“The Present” Artist Jacob Frey: From Film Student to Disney Animator

When Jacob Frey first thought about attending Filmakademie, a highly-respected film school in his home country of Germany, he was an underdog. He didn’t have the prior experience in the field typically required of applicants. Instead, he had a reputation for barely passing his classes and a lack of motivation.

After watching early Pixar movies like Finding Nemo, however, Jacob took an interest in animation and went from a self-described “terrible” student to a motivated one on a mission: he was going to get his high school diploma and study film. Jacob was accepted to Filmakademie in 2007 and began studying character animation.

Today, Jacob is an award-winning director and character animator for Walt Disney Animation. After it was released online in 2016, his short film “The Present” (2014) went viral on social media, and has since been viewed over 150 million times. His credits as an animator include Disney’s Zootopia and Moana, as well as Illumination Entertainment’s The Secret Life of Pets. He also worked as a character animator for London-based Magic Light Pictures, where he animated on the Oscar-nominated short “Room on the Broom”.

The Present from Jacob Frey on Vimeo.

We spoke with Jacob by email about how he went from a film student in Germany to an animator for Disney, his creative process, and how he sees animation evolving in the future.

Cailin: To people like us who aren’t familiar with the process of animation, it’s especially incredible to look through your reels from “The Present,” Zootopia, Moana, and The Secret Life of Pets, and try to imagine how you turn ideas into realistic visual art the way that you do. How would you explain the process of animation to someone who doesn’t know how it works?

Jacob Frey: Computer animation involves a lot of steps. That’s why it’s also such a highly collaborative environment. You can make a film all by yourself, but it will, first of all, take you a very long time, and second of all, it is very hard to master all fields of it. Usually people specialize in certain fields. During my studies in Germany I chose “character animation,” the actual movement and actions of a character. Your character is like an action figure—you can look at it from all angles and start moving joint after joint to get the pose you want for your shot. In the end there is a certain number of images per second, usually 24. These images, put in sequence, then create the feel of a movement. Every finger, mouth shape, or even the shape of an eye is usually hand crafted, which is why it takes a lot of time to pose a character.

Knowing how to draw is usually a big plus; this way you already know a lot about how to achieve strong poses and appeal within the character’s expressions. But for computer animation it is not necessary [to have experience drawing].

Making “The Present” took us one year and four months of working on it seven days a week, from morning ’til late hours at night. It’s sometimes a little absurd seeing the result of your work rush by in a few seconds or minutes on the screen, and then thinking of how much work and sweat went into making it. Seeing the reactions of your audience, though, makes all the work worthwhile.

Hannah: I remember when the “The Present” first went viral online back in early 2016, everyone was saying, “Disney needs to hire this guy!” And they did! How soon after the short was released did you hear from Disney, and how did the conversation go from there?

JF: The short film actually was finished in 2014 and went on a festival circuit for quite a while. During that time, I started freelancing across Europe. At a visual effects conference in Stuttgart, Germany, I met with recruiters from Disney and showed them some of my work, including “The Present”. They were definitely impressed by the quality, and told me I would be an ideal candidate to apply for their Talent Development Program as an animator. So I put together a reel with a compilation of projects I worked on as an animator, and also included clips from my own short film. However, I didn’t send in the film itself. Since I was specifically applying for a character animator position, they want to see how well I can animate. So, it was important to show a variety of different styles and projects I worked on.

After months of not hearing back, I got an offer to work in Paris on The Secret Life of Pets. I hadn’t heard back from Disney at that time, and, afraid I might wait too long and in the end have no job at all, I accepted and moved to Paris. One week into the job, after I had just moved countries, Disney wrote me and told me I got a position [in Los Angeles] for the Talent Development Program. A little bit of a dilemma, but also an opportunity I had to grab. So I talked to the production team at Illumination, and everyone was super supportive. I ended up staying there for a couple of months until I moved to Los Angeles.

When I started at Disney, my short film hadn’t been released online yet. It was still touring on festivals. At that time, almost no one in the studio really knew that I actually direct films myself. Once I released the film online in early 2016—that’s when people actually started approaching me at work. So the whole “This guy got a job at Disney after making this movie” thing is only partially true, because while it helped me to get attention among the recruiters, it wasn’t really the reason I got accepted. What counted there was the quality and variety in my animations. You can actually check out the video I used to apply for the “Talent Development Program” on my Vimeo account under Jacob Frey.

