A puppeteer of pixels: Sask. animator works on Disney blockbusters

Andrew Ford spends his days at work doing something akin to playing with action figures, and then he brings them to life.

'It’s almost like playing with action figures,' says Andrew Ford

Andrew Ford says his job as an animator for Disney is a bit like playing with action figures on a computer. (Submitted by Andrew Ford)

Andrew Ford spends his days at work doing something akin to playing with action figures, and then he brings them to life.

The Saskatchewan-raised animator for Walt Disney Studios has worked on blockbuster films including Zootopia, which won a Golden Globe Award for best animated motion picture on Jan. 8.

Ford said the accolade shows the film has connected with people, but it was the praise from his hometown of Humboldt, Sask., that he really valued.

"When I get those messages or notes from people I haven't heard from in a long time, or friends who are in Humboldt or Saskatoon still, and Regina," he said.

"Just to hear that their kids are connecting with this, that's about as cool as it gets."

Andrew Ford, an animator for Walt Disney Studios, is originally from Humboldt, Sask. (Submitted by Andrew Ford)

Ford's interest in animation started when he job-shadowed Cordell Barker, who animated the Oscar-nominated Canadian cartoon The Cat Came Back.

He was inspired by the artist's studio and the joy of bringing a character to life.

Ford developed his portfolio working at other studios before landing a job at Walt Disney Studios.

He said hard work and practice helped him develop his eye for body mechanics, composition and life-drawing.

Unlike the animators of historic Disney films like Aladdin and The Little Mermaid, Ford uses computers to create three-dimensional characters for films, including Moana.

Bringing pixels to life

"It's almost like the characters are puppets in the computer that have been built for us, and they've got lots of skeleton and controls that we can take and kind of craft them," he said.

"It's almost like playing with action figures, a little bit, just on the computer."

He said animators were responsible for the performance of a character, sometimes using videos of themselves acting as a model to create lifelike mannerisms.

But as an animator for Disney, he said it was not enough to copy real life.  

Perseverance pays off

"You actually have to take it further and almost caricature the performance," said Ford.

"It's like, you kind of want the essence more than anything else."

"It's really just practice to try and get, say, a bunny to make you feel something as an audience member."

Ford never envisioned himself working at Disney when he started his career. It seemed, like the films, "a little bit impossible."

But he persevered, following some advice he received as a teenager in Saskatchewan.   

"I had a teacher that showed me that there's not necessarily a talent for drawing, it's more a talent for having the patience to draw and then find the reward in that," said Ford.

"So I think for me it was just practising and drawing what I saw and just keeping at it." 

With files from CBC Radio's Afternoon Edition