CHARACTER ANIMATOR / ILLUSTRATOR
Benson Shum is a 3D Character Animator at Walt Disney Animation Studio. He has worked on games and various Hollywood Movies such as Harry Potter, Smurfs and Hotel Transylvania at MPC and Sony Pictures before starting his journey at Walt Disney Animation Studios. Some of the animated features he has worked to date include Wreck it Ralph and Big Hero 6. Aside from being an animator, Benson has been contributing to the community for a good cause by doing illustration work for charity projects.
Describe the path to where you are today.
I was born and raised in Vancouver, BC Canada. Growing up, I always watched a lot of Disney and Warner Brothers cartoons and I just always kinda drew, but I never thought it could be a career.
When I got older, I started to see TV programmes showing behind the scenes, how they made it. I was like "Oh, ok! This is what I wanna do!". But when I got older, I did not really see it as a career because it was just drawing so I ended up kind of going more towards maybe Biology or science because I love animals. So I did more illustrations for Biology. But then Jurassic Park came out and now I wanted to draw dinosaurs!
For some reason, I just never thought of doing visual effects. So I stopped drawing and focused more on science. When it was close to graduation, I decided this wasn’t for me, so I applied to Capilano college, now called Capilano University for their animation programme which was pretty new back then. I didn't get in because my portfolio was really bad and I also I didn't apply anywhere else. That was really bad because my parents were like "Oh, he's not going to school! What's gonna happen?!"
I ended up working a normal job, working in the restaurant; prepping and cooking, stuff like that. I did that for about a year, and worked on my portfolio on nights and weekends, to practice drawing and to improve.
And then eventually I applied the following year and to my surprise got in! The program was for 2 years. And after graduation, I got hired at a local studio as a prop designer for a local show. I worked there for about 2 years. And then I decided I wanted to learn a new skill and went back to school to learn 3D. So, instead of going back to Capilano I went to Sheridan college which is in the middle of Canada. I wanted to try a change of scenery, live in a different environment. The programme at Sheridan was one year. After graduating, I moved back to Vancouver and went back to doing 2D drawings and illustrations for 8 months, until I got an amazing opportunity to go to London to work there for a couple of years. My first 3D job was at game studio.
What kind of game did you work on in London?
It was called War Devil but never got finished. It looked great. After about a year, I left and got another opportunity to work at MPC on Harry Potter and the Goblet of fire. That was my first Visual Effects movie that I worked on. I was so excited as the Harry potter series is one of my favorites. After the show, my visa was soon expiring and I went back to Canada but at that time, no studios were hiring 3D animators, so I went back to doing 2D again. (laughs)
It was a lot of back and forth. I ended up having a lot of jobs because the contracts were short and I had to jump from studio to studio to keep working. Soon, I got hired at Rainmaker and they were doing the first 3D movie there. Then eventually Sony opened up and I went there. After Sony, I got the opportunity to work at Disney. And I have been there for almost 4 years till today.
What were the first movies did you work on at Sony and Disney?
I worked on the Smurfs and Hotel Transylvania. Smurfs was a great experience, it was my first visual effects where I got to animate characters. On Hotel Transylvania, I got to work on development for a while before we started production. That was fun to be able to explore how the characters move and emote. When I got to Disney, my first film was Wreck-it Ralph. That was a blast, as I grew up playing a lot of those games.
How did you find out about 3D Animation?
I did not know anything about 3D. I knew when I was at Capilano we had a course about 3D. And a lot of us didn't wanna do it because we wanna focus more on drawings. But, when I was working for a couple of years, I realized that 3D was getting bigger and bigger, so I thought "Ok, maybe I should learn that skill." But I think whether it is 2D or 3D, it is just animation that I am interested in. It doesn't matter what medium.
What does your typical day look like?
When I get into work, I’ll go through my emails and such. And I will open my shot that I am working on. If it is a new shot, then I will start to think of new ideas and look at the shots around what I am working on and start to plan and figure out what the character's supposed to do. And just think of ideas for a little bit.
I usually plan for a long time before I start doing anything in 3D because moving and posing characters take a long time. So, I draw a lot on paper and get my idea out that way. Once I get my idea, then I start to use the computer to pose the character.
Sometimes, I get into work earlier so that I won't have to stay late. I usually go to the gym after work. The gym is a good way to kinda decompress for the day. So, that's typically what I do.
My teacher once told me to think of KISS, which is "Keep It Simple, Stupid". It is very true. I find whenever I'm designing and can't get things to work, it is because I overcomplicated it.
How is it like working at Disney?
The great thing at Disney is they do treat us really well. So, it is a very creative place to be. But of course, there is a pressure that you wanna make great films. So, the pressure is not necessary from them but it is from yourself. You create the pressure because you wanna create the best work you can, but you have to find a balance. Being stressed all the time is not good for you.
Was it a difficult process to get to Disney for you?
