Episode 98 – Interview with Disney’s Senior CG Animator Nicolas Prothais


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Episode 98 — Interview with Senior CG Animator Nicolas Prothais

Hey, everyone!

This is Allan McKay. Welcome to Episode 98! I’m speaking with Nicolas Prothais an Animator from Disney. This is a fun Episode. Nicolas was at the IAMAG Master Classes. He is an awesome and talented artist. He’s worked anywhere from Disney to Double Negative; and huge projects like John Carter and Iron Man 2. He’s definitely well versed and well traveled.

We cover a lot of insights on:

– work flow,

– his career,

– working abroad.

We’re getting to Episode 100! I’m excited because this number gives me an opportunity to reflect on how long this journey has been. I want to thank everyone for the emails and messages over this journey of 100 Episodes. So many times, people have mentioned career changes and how this Podcast has influenced them:

– from breaking into the industry

– or changing directions of their career,

– or opening their own studio.

This has been a journey for me as well. I have a few solo Episodes that I’m excited to put out. Let’s dive in!



[-[1:07:41] One of the biggest problems we face as artists is figuring out how much we’re worth. Typically, we go on job interviews and either shoot ourselves in the foot by saying we charge less than we’re worth and getting the gig — but indirectly leaving tens of thousands of dollars accumulatively over time, on the table; rather than actually asking what we should be charging. At the same time you don’t want to alienate your employer by asking for too much and leaving yourself out in the cold.

I’ve put together a website. Check it out: www.VFXRates.com! This is a chance for you to put in your information — your level of experience, your discipline, your location — and it will give you an accurate idea what you and everyone else in your discipline should be worth. This is something I’m going to continue to build and flush out over time.

The key thing is, I don’t want to just showcase how much you should be worth — I want to hand you the tools to grow and learn:

– to negotiate better,

– to ask for the right amount of money in the right way

– lots of other tools!

The information is FREE! Check it out: www.VFXRates.com! Put in your information and you will get instantly notified with how much you should be charging per hour, as a VFX Artist.



Nicolas Prothais is a Senior CG Animator who has worked for studios like Disney, Double Negative, Illumination Mac Guff and Ilion. Entirely self taught, he began his career as a generalist and learned most aspects of the pipeline. He later switched his focus to 3D and 2D animation.

The list of Nicolas’ projects includes features like Moana, Despicable Me, Wreck-It Ralph, Zootopia, Frozen and many more.

In this Episode, Allan McKay and Nicolas Prothais talk about working abroad, the discipline for bettering your skills and learning to balance between the director’s vision and your own talent.


Nicolas Prothais’ Website: http://nicolas-prothais.com

Nicolas Prothais on Vimeo: https://vimeo.com/nicolasprothais

Nicolas Prothais on IMDb: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm2886580/

Nicolas Prothais at IAMAG Master Class 2017 (Excerpt): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GZZzJfVqmB0

Illumination Mac Guff: http://www.illuminationmacguff.com


[-[1:01:49] Nicolas: Thank you, Allan! It’s a pleasure to see you again. My name is Nicolas Prothais. I was born in Paris. I’ve been an animator for the last, maybe, 17 years. I started to get involved when I was 16 when a friend of mine was showing me stuff on 3Ds.

[-[1:00:53] Allan: I don’t know why but I’ve been going on this big binge, buying stuff from my childhood. I bought the New Riders’ Inside 3D Studio MAX DOS R 3 book. I got it for $4 on Amazon. It’s hideous. 3D was so difficult back then. 

Nicolas: At that time, no one had internet at home. That’s the way I started, slowly. I then I gave up because I was attracted to modeling. It was so challenging to create nice models! It was too frustrating. Much later, I tried again. That time it was PowerAnimator.

I started as a generalist for advertising, rotoscoping during the night. That’s the way I got into animation: I met some people from Gobelins, l’Ecole de l’image, the school in Paris. They showed me what they were doing. I was fascinated! Just by mimicking what they were doing and trying to understand it, I slowly started getting some contacts at some companies in Paris. That’s how I learned animation: Mostly by mimicking people next to me.

[-[59:02] Allan: Going back just for a bit. You didn’t wake up at 2 years old saying, “I want to be an animator when I grow up”. Were you just interested in art?

