A new breed of animation studio is brewing and if Studio Smokescreen founder Kris Wimberly has his way, the behind-the-scenes faces of the animation industry are going to get a lot more diverse.
Before launching his new creative house, the now 15-year animation veteran actually began his career as part of the custodial team at Disney California Adventure park. Since then, he’s been clearing the path for future budding artists by sharing his wealth of industry experience and knowledge to help build a new class of animators from underrepresented demographics.
We recently had the opportunity to speak with the co-owner of the ambitious black-owned animation studio to learn about how he envisions the future of animation and how he got to where he is today.
A Sweeping Path
“[Becoming a Cast Member] is literally the cornerstone of my experience”
— Kris Wimberly, Founder of Studio Smokescreen
The CSU Fullerton alum and Disney Television Animation resident had to pay his entire way through school and did what most had to do — work. He was really good at sales, but in his fourth year, while working toward his BFA in Illustration, Wimberly knew he had a creative spark.
“What did you do? What do you go to school for?” Wimberly would ask sales managers as he was considering this path. “Nobody ever went to school for sales management… I don’t want to get on that track.”
With confidence, he was willing to work his way from the bottom, up. “I figured, well, what’s the biggest animation company I can think of, obviously.” Disney.
Before technology overtook job searching and the guest experience, applying in person was the standard. “It was spring break, and I went down there and asked for a job and went through the interview process and everything. They said, well, what job do you want to have here?” He continued, “I said, I don’t care. I’ll start by sweeping popcorn. But one day, I’m gonna animate for Disney.”
For many cast members, C-level positions are often the goal but you have to start somewhere. “The woman was like, ‘sure you will.’ And she sentenced me to custodial services. I dedicated to the job because I knew that I had a plan. I had a mission. And so I was gonna treat the job with respect and make sure I told everybody what I intended to do.”
You might say he began his path with a broomstick and a dream.
While working in the parks, Wimberly would eventually connect with former Disney feature director George Scribner (OLIVER AND COMPANY) and eventually became a trainer at the Animation Academy in the Hollywood Land section of the park where guests learn to draw Disney characters. The young go-getter continued to ask questions and make it clear what his dreams were. He would eventually find himself traveling to other Disney Parks like Hong Kong Disneyland to train fellow Animation Academy cast members and represent the company more formally on media tours.
Armed with some experience and a load of confidence, Wimberly landed his first internship at Nickelodeon Animation Studios. His first project? The critically acclaimed SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS.
“I told ’em about [all of my experiences], and they’re like blown away by it. So, they gave me a shot as an intern, and that’s where I started my career, breaking into the animation industry circuit in Burbank.” Wimberly would become a storyboard artist for Nickelodeon’s SANJAY & CRAIG in 2012 and eventually Walt Disney Animation Studios’ THE 7D and TANGLED – THE SERIES between 2013 and 2016. Yearning to share his knowledge, he created and hosted the podcast The Animation Network, supplementing the growth of those interested in TV animation for more than three years until he journeyed back to Disney Television Animation in 2018.
Appreciating how far he’d risen to meet his dreams, Wimberly found himself with an even more ambitious goal.
Wimberly realized that he wanted help those who should not only be on the screen in the stories that he was helping bring to life but and also behind the scenes making them. Committed to the idea of creating a training ground for the industry’s newest, most exciting artistic talent, he shifted his sights to amplifying perspectives that have traditionally been so frequently overlooked: people of color, women, and members of the LGBTQ+ community.
In 2020, he launched his independent black-owned animation company, Studio Smokescreen. The studio is intended to be a “bridge studio,” aimed at training and developing talent on both in-house and commercial projects, giving them hands-on experience that helps them “bridge” their careers to larger companies and studios. The focus will be largely on underrepresented and marginalized communities because these communities have difficulty breaking into animation.
Wimberly shared with me that many success stories he has heard throughout his career were a case of being at the right place at the right time. And while these instances have heavily favored the white community, they are a needle in the haystack for anybody and it just so happens the people in the right place at the right time aren’t people of color.
The Studio Smokescreen team first leveraged social media to clearly state in their hiring post that they were looking for people of color, women, and members of the LGBTQ+ community. “People aren’t afraid to put how they identify as a person within their bios and feeds when they pump stuff [out]. It’s in their artwork, and it’s in the way they describe themselves, it’s everywhere.”
“[I want] to literally change the face of animation, both on the screen and behind it.”
— Kris Wimberly, Founder of Studio Smokescreen
The team looks for the highest potential in its animators. “There’s a lot of rapid-fire. You gotta move quickly. You have to think and make decisions,” Wimberly said. “There’s a lot of stuff there that doesn’t give a lot of room to train people and do a lot of the handholding or babysit. So what we’re trying to do is find the people who have the potential that we can rapidly accelerate their learning experience to get caught up.”
He admits that developing talent takes time, energy, and sometimes money, so you have to discern who you’re going to invest in – because some people just don’t have “it.”
Wimberly has an ambitious goal “to literally change the face of animation, both on the screen and behind it… to do that,” he shared, “you need those voices to bring off authenticity. You need those experiences; you need those perspectives.”
Studio Smokescreen recently debuted its first animated short, TENT SALE, and is motivated by engaging audiences but accolades are not necessarily part of the recipe to success. “Awards and all that stuff, that’s cool, but that’s never been a big motivator for me for better or worse. The viewership, like when people are genuinely excited to see what else you have, that’s really exciting.”
Wimberly himself called his shot with big dreams and a curious mind when seemingly exiled to custodial duties. He’s been tapped to direct FIREBUDS, an upcoming animated series slated to be released on Disney Junior and Disney+ in Fall 2022. He also credits showrunner Craig Gerber for allowing him to put himself into the show but couldn’t share much else other than calling it a “game changer” – a likely foreshadowing of Wimberly’s studio which will undoubtedly change the face of animation.
The next step? A brighter, more colorful, and diverse tomorrow. We’re ready.