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My life's journey as an artist... by Tao Nguyen

I was born in Laos in 1970 and had immigrated to the United States at an early age. Raised mainly in Oregon, it was the end of my senior year in high school that I knew I wanted to become an artist. It was right after seeing 'Who Framed Roger Rabbit?' in the movie theater that inspired me to become a Disney animator. After my high school graduation, I moved to southern California and started my journey as an artist.


As soon as I moved down to California, I landed a job working at Disneyland as a cashier. (It wasn't Disney Feature Animation but hey, at least it had the word 'Disney' in it. Ha ha!) While working at Disneyland, I applied to California Institute of the Arts (aka Cal-Arts)- up in Valencia, California-- the same school that Walt Disney himself help start up! It was the second time I applied and I was finally accepted into the school of film and video! (I had applied a year earlier and was devastated when I got the rejection letter up in Oregon.)


CAL-ARTS (1990-1992)

After having worked for Disneyland for exactly one full year- I headed up to Valencia, California and started my training as an animation film student. Funny how I felt like a small fish in the big pond because there were so many talented students! (Back home, I was the 'great' artist! Ha ha!) Not only did I learned from my instructors (who were also working professionals in the industry), but I learned from my fellow classmates as well. During my second year at Cal-Arts, I learned that it's not how many degrees you have that can land you a job in the animation business but your talent alone that can get you in, so me an a few other students left after our second year.



Life after Cal-Arts was a bit of a struggle for me. It was me and three of my fellow classmates from Cal-Arts who shared a two bedroom apartment in Burbank, California. All my roommates got jobs in the animation industry while I was trying my hand in the 'live-action' side. (As you may not know, back at Cal-Arts, I wanted to be a 'live-action' film director and almost left the animation department.) Well, I was fortunate to get a job at Paramount Studios as a 'page' doing whatever the studio needed. I did that for about a little over a year and then became a production assistant on a local tv show called 'Live in L.A.'.- located right the middle of Hollywood. After a few months as a P.A., I was getting stressed and very depressed with my job, so I started looking else where in Hollywood for any kind of production job. And then it hit me--- 'Why not go back to what you love and went to college for?'... and that was returning back to animation.



I wished I could start off by saying my first animation job was working for Disney... but that was far from the case. (In reality, it took me 7 years to get into Walt Disney Feature Animation! Lol) After having left the 'live-action' side, I got a job as a cashier working in a small book shop in Burbank. One day while reading the Hollywood reporter- I saw an ad that a small video game company (located in Glendale and just a few minutes from where I lived) needed an clean-up animator. So I went there directly and they gave me a drawing test right on the spot. I passed! It was my first real steady full-time animation job! Whoo-hoo! (I have had several small freelance animation jobs before but nothing steady and  full-time.) I quit my book store job and started doing clean up animation for this small company that launched my art career. (The company was called '7th Level' and the head of the animation department was the great Dan Kuenster-- who was also a big time animator and storyboard artist at Don Bluth Studios. BTW: He co-directed 'All Dogs Go To Heaven' and 'Rock-A-Doodle'!) During my employment at 7th Level, my heart was still set on working for Disney. So I started taking night figure drawing classes and freelancing as much as I could to build up my resume and experiences. After about a year and a half- I landed my first feature animation gig- I was a freelance efx inbetweener for Warner Bros. on the movie- 'Space Jam'!!! (Unfortunately I did not get a film credit on the movie because I didn't meet the hours required, but it did, however give me something to put on my resume!) Working on 'Space Jam' gave me the confidence to say- 'I can run with the big boys!' sort to speak. Ha ha! It was a good thing I was doing what I was doing, because one day and unexpectedly- I got laid off from 7th Level. They were slowly closing down. I felt devastated again. Not only was I losing my job, but my friends who were like family!



In less than two weeks after being laid off from 7th Level- I landed another animation job and on a feature film too!- My first feature film credit: Paramount Pictures' 'The Beautician and the Beast' starring Fran Dresher and Timothy Dalton. I was working at a small studio called Baer Animation Studios (known to take on extra work for Disney Feature Animation when needed) and I was the Clean-Up Supervisor! Even though it was a short gig and because it was not a full length feature animated movie, it looked pretty good on my resume! When that production was coming to an end, I applied at Warner Bros. Feature Animation and was offered a full-time job working on my second feature film- 'The Quest for Camelot'. I was an assistant clean-up animator working on the Griffon character. Now, I felt like I really made it this time!


All good things must come to an end... even at Warner Bros. At the end of  'The Quest for Camelot' production, I was once again laid off! Not wanting to deal with reality, I decided to go to the Philippines for a long vacation and deal with it when I come back. After my little get away, I applied to DreamWorks (who was currently working on 'The Price of Egypt') and Disney (who had multiple animated film productions going on). WELL GUESS WHAT?!!! On a cold chilly December day- I got a phone call from Walt Disney Feature Animation studios offering me a job! It was a short term gig to help them finish up 'Fantasia 2000'! I was a clean-up inbetweener working on the 'Firebird' sequence. I was in tears when I told my mom the good news- 'I made it! I made it! I'm a Disney animator!!!" (Here's a funny little story on my first day on the job at Disney- I was pulled into my supervisor's office with another guy they just hired. He said to the both of us- "I want to congratulate and welcome the both of you. There were two thousand applicants... and you two are it!" Lol



Now, I really felt like I made it big! Having worked on three feature films and having Disney in my resume. I felt unstoppable!... Until reality hit me once more when the production of 'Fantasia 2000' came to an end. Now where to? Can't go back to WB and Disney is letting me go. Funny how one of my supervisors was pretty upset that Disney was letting me go-- so she called up the head of Clean-up at DreamWorks (who happens to be one of her closest friend and was also Disney's rival at that time) and GUESS WHAT?!!! I'm off to DreamWorks Feature Animation studios (located just minutes away from Disney!) to work on the production of 'The Prince of Egypt'!) I later went on to work on DreamWorks' second animated feature film- 'The Road to El Dorado' at their newly built studio in Glendale, California. And that's the story of my animation journey- hopping from one studio to another and from project to project. I have worked my way up to 15 feature film credits and don't believe it's quite over yet. Even though I live far away from Hollywood, I still believe there is more to come. I thank God for the amazing journey He's given me and I look forward to what He has in stored.


Thanks for letting me share my story.


Tao Nguyen's 15 Feature Film Credits:

For Disney: Fantasia 2000, Atlantis: The Lost Empire, Treasure Planet, The Lion King,

Home On The Range, The Princess and the Frog (6 total)

Warner Bros.: The Quest For Camelot, The Iron Giant, Looney Tunes Back In Action (3 total)

DreamWorks: The Prince of Egypt, The Road to El Dorado, Sinbad: Voyage of the Seven Seas (3 total)

Paramount Pictures: The Beautician and the Beast, The SpongeBob Squarepants Movie (2 total)

Universal Studios: The Curious George Movie (1)


I am currently happily working as an independent artist in Orlando, Florida. I enjoy and love doing my own personal paintings and illustrative works. I wish any artists out there great success and thank those who have been a fan and supporter. Take care all and God bless!

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