"Keeping those good relationships with other artists is also the key to succeeding in the industry."Chalky Wong
Image via Chalky Wong
Get ready to meet the man, the myth, the animation legend - Chalky Wong! Hailing from Hong Kong, Chalky's passion for animation has taken him from the prestigious CalArts animation school to a successful career in the animation industry.
Although his dream was to become a director, Chalky found his calling in design work and occasional storyboarding for feature films. His creativity is fueled by his love for transporting audiences to new worlds and drawing inspiration from artists like Tim Burton, Chris Sasaki, and Arthur Fong.
As a full-time freelance animator, Chalky enjoys the flexible hours that come with collaborating with different studios and people on multiple projects. But let's be real, we all know the animation industry can be a little unstable regarding finances.
Luckily, Chalky's got some words of wisdom for all you aspiring animators out there - keep making art for yourself, build good relationships with other artists, and stay true to your unique voice and interests.
Despite the challenges, Chalky's optimism for the future of animation is contagious. He predicts a more creator and director-driven industry, where each film is its own unique ecosystem, and studios are constantly competing to come up with fresher and fresher-looking animated films.
For those of you wanting to break into the industry, Chalky encourages you to focus on being the best version of yourself and building on your interests and unique voice. With his talent, passion, and dedication, Chalky Wong is the ultimate inspiration for all aspiring animators out there.
Q & A with Animation Freelancer Chalky Wong
Could you give us a brief overview of your background and where you find yourself now in your career?
I was born and raised in Hong Kong. Growing up as an aspiring artist, I was fortunate enough to have a family with enough means to make me feel like pursuing an artistic career was a viable option so much so that I could even dream of attending CalArts, which I saw at the time as the best school for animation in the world.
While as a child, I dreamed of becoming a director, spending four years making films at school quenched that thirst for me temporarily, and I am now happily doing design work and occasional storyboard work for feature films.
At what moment did you realize your passion for animation?
While I’d always been fascinated with Western animation (one of my first formative memories was obsessively drawing Monstro the whale after watching Pinocchio), there was one moment when it clicked with me that there were actual people and artists behind the animation that I enjoyed so much.
When I was around 9 years old, I picked up “The Art of the Nightmare Before Christmas”, and flipping through it, I was instantly entranced by the drawings. They were of the characters I saw on screen, but they were just scribbles on paper - similar to what I was absentmindedly doing every single day. I didn’t know it at the time, but those drawings were done by Tim Burton, an artist who continues to be a wellspring of inspiration to me.
Image by Tim Burton via Heritage Auctions
What do you think is the main driving force behind your pursuit of success as an animator?
Other than the fact that I would like to continue getting paid to draw, I think there’s an inherent desire to tell stories in every artist working in animation. We all remember that almost religious, out-of-body experience of being transported into another universe through watching animation.
Although that ecstasy gives way to the more practical aspects of the animation industry, I think that spark remains in all of us. The 9-year-old in me gets giddy at the prospect of losing myself in a world of my creation and sharing it with thousands of people; the 26-year-old artist in me is excited about pushing myself artistically and working with much more talented people.
Who has been a significant inspiration in your career journey so far, and why?
There are too many to name! One of my first jobs in the industry was working under the amazingly talented Arthur Fong, who was with Sony Pictures at the time.
I was awestruck by his ability to get things done and still maintain great relationships with people. His ability to view work as work and yet still maintain a healthy dose of curiosity and passion is something I strive to have as I age.
Chris Sasaki at Pixar is another one of my artistic heroes that I had the pleasure of talking to. His discipline and humility as an artist will remain something I draw inspiration from forever.
Work By Chris Sasaki
In your experience, what is the biggest benefit and challenge of working in the animation industry?
The biggest benefit of this industry is that it’s never boring. There aren’t many “jobs” in the traditional sense in this industry anymore, instead giving way to something similar to the “gig-based” economy we see in many other industries.
You get to work with many different studios, people, and projects, and as an artist who wants to stay excited and creative, that is such a blessing. That is a double-edged sword, of course. You can easily find yourself working paycheck to paycheck, lacking a stable “home” company. I’d say the biggest challenge in the industry is having a long-term steady income and financial stability.
If you could give one piece of advice to overcome this challenge, what would it be?
Keep making art for yourself and keep good relationships with people. By making art that excites you, you’re nurturing yourself as an artist and reminding yourself that you’re not just a worker. Maybe you’ll even branch out to artistic ventures outside the animation industry!
Keeping those good relationships with other artists is also the key to succeeding in the industry. It’s a small circle of people who work in animation, and having those people who enjoy working with you and have your back will land you many gigs.
Could you provide us with a glimpse into a typical day in your life as an animator?
