. During our daily meetings we always have a discussion where we show the directors our blocking and they will give their input, "Maybe not do that hand gesture so much." or "Adjust the lips a little bit like so.." But yeah our ultimate goal is to project ourselves in a way where the character will not lose that authenticity.

Oh..that's IT? Haha. Well that seems extremely hard. Good job to all of you for how well it always results. 

On a lighter question -- what Disney character do you relate to the most or which one is flat out just your favorite? Mine is Donald Duck because he's so insane and psycho haha. 

Are you grumpy???

Haha sometimes! But I just love the game Kingdom Hearts too and he's my favorite classic Disney character in general - he always has been for no specific reason. I just think he's hilarious with his anger too.

My favorite characters are Mike and Sully partly because they are responsible for attracting me to the animation industry. Monsters Inc. is why I'm an animator now. A character I relate to the most would be Arthur Wart from Sword in the Stone. That's one of those tapes that I watched so much I broke growing up.I was really sad when that one broke. To me Wart was always learning. He's a humble kind of person and whatever he would do he would do it very diligently even if it's working as a servant or for Merlin out having fun. He'd do it in full and that's what I admire about him. His exploration, too, is relatable

That's definitely an unexpected answer! He's not one of the characters that comes to mind instantly when you hear Disney so I love that unpredictability. 

Everyone seems to have their own Disney anthem (at least those in my life) Mine is, "Be My Guest" from Beauty and the Beast. I love serving others and making people feel at home if I have friends over. I also love that scene the most and would be thrilled anytime I got to dance it out in a school play. Do you have one?

That being said I am a huge fan of Beauty and the Beast as well. It's one of my favorites when it comes to music. But, I don't know. I can't really say that I have an anthem because it's kind of like a curse that when you are animating on a movie you have to listen to that music over and over and over and over again - a hundred times at least. It comes to the point that by the time you are releasing the movie that we heard it so many times that we don't even know if it's good anymore. We're heavily relying on watching the audience's reaction in theaters to see if it's good or not. Sometimes there are unexpected parts too that the audience laughs and we ask, "Really? THAT was funny?" haha. There are certain parts (I can't think of any off the top of my head) that you become immune to or blind. I think that's why it's tough for me to have a Disney anthem just because I've listened to them so many times. I am a huge fan of Jodi Benson and The Little Mermaid. To me that movie is so perfect. Every song I feel like I love. The Ursula songs are amazing, Ariel's songs and Sebastian. When I turn it on I have to watch it all the way through I can't just stop. So yeah - definitely The Little Mermaid. 

One of the reasons I enjoy you on Instagram so much is your style - you have this rainbow/pastel vibe that is so my aesthetic. (Although today you are sporting all black haha.) Where does that stem from? Have you always dressed that way or how did you progress to that?

It's funny you mention that because when I was applying for art school (Ringley specifically) I also applied to Parson's where they do fashion design. I did get a scholarship to go there but even with that it was way too expensive. My dad really wanted me to go there but I felt too bad to put that kind of financial burden on them. I'm a huge fan of Project Runway so fashion is something I've always been interested in. I think it stems from when I used to like drawing people. The whole color aspect is... my wife is definitely a huge inspiration for the bright colors because she is all about pink/light purple/etc. My wardrobe definitely used to be a little dimmer before I met her. That's for sure.

Well I'm glad you met her because it's amazing! 

You also are a talented photographer. Does that compare or tie into animating in anyway?

That's exactly why I do photography. It's my release in a way. When you're animating even just one frame - it takes a really long time. We do 24 frames per second so if you're looking at something that is 5 seconds that's almost 100 frames and that's how many images we have to focus on to make it look as perfect as we can. We could be working on that for 2-3 weeks or even up to a month if it's really complicated. You end up working these images almost to death to make them perfect. I really like photography because you can snap something and it can be the perfect moment. All you have to do is correct the colors a litle bit to make it perfect. It's very rewarding for me. I like shooting people in their form..in their rawest form. That's what really attracts me to photography - I can snap moments without worrying about posing and all that stuff.

It gives you more freedom.

Yes. It's also a quicker reward process. I just like doing it too - the interaction. It's fun to go out and shoot things and not sit at your desk all the time.

How do you #staynerdy? 

I think if you looked at my desk you would know the answer. I'm a huge hoarder of Disney things. I feel like, "nerd", has become such a mainstream thing now. Before it was an insult and now we've won the battle so it's cool to be nerdy now. I think it's cool - good for nerds that they have something to relate to now and having people to connect with. There's people out there that have no passion for anything. For me..I collect a lot of things: cameras, Disney toys (mainly Monsters Inc stuff from Japan). I collect Ariel/Little Mermaid stuff and I don't care what other dudes may think. You're not the one animating! Haha. No but I love it. Anything that I collect it makes me feel a certain way. I'm happy it was introduced to me. 

Honestly this experience is on my list for one of the best days of my life! I didn't want it to end and am still beyond thankful for Nara's invitation to the studio and his hospitality. I really wish I could have recorded it all for you to see! This was one of the more in depth interviews too as far as learning things I had no clue about when it comes to how animation really happens - so education is always dope. Until next week ya'll #staynerdy! 



Gianna is coming! Fuck. If you don't know -- Gianna is the family I never had! I love her so much and she's staying with me ALLLL WEEEEK. So yeah. That's why this post is being posted later and staying up a littler longer than my weekly articles. Sorry nerds! Enjoy this photo of us from almost a decade ago in the meantime while you're waiting for me next week!


What's this? What's this amazing piece of art you're looking at? Oh NBD but my already super talented boyfriend ALSO does graphic design! W T F, right? Well follow him on IG: @emevas to see his lil portfolio! He's taking commissions for anything your heart wants.