Yeah. I've tried a lot of times. Throughout my career when I saw a Disney posting, I always sent in my reel but didn't hear anything from them. It took a long time until I went to this big animation and illustration oriented expo called CTN (Creative Talent Network). They had a lot of lectures and workshops. There were so many talented artist that you can just walk up to and start chatting. A lot of studios had booths there as well. So, one time I went there with my friend just to see it what it was like, and Disney had a booth there. I was already working, so I wasn't looking for a job. I just wanna talk to somebody, maybe just to have a chat and get feedback on my work. So I showed them my reel. He gave me some notes and he said I should just apply because you never know. So that they could keep it in file. So I applied and then they called me like a month later. That was how I got in. A lot of it I think it was luck and timing.
But yeah, it was very competitive there's so many people that want to get in. So I feel very lucky to be here. When I first started off out of school I applied to so many studios and got so many rejections. And that's normal! I would say it's good to just put yourself out there because you never know. I never thought I would go to UK to work.
What was the struggle and was there a time when you felt like giving up when you got so many rejections?
The struggle was more of like how to get better. I see a lot of my colleagues and every studio I worked at were just very good. I was trying to match their quality. That was the struggle. And when applying to places, whenever they said no I was just like, "Ok, I'm gonna try again later."
I gave myself personal projects to work at from home, because I wanted to improve my own work. And that's how I tried to push myself to be better. So that when I apply, I have new work to apply with.
Do you still do your personal work now?
Yes, but not animation recently, because I have been animating so much at work. My personal projects is more of my art. Like paintings and illustrations. It’s a nice change to be painting and drawing on paper instead of a computer.
We saw that you did a lot of art for charity. How did you get into it?
Actually, I saw it on Facebook. I saw from friends of friends. The first one I did was called The Animation art show in Dublin, Ireland. It was a charity for children hospitals. It was an art auction and they take submissions from around the world. I just emailed them telling them that I was interested in participating. So they emailed me back asking me to create whatever I want and to send to them and they would auction it off to raise money. A lot of people from around the world submit stuff and they raise a lot of money for a good cause.
How does charity art affect you?
It's nice to see or hear that you are helping people and you know it is for a good cause. So you're giving back to the community. It's always good to give back!
How important is personal project to you? Do you think that everyone should do it?
If you have the time to do it, it would be fun. But I understand personal project requires a lot time. For me, it's good to do something creatively different than what I do at work. Work is creative, but it is a different type of creativity. It's good because it is a creative outlet. It's always about balance. You wanna have a good balance of life and work.
Are you satisfied with where you are today?
Yes, I am very happy at Disney. I feel very fortunate to be at here. It is a great environment and everybody is amazingly talented!
"Working hard is a big thing because you can't just expect things to be given to you. You have to work hard for it."
What were your favourite that you've worked on?
I think Harry Potter is my favourite one for visual effects because I love the books. But for Disney, I think my favourite movies I worked on their are Wreck it Ralph and Frozen. I like Ralph because it is unique. The era was the time when I grew up playing those video games. I like Frozen because I am a big fan of musical, it was like Little Mermaid, one of my favourites growing up. So, I love anything with music. (laugh)
Do you have any advice for young people who are starting out?
You might hear it all the time; Working hard is a big thing because you can't just expect things to be given to you. You have to work hard for it. And communication is a very big thing as well to be able to work with people because it is a very collaborative industry. You can't do it all on your own, especially in the 3D medium because we're all very specialized in what we do. You can be good but it's really hard to be good at everything. Very few people can do that. It is important to be able to communicate and work well with people.
Do you have any recommendations for books, TV shows, or any other inspirations?
I read this book called The Noble Approach. The book is about Maurice Noble. He was the background designer for Chuck Jones at the Warner Brothers. His work is amazing. He's very inspirational for me. He and Mary Blair. I love both of their works. The Noble Approach came out maybe a couple of years ago. It talks about design and his approach.
And I think traveling is a big part, to see and experience different cultures. I believe that brings a lot to your work. Even just hanging out with friends, just talking to people is inspiring. You never know what the conversation is gonna be about. Instead of just sitting in front of computer where everything is the same and nothing changes, you can go outside and see life, you can bring new experiences to your work. And your work will always be fresh and new.
"You can be good but it's really hard to be good at everything. Very few people can do that. It is important to be able to communicate and work well with people."
Do you have favourite quotes or mantra when you face difficulties?
(laughs)... I don't think this is really a quote. But, my teacher once told me, think of KISS, which is “Keep It Simple, Stupid”. It is very true. I find whenever I'm designing and can't get things to work, it is because I over complicated it. So I try to keep very simple shapes for my designs. And even for animation, you don't wanna put so much stuff in there. You wanna keep things very simple and to the point.
What's the next thing for you? Anything that you are going to do?
Yes! Children's books! I love children’s book illustrations. I am currently working on one with Disney at the moment, and I would love to do more of that in the future. It is coming out in April 2017, I will keep you posted when it comes out!