Nicolas: When I was about 11, there was something that everyone was doing in my school: graffiti. It was the very beginning of it. That was the first contact I had with a form of art, I would say. With all of my friends, we were just drawing. I was fascinated by characters. Most of my friends were so much better than me! I, again, got frustrated and gave up drawing at the age of 16. That’s also the reason I got attracted by CG. It solved everything I couldn’t draw (shading, etc.)

[-[57:15] Allan: I was exactly the same way. I remember getting this design magazine from my mom and it had a review of the Inside 3D Studio for DOS. I remember looking at everything looking so polished and plastic. I knew I could never draw this clean. I was drawn to 2D art. The stuff I was doing was very basic. So, when you stumbled the 3D Studio DOS, that was it for you? Did you confront any resistance on the way? 

Nicolas: I think I got lucky. Basically, until I was 16, I was a really bad student. In France, we have this school you go to at the age of 16, if you have nothing better to do. So I ended up doing that. My job would have been to put down cable for phone networks. At that moment, I realized I had to work a little bit harder if I wanted to do CG. So I started to work like crazy and went back to the regular education system. I learned about video editing which was pretty close to what I wanted to do. Thanks to that, I ended up to have a 2-week training for an internship for a company (that doesn’t exist anymore).

I didn’t have to struggle. I met people there during the internship and ended up going back a year later. I trained for the job at night. In Paris, there are so many companies! If you meet a few people, you end up having a job. I was doing freelance. Then, it’s really easy to jump from one company to another. I ended up working like that for 9 years, without having to struggle. It was really easy.

[-[53:50] Allan: That’s what I was going to ask. When did you feel like you’ve made it? For some people, they’ll start their career and be on a shifty ground [for a while]. They struggle until [they get to a point of knowing that] they will always get work. Did you always have work, without having to worry about it?

Nicolas: It’s interesting. I had this discussion with someone — a colleague at Disney — from a different country. My concern was never about getting a job, because it was not that difficult. My concern was more about improving my skills. That always drove me. 

The discussion I had with my friend was: You, guys, call yourselves “artists” in English. It seem to me [that] we never call ourselves “artists” in France. It’s not something you can claim. It’s something that you earn. You cannot call yourself “a master”, [for example]: It’s something that people have to call you. That always drove me. I want to earn something. I want to deserve what I’m doing. I was driven by that idea. I think in Paris, if you’re professional there are so many opportunities to work. If it’s just to pay your rent, you can always find something.

[-[51:58] Allan: I think you’re right. In the industry that we’re in, the word artist gets thrown around so much! If we all decided to stop calling ourselves “artists”, then there would be a massive realization about our work. We wouldn’t be fighting instructions from our directors or supervisors. At the end of the day, we’re painting a house: We’re hired to go build a specific thing, with the work that we do. As much as we want to be creative, we’re getting hired to do a job. 

You can’t go put down that you’re supervisor or a director [on your resume]. Like you were saying, you have to earn that, to be knighted into that category. An “artist” is the same thing. At some point, you’ve been given permission — through the work that you’ve done — that you’ve earned that title.

Nicolas: I didn’t know if it was me or just the French way of defining an artist. Eventually, if someone wants to put down that title, I wouldn’t fight it. [But] actually, I don’t consider myself an artist. I’m more like a craftsman. In French, we have the word “artisan”. There is the same root of “art”, but in French, it’s [equates] to “a craftsman”. I have a very professional approach. I’m trying to be really serious about it. The artistic aspect isn’t coming from me: It’s coming from the director or the supervisor. I try to be as accurate as I can. That’s my duty.

[-[49:17] Allan: That’s an interesting spin. A lot of us have this [misconception] that we’re going to go into the world and direct our own work; how it should be. You could create great work but a director can send it into a direction you aren’t happy with. At the end of the day, as one of my friends has told me early in my career: “As long as they have the money — I have the time.” I think it’s so true. I had people we’ve had to lock out of the room because they were trying to tell the director how much he was butchering the movie because of the change he’s made to that person’s shot.

Nicolas: That’s very interesting. I used to have that romantic way of seeing the job. In beginning, I thought my opinion was important. I think it’s about maturing. Of course, at the end of the day, you are not animating. You’re trying to figure out someone else’s opinion. Sometimes, the director doesn’t know what he wants. So, it’s an opportunity to bring something. Sometimes, he knows the biggest parts — and you have to figure out the details. But most of the time, you’re trying to figure out what he has in mind. If he can’t verbalize it, you have to figure it out anyway.

