Steve Thompson loves his job, and it shows—in his workspace at the Disney Store headquarters in Pasadena, California, the way he talks about the company and its legacy, and especially and how he designs products—always keeping his fellow Disney fans in mind. His recent work for the Disney Store spans all kind of items, including apparel, figurines, and dozens of snowglobes and Christmas ornaments. But its his work on the recent Disney Designer Collections that has fans buzzing. The limited-edition Disney Villains Designer Collection dolls started hitting shelves on September 10, just in time for Halloween, and they’ve already caused quite a stir.
Recently, D23 was lucky enough to sit down with Steve for an interview that spans his entire Disney career, which started when he was only 19. Get the scoop on his inspirations, what it’s like working with well-known Disney animator Glen Keane, what he felt when he first saw a product he designed in a Disney Store, and more.
How old were you when you started drawing?
I started drawing before I remember anything else. I have a very distinct memory of being really young, and I would draw under all of our furniture in the entire house. I’d lie on the floor—because I must not have been walking yet—and just draw. Everything looked really nice from above, and then it was this whole canvas of art underneath. But I’ve always been told that, before I could walk or talk or do anything, I was grabbing pencils and crayons and anything I could to do some sort of drawing. All through school, all the report cards going back to kindergarten would say, “Steve is really advanced at art.” I was lucky enough to have parents that didn’t squash that. They just thought, “Okay, there’s something—he’s gonna do something with this.”
What your earliest memory of knowing you wanted to do this for a living?
Grade school. I’d always be doodling in my notebooks when I should’ve been paying attention to math, but at a certain point, I think my teachers realized, clearly, I’m not gonna be doing math as a career. So yes, very early on.
Have you always been a Disney fan?
[When I was younger], I remember saying, “I want to work for Disney.” And I was drawing Mickey Mouse and it was just so matter-of-fact. Like, “Oh, this is what I’m gonna do.” And it was very specific that Disney was the company I wanted to work for.
How did getting hired by Disney at the age of 19 come about?
I was finishing my second year at CalArts—it’s a four-year school. But we had had the Northridge earthquake that year , and it was just a crazy year. But there’s always portfolio reviews at the end of the school year, and some people came up [to CalArts] and I just figured, “Y’know, it’d be great to get some feedback at least.” I mean, they’re here. So I put a portfolio together and [one of the portfolio reviewers] was Disney Consumer Products, and they were looking for new talent. And I got a call from them saying, “We’d like to hire you.” I just thought it might be for the summer. And then after two weeks, they offered me a Senior Character Artist position. I went to school to work for Disney, and now I have an opportunity, so it’d be crazy to turn it down! That same week that I was offered a permanent spot, I got a call from Feature Animation and they wanted me to work on Pocahontas.
Why did you decide on CalArts for college, initially?
It’s this really impossibly hard school to get into. I found out after I applied. It was just… I’m going to CalArts because I wrote [to the Disney company] and they said that this would be a good school to look into, so… [I figured] that’s what I’m going to do. Somehow, there was this path for me, and I was following it the only way I knew how.
After Disney hired you, did you continue with your schooling?
I stopped. It is one of those weird things. Just because of the way the industry ebbs and flows, I had friends that stayed at school—and they got jobs right away. But when the industry started “closing,” there were people that had been in longer [who had priority]. It was perfect timing for me—and not something I recommend, but for whatever reason, it felt right and it made sense for me at the time. I’m really thankful that it seems to be still [working out for me].
What was the timeline of those first few years with Disney? You mentioned earlier that you were offered two jobs around the same time.
