Pen in hand, Chris Williams sits bent over at his mother’s kitchen table in Sidney, sketching out cartoons and characters, an echo of endless artistic afternoons as a three-year-old.
The Oscar resting on the table, however, is new.
Co-director of Disney’s hugely successful Big Hero 6, Williams took home an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature in February, and was inundated with a frenzy of media and parties immediately after, from international entertainment news to the Vanity Fair shindig.
“And then, it all just stopped,” he says.
Asked about the experience, Williams still seems slightly stunned by the whole thing.
“It’s very surreal and exciting,” says Williams during a visit to mom Betty’s condo in Sidney. “But I think I’ve settled into the reality of the situation. I’m happiest mostly for the crew. Directors always get way too much credit for their work.”
His humble nature is clearly genuine as he explains how there can be close to 500 people working on a film at Disney Animation Studios and each crew member has just as much ownership in the film’s success.
Crew will also jump around from project to project, depending on where they’re needed.
“Everyone has to be willing to drop what they’re doing and help someone else with their project,” he says.
A three-time director, longtime storyboard artist and virtually everything in between, Williams has been involved in nearly every step of the movie process over his two-decade long career with Disney, and as much of an honour as it was to win the Oscar, he doesn’t expect the award to change his day to day routines at the office.
“What would make a big impact on my career is if I started acting like a guy who’d just won an Oscar,” he laughs. “I’ve been at Disney Animation for 20 years. Everybody already knows me, and knows my strengths and weaknesses.”
“I’m very loyal to my boss (John Lasseter) and he’s very loyal to us,” he adds.
Working for Disney is a much different environment than most other film projects, in that it’s less of a freelance venture, and it’s extremely collaborative, says Williams.
“You’ve got this great buffer of so many people around you,” he says.
And in that same vein, there’s also a great deal of trust.
“You make yourself very vulnerable by pitching an idea or storyline that you love, and then you have to stop and sit down immediately and turn that off, and hear what other people have to say about it,” says Williams.
“The line between what you do and who you are becomes very fuzzy, and you have to listen and you have to be receptive.”
It’s when that feedback challenges your ideas that the project most often becomes stronger, he adds.
It’s human nature to crave approval, and we all like to get the gold star, but surrounding yourself with people who just tell you how great you are can kill a creative career, he says.
“You have to actively encourage people to disagree with you if that’s how they feel. You always benefit from that. The critical thing is actively fostering an environment where people can give each other honest feedback.”
It’s that honest environment that has no doubt contributed to Williams being as grounded and humble as he is, but being the parent of two young children likely also has a little to do with it.
The weeks leading up to the Oscars were a blur of activity and awards shows, he says.
“There were awards that you’ve never heard of, that I’d never heard of until I was attending them.”
“(The kids) would come into the bedroom in the morning and ask if we won, and they’d want to see the trophy or whatever, and then they’d want me to make them breakfast,” he says with a grin.
Williams certainly has a strong family support base, and it’s clear he’s just as dedicated to them. In fact, one of the first thoughts that ran through his head when Big Hero 6 won was for his mother.
“I knew it would mean a lot for my mom,” he says. “She was the one who got us all into the Academy Awards when we were young.”
“Coming here was perfect. And I’m enjoying the peace and quiet of Sidney for sure,” he adds.
After the Sidney visit, Williams was off to the mainland for some more family time before heading back to L.A. to rest up for a couple weeks.
And he’ll need the downtime, because come mid-April, it’s back to the drawing board for the Oscar-winner.