South Carolina School of the Arts at Anderson University

Dorien Gunnels: From AU to Disney Animator

If you’ve watched animated movies from Sony, Pixar, DreamWorks and others, you’ve probably seen the work of a former Anderson University student without realizing it.

For Dorien Gunnels, Anderson University was foundational on so many levels, equipping him to bring to life amazing scenes and characters on the big screen. He recently transitioned to Disney Animation Studios, where he’ll manage a creative team.


Congratulations on your new role with Disney Animation Studios. Tell us about that.

I'll be a lighting supervisor at Disney Animation Studios where I'll be managing a team of lighting artists working together to deliver final-rendered shots for various film and TV projects.

Lighting teams are usually comprised of lead lighters and shot lighters. The lead will establish the overall lighting setup used to light a sequence—a group of shots that share a common location and story point. The shot lighters take that setup and massage it into place for each shot.

Let’s pick a movie like Pixar's Coco. There’s a sequence I worked on where Miguel finds himself in a graveyard surrounded by a crowd of glowing skeletons. As a lead, your task is to say, “OK, where are my light sources? How would I make the skeletons glow? How do I make a scalable solution that works across all shots to make sure we have consistency? Is the setup flexible enough for the shot lighter to have the freedom needed to easily balance each shot properly?”

The lead is in charge of putting together the nuts and bolts, while shot lighters underneath the lead are responsible for taking that lighting setup and actually implementing it on a per-shot basis. At the end of the day, the shot lighters deliver the final frames you see in the film.

The supervisor conducts the orchestra. Depending on the project, a supervisor will be tasked with anything from assigning shots, giving notes during dailies, helping with technical issues, and presenting the teams work to the art directors.

 

Managing creative people has got to be a special kind of challenge in itself.

It can definitely be challenging because everyone has an opinion on how something should go. In a world where really there is no wrong answer, how do you come out with a great product that is consistent? The idea is to make sure everyone feels satisfied with their job. People need to feel that they have a seat at the table. Their opinions matter and are heard, if not outright implemented.

I’ve been in that situation as an artist before—we’ll take Coco again—where I had some ideas for that skeletal sequence. Another lead had taken a pass at developing the look for the skeletons. After looking at concept art, I had some ideas that could expand on the work. I presented those proposals to the director of photography. She liked some of them, while others she didn't. Even though not everything I suggested got implemented, I felt like I was a part of that process instead of just an extension of someone telling me how to move my hand.

 

Yes, creatives are least likely to want to be micromanaged.

Micromanaging is a great way to burn goodwill. Eventually you need to get into the details like move this highlight on the eye just a couple of pixels to the left, adjust the color of the fill light slightly and so on, but if you get into it too early, the artists feel too micromanaged and you’ll have a mutiny on your hands. We're all professionals, and lighters will still address the notes. But eventually, creative fatigue and burnout can set in if the artists don't feel heard.

 

How did you first become interested in creating movies?

The whole thing started when I saw Toy Story in the theater as a kid. With it being the first fully computer-generated feature film, I remember being so excited seeing these characters come to life in full 3D. The 1990s were a really exciting time for movies. Just before Toy Story, movies like Jurassic Park and Terminator 2 came out. These were major landmark films that were absolutely blowing everyone away and the computer graphics still hold up today.

In fourth grade, I remember filling out a “letter to your future self.” We had to describe what we wanted to be when you grow up. I wrote that I wanted to be a “CG animator” at Pixar. That’s before I knew what all the different departments did. I had no clue! But the seed was definitely planted by those early/mid-90s films.

My mom also used to take me to the Greenville Planetarium at Roper Mountain. I really enjoyed astronomy as a kid, but they would also show tech demos of the actual planetarium system. They'd project abstract animations and wireframe meshes dancing all over the place, usually to Jean Michael Jarre music. I thought it was really cool. I wanted to do that! I just didn’t know in what capacity or how to approach that career path.

 

Share an example of your early work.

My parents used to run a videography business filming anything from weddings to court depositions with one of those giant cameras you'd mount on your shoulder. You had to work out just to lift the camera! At the time, I really loved the show Gumby. It was all stop motion animation—you take clay and make it move. I was like, “How do they do that?!” My mom showed me. “You take a picture, move it a little bit, take another picture, move it a little bit, take another picture. If you play it all back, the character moves.”

