Prasansook Veerasunthorn still faintly remembers her childhood days growing up in Thailand when she would watch Disney’s Dumbo hundreds of times because she was so captivated by the beloved flying elephant.
Despite not being able to understand the film in English, Dumbo’s compelling visuals she says, is what sparked her interest in animation.
As a Story Artist for Walt Disney Animation Studios for the past five years, Prasansook or ‘Fawn’, as her colleagues call her, has worked on critically acclaimed films such as Zootopia and Frozen, and is currently working on Moana.
But believe it or not– being a Story Artist was never part of her plan.
“Growing up in Thailand, this profession doesn’t even exist, so when I told my parents I wanted to go to art school, they were confused as to what my career path would look like,” said Fawn.
In spite of that, she pursued her dreams of being an Animator and moved to the United States at 19 years old to begin her undergraduate studies at the Columbus College of Art and Design in Ohio. After graduating, she began her career as an Animator in New York for Animation Collective. Then for a couple years, Fawn established herself as a 2D Animator in Flash Animation and eventually worked her way up to be an Animation Director.
With more than a decade experience in the business, it was then that she first got a taste of doing storyboarding.
“My colleagues asked me if I could board, and I said sure, even though I didn’t really know much about the process, I just ran with it. I learned from the job from that point on and that’s how I got started.”
Disney Animation films take three to five years to develop, and multiple Story Artists, including Fawn, take the first step toward visualizing the film by creating storyboards based on script pages.
After Fawn is assigned scenes, the director and head of story express the type of feeling they’re trying to achieve in addition to the art director providing character and environmental design elements. Other than that, it’s up to her to create and explore.
As an artist who works with the characters who tug on our heartstrings the Disney way, Fawn says the inspiration for the characters and scenes she creates, she draws from her background and experiences.
For instance, being a Thai native who moved to the US, she related to Judy’s character in Zootopia on a personal level and that it had a significant influence in her work.
“Zootopia is like New York City where people come from everywhere like a melting pot and I thought of Zootopia as me living in the States in general.”
“In Thailand everyone is from Thailand, you don’t see a lot of diversity. So moving here was a culture shock, and I knew what Judy felt like going to the city,” Fawn revealed.
There’s a sequence in the film where Judy hops on the train to Zootopia and looks in awe out the windows as she passes Sahara Square and Tundra Town among other landscapes before she gets to the train station. When she reaches the station, mice start trickling down transparent tubes and hippos come out of the water dressed in suits automatically greeted with dryers.
Scenes like that required group brainstorming and collaboration, Fawn expressed. The fact that she and her fellow artists came from different places help with this line of work–in fact, details like that were not pre-written in the script.
Nonetheless, creating the scenes and characters is never an easy feat. Fawn says the process requires countless revising and multiple screenings. However, starting from a blank canvas is always her favorite part.
“The beginning is terrifying but exciting! There’s nothing there and then starting to shape it and getting into it is a fun puzzle to me. You can dream up different scenarios, and it’s exciting to pitch it for the first time.”
In addition, she mentions that she works with a very strong and inspiring team who give her good feedback that in turn help her grow to be a better artist.
“A lot of people have worked here forever—I’ll mention that I love a sequence in Mulan and then I’ll come to find out they boarded it! So it’s great learning from them.”
Outside of the Studios, Fawn draws as a hobby as well and regularly posts for her large followers on Instagram and Tumblr. She divulged that she does it to keep practicing the art of storyboarding and likes the fact that she’s able to receive feedback instantly when it comes to her jokes.
Practice makes perfect, she’s preached, and although it took her more than a decade to get where she is now she advised anyone who aspires to be an Artist at Disney Animation to be realistic and to do what you can to get your foot in the door.
“When I graduated, I applied to Disney and no one ever replied and I understand why. Don’t expect perfection right away, because these things take time. Trust the process, because you never know– animation might lead to storyboards. And keep at it because it’s not that easy for most people—including me,” she says.
It’s not everyday that one gets invited to chat with a Story Artist– while taking a stroll through the lobby, I’m surrounded by ocean blue Moana-inspired walls accompanied with freestyle art on canvas encircling the floor.
I’m engulfed with creativity around me at Walt Disney Animation Studios, where magic not only lives with its films, but also lives with the people.