Disney Animation, Marvel & Pop Culture Mash Ups – A Creator Spotlight On Brian Kesinger

by Gary Catig

Public libraries can be a valuable resource, especially to those who love pop culture. They have plenty of movies, TV shows, music, and even video games that are available to be borrowed. Of course, there are also all the books which include graphic novels, manga, and sometimes individual comic issues. For a geek on a budget, using library resources can allow someone to read many different series without breaking the bank. Another great service libraries provide are free lectures given by people in the field of literature. This past weekend at the San Clemente Public Library in California, Disney animator and artist, Brian Kesinger gave a talk about the highlights of his career and anecdotes from his time in the entertainment business.

Kesinger began his career in Disney Animation where he worked on hand drawn animated features including Tarzan, Atlantis: The Lost Empire, and Treasure Planet and also CGI movies like Bolt, Tangled and Big Hero 6. He has worked in different roles and performed a variety of duties as an animator. As a member of the layout department, he served as a cinematographer and determined which camera angles to draw.

While a member of visual development, he established color palettes and developed character and environment design. You’d be surprised by how many iterations something as simple as a couch or pizza box have to go through before they decide on the final look. It was interesting seeing the raw art for the movies and how little easter eggs are incorporated. In Atlantis, there is a scene where R2D2 is placed in the background. Similarly, on a Goofy short Kesinger worked on, one particular scene included many hidden references including a classic NES controller, a first-generation iPod, and Hal from 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Kesinger was also part of the story assignment team. He described their “filling the well” process of story telling where he would create illustrations of different options for a story. In the Winnie the Pooh film, Eeyore loses his tail, so he showed his artwork of possible replacements and which character would have suggested them. Pooh would replace it with a bee hive, Christopher Robin would substitute it with his tire swing, and Kesinger himself, for comedic effect, would put a roll of toilet paper in its place. By having a variety of options, the director can determine the most appropriate choice for the story he’s trying to tell or see if these options can spark any new ideas to pivot the narrative.

Another common technique Disney employs is using their stories as a metaphor for universal ideas. For example, Finding Nemo is a tale of an overprotective parent, Lady and the Tramp is related to a couple’s first kiss, and Big Hero 6 involves the grieving process. Through these universal ideas, they hope everyone can relate, causing the stories to really resonate with the audience.

He then discussed his love of anything Steampunk. He was first asked to create a steampunk tea party invitation by a friend. He was not familiar with the term, but when he saw the style, he knew he already liked it. He used a very similar aesthetic in Atlantis and Treasure Planet. What drew him to it was his love for Victorian era fashion. By drawing in this style, he could create dynamic female characters. Additionally, for all the body parts he found hard to draw, he could just replace them with a machine. His first series in this genre was his Tea Girls series where he would take wet tea bags and splatter the finished art to give them an ethereal quality.

Kesinger would later have the opportunity to combine his love of steampunk with his love of 80’s pop culture. Hasbro commissioned him to make steampunk mash up art with GI Joe, which would be used as T-shirt designs. He impressed them so much that he did a similar line of illustrations with Transformers. Later, he would do steampunk mash up designs for the mother of all franchises, Star Wars. Brian described a surreal moment when he was texted a photo of George Lucas purchasing one of his shirts. He joked it was the first time he would be taking money away from Lucas as opposed to the other way around. Other franchises he designed shirts for were Marvel and The Muppets, but these were more conventional art without a steampunk influence.

Kesinger had his first chance at creator owned work after he won a steampunk design competition. The resulting characters were Otto, an octopus, and Victoria, his companion. He chronicled their adventures and played with the universal idea of pet ownership. For instance, many pet owners can relate to the struggles of house training or bathing a pet. Two books were made featuring these characters, Walking Your Octopus and Traveling With Your Octopus.

Otto and Victoria led to another big opportunity in Kesinger’s career. Marvel was impressed with how Kesinger could convey so much emotion through Otto’s expressions without having him talk, and thought he would be a good fit for their new Groot series with Jeff Loveness. He loved working on the project, but found the schedule brutal. It was difficult to find the time to pencil, ink, and color the expected number of pages while performing his full-time job as an animator. One of his favorite panels he drew involved creating Groot versions of many of Marvel’s most popular heroes.  After that experience, he might be hesitant to take on more sequential work, but doesn’t mind creating covers.

Probably Brian’s most well-known work was his ‘Lil Kylo fan art series which was a mash up of Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Calvin & Hobbes. He had Kylo Ren as Calvin and a stuffed Darth Vader playing the role of Hobbes. It was a viral sensation and received a lot of publicity.  Another surreal moment in his career was when he was approached to do a ‘Lil Kylo commission for the Prime Minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau.

After ‘Lil Kylo, Kesinger decided to do less fan art and do something for himself. He created a new art series based off Inktober drawings of dragons, mermaids and robots. He has two picture books, Penned Dragons and Inked Tails, his mermaid book, coming out in 2018. You can catch the latest animated feature he worked on, Olaf’s Frozen Adventure, this Wednesday. The animated short will accompany Pixar’s Coco. Also, sometime later down the line, he hopes to make a hand drawn animated or stop motion feature of his Otto and Victoria characters.

Brian gave a very enlightening talk. Disney is one of the best story tellers out there and it was fascinating to get a glimpse of their process. It was also interesting to see the different paths he took throughout his career and how he became involved in different outlets. He’s worked with so many cool properties in pop culture and was able to make an imprint in the field with his own creator owned material. The part I enjoyed most was being able to see his art up close. You can catch the latest and greatest of Brian’s illustrations on his Instagram page.

Gary Catig

Gary Catig is west coast raised, east coast educated, and has a touch of southern charm. He has spent most of his adult life making science fiction a reality as an engineer conducting research in the military, microprocessor, and biotechnology fields. While currently living in San Diego, he enjoys all facets of pop culture including but not limited to comics, TV, movies, and music.