Animation Reel / 2014 from Jacob Frey on Vimeo.

C: Whether or not it was the buzz of the video alone that first drew Disney’s attention, I think that seeing the film bring you so much success was especially inspiring to so many because it really shows how the internet can be used to share your passion and skill with people you otherwise might not have reached. It is a huge testament to the idea that the internet isn’t just for people playing around anymore—it can be used to generate real opportunities. That being said, these days it’s so easy to look at what everyone else is doing all the time because it’s all being uploaded to the internet. Do you think this stirs up competition that results in better work? Or does it make it more difficult to stand out?

JF: Having the internet is such a great thing. Without it I would have never found Fabio’s comic strip, and wouldn’t have been able to learn animation as quickly as I did. For me the internet is a great resource to learn and get inspired. To be honest, I haven’t seen it as something that makes things more competitive. But I guess that depends on each person’s approach to their work. I don’t mind spending countless hours on my projects, simply because I love doing it. I didn’t make any of them to become successful or to make money with it. That’s why I also don’t see the internet as a place for competition. The internet success that came with releasing “The Present” online was almost scary for me at first. It was a lot of attention that I wasn’t used to. Hundreds of people start adding me on Facebook and I got a flood of emails. It’s super flattering to receive these responses, and I tried to answer every single one of them, but after a while it became almost impossible. To my mind, you shouldn’t approach projects with the idea of standing out or creating something that goes viral. You should work on something that you believe in and that drives you personally. Because if that isn’t the case, you won’t be willing to invest that extra bit of work it takes. I am also usually not a fan of my own work. And looking back on them I often see things I would have done differently today. But these moments are precious to me, because I knew I did the best I could [at the time]. And seeing things I would do differently today shows me that I have grown in my craft.

H: Do you feel like as an animator you’re more in tune with the subtleties of people’s facial expressions and movements than the average person? I’d imagine when you’re animating a person or animal you think a lot about how “big” or subtle or somewhere in between an expression has to be to convey a particular emotion.

C: It’s almost like as an animator, you have to include subtleties that the average person wouldn’t even notice in order to make a realistic film.

JF: I guess as an animator you train your eyes a lot. It’s funny, but already on one of my older projects, “BOB,” people commented with, “This looks like a Disney movie.” And to me it clearly did not look like that at all. There’s a huge difference in terms of the quality of the animation. And because I deal with it on a daily basis, I might see things a little differently. But in general I am also extremely self-critical with my work.

When I animated the dog in “The Present,” for example, I didn’t have to take any reference, simply because I am so used to being around dogs, and I think I know how they behave and move. When we finished the film, we actually filmed my own dog rolling on the ground and it almost mirrored one of the shots in “The Present”. In a side-by-side comparison, it looks like I used the shot as a reference, but in fact I animated it first and then my dog happened to do the exact move himself. A lot of my friends asked me whether it was hard to animate a quadruped character, but to me it was actually pretty easy, simply because I am so used to being around a dog.

H: “The Present” was based on a Portuguese comic strip. Obviously, you have an eye for seeing something fleshed out in another medium and seeing the potential for it to be translated well into an animated piece. Are you always on the lookout for creative inspiration in real life? Like, if we went to Starbucks with you, would you be looking around at the other people and the particular way they sip their coffee and taking mental notes?

JF: I definitely notice myself doing that more often nowadays. When I first started out with animation, I was more concerned about learning the software and the principals of animation. Even though I still keep learning these aspects on a daily basis, I have gotten more confident in the tools and how to animate something. Now I find myself more worried about acting choices and sincerity in character. Therefore, I happen to notice certain behaviors in people without directly looking for them. But somehow they now seem so noticeable and pop out to me. I think it’s part of training your eye for it. But a lot of times I also see things that provoke me to think of little stories. Like a tiny cloud that’s floating in a valley. How did it get there all by itself? Where are the rest of the clouds? And why is she drifting so low?

Zootopia Reel – Jacob Frey from Jacob Frey on Vimeo.