[-[47:23] Allan: That’s a really interesting one! I think it’s the hardest part of our job: trying to figure out what the director wants. It was a big epiphany for me, in my career. I went from someone who wanted to be good to anticipating what the other person wanted. It changed my workflow. It went from thinking, “This is good!” and getting frustrated they didn’t understand it — to seeing, based on all the changes, what they would see. Learning to live and breathe their vision — rather than my own — that’s something that you figure out with maturity.

Nicolas: I remember that story: I met this Canadian guy when I was in the U.K. He was a compositing artist. He worked on so many crazy films! When they were working on Matrix (the first one), nobody had any idea of what the film was about. They were just comping on those plates with the green background and weird acting. Everyone was convinced it was a very bad movie! It’s interesting: When you give up on your own bias — and say, “It’s not my movie” — you leave yourself open to surprise. Matrix, to me, is a great movie! Sometime you have to trust it and let the director carry out his vision. Most directors have a clear vision!

I had the same experience when I visited Sony. I spoke with their animator. They were [working] on Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. They had that specific type of animation that nobody knew on the team. They weren’t sure it was interesting. When I saw the movie, I thought it was a great film, with a great animation style. You have to trust the vision!

[-[44:12] Allan: It’s one of the few films I laughed all the way through. I fell out of love with animated features after obsessing over them in the 90s. I think that’s a good point. [In your opinion], whose responsibility is it to get inspired about the project? Is this the director’s job to make everyone care? It’s a two-way street. But some people, if they aren’t inspired — it shows in their work. 

Nicolas: We still have a lot of room to express ourselves. I think there is always something you can bring. The challenge is to figure out what the director wants to see. But he also wants to be surprised. So you have room to express something that’s fresh. You have to find a way to be fresh and original, and at the same time, make sure you’re doing what’s expected of you.

Disney is very different from any other experience I’ve had. We have more responsibilities, especially in terms of storytelling. Every shot that we make, we have a storyboard, we have a meeting with the director — we have many [opportunities] to know what’s expected of us. But still, everyone wants to bring something. (Sometimes, there is nothing to bring.) But that’s something I’ve never had before, at any studio. Disney is particular with that.

At the same time, you put a lot of pressure on yourself because you want to feel like you’re part of the team. There are so many amazing animators here. That’s a challenging part!

[-[40:40] Allan: While we’re on the subject of Disney, when you started there, did you put it up on a pedestal just because it’s Disney? Was it intimidating at all, or was it so far into your career [that you felt]: a job is a job.

Nicolas: No, for sure! It was very challenging for me just to leave France. Before I left France, I went to Spain. In my mind, going to the U.S. was just impossible. I was seeing any company in the U.S. would be the next step after London. The only company I was admiring was Pixar because I didn’t know anything about 2D animation (which is was Disney was doing). I wasn’t even considering Disney. After Spain and two years in the U.K., they came to recruit at the company where I was working. They had just finished Tangled and they showed us the making of it. I thought it was amazing.

After I saw what they did on Tangled, it was very challenging. The first year I spent at Disney, it was the most the most challenging experience because I had to [relearn] everything I thought I knew.

[-[39:16] Allan: It’s interesting that you say that though. You almost didn’t want to apply at certain places because they were so far. I think a lot of us have that mindset that prevents us from trying. But what’s the worst thing that could happen? If you’re 18 years old and they don’t hire you — you try again a year later.

Nicolas: Paris is a small city. After two years, you know everyone, especially if you’ve worked for different studios. I think there is a pride: You don’t want to face a failure, so it’s better not to try. (I’m not saying that’s the right way to think.) That’s the reason I was never trying. Again, I was trying to feel confident. Spain was a big step because the team was really challenging. After Spain, I felt more confident. When I met people in London, I got another interview. I thought maybe I really managed to reach the level I was dreaming to [be at]. After I joined Disney, I had to work a lot. It was a new step, a new challenge.

[-[36:53] Allan: And I like that. There are certain points of your career where you go through a huge growth. Sometimes, you can get too comfortable. The idea of going to the next level, there is an idea of “what if?” Only when we push ourselves do we end up growing. I think some people get intimidated by artists who are better than you. For me, that’s the thing I prefer because that’s going to pull me up.

