Q&A: Kris Wimberly raises the bar on representation in animation through Studio Smokescreen

by Susan and Simon Veness

Kris Wimberly, Disney Television animator and founder of the first and only Black-owned “bridge studio,” creates top-quality content while amplifying underrepresented and marginalized voices through Studio Smokescreen.

kris wimberly
Kris Wimberly, animator and founder of Studio Smokescreen
Photos and stills courtesy of Kris Wimberly

We spoke with Kris to get the full story, from his time as a custodian at Disneyland Resort to the creation of Smokescreen Studios, his new animated short, “Tent Sale,” and the mission of equality that’s at the heart of his work.

What is your background in animation? Was it something you always knew you wanted to do, or did you have other career goals? 

When I was about three or four, I was already telling people I wanted to be a “cartoonist” when they asked what I wanted to be when I grew up. But specifically, I wanted to work in animation, I just didn’t have the knowledge to explain it that way. Even more specifically, as I got older, I learned what interested me the most for jobs in animation was the storyboarding part of the process.

I also had a passion for TV over movies. However, as I was growing up, I was encouraged to find a more traditional, “prestigious” career path, so I actually geared up toward a different path that I found fascinating, which was psychology. But at the last minute, I decided to go after my passion and apply to art school coming out of high school.

Your career began at Disney’s California Adventure Park. When did you start, and what was your first role there? Did you have several roles? 

I was hired at the Disneyland Resort in 2005, and my first day of training was on May 6, which was the day after the big 50th Celebration! My first official role for Disney was working as a custodian at Disney’s California Adventure and Downtown Disney, but the whole reason I even applied to work at Disneyland was because I knew I could work my way up if I just got in anywhere I could.

So I went to apply to be one of the watch artists on Main Street, but because those positions are super hard to get – people stay in them forever – I told my interviewer, “You can put me anywhere because one day I’ll be animating for Disney,” which is how I got placed in custodial services. Not too long after getting started though, I moved onward to the next thing, which took me out of custodial and into a division of attractions.

How did you move from Disneyland into animation?

Well. because I went into the whole thing with a grand plan, I knew that the only way to successfully build that bridge from the parks to the studio was to explain myself a lot and ask a lot of questions. That meant talking about my passion for animation, my trajectory in school, my goals in coming to work at the park, and, of course, asking who I might want to talk with to learn more about how to obtain my goals. It was a tricky thing though, because I also wanted to show that I was dedicated to my current job as a custodian, so finding a balance between talking a lot and doing the work took a lot of awareness and some light treading.

But what I know about people is that passion inspires them and makes them want to help out when they sense it in someone. I think that was certainly true in my case, because I earned a lot of friends and champions by caring about being a custodian without losing focus on my goals.

kris wimberly tent sale still
Animation still from the short, “Tent Sale”

After just a few months of working at the resort, there was a new attraction opening up called The Animation Academy in California Adventure. I was encouraged to audition for it by my manager in custodial because “It had something to do with drawing.” Well, he was right, and it was ultimately what launched me in the right direction. I was hired as the opening crew for it, and because of the hard work and passion I showed, the rest of my conditional new-hire status was waived, and I got to transfer out of custodial services – just before being trained on bathrooms!

From there, I almost instantly became one of the two core trainers at The Animation Academy, where I got to train, travel, and even do some press for the Disneyland Resorts, like when they opened the Hong Kong Disneyland Resort. Ultimately, the whole experience – and tons and tons of drawing mileage – was perfect for gaining interest for a couple of internships. So, in my last semester of art school I secured an internship with Nickelodeon as my big break into the major studio circuit! As an intern on “SpongeBob SquarePants,” I repeated the same process and principles as my time as a custodian, which earned me a full-time position on the show.

Tell us about your time with Disney Television Animation (Disney TVA)

After working on “SpongeBob” for a few seasons, I had gone on to work on a season of another show before getting a call from Disney TVA.

A producer I had known from Nickelodeon went on to produce the first season of “Star vs. the Forces of Evil,” and she knew of me and my work. Interestingly, it was actually for both a storyboard artist position and a character design position. I thought both could be fun, so I took the test for both. Funny enough, I got passed on for both, but because there was another show looking for board artists, they passed my info and test along to the other new show, and I got hired on that show without another test.

Because of my ability to work quickly and as a style chameleon, I’ve worked on a number of different Disney shows at different capacities, depending on where I was needed. A few include “The 7D,” “Tangled: The Series,” “Puppy Dog Pals,” and “Elena of Avalor.” I’m still there currently, directing on a new show set to premier shortly, called “Firebuds.”

What was your favorite part of the job?

My favorite part of the job is the high turnover rate of stories, characters, locations, and shows, altogether. That’s one of the biggest reasons I wanted to go into TV over movies, was because I didn’t want to get stuck with one story for years at a time. I love exploring and keeping things fresh, which there’s a lot of that when working at TV pace.

I still work there as my “day job,” [and] I started my own studio while still working at Disney.

Was there anyone who inspired you or gave you exceptional advice about how to further your career?

It’s hard to pin on any one person. I got so much from so many people in such little pieces. What I had to do was build my own quasi-mentorships and sources for guidance through asking lots and lots of questions. I asked lots of small questions like, “How did you get to become a director,” to bigger questions like, “What do you wish you had known at _____ stage in your career,” and even more delicate questions like, “Can I shadow you in particular meetings?” But again, because of the willingness to learn and passion I showed, I had a number of supporters along the way and they all inspired me, whether they know it or not.

What made you decide to create your own animation studio?

It was something that I had always wanted to do, but, especially in a realistic way, beginning in art school. Ultimately though, it was my brother, Chase, who got me to open my eyes to see the window of opportunity had arrived. and because of his strong business sense and background, I told him I would only do it if he did it with me. And so we did.

tent sale scene
Scene from “Tent Sale”

What was that process like? What challenges did you face?

It was an extremely hard process, but not really a scary one. I knew so much of what I had to do because of my extremely rich experience that I had built for myself, including two failed attempts at building studios before. And what I didn’t know, I had Chase there to fill in the blanks. But what really made it difficult was juggling so much on my plate already.

Also, as with most startup companies, the owner or owners are the ones shouldering all the burden until they can figure out how to scale themselves, and that’s what I had to do… while directing on a Disney show… and raising a new daughter… and then another daughter… and supporting a wife in grad school.

Aside from all that though, there are always challenges with creating something new. Sure, we’re making animation, and that’s not new, but the way we’re going about it had yet to be actualized the way we’ve done it. It was also a challenge to have worked at so many of the most top-tier studios, and try to consolidate all the best ways I’ve seen stuff done.

It’s a rare thing to get the opportunity to take something established and familiar to so many people – in this case the pipeline for animation production – and say, “But we’re gonna do it this way!” Any other challenges I could think of probably fall under typical new-business growing pains. 

What is your animation studio’s mission?

Studio Smokescreen is the first Bridge Studio in animation specifically focused on supporting marginalized and underrepresented talent striving to break into the “big studio” circuit by providing opportunities to gain experience through hands-on contribution to projects at the highest of industry standards. In doing so, we are hoping to move the needle in changing the face of animation both on-screen and behind it.

Your brother Chase plays a role in the studio. Can you tell us more about that, and what inspired him to join you in this venture?

chase wimberly
Chase Wimberly

Well, as I said, there really may not be a Studio Smokescreen if he hadn’t prompted me to take one more crack at it. But more than that, we could really see how we were two parts to a whole — the business and the creative. Jokingly, we would refer to ourselves as the “Black Roy and Walt.”

But as an audience member, Chase loves animation maybe almost as much as I do. We were fans of it together while growing up, but he took the business route as a career. So even though Chase could really see a trajectory for me as an entrepreneur, I told him I would only do it if he joined me. And while he does a lot to guide and support from a business perspective as an accomplished businessman, he reminds me at least every other week that I’m the bus driver and everyone on the bus is waiting for me to tell them where we’re going. Thanks, I guess. 

One of your goals now is to help recruit, develop and train animation talent from underrepresented and marginalized communities. How did you come to that decision?

It has everything to do with my own experiences, which have sounded glowing in this interview up to now. But honestly, there was lots of heartache, false starts, carrots dangled in front of me, and deserved opportunities given away. And really, that’s what made me push so hard. As a “minority” you have to push 300% harder than most for only 70% of the opportunities. As time has gone on though, given our current social climates, I learned that so many communities have experienced what I went through, and if I found a way to make it work, why not turn around and teach it to others in an effort to really see some change happen?

That was my big picture, but Chase’s came as a consumer with young children who lack real representation, themes, and relationships reflecting themselves in animated shows. That is a big problem Chase wants to fix. We saw a way to address both issues with one studio, since the issues go hand-in-hand.

Have you had a lot of support for that goal, or have you faced a lot of challenges?

Quite honestly, people are starving for change as industry professionals and consumers. People have had enough of not getting enough. So, from the beginning of launching our studio, we’ve been met with a resounding “Hell yeah!” from anyone at any studio we’ve spoken with. We have many projects, and relationships, and early-phase negotiations in place to work with our studio that we are honestly shocked at the reception of Studio Smokescreen. Shocked and humbled, but extremely excited.

Do you see your field changing in the next 10 or 20 years? If so, what changes do you think will take place?

I want to say yes, that’s what Smokescreen is working toward. If I didn’t see it, I would just play the game rather than try to rewrite the rules. But what will those changes be? I dunno exactly. I hope a lot of the struggles we’re wrestling with behind the scenes to make accurately represented characters and cultures will be a thing of the past. It will feel like, “What was so hard about this? Why did it take so long?” But maybe the benchmark of that kind of success will be no more need for Smokescreen as an agent of change. My phone will no longer ring with producers looking for “Any Black woman action writers,” because the industry will have its pick of high-quality, experienced writers like that – or any others – to choose from.

Find out more about Kris and Studios Smokescreen, and watch his new animated short, “Tent Sale,” below:

Tent Sale by Studio Smokescreen

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