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How Zootopia Animator Philip To Went from Animation Mentor to Disney

by | Feb 8, 2017

Philip To, Disney Animator

It’s Oscar season! What better time than now to catch up with Animation Mentor alumnus Philip To, one of the Disney animators who worked on Zootopia! Not only did Zootopia win six Annie Awards, it’s also nominated for an Oscar. Philip is no Annie Awards noob either, he won Best Character Animation in a Television Production for “Monsters vs. Aliens: Mutant Pumpkins from Outer Space” in 2010. We’re so grateful that Philip took time out of his busy schedule to catch up! Read on to learn more about what it’s like to work for Disney as well as a few tidbits about animating Judy Hopps!

-The Animation Mentor Crew

Animation Mentor: What made you want to become an animator? What films were your greatest inspiration?

Philip To: Wanting to become an animator was due to a number of different things. I never really had that one ‘ah ha!’ moment where everything aligned and I knew that’s what I wanted to do. I knew when I got to University that I wanted to focus on computer graphics and it wasn’t until I had a grasp of all the facets of 3D that I realized that I really wanted pursue character animation specifically.

I’ve had a number of different inspirations at different stages of my life. I mean, there are heaps more but these are the ones that stick out to me that really affected me wanting to become an animator.

Mary Poppins and Bert

Mary Poppins © Walt Disney Productions

As a young child, Mary Poppins was something that I watched endlessly on VHS. I still remember seeing Aladdin at the theaters with my family. That movie just blew my mind as a young kid.

My favourite animated film is Porco Rosso and I remember catching that one late night on a tv when I was about 12 or 13. At that point I had never seen anything quite like it compared to other animated films.

As an animation student, the Pixar films were really inspiring, in particular Monsters Inc. and The Incredibles. Most recently, I’d say Tangled is something that really lit a fire and you could see they were doing something special at Disney. I think that’s a huge reason why I wanted to work here.

AM: Walk us through a day in the life of an animator at Disney.

Philip: A typical day for me is arriving to work, walking into the caffeine patch and grabbing a morning coffee. The first thing I usually do is check mails and my calendar to see what’s scheduled for the day and then check out the latest and greatest shots that my fellow animators have submitted into the system for either rounds or dailies. For me, this is really important for two reasons. One is that I get a kick out of seeing really inspiring work from my colleagues and two, I learn a lot from seeing what other people are doing in their own shots. I love seeing a shot where I get that feeling of ‘damn, that’s awesome! I never would have thought to do it that way!’.

If I’m showing for dailies that particular day, then I’ll submit my work and then head to dailies. After dailies, I’ll usually try to check in with my sequence supervisor to ensure I’ve got a good understanding of the notes the director gave, so we’re on the same page and also to get some additional thoughts. At this point I’ll usually take a bit of a break to clear my head and to make sure when I do sit down and address the notes, my mind is fresh and I’m ready to go.

Once I’ve addressed the notes, I’ll sign the shot up for rounds so it can be seen by the heads of animation and the supervising animators to see if they have any other thoughts and to see if I’m on the right track for what the director asked for. At this point, the supervisors may want more things addressed or tell you that it’s ready to present to the director again.

Throw in a couple more coffee breaks and that’s my typical day at Disney!

AM: What has been your favorite scene or character to animate and why?

Philip: I really liked animating Judy Hopps from Zootopia. Cory Loftis, who designed the characters in Zootopia did an amazing job in creating these unique and appealing characters. I liked that Hopps was a strong character but she wasn’t physically imposing so she had to rely on her intelligence and will to succeed to get ahead.

Judy Hopps in Zootopia

Judy Hopps in Zootopia © Disney Animation Studios

I had to animate a scene of her offering Nick an application to the ZPD and I really enjoyed that because it was a soft and kind moment between the two and she was able to show him genuine sincerity.

AM: What is the most challenging shot you’ve ever animated and what did you learn from it?

Philip: This is a hard question to answer because I generally find most of my shots quite challenging for very different reasons. I do remember feeling a lot of pressure when I was animating a few of my very first shots on Zootopia. It was my first film at Disney and like in any new job you really wanting to impress your peers and do a good job. So I remember being assigned some shots when Hopps makes the choice to abandon her post as a meter maid and go on to chase the weasel through Little Rodentia. She tosses off her meter maid hat, strips off her vest, displaying her ZPD badge and goes on the chase as a real ZPD officer.

The shots went through a number of iterations as the directors wanted to add more to the shot compared to what was done in story and layout. The big lesson for me in this shot was because the action was tied to the moving camera, I had to work neatly. On my first pass, I did not. And once the changes started coming in, I ended up having to do a lot of rework.

Do spend the time to orient your character in the right direction, otherwise your curves will be all over the place which makes global adjustments really difficult. Quite a rookie mistake to make but it can happen when you’re just wanting to jump right away into your shot.

AM: How did Animation Mentor help prepare you for the industry?

Philip: It did in so many ways! I wouldn’t be in the position I am now without my time at Animation Mentor. The quality of my work increased tenfold after I went through the program. And I made so many amazing friends, many who I’ve worked with at past jobs and now at Disney Animation.

Disney Animator Philip To

Philip To, Animation Mentor alumnus and Disney animator!

I learned the value of giving and receiving feedback as well as working towards very strict deadlines. It’s not too different than what you would encounter in actual production and I think that’s why we’ve seen so many people come through the school and have had successful careers in animation.

AM: If there’s one animation tip or technique you’d share with someone wanting to animate in feature film, what would it be?

Philip: Be patient. Animation takes a long time to do and learning it, especially at the beginning can feel really daunting. There are just so many things to think about and to keep track of. But stick with it, tackle one problem at a time and bit by bit it will get easier and better! Thanks for reading and happy animating! 🙂

We love success stories! See what other alumni and students are doing:
Frank Abney: From Animation Mentor to Variety’s 10 Animators to Watch
Meet Dan Segarra: Blue Sky Studios Character Animator and Animation Mentor Graduate
Jeff Starr: From Animation Mentor to Short Film

Want to be mentored by professional animators?

Start your animation journey today by learning from animators at studios like Pixar, Blue Sky, and ILM! Get more information about Animation Mentor’s Character Animation Program.

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