Before I said, “yes” to Disney Consumer Products, I took a test [at Feature Animation] to get in. It just happened that they just called right when I accepted a job. So my boss at the time [at DCP] was so cool. She used to work in Animation, and she said, “Steve, I get it, but I really feel that there’s something for you here.” She said, “Give me one year and if you still want to, or need to go over there, we’ll just make it happen.” And so I did my one year. I was really into it. And then, in an odd way, having that experience in the back of my head gave me a whole different perspective coming back here [to the Disney Store]—so I had this familiarity, but I also knew the Animation side a bit. And the only job I ever had in high school was at a Disney Store! So it’s just this been this weird ride—because I also had that experience working in the Store and seeing people come in, and what they reacted to, and what they were passionate about.
[After that initial year at DCP], I worked in Animation for probably a little more than 10 years. So I worked on quite a number of films [including The Hunchback of Notre Dame].
Any memories that stand out from those early years?
I remember, when I first started, sitting there at Disney drawing Disney characters and thinking, “This is actually happening.” And 18, 19 years later, I still feel like at any minute they’re gonna walk in and say, “What are you doing drawing here? Who are you?” I still feel like that kid who just started. [Also], the first time seeing my name in the credits on a film that I worked on—it was really an out-of-body experience.
And what about during your tenure at Disney Toon Studios?
I worked at Disney Toon Studios (DTS) on a couple of sequels—Little Mermaid 3 and Cinderella 3. [I had been] doing clean-up, “assistant” animation at Feature Animation. [They] were winding down on all their hand-drawn films, but I was obviously still drawing. And someone at DTS found out about all these drawings I was doing and said, “I think I want you to do some character design over here.” So I jumped at it.
What do you like most about your current job at the Disney Store?
It’s a twofold [answer]… One: I get to design things and make things that I’ve really always wanted. But bigger than that, is two: taking time out when I know new stuff is coming out in the Stores, and… pretending like you’re shopping, which I usually am because I buy things for family… And just taking time to listen to what people are saying about the product, or seeing kids get really excited about a new doll or some ornament or something. I think, “Wow, that’s gonna go home with them, and they’re gonna enjoy that—and if I’m lucky, they might hang on to that and pass that on to their kids.” It’s a nice thing to [witness], to see the experience that you’re passing that [joy] on… That’s my favorite. It’s really rewarding.
Who’s your favorite Disney character to draw?
Such a difficult question… I wonder if I could narrow it down. It’s definitely any of the Princesses, just as a category. I’ve been drawing them for so long, and I just became specialized in those characters. I mostly draw the classic characters—but then the “subcategory” would be the Princesses… If I had to narrow it down even further, probably Ariel and Belle. Those were the two films that came out right when I was mid-way through high school. Beauty and the Beast was right when I knew I was going to CalArts already. And so having those two modern fairy tales at a time where I was so clear about what I wanted to do and where I was headed… yeah, Ariel and Belle. I can’t pick!
What about your favorite Disney character or movie, in general?
Working here, everyone has their favorite character on their nametag and in meetings, when you’re introduced, you’re supposed to say, “My favorite character is…” But I always crumble because I love all of them! Every film has a special moment in time or a special memory attached to it. And then I get to work with so many of the characters on a regular basis, and there’s a real responsibility with that. So I think I need to love it all. And for as many years as I’ve been here, and as many more as I hope to still be, it’s always something new. And it’s always challenging, even when it’s revisiting a classic film. I’ll still laugh or cry in the same places I always have. I can’t really say there’s one that I don’t like. They’re all awesome!
You’ve now been at the Disney Store since 2005. Do you have a favorite memory?