Nicolas: I agree. That’s the only way I learned animation. I never learned by watching a movie or trying to understand it frame by frame. What’s most challenging to me is watching the person next to me animating with the same material, the same character. When I see what other people are able to do, I ask, “Why does my animation suck so much when they can do some amazing things?” It’s hard for me to take references from people when I can’t compare: Is it the rigs? Is it the management? Every company I’ve worked for, there is always someone who is challenging. Always. You watch someone and see what he can do with the same tool — so you have to improve!

[-[34:52] Allan: That’s cool. If they can do it — I can do it. Did you ever do any challenging when people would give you a soundbite and you had to go create animation for it?

Nicolas: Well. Sometimes, I had a wish to do that. The thing is: I have no wish to become a director. I realized a few years ago that my only pleasure is to feel that I’m learning something in my chosen field. I just want to feel like I’m learning something and I’m improving. The reason I never tried those [challenges] is because I’m lazy and I have no wish to have a second career. For me, animating for any kind of studio, if if weren’t Disney — I would have enjoyed it anywhere else! As long as I can feel I can animate and I’m learning something — I’m fine.

[-[33:18] Allan: How did you get into playing a guitar?

Nicolas: My brother is a base player. I think that’s how I got into music. He had a band. I got a guitar and I played with them. We actually have a band here at Disney with three other animators.

[-[32:16] Allan: Do you find any connection between your music and your art? Do they influence each other at all? I know so many musicians and they get their work ethic [from music], or how they structure their flow; or how they learn.

Nicolas: Yeah, I think there is a connection, mostly in how you upload new information into your brain. How do you take a thing outside of yourself and make it part of you? I think the guitar helps a lot. That’s the only way you can learn a piece you don’t know. What’s the process? I have the same issue with acting, I guess. As a foreigner, I had to animate in the American style. This is my everyday life. There is no way I can animate and move with that American style (in body language). I tried many times. The only time for me do that is to learn someone else’s acting. It’s like learning a new language: you have to build up slowly and repeat it everyday. The more you repeat, the less you need to focus. For me, body language has to be learned in the same way.

[-[29:54] Allan: Obviously, French animation is very different from American. How would you describe that difference?

Nicolas: In terms of animation, I don’t know if there is a difference. What is animation? It’s poses in timing. You create some poses and you time them. Through those, you express emotions. I think that’s the same in every country, but the acting is different for sure. If I speak about Italian, everyone knows to make gestures with their hands. Every culture has a different way of expressing itself, depending on their country or their sub-group. I remember that story from an actor who prepared for a role by spending time in prison: The point is everyone has different gestures depending on their country, their social class, their background.

[-[27:09] Allan: When I lived in Sidney, there was a French music channel. Watching those music videos, it’s funny to see cultures translate. I am fascinated with how the American culture influences other places. You have that transference. 

Nicolas: By mimicking American music, we had similar trends [in France]. We watch a lot of American series but everything is dubbed with a French voice. When you watch those series, the lips don’t match their voices. We don’t put our tongue in the same places to make the sounds. I had the same issue with Spanish. There are some sounds I cannot make.

[-[24:18] Allan: I’m always intrigued by different countries, especially France. You use your body language a lot more. With American English, the wordage is way more important than the body language.

Nicolas: There is a psychologist Paul Ekman. I think it was he who was explaining that every culture that express their emotions a lot — they have broad body gestures; and cultures that don’t express their emotions that much — they have small and sharp body language. I thought that was really interesting. I think French express their emotions less. I think that’s why I struggle with animating American style sometimes. That’s where I have to challenge myself.

[-[21:55] Allan: Talking about Ilion: They are a telecommunications company, correct? And they decided to try animation.

Nicolas: I think before that, they had huge success in video games. But it was a different company name. They didn’t want to be a vendor. They wanted to be independent and create everything within the company. It changes a lot of things: There are less politics involved, it changes the mood of the company because they aren’t pleasing a client. I think that’s why enjoyed that company a lot. I think thanks to that, I was animating better. Everyone was pushing each other a lot. When I left that company, I was animating not as well as inside the company.

[-[19:34] Allan: Are there any examples of how it affected you?

Nicolas: First, I guess there was the spirit.

– The spirit of the people there was this: We’re a team and we’re going to grow together. You felt like people were pushing you in the right direction. That’s a good feeling. It’s not about the individual anymore, or about your trying to get a good reel.

– They were experimenting with how to place people in the room by teaming people up. They had small rooms with 6-7 people separated by windows. You could see the other teams, but you couldn’t hear them. All the computers were facing each other. Every room had a supervisor, and every room was a mini projects. You could talk to the guy next to you.

