Trainee -> Apprentice -> Artist Lighting at Disney on Moana

I did it! I achieved one of my greatest goals! Even more spectacularly, not only did I get my chance to work at Disney Animation, but on a "Disney Princess" movie no less.

Whenever I get asked "Where would you like to work?" and I say Disney, I see people roll their eyes and they respond with "You and millions of people". Well guess what? I made it. 凸ಠ益ಠ)凸 I refused to let dreams be dreams; I will be that one in a million.

Getting the Call

I initially applied for the look dev talent development program. I did end up as a finalist but unfortunately was not ultimately chosen. Everything worked out as I got into lighting the the look dev apprentices are cool and so much better than I. 

I actually was rejected for the lighting talent dev program, too. Again, I was a finalist but I got the phone call saying "Sorry, we decided to go with someone else. Keep on working, do some more 'Disney style" pieces, maybe next year". I was really really disappointed and depressed. Especially since if there was any year that I wanted to get into Disney it was this year because of Moana. Even more so, I felt like if I was to get in, this would be the year and after that it may be harder to do so since I had just worked on Aria for a Cow, a short film directed by a Disney employee and had made it's way around festivals and the studio itself, along with working on SOAR which had just won the Student Academy Award. I moped and cried for a few days and daydreamed about what if they changed their mind, and  then picked myself back up. I motivated myself back into creating art and started making a maquette of my tiger.

When you wish upon a star, makes no difference who you are [...] your dreams will sure come true.

I'll be there someday, I can go the distance. I will find my way if I can be strong. I know every mile would be worth my while. When I go the distance, I'll be right where I belong.

I remember Daddy told me fairy tales can come true. You gotta make 'em happen, it all depends on you.
-Princess and the Frog

About a week or a week and a half later, my boss (I was working at Nvidia at the time) stops by to ask if I had heard anything back from Disney yet and I was like "Yeah :'( I didn't get it. You'll have me forever". I think that was on a Thursday or Friday. Early the next week I suddenly got a call again saying that they decided to open an additional space and if I would like it. OMG YES.  I walked over to my boss and was like "Hey....I have something to tell you...remember when I said you'll have me forever? Yeah, about that....." I had to start at Disney in 2 weeks so I gave my 2 week notice, packed up everything, and looked a new place to live on Craigslist. I shoved everything into my car and drove down to Burbank from Santa Clara to begin an exciting new journey!


Story - 3
Look Dev - 3
Animation - 6
Character TD - 3
FX - 3
Lighting - 8 (+1, we had someone from modeling cross-training into lighting with us)
Stereo - 1
Assistant TD - 4

These were the 2016 trainees! It was actually really surprising to me how many international people there were since I'm so used to people saying how difficult/stressful it is to get jobs with visa issues. It's great that Disney puts in the effort to find the best talent from all over the world and bring them together. In our lighting trainees we had 3 from the US, 1 from Syria, 1 from Germany, 1 from Mexico, and 2 from France.

During training we learned how to use the tools (Maya, DLight, Hyperion, Nuke) along with having dailies of our assignments with one of the directors of cinematography to learn and get a sense of what kind of things that are being looked for in light direction, shaping, and color in shots. Also, as Hyperion is a GI renderer it was interesting to learn how to approach "holistic lighting" where you attempt to do everything in render instead of after in comp.

For lighting, our training period last just under 3 months which was really shortened, particularly in comparison to previous years. Moana lighting production started and we rolled right on!


Disneyland! All the time. With my cast ID I can go to Disneyland and California Adventure for free, along with free parking, and get so much discount on food and merchandise. I have gone pretty much every 2 weeks. 

Disney Animation is part of The Animation Guild which is great. It looks out for us making sure we get certain wages, overtime pay, and healthcare.

During production there was breakfast Mondays, Summer Treats on Wednesdays, bagel Fridays, sometimes Beer'O'Clock on Friday afternoons, along with dinners on weekdays, and lunch on Saturdays. Then there are the work meeting lunches that always has leftover food. I can't say no to free food! I got so fat. I cry. I did save so much money from not having to buy groceries though. I've eaten so many bananas and I don't like bananas/am very picky about them.


Wew. That was a busy and exciting 5 months. On average I worked about 58-60 hours a week on average and I ended up working on 35 shots, 1 poster, and 4 marketing shots. 3 of my shots made it into the trailer!

This was a difficult movie. We have so much water, so much xGen environments, and dark skin. The water itself wasn't actually too bad, it is mainly waiting for the water surface to read the cache. Otherwise a lot of the water is just done in comp and a lot of times I remove the volumetric pass and use a constant and ramp instead to help reduce the noise from the volume and keep render times low. What was really more difficult and longer to render were the environments on land with all the xGen. Dark skin also tended to be problematic since we have to be mindful of that they don't look too Caucasian; however, since the movie is outside most of the time on water and under the sky we have so much blue light that it can tend to make the characters look paler than what is desired.

What I found to be really interesting was the amount of displacement that was used. So much geometry is displaced rather than modeled or using normal and bump maps. I was always taught to keep displacement super minimal as it takes a long time to render but here we were kind of using it everywhere. I suppose it might be a Hyperion thing with it being a GI renderer to make things look more accurate and higher quality both visually and the light path calculations.

It was an amazing experience both working on the film and also alongside all the other talented artists. I can't wait for the film to be released and hope you all love it.

Now What?

Unfortunately with Disney not releasing a new movie in 2017 the lighting department is downsizing. A lot. All the apprentices are among those let go and we hope to get a call back once production picks back up again for the next movie. It's unfortunately how this industry works but it is still disappointing. Especially since I was hoping that Disney was a large enough company that it doesn't have to ebb and flow as much as VFX studios.

Back out into the market sending my reel and resume; games, commercials, tv, vfx. Maybe I'll try to do some freelance, especially since I would like to get back into doing more painting and illustration.

I kind of feel like it might be all horizontal from here on out for awhile. I've achieved one of my greatest career dream goals of working on a Disney Princess movie and it can only suddenly jump back uphill and get me really excited is for a tiger movie. Until then it's continue working and getting better. Hopefully one day I'll be good and important enough to be an art director.