As a freelance full-time animation artist, I have the privilege of having flexible hours. My earliest meeting is usually 10 am, and before that, I try to get at least 3 hours of work done. I’m currently juggling a full-time visual development gig and a part-time storyboard gig, so I switch back and forth a lot.
These days, most of my work time is spent researching references for my viz dev job and putting in enough drawings for my storyboard job. Work can get overwhelming so I try to get in my daily 90-minute workout session as much as possible. It’s kind of like free therapy!
Staying up-to-date with the latest techniques and technology is vital in the animation industry, how do you ensure that you remain at the forefront of the latest advancements?
Long story short, I don’t worry too much about it. My asset as an animation artist is my voice and work ethic. Neither of these is affected too much by changes in trends or technology.
I focus on working on myself as an artist, which entails interacting with other artists I admire and look up to, as well as practicing my craft every day.
I tune in to animation news once in a while on social media and try to make sure to watch the popular animation shows/movies of the season. But that’s mainly just for me to enjoy!
What made you decide to pursue a career as an animator?
I wasn’t that great at studying, so I decided to get good at drawing instead. By the time I was in high school, I had kind of cornered myself, so it was too late to change course. Before CalArts, I took a diploma course in multimedia design. I took a concentration on animation and received a lot of positive feedback from teachers and classmates, which made me think I had a shot at doing this for a living.
Aside from obviously having great love for the medium and craft, I learned about wages and union involvement in the animation industry. Learning that having a career in animation was a financially viable option for me definitely played a part in my decision.
Can you share with us a standout experience from your time in the animation industry that has had a lasting impact on you?
Like everyone else, I was going through a rough patch during the pandemic lockdowns. I took a break from school and was going a little stir-crazy at my family home in Houston. Out of boredom, I began to draw silly drawings and post them on Instagram. It became a source of purpose and fun to try to make myself smile or laugh with my own drawings.
A couple of months later, I got an email from Sony asking for my availability. Apparently, a director had found my doodles on Instagram and thought I would be a nice fit for a project they were developing. That project was my first real job in the industry as well as the most creatively fruitful project I’ve ever done. Learning that I could be genuinely myself and still find a place in the industry was very affirming to me and gave me the drive to keep going.
Maintaining motivation can be a challenge, what methods do you use to keep your creativity and inspiration flowing?
I try to keep the mindset that the work I do for work is different than the work I do as an artist. In my experience, artists tend to tie their self-worth to their productivity under the company system, which leads to burnout and exasperation.
I personally never force myself to draw if I don’t feel like it, unless I absolutely have to, i.e. for work. I go through months where the thought of picking up a pencil makes me sick. I try not to stress about it. I work on myself outside the page - watching movies, spending time with my wife and family, catching live performances, etc.
The art you make is only as good as the experiences you put in. I trust that the artist in me will keep absorbing even when I don’t feel like creating.
What are your thoughts on the future of animation, and what do you predict the industry will look like in a few years?
On the company side, the future doesn’t look too great for workers in the industry. The streaming bubble seems to be popping, and layoffs are becoming more and more large-scale.
However, show cancellations aside, the creative state of mainstream animation has never seen better days. I foresee studios competing with each other to come up with fresher and fresher-looking animated films. Stop motion is also going to be back in a big way.
We’re also beginning to see a blurring of lines in the branding or “personality” of studios. Where you used to be able to tell in a heartbeat whether a film was produced by Pixar or Dreamworks just from the look of the film, “studio styles” are now less in vogue. I predict a more creator/director-driven industry, where each film is its own unique ecosystem.
Lastly, do you have any additional words of advice you would like to give to aspiring animators wanting to break into the field?
Don’t feel the urgent need to “reshape” yourself to fit into the industry. Your voice is what makes you unique. Anyone can render a face beautifully if they put in enough hours. Instead, build on what you’re interested in and what makes you excited to draw/ create.
Focus on being the best version of yourself. We are the ones who will shape the industry, so it’ll be a waste if you focus your energy on being just like everyone else.
Work by Chalky Wong
What Freelance Animators Can Learn From Chalky Wong & Implement Into Their Own Careers
Chalky pursued his passion for animation by attending CalArts. He initially aspired to become a director but found fulfillment in design and storyboarding work for feature films. The driving force behind his success as an animator is his desire to tell stories and create new worlds.
Wong draws inspiration from many artists, including Arthur Fong and Chris Sasaki. He enjoys the ever-changing nature of the animation industry but acknowledges that financial stability can be a challenge. Wong suggests maintaining good relationships with other artists and continuing to make art for oneself as a means of overcoming this challenge. He also emphasizes the importance of self-improvement through daily practice and interaction with other artists.
For more informative interviews with animators, as well as answers to any other questions you might have about working as a freelance animator or studio owner, be sure to follow our blogs, check out our free masterclass, and our Animation Business Accelerator Program, download a copy of our free marketing handbook, and check out our blog on “How to Start an Animation Studio”!