H: I know I’m not alone when I look at video game, film and TV animation from even the late 90s and early 2000s and think, Man! I can’t believe how far graphics have come in such a short amount of time! Of course, these days I look at your current work as an example of incredibly realistic modern-day animation, and wonder how it could possibly get better. Where do you see animation going from here? Is it possible that in another 10 or 15 years we will look back at your work now and again think, Look how far they’ve come since 2017?

JF: I remember going to the aquarium in Chicago once, and there they had little digital displays to tell you which fish are in the tank in front of you. To my mind that was super cool, and I thought it was an advanced thing to have in a public aquarium. Then a little girl ran over to the display and started swiping on it. Over and over and over. But nothing happened. She called, “Mommy, Daddy! This thing is broken!” I had tried the display earlier and it wasn’t broken. It simply wasn’t a touch display; instead it had giant buttons in the UI to advance to the next page. But to the kid, this way of navigating was already outdated, and it was something she didn’t even know how to use. A simple press of a button. Long story short, what this showed me is that kids grow up way different from the way we did, and things that we find normal might be something that a newer generation already sees very differently.

Honestly, I have no idea where things might be heading. There’s a lot of movement around VR, and maybe it’s not about the look but about the way we perceive these films. Maybe in ten years little kids will be confused by my short film and the fact that you can’t look at the characters from all angles. Moving your head and thus changing viewing angles might be a common thing very soon. Maybe a flat plane is something they might consider to be “boring.” Who knows?

In terms of style, a lot of filmmakers seem to be drawn back to simpler, less realistic visuals, like in the short film “Pearl” or “La Tortue Rouge”. I am a big fan of it. But I also like the look of modern-day animated films. To my mind, though, animation is a visual tool to tell a story, and that could be any story. Drama, horror or comedy.

C: You made “The Present” as your thesis short when you were a film student in Germany. There are many young people out there, not just filmmakers and animators, who will hear your story and be motivated to take their passions, no matter what they may be, and run with them in the way that you did. What advice would you give to them?

JF: To my mind it is very bizarre that I now live in Los Angeles. I come from a small town in Germany and would have never imagined I’d live right next to Hollywood. I did terrible in school. And by terrible, I really mean terrible. I had to repeat 9th and 10th grade, and later even got kicked out of school. I simply couldn’t wrap my head around the French language. To the teachers, I was simply the kid that keeps getting Ds and Fs on tests, and I stopped believing in myself ever getting any better.

During that time, the first Pixar movies came out, and I remember seeing Finding Nemo and wanting to know how animation works. After doing some research, I found out that Filmakademie in Ludwigsburg is one of the best places in Europe to study it. To apply, I needed to get my A-levels (high school degree), and once I had that goal ahead of me, my attitude towards school completely changed. I switched to a different school and went from being the worst in class to the best in class. I wasn’t dumb, I was just lacking motivation. Once I found something that motivated me, everything changed.
When I applied at Filmakademie I had no knowledge of animation. I just thought that it was cool and something I wanted to learn. However, they usually require people to have some experience in the field beforehand. At Filmakademie there’s an application test where they give you an exercise, and you have to deliver the result of it three days later. The exercise I chose was to tell a story between two images. But I didn’t know any animation tools or even how to animate. So I had to improvise. What’s the fastest way to animate something? I filmed my parents acting the scenes out for me and then put a piece of paper over my display and drew over my parent’s motions. Frame by frame, hundreds and hundreds of times. It was incredibly tedious but also the safest way to get things done in time—all within one weekend.

The committee at Filmakademie ended up liking my practical approach, and also the story I told. And I got accepted. From that point on, I animated on any student film that came across my way, did internships in England and LA, and worked in between my studies on the Oscar-nominated short film “Room on the Broom”. You don’t reach your goal overnight. It comes with hard work, and on every one of my projects I worked day after day, night after night. And like I said, a few minutes can take over a year of hard work. But it’s passion that drives you. If you are passionate you will keep pushing yourself and you will grow as an artist. And a lot of times it’s also important to improvise or to move on. Making my own films, [I learned] you can easily get lost in details—things no one else will see but you. Because you are passionate about your work, you want it to be as good as possible. But you also have to be realistic; you want to get things done, so making a compromise and moving on is very important.

There’s a great quote by Walt Disney, which inspires me on a daily basis.

“All your dreams can come true, if you have the courage to pursue them.”

You can find Jacob Frey online at http://www.jacobfrey.de/.

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