There is a career “moment” that I absolutely cherish. I had the pleasure of working on the Disney Toddler “Animator” collection, which was all the Princesses, so automatically, I’m on board with that! And we worked on them with Glen Keane and Mark Henn [two legendary Disney animators], and I got to help translate their vision—[working] with the sculptor to make sure the “sculpts” looked like their drawings. I was in the same room as these people. Glen Keane is my absolute hero, and I never had the pleasure of working with him at Feature Animation. Plus, he just made me so nervous—this is my idol! He’s one of the reasons I do what I do. So when that project came to a close, he wanted to see the [Disney Store] building, he said, “I want to meet some of these people, and see what happens over here.” Because he really enjoyed the project as well. And he came and sat at my desk, like, literally, sat at my desk… for an hour! And just chatted, and talked about art and animation. And he was wondering why we had never worked together [at Feature Animation] and started telling me how beautiful he thought my drawings were—and how the work I was doing was inspiring. And he did a drawing of Ariel for me, and wrote on it, “Your work is inspiring. Ariel continues to live through you. Keep going!” And it literally made me want to cry. I couldn’t believe this was happening to me. And to have a mutual respect. I was no longer just someone approaching him like a fan. But he got to sit and check out what I was doing so it was more like talking to a peer. [He was] really passing on some wisdom [to me] and it was unbelievable!
What was it like the very first time you saw something you’d created in a Disney Store?
It was crazy! [The] first time I [saw something I'd designed in a Store], it was a snowglobe. They had said to me, “We need a Mickey Mouse snowglobe.” And I thought, “I’m going to do something that totally honors my former life [as an animator].” So it was this “passing of the torch” sort of [idea]; it had Mickey sitting at an animation desk, but it was a big mess—papers everywhere, trash can filled, coffee cups… like a real animation desk! So [Mickey] was in there, drawing—and on the desk. We made a decal out of a drawing I did, so it was Mickey was sitting there doing a drawing. I think that’s still one of my favorite things that I’ve designed here, just because it had all this personal meaning. And when I first saw that I ran to the Store, and it was on display, and then I got to have the experience of buying it and taking it home. It was thrilling, and it’s still thrilling. I was just at the Store last week, buying some stuff that I’ve worked on. And we have a full storage unit of stuff, I think!
Which Disney artists, past or present, inspire you?
Modern day, it’s Glen Keane, but going back further, there’s one artist that I just absolutely love. Her name is Mary Blair, and there’s something about her artwork that is so seemingly simplistic, but it’s so beautifully designed and colors like you’ve never seen before. When I was growing up, I always responded to her work. Like “storybook” art, I’ve always found it to be my biggest inspiration. [These two people are] two totally different artists, style-wise, but I always have them in mind when I’m working on stuff.
What’s your artistic process like?
It’s always been kind of the same, whether it’s been doing character design or product design. I never know what’s gonna come out on the paper. And when I think about it too hard, it looks labored over. If I have a full trashcan, it’s because I thinking too hard about it. So I usually throw down some paper on my desk, and just start doing these little scribbly thumbnails. And it looks like a secret language—I’m sure, if someone walked by—until you look closer, and you can totally see these little, simple shapes. And I’ll just keep doing ‘em until I land on something where I think, “This is it, this is exactly what I want.” So I’ll go up, old school, to the Xerox machine and make it larger and throw down another sheet of paper and start really figuring it out. I’ll do a lot of visual research, maybe, before I start thumb-nailing—just to get an idea. [Staying] true to the film and the characters [is important], and letting that dictate the type of product you design for those characters. So it’s not this “cookie cutter” approach to the stuff that I do. It’s always story-based. And that really is going through my head as the pencil’s hitting the paper.
From start to finish, how long does it typically take to get a product into the Stores?
I think, depending on what it is. Sometimes I just do character art for apparel, and that has a shorter time-span [in production]. So six to eight months, maybe. [Those] can be a lot quicker. For a project like the Disney Villains Designer Collection, probably 12 to 16 months because there’s a lot of exploration going on and it’s just a longer process. We usually work on three, sometimes four seasons’ worth of product all at the same time. So sometimes, you think, “Wait, what season am I in? What year?” And that’s all happening at the same time! Somehow it all gets done.
What are some of the day-to-day challenges you face?
I think it’s just always feeling, for myself, that I’m representing the characters properly—and that I’m not just thinking, “Y’know, I’m having a bad day, and so I don’t care.” You really have to care, because if you don’t, it doesn’t resonate with an audience. For me, that would be heartbreaking.
Can you talk about anything you’re currently working on?
In an abstract way! [laughs] I’m currently working on all the ornaments for Christmas 2013. We’re already in concept stage. I think that’s the biggest thing I’m working on right now. I’ve been doing ornaments every year since I got here. My tree [at home] is crazy [and] it’s pretty exciting to see kids’ reactions to it, especially. But we usually do about 60 new ones every year, so it’s a big task. Those are all of those little storytelling moments and a chance to work on characters that aren’t represented all the time. It’s not tied into a DVD release or a film release or something new. It’s just these pure Disney moments that are captured on your tree. There’s exciting stuff coming up too—new films, new projects, that always end up on Disney Store shelves. We let people know as soon as we possibly can.
What would be a dream project for you?
It might sound kinda cheesy, but I get to work on them already. I feel like I’m living the “Disney dream.” When a new film comes out, I might not be working on the film [itself], but we’re there, meeting with the filmmakers, developing our product right as they’re finalizing the characters and doing story. So even though, at the moment, hand-drawn animation has taken a side-step, I still have a toe in that world. And I’m representing the films in a different way. It’s the new film projects that get me really excited, because I know what they’re going through—trying to get that film out, and we’re on a similar path.
Can you tell us how the Disney Villains Designer Collection came to be?
Well last year, everything started with the Disney Princess Designer Collection, and it was my first time being approached to work on a series of dolls. It was an exciting challenge. They said, “We want to do a line of high-fashion Princess dolls” and I’m such a Disney purist, I thought, “What do you mean? You can’t change these characters!” They started looking at old Vogue magazine illustrations, and thought this could be really [great]. It just takes me a minute to wrap my head around it. Because once I got into it, I absolutely loved it, and I loved the way they were turning out. It was such a huge success—I mean, talk about rewarding! That was the first time I [went] out to the D23 Expo, doing an artist signing with the designer that I’d worked with—her name is Sang Plumlee, and she does our entire doll design. It was a really huge success, and we sat back for a minute and thought, “What are we gonna do next?” And the Villains seemed like the perfect counterpart to balance out all the Princess stuff. After we decided we were gonna do it, I went onto some fan blogs and read what people were thinking and there was already some speculation. So we knew there was an appetite for it, which made everyone feel like we were going down the right path.
What was the Villains Designer Collection design process like?
We took a slightly different approach than we did with the Princesses. The Princess art was really pretty and based on something really familiar. We kept the same sort of fashion/illustration thing for the Villains also, but I think we pushed the envelope a little bit further. A few of the characters don’t look like how they do in the film[s], exactly—the dolls are more like a fashion sketch come to life. [It's] not a literal translation of the character from the film [just] wearing a different dress. It’s more like the designer’s expression of how you feel when you see Maleficent, or Cruella, or Ursula and I think we stayed really true to the essence of the character.
So the Princesses were a little more literal, the Villains were a little more figurative,but a lot of research went into each character. People seem to be really responding to it, and I’m already seeing “fan art” versions. Someone else is taking my drawing, and doing their version of mine, but in different poses. That’s what’s so cool about the Internet! I think that kind of interaction with the fans keeps us excited, and it could potentially inspire. I might see something that they’re doing that inspires me, and it’s just this natural, organic process of being open and inspired by awesome things.
Anything else you want the readers of D23.com to know?
If there’s anyone out there that is growing up and draws, and potentially thinks they’re wasting their time, [they should know] there are these jobs that people have. You can do something with your art! If you’re really passionate about it—whatever it is—for me it was drawing, for someone else it might be singing or dancing. Just being creative, and being passionate about what you do, you’ll never get bored at a job. I never want to come home and think, “Ugh, my job, I do it because I have to.” I do it because I want to, and I love it, and that’s because I followed my passion and didn’t let anybody tell me I couldn’t do it. That’s the universal message.
By D23′s Courtney Potter