The kid who used to doodle characters in his books at Naperville Central High School is now a Disney animator.
Matt Williames (pronounced will-a-mees), 34, got his first animating job before he even had a driver's license, and worked his way up to his dream job -- as an animator for Hollywood movie and TV studios.
A Disney animator's career advice: Find a mentorIf you want to be an animator and you don't have a mentor, get one, says Disney animator Matt Williames, who grew up in Naperville.
Williames says having a mentor at a young age was the key to launching his career.
People can reach out to him, or get other advice or insight on the job, on his Tumblr account, Hand Drawn Nomad, handdrawnnomad.tumblr.com/.
Williames has contributed to many well-known animated movies, including "The Princess and the Frog," "The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie" and "Curious George," plus an Oscar-nominated short film, "Adam and Dog."
"I just love filmmaking. It's just a super, super exciting art form. And it has huge leaps to grow," he said, noting that animation is expanding into virtual reality.
Williames currently works as an animation supervisor on "Penn Zero: Part-Time Hero" for the Disney XD channel and consults on other Disney TV series. He also works on other projects which he's contractually forbidden from talking about.
"(Animation) is about acting and performance. Yes, we draw. We draw characters. And those characters act. The characters must be true to what the story says," he said.
So how'd a kid from Naperville break into Disney Animation?
Williames attributes his success to two main things: his determination, and his mentor, Bill Matthews, a Disney animator who took Williames under his wing when he was still a teenager.
"I wasn't more talented than anyone else, I just wanted it more. Obsessive would be a right word," he said, laughing. "I became totally obsessed with becoming an animator."
His obsession began when he was a child, home sick from school. His mom, Dottie, a Naperville music teacher (she taught at Naper Elementary School, among other places), gave him a VHS tape of Disney's "Beauty and the Beast" to watch. In the previews, they showed clips of animators working on Disney movies.
"There was something about that (movie) in particular that turned a light bulb on for me. Like, what? People do this? I can have a career doing this? Filmmaking became this thing that I could grow up and do," he said.
Williames submitted his drawings to Disney Adventures magazine, which published a few of them. And he began writing monthly letters to Matthews, showing him his work and asking for input. By the time Williames went to Disney Animation to visit, he knew everything about the company and its animators.
Back in Chicago, his grandma saw a newspaper article on a local freelance animator. Williames, then 15, tracked the man down and asked if there was any type of work he could do. His persistence paid off, and he was invited to help on projects such as a "Space Jam" movie promo and cereal box characters.
Williames eventually quit his job at Baker's Square on Ogden Avenue and started working for $15 an hour at Calabash Animation and the now-defunct Character Builders.
"It was definitely a right-time, right-place kinda thing," he said.
He went on to study at California Institute for the Arts (CalArts), focusing on hand-drawn animation. At 20, he got his first big Hollywood job, beating out seasoned animators to work on the 2003 movie "Looney Tunes Back in Action." Dozens more projects followed. Today, Williames works out of his home studio in southern Oregon.
"The thing I love the most is to have a voice, and having an emotional impact on something," he said.
He also loves to mentor young animators, paying forward the help he received when he was a student.
"I just know that people took a risk on me, and they didn't have to. That selflessness for me is key," he said. "There's this wonderful thing in young people that anything is possible. The flame is constantly being threatened to be snuffed out, so you have to protect it."
-- Jamie Sotonoff
• Dann Gire and Jamie Sotonoff are always looking for people from the suburbs who are now working in showbiz. If you know of someone who would make an interesting feature, email them at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.