Assistant Photography Editor
He always had an idea of what he wanted to do and be when he grew up. The term is coined as “dream job” because it typically remains just that, but for Christopher Oakley, his childhood dream turned into a lifelong reality.
“I’ve realized that I guess I got to be every single one of those things that I wanted to be. There was not one thing on my bucket list that I did that got left out at some point, I got paid to do it all,” Oakley said as he smiled to himself.
A singer, actor, comedian, artist, painter, screenwriter, writer and director who landed, finally, on being an animator, said animation and film quickly became an integral part of his life. What started as a way to make extra money in high school turned into not just a career, but a passion.
“I finally got a call one day from Disney who were looking for stop motion animators to train to be computer animators for this project that they were doing, the Dinosaur project. So they ended up hiring me and moving me to Los Angeles. Once Disney did that, I decided that this must be my career when they call you. I guess it’s like being a priest and the Vatican calls, you know? At some point you’re just like, OK, this is it, this is my call,” Oakley said.
He looked around the room at his nostalgic memorabilia collection from Disney movies, cartoons and his life-long passion, Abraham Lincoln.
An abundance of color and whimsy exudes from his office. Upon stepping through the door, one already has a sense of Oakley’s person and his passion for Disney. Stuffed animals, figurines and novelties dance around the walls of his office. Disney and Lincoln memorabilia cover nearly every space and surface possible. Original sketches of beloved Disney characters are carefully arranged on the walls, with his newest addition to that collection being the Grinch.
A rack of Disney and anime films sit to the right of his desk, figurines of Lincoln’s head peer from behind him and a bookshelf brimming with stuffed animals flanks the left wall. Upon his desk sits an ornament from the movie Coco that plays songs from the feature film, which Oakley says is Pixar’s best film yet.
Prior to working for Disney, Oakley worked as a sculptor for stop-animation, as well as doing animation jobs on the side during college and graduate school. After continuing on this track for a while and animating the first California Raisins commercial, Oakley said he had caught the bug. Animation and film had become his life.
“As an artist he is just as enthusiastic, always trying and often succeeding, to learn new ways of doing things, but all the while maintaining a high expectation of quality of himself. Chris is always willing to hear criticisms and take them into consideration and accepts when something doesn’t work, even if it sometimes takes a little convincing,” said Kenneth Michaud, a graduate of UNCA and 3D modeler, who was once instructed by and now works with Oakley.
The Dinosaur project ended up being one of his proudest achievements. Disney sought him out for research on what would turn out to be their first digitally animated feature film. His other proudest achievement is the Lincoln Project, an almost completed animated rendering of Lincoln delivering The Gettysburg Address.
“Watching him animate in particular can be frustrating, because he is really good at it and I will admit I have been jealous of that skill from time to time, because he makes it look so easy,” Michaud said.
Michaud works alongside Oakley on the Lincoln Project. He initially wasn’t very into animation, just animated movies, until he took Oakley’s Introduction to Animation class and the process fueled his passion.
Oakley leaned back in his chair, put his hands behind his head and took a deep breath as he looked around his colorfully decorated office. He cracked a smile that seemed to say he was proud and content with his path in life and wouldn’t have changed a thing. Oakley says that he was in the right place at the right time to get the job with Disney, but his colleagues and friends see the evident talent and passion that exudes from his work.
“My big passion is animation and music. I came here as an undergrad and I learned under Professor Oakley at the time. He made the animation so much fun that I wanted to keep doing it,” said Ashe Cosette, lecturer in the new media department at UNCA.
Oakley recalls one of his fondest memories at Disney, gazing at his collectibles and cabinet of favorite stuffed animated characters.
“We had what we call dailies every morning at Disney, where we had to go in and look at the footage of everybody’s work from the day before. So whatever you were working on got put into dailies so the directors could look at it and make comments and the other members of the crew could make comments on your work. I had a shot where I was animating an older Lemur in the Dinosaur movie. That particular day we go to the dailies and I find out that not only is Michael Eisner, the head of the company, coming but the heads of the animation department are coming, Peter Schneider and Tom Schumacher and Roy Disney, Walt’s nephew,” Oakley laughed as he recalls how nervous he was that day.
After the screening, everyone in the room was applauding his work, including the big bosses.
“I mean that was it for proud moments or something like that. I think that was where I felt like I had major validation,” Oakley said