– Then, they would experiment: What if you leave that room and see if there is a better dynamic in a different room? I thought it was very interesting. You animate better when the team is in a good mood.

[-[17:09] Allan: That is so cool! Do you think that having access to your piers and to someone who’s making direct calls (a Supervisor) in the room is easier for you?

Nicolas: Yeah. I heard something interesting: If you have a large room and you put more people into that room, you will have more opinions. But sometimes, when you have too many people in one room, some people become shy. So they realized it’s better to have many small rooms because even shy people can try to express themselves. Everyone was invited to speak up, even junior animators. Anyone could have a good idea and could bring something fresh. That could be a good reason.

[-[15:16] Allan: Obviously, you’ve worked in different countries. Do you think that travel is important? There are all these places now getting the work and some people are getting mad about that. If anything, that should be an excuse to go work in London, or in New Zealand.

Nicolas: I think there are two different topics:

– Working abroad is amazing and everyone should try it.

– The outsourcing problem. I understand when people get mad. I had worked in a country where my daily salary was their monthly salary. How can you compete with that? In my opinion, that’s a dangerous situation.

Apart from that, traveling is amazing. When I went to Spain, I learned Spanish very quickly. When I went to London, I was struggling with the number of accents there. Every day, my colleagues from New Zealand would joke with me.

[-[11:08] Allan: I think in general, you get so many experiences by traveling. It breaks down barriers, if you get too comfortable. I wish everyone would do that. 

Nicolas: It’s also a different experience to live in a country than traveling with a backpack. Spain was amazing! I had a great time over there. I loved London! I love LA, especially for my family. I have two kids.

[-[09:21] Allan: In terms of projects, what’s your favorite one to date?

Nicolas: Zootopia!

[-[09:13] Allan: And why is that?

Nicolas: I think I really loved the directors [Byron Howard and Rich Moore]. It was the perfect combo! Every director is different and it determines the mood of the team.  Some of the comments were pretty tough, but you agreed with them. Every time I went to dailies, I was glad they gave me those notes. I loved everything about that movie! It was very challenging, but it was a good challenge that pushes you in the right direction.

[-[07:42] Allan: Do you have any favorite shots?

Nicolas: A few shots. It’s always some discreet shot. I have few shots I’m happy with, especially when you have the talent [to balance] between the request and what you can bring. When that matches — that’s pretty cool.

I have a huge shot with Judy Hopps in which she is just a kid. It’s very simple but I like it.

[-[06:28] Allan: Do you have a standard workflow for how you approach your days or weeks? Do you have a ritual:

– How do you start your day?

– How do you get into the flow?

Nicolas: In terms of work, I keep changing it every time.

– At the previous company, I worked with straight ahead animation.

– In Spain, we had realtime rigs and we could check everything quickly.

– At Disney, [that approach] was not paying off. The company is based on strong posing and timing. Now I’m working in a more classical way. Creating those poses and sculpting the rig, I’m trying to see how I can improve that.

You have one mouse, you have to select “Control” and they you have to select what you’re applying it to: Is it the rotation, the scale? So there are a lot of steps just with one “Control”. Then you have to go to the next one, come back to the first one because it’s not good. You cannot escape that process because everyone on the team is going to surgically dissect your shots. I have to find a better way to do it.

[-[03:39] Allan: Do you, guys, ever have goals like: you have to put out 20 seconds a day?

Nicolas: I’m lost with that. It’s the old 2D way. I just try to deliver shots on time in two weeks. Sometimes, it’s doable, sometimes it’s not. But I don’t want to be distracted by that. To me, it’s the quality and the meaning, the acting, the posing. I don’t want to get distracted by schedules, even though I know they’re important.

[-[02:34] Allan: That’s right. You could tell the producers, “Hey, I’m an artist! I care more about the quality.” I appreciate your doing this, Nicolas. 

Nicolas: Sure, yeah. Thank you!


Big thanks to Nicolas for doing this Episode. Please take a moment to leave a comment on iTunes. That would mean a lot to me! I’ll be back next week, with a new Episode.

I’m also working on the launch of the next Live Action Series. It will be coming around again in the next month or so. I’m just waning off the last project I’ve just finished and hoping to get a day off. But I’m excited to gear up for the launch.

I’ll be back next week. Until then: Rock on!


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