UW alum gets fourth Oscar nomination Oscar winner and UW fine arts alum, Chris Williams talks about The Sea Beast, the animation industry, working with Netflix, and more


University of Waterloo fine arts alum, Chris Williams received his fourth Oscar nomination for his Netflix feature, The Sea Beast. He has previously won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature for his Disney flick, Big Hero 6, and was also nominated for Bolt, and Moana

The Sea Beast was Williams’ first venture with Netflix after having worked at Disney animation for 25 years. He described the experience of leaving Disney as daunting, but he knew that the story he wanted to tell — The Sea Beast — was tonally outside of Disney’s wheelhouse, so he took the leap.

“Suddenly I left all of the things, all of the people and all of the resources and apparatus that I was accustomed to, and there’s so much talent at Disney animation [that I left behind]. I worked with some of the same people for literally decades, and I left all of that and suddenly was alone. So it was risky, and it was daunting, and a lot of the process of making this movie was about finding people that will come and join me and take a chance on me and on this movie. So there’s a huge emotional investment in that and a big risk, and you’re asking hundreds of people to apply their talents and invest their time in this thing.”

Williams added, “It’s a source of pride that we were able to put together a movie that was received well under brand new circumstances working with a lot of people that I only met to make this movie. It was definitely ultimately a really rewarding experience to have taken a chance like that and have it work out.”

With three previous Oscar nominations and a win to his name, Williams was no stranger to the feeling of having his work recognized but this one was particularly special for him. 

“This one felt really good,” he remarked. “Partially because … I’d left Disney animation and, and really took a risk on this one. But it was also really a banner year for animation. There were so many movies that were eligible and so many great films. I really believe that there were the five movies that were nominated, and you can easily make a list of at least another five movies that were fantastic and could have been nominated and were worthy.”

The UW alum grew up in Kitchener, and went to school at Bluevale Collegiate in Waterloo. He then went on to study fine arts at the University of Waterloo before going to Sheridan College in Oakville to pursue animation.

“I always just had an interest in drawing. When I was a kid, that was my favourite thing to do — I would draw all the time. And I would draw stories — I would draw images, sequentially, and I would invent characters and worlds. When I was maybe 10 or 11, my dