Disney's New World
Issue: Volume 37 Issue 3: (May/Jun 2014)

Disney's New World

Many a young boy or girl has sketched and painted scenes from a Disney movie, using memorable characters such as Peter Pan, Snow White, Mickey and Minnie Mouse, Donald, and Goofy to hone their skills and create their own personal magic, all the while dreaming of someday becoming a professional Disney artist. It's a dream that very few ever realize.

Those chosen to be fine artists for Disney must be skillful and creative, and have a deep understanding of these cherished characters and their worlds. Most importantly, they must maintain the magical essence of the characters and commit that magic to canvas. This is a tall order for painters, a nearly impossible task for digital artists who must overcome the inherent aesthetic barriers of their medium, particularly when their subjects are treasured characters born into traditional worlds. Joel Payne overcame that barrier, using a hybrid technique that blends the traditional and digital to generate breathtaking artwork as a Disney fine artist. 

Here, Payne discusses the responsibilities of this exclusive position and his artistic achievements that led him to the House of Mouse.

What is your exact title at Disney?  

Contract artist for Acme Archives, licensed for fine art from Disney, Fox, DreamWorks, and other studio properties.

How did you become a Disney artist?

It was approximately a yearlong process, during which I submitted my work and hoped my paintings were deemed worthy of Disney's high standards. I was required to paint a wide variety of different images to show off my style.

Has this always been a life dream?

Ever since I was 5 years old, absolutely!

Tell me about your art career.

I started in the game industry in 1993 at age 21, doing artwork on the very first Heroes of Might and Magic. The game still continues on today and has eight spin-offs. Early on, I had a brush with Disney working with Walt Disney Imagineering as a ride track designer and environment artist for the ride 'Virtual Jungle Cruise,' still in operation today, and later was the creative lead for Steven Spielberg's 'Sky Pirates' ride, Gameworks' crown jewel.

In 2000, I joined Foundation Imaging, designing 3D sets for Starship Troopers and Max Steel, a number-one rated cartoon on the Warner Bros. network. I've worked on several notable triple-A game titles, including Baldur's Gate Dark Alliance, Mortal Kombat: Shaolin Monks, and Silent Hill: Homecoming. In 2009, I returned to my roots in filmmaking by building the first real-time digital re-creation of the Back to the Future courtyard, a true virtual backlot for Universal Studios Hollywood. The project consisted of film-quality and real-time 3D re-creations of the world-famous facades. This historic and groundbreaking project is Universal's first step into the digital backlot realm and is dubbed the 'Smart Stage.'

What inspired you to get into art and 3D?

I was working on Jurassic Park doing props. I saw the movie...need I say more?

Describe your art style, pre-Disney.

Well, ever since I could remember picking up a paintbrush in school, there never was a pre-Disney moment. Pinocchio was the first painting I ever did. So you could say Disney created me, and it's been in my blood as far back as I can remember. One of my fans coined the title, 'painter of believable fantasy.' It stuck because it blurs the lines between the two worlds of real and imagined.

Tell us about your recent business venture.

In 2009, I co-created the growums.com project as creative director, for which I produced 100 CG cartoon shorts, voiced many of the main characters, and developed around 75 original CG characters that teach children how to grow vegetable gardens. (See "Seed Money" in the February/March 2012 issue of CGW.) I'm not an animator, but I took a stab at it, and midway through the project, I realized I was kind of reliving Walt's early animation life. Walt, as most know, was the voice of Mickey. Later, my characters were turned into full-size walk-around characters that appear at various state fairs and events around the country. It's been surreal seeing something that was in my head, walking around hugging little kids. It's an insight to Walt's life that I've been privileged to have experienced myself.

How does it feel to be a Disney artist?

There is a tremendous amount of respect and responsibility I must take into account to make sure that every painting I create lives up to the vision, storytelling, magic, and quality that Walt Disney established decades ago. In short, it's the greatest job in the world.

As a Disney artist, what do you do?

My goal is to focus on the Disney classics and add my 'believable' angle to it. So, if Snow White's world were a real place, I imagine returning to that land with an HDRI camera to capture a little bit more detail, color, and lighting, while keeping the original flavor that we all fell in love with.

How much latitude do you have in your work?  

Approvals are strict, but the studio has to be consistent with its branding and protect its considerable investment in the various characters.

What are the disadvantages of being a Disney artist?

It's not really a disadvantage, but their standards are very, very high, which makes artists work really hard, but then, not everyone can be officially painting Disney!

Is it tough having the responsibility of upholding the Disney brand?  

Yes. It's a team effort - Acme, Disney, and me.

How has your work been received?

Feedback from fans have been extraordinary, and it pushes me to outdo myself with each one.

Tell us about your pieces for Disney.

I had to invent a new medium in order to achieve the look for my work. It's a combination of traditional oil painting techniques, where I paint all the textures and characters on small 8x10 mini canvases, then scan those hand-painted elements and apply them to 3D modeled scenes in [Autodesk] Maya. After extensive lighting, modeling, and texturing, I render that out and add more detail in [Adobe] Photoshop. Once that stage is complete, I bring the image into Corel Painter and add even more detail while blending the 3D hard edges the software created, getting them in line with the oil-painted textures. After all those steps are complete, it gets printed on canvas and then I add at least 50 percent coverage of real paint, providing even more detail to the painting. Yes, it's complicated. Each one takes about a month, sometimes two, to create. The result is a painting with more contrast, detail, and vibrant color than anything I could produce in oils alone, and yet still has that painterly feel to it.

Is it difficult transforming traditional 2D characters (and some 3D characters) living on film and moving them to a 2D canvas?

It's always a challenge making sure you live up to the quality Disney has presented to the world, but my struggle has been, and will remain, How do I tell an exciting story that lives up to what you felt when you fell in love with the movie? I try my best to continue that magic.

What makes these pieces so appealing?

Everyone tells me it's the level of detail and color. I'd like to think it's the attention to detail. I really scrutinize every inch.

Where can someone buy your work?

By searching my name at www.acmearchives­direct.com. Fans can also say hello at www.Facebook.com/JCPArt.

Do you have any advice for artists out there?

I don't want this to sound like a cliché, but the truth is, if you set your mind to something, you really can achieve anything. The trick is, don't give up. This dream of mine started at age 5. I'm 42 now, so it took a while, but my dreams came true. As Walt once said, 'Stop talking and start doing.

Karen Moltenbrey is the chief editor of CGW.