I modeled a little duck out of clay and made a pond out of construction paper. My mom set up the video camera on a tripod pointed at a little scene I made, and she showed me which buttons to press to record and stop. We would literally hit record, stop, record, stop as fast as possible, because you couldn’t frame-by-frame those cameras. But it worked! When we watched the tape,  the duck was swimming around the pond.

 

How did you decide on Anderson University?

I knew I wanted to go into animation, but I wasn’t sure how. At the time, there wasn’t a clear career path. I wasn't sure which colleges had reputable programs specifically for VFX and Animation but knew no matter what, I'd need a solid artistic foundation. I knew AU had a great foundational program and a wonderful graphic design curriculum. I applied and was lucky enough to get a scholarship.

The professors at AU were very supportive and were wonderful mentors. I learned a lot in class, but also they gave real career advice. Since I was always very set on wanting to work in the animation industry, we talked through the idea of me transferring to another college with a dedicated animation program. I'm not sure how many colleges or professors would be comfortable having a conversation that blunt! Even though I transferred and didn't graduate from AU, it was extremely important to my career.

 

Working through a pandemic, there have been some adjustments, right?

Definitely! The biggest adjustment has been work from home. This would've been impossible pre-pandemic.

For me, I was at Sony working on Over the Moon when we transitioned to work-from-home.  After that, DreamWorks figured out how to let me work remotely from Canada for The Bad Guys. Then I moved to The Third Floor, where I helped to develop a workflow delivering feature animation using Unreal Engine.

I think the biggest thing our industry learned is that artists can work remotely and be just as productive as they were when commuting to the studio every day. It absolutely feels like a different world of possibilities.

 

Tell me about how you got into professionally working with animated features.

This is a small industry where word of mouth and your network matters a lot.

One of my friends a year ahead of me got a job at DreamWorks just after he graduated. When I was applying for jobs, he mentioned DreamWorks was hiring and gave my name to his supervisor.

Think about a supervisor with a stack of 500 demo reels and resumes to go through. Anything they can do to whittle that stack down as quickly as possible helps. Professional recommendations make it easier to know when to look at an application more closely. I went through five interviews. Zoom wasn't a thing yet, so they booked time in a videoconferencing facility. I was at the end of a long conference table, and they were on this huge screen at the other end. Honestly, it was really nerve wracking!

I was also interviewing with Pixar for their lighting internship. Their interviews were all by phone, but I lived in a slight reception dead zone. I decided the best place for the big call was the middle of the backyard where I knew I had the best reception. A couple minutes into the interview, I started hearing the “Beep, beep, beep!” of a backhoe being driven in my neighbor's yard. On top of that, poor reception meant I started breaking up. At least it broke the ice a bit when they laughed and asked, “Are you at a construction site?”

I was lucky enough to be offered both the Pixar internship and the DreamWorks job. Although Pixar was my literal dream company, I went with DreamWorks. But when I went to Pixar five years later, I ended up working closely with people from that initial “construction site” call.

 

Let’s talk about your specialty of lighting design.

Anderson University is where I built on my love for photography and painting. I took a film photography class where I got to spend time in the darkroom. Jane Dorn had graphic design assignments to go around and take pictures of various bits of graphic design around town. She taught me so much about balance, composition, and storytelling through still images. I was absolutely inspired by those assignments. Painting classes with Kanaris were the first time I had to think through how light specifically interacts with a composition. I knew I wanted to work in animation, but I chose to specialize in lighting because that's about as close to painting and photography as I could get.

Even in animated films, we try to ground things in at least a little bit of reality. Digital lights are programmed to interact with the scene the same way a real light would work. We model camera imperfections like lens flares, distortion, and aberration. It all grounds everything in the language we speak before you ever hit a computer.

 

At the end of the day, what gives you the greatest sense of accomplishment?

My greatest sense of accomplishment comes from feeling like I'm a part of a process, working with a team to create something much larger and more complicated than I could possibly create on my own. These projects are appreciated by more people than I could ever reach by myself.

 

What kind of advice would you give someone who wants to do what you’re doing?

Be open to opportunities when they come. Do what you can to make sure you can say “Yes!” when the opportunity that you want comes around. Luck will always play a part in anyone's overall success, so the best thing you can do is to try to help luck along.

In my case, I went to AU, took as many foundational classes as I could, and learned painting, photography, and graphic design. Eventually I went to SCAD for more technical aspects of visual effects. In the end, I had a clearly focused portfolio and was able to talk about my work. When a job interview did come around, I could hit the ground running and I was confident enough to land the gig.

dorien gunnels
Dorien Gunnels
Title: Lighting Supervisor, Disney Animation Studios