You may not know his name, but you’ve seen his work — for over 20 years Aaron Blaise worked as an animator with Disney to help create some of their most memorable characters. From Beauty and the Beast to Aladdin, The Lion King and more, Aaron’s pencil has overflowed with life.
Aaron went on to co-direct the Academy Award-nominated film Brother Bear, supervised the traditional animation on last year’s delightful John Lewis Christmas advertisement, and continues to find ways to explore the medium of animation and illustration. We spoke with Aaron to learn what he’s working on now and how he goes about his work.
Location: I currently reside in Stuart, Florida, in a small place on the beach. It’s a tropical paradise perfect for inspiration and creating stories and art.
One word that best describes how you work: Constant.
Current Gig: I’ve actually got a lot of irons in the fire. First, I am working with a few fellow creatives and we are developing a series of online art and animation education tutorials on my website. Our mission is to make art and art education affordable and available to the masses. We’ve been going for about a year and a half now and things are growing every month. It’s our intention to bring art education to an audience that often can’t afford the sometimes obscene expense of art school or are looking for supplemental education to their existing curriculum. We are slowly building our library of lessons along with our growing audience base.
I’m also continuing to work in the field of animation and filmmaking. I’m currently developing a new feature film called, Art Story about a boy and his grandfather that have the ability to step through the frame and into the painted world. The two go on a fantastic journey taking them through paintings by Monet, Dali, Van Gogh, Picasso and so on. The fun part of the visuals in this film is that the characters take on the look of each world they venture into. For instance, when they enter the world of Van Gogh they will be made up of heavy, vibrant brush strokes, or when the enter Picasso’s world, they will have their eyes on the side of their faces. Visually it will be a lot of fun! The story is always number one though. It’s really about these two opposites who don’t really get along in the beginning and throughout the course of the journey, they come to understand and love each other. I think that the grandparent/grandchild dynamic is something that is not explored enough in many art forms.
I pepper all of this with occasional freelance work. If the right job request comes along, sometimes I can’t resist. Last Christmas for instance, I was the character designer and co-animation supervisor on The Bear & The Hare for John Lewis, a popular department store chain in the UK. It was a combination of traditional animation and stop-motion. It was a huge hit and was really interesting process to be a part of.
I also just finished up doing design work for Warner Brothers on their upcoming live action adaptation of “The Jungle Book.” I was helping to develop the look of some of the animal characters (which will be computer animated). It was right up my alley and a lot of fun!
I’ve also been doing concept and design work for various animation studios including Blue Sky and Paramount. There is not a day that goes by that I am not creating new images or story ideas whether for a client or for myself.
Current mobile device: Ha ha, I’m not much of a gadget guy… I just bought my first laptop several weeks ago! It’s a MacBook Pro. My phone is a Samsung Galaxy S4. I also do have a Wacom Cintiq Companion. Usually though, if I’m on the go I have a little watercolour painting set. It’s a Cotman Field Box Set and it’s made by Winsor & Newton.
Current computer: I’m a Mac guy. Always have been. When I started out at Disney it was what I learned on and I never looked back. Recently, as I’ve been getting more into video production, I’ve found that my current home computer is quickly becoming obsolete. It’s the previous model Mac Pro tower but I’ll be upgrading to the new Mac Pro (cylinder) very soon. The piece of hardware that is the most important to me, though, is my Cintiq made by Wacom. This is the touch sensitive screen that I do all of my digital design work on. I have several and have been using them for about 10 years now and can’t get by without them. I produce the vast majority of my professional work on a Cintiq, including my illustrations and animation.
Sometimes though, I am still able to work traditionally. With The Bear & The Hare for instance, all of that was done on my original animation desk from Disney. Years ago they let me take the desk with me. It’s the same desk that I animated many of the characters from Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King, Pocahontas, and Brother Bear on.
What software and tools can’t you live without?
As stated above, I can’t get by without my Cintiq. It’s the closest to feeling as if I’m working traditionally because I’m able to draw right on the screen. I went into the digital world ten years ago kicking and screaming — I wanted to do everything on paper with brushes, pens and paint — but once I started working on the Cintiq, I found the transition was really quite easy and I discovered that the visual possibilities were endless. My software for image creation is Adobe Photoshop exclusively. I’ve tried other software but always find myself coming back to Photoshop. It gives me everything I need to express myself creatively.
If I’m doing animation, I use TVPaint. My background in animation is with paper and pencil. TVPaint has been the closest thing I can find that feels like I’m still working in a traditional way.
What’s your workspace setup like?
My workspace is simple really. I’ve got a home setup where I have a Cintiq 24″ HD and a second monitor. I also have a large TV mounted to the wall above my workspace where I watch a lot of nature documentaries that I use as reference for much of my work. I also have another office with a similar setup where I’m doing my Art Story development.
What’s your best time-saving shortcut or life hack?
My best time saving shortcut really is my process. I approach all of my work the same way. When I’m designing I specify a certain amount of time to research and information gathering. I’m a huge advocate of research. When it comes time to actually start creating images, I do that the same way every time as well. Through this repetition of my process I’ve been able to really get to where I can crank out a lot of images fast but still keep them fresh and unique.
When I’m writing there is no shortcut. I lock myself away in my office and let the story kind take hold of me. However, I always remain conscious of theme and structure in my storytelling, so in a way that helps keep things moving and developing quickly. I find that if you don’t keep those notions in mind, your story will wander and you’ll end up with a lot of unusable stuff that doesn’t really amount to anything.
What’s your favourite to-do list manager?
Pen and paper baby!!
Besides your phone and computer, what gadget can’t you live without and why?
Other than my aforementioned gadgets, I’m still very much a traditional artist and I can’t live without my paints, brushes, pencils, pens, paper, canvas, etc.
What everyday thing are you better at than everyone else?
Doodling while talking on the phone. I’ve done a few that I’ve actually been pretty proud of!
What do you listen to while you work?
I usually have Pandora playing while I’m working. I listen to a lot of Blues, Folk/soul kind of stuff. But I’ll also jump over to Bluegrass and then Jazz or Modern Rock. I like variety.
What are you currently reading?
The Secret Garden… yes …I’m reading The Secret Garden.
Are you more of an introvert or an extrovert? Maybe both.
I see myself as both an introvert and an extrovert but, I think people probably see me as an extrovert.
What’s your sleep routine like?
I don’t sleep well. I usually am in bed by 10pm. Then I wake up at 3 or 4am, do some thinking about a lot of stuff then fall back to sleep. I get my day going usually around 6 or 7am.
Fill in the blank: I’d love to see _____ answer these same questions.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
My stepfather raised me. He really was a great man. He always told me to never chase the dollar. Chase what makes your heart happy then the money will come. He was so right.
Is there anything else you’d like to add that might be interesting to readers and fans?
Well, I don’t want this to seem like a shameless plug but if you are at all interested in what I do then I definitely recommend you subscribe to my YouTube Channel. I have an ongoing series called “Aaron’s Art Tips” where I try to share some of the “info-nuggets” or pearls of wisdom that I’ve learned over the years. I also like to share a few “behind the scenes” tales of the Disney days that people really seem to get a kick out of. Plus in 2015, I’ll be sitting down with a bunch of interesting guests as well. Also, like I said, I’m ALWAYS drawing so my Instagram and Twitter accounts are a great way to see new images and videos on an almost daily basis.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
We’ve asked a handful of heroes, experts and flat-out productive people to share their shortcuts, workspaces and routines. Every week we’ll feature a new guest and the gadgets, apps, tips and tricks that keep them going. Want to suggest someone we should feature or questions we should ask? Let us know.