Zach Parrish grew up during, as he puts it, the golden age of Disney. As a boy, his favorite movies were the likes of The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King.
Today, Parrish has found a way to immerse himself in those favorite childhood memories: He works at The Walt Disney Studios in Burbank, Calif., and was a supervising animator on Wreck-It Ralph, currently in theaters.
A 2003 Bishop Dwenger High School graduate, Parrish was born and raised in Fort Wayne, and he always knew he wanted to be an animator.
I was the only kid in D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) who didn’t want to be a policeman or a fireman or a doctor, he says. I wanted to draw.
When he saw Monsters, Inc. in theaters as a high-schooler, he identified with one of the characters: a little green one-eyed monster, Mike Wazowski.
I remember thinking, This is not real, but I care about him, and I’m emotionally invested in this character,’ says Parrish, 27.
Humble in success
Parrish is slim with a shaved head that is shaved a little longer in a stripe at the top, mimicking a short, less spiky Mohawk. He wears a full beard and has an easy laugh. He is open and easy to talk to, but he seems aware of his surroundings in a way others might not be: When a deliveryman steps up to the door at the downtown Starbucks with a package nearly as tall as he is, other patrons don’t look up from their laptops or away from their conversations. Parrish, however, stops himself mid-sentence, excuses himself for a moment and rushes to grab the door for the man.
He has a proud mama, who promotes his success whenever she can. On visits home, he speaks to high school classes and, naturally, the local newspaper. During the interview, a man who overhears the discussion stops and asks Parrish if he is famous. When he laughs and says no, the stranger pushes to figure out why he is being interviewed by the newspaper, and his face lights up when Parrish says, I work for Disney. After Parrish leaves, a Starbucks employee asks, Does that guy really work for Disney?
So yes, it’s just a job. But, it’s a cool job, and Parrish recognizes that.
If they weren’t paying me, I’d still go in, he says, and he backtracks. That’s not true. I’d need money.
Parrish attended the Savannah College of Art and Design, in Georgia. He graduated on a Saturday in 2007. That Sunday, he moved to Los Angeles. That Monday, he started work at Rhythm & Hues Studios, where he worked on live-action films with computer graphics such as Alvin and the Chipmunks and The Incredible Hulk. Next, he moved on to Sony Pictures Imageworks, where he worked on Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, the first time he worked on a completely animated film, and Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland.
His third anniversary with Disney is Friday, and Wreck-It Ralph was his first foray into the supervisory side of animation; previously, he worked as an animator on Disney films such as Tangled.
I think originally, I just wanted to be an animator, he says. That was milestone No. 1. It was a natural progression (to step into a supervisory role). I’ve always been a bit of a loud mouth. It was a fun way to be more creative. I’ve always been a leader-type person.
Supervising animators are given a segment of shots – say, between 20 and 150. They take those shots and figure out how long each will take to animate, and they pass the shots out to animators. A full shot is one segment before the scene cuts to another. It might be as simple as a close-up of a hand grasping a cup, which might last less than a second, or as detailed as a sword fight, which might last a few seconds.
Parrish guides the animators through the creation process and gives them notes and feedback on their work. Much of the job is keeping track of animators’ schedules – making sure they’re free to work on the shots – and knowing the animators’ artistic strengths. One might be better at creating emotion and be given scenes that showcase a character crying or shouting in anger. Another might be better at physical animation, showing a fight scene or a character running.
An average shot is about 3 seconds long, and each animator has a quota of 80 frames a week, which translates to 3 1/2 seconds of the film. By the time a movie hits theaters, each animator might have created 2 to 2 1/2 minutes of the movie. Wreck-It Ralph had about 50 people in charge of the actual movement of the characters – that doesn’t even count the people who work on characters’ hair and cloth (technical animators) or effects such as dust or lighting.
Currently, Parrish is working on the Disney film Frozen, which is set to hit theaters in November. According to Entertainment Weekly, the movie is loosely based on the Hans Christian Andersen fairytale The Snow Queen and is about a girl who teams up with a mountain man and his reindeer friend in search of her older sister, who is magically able to control wintry conditions, causing a perpetual winter.
It’s very much home now, he says of Disney. If I stay there for the rest of my career, I would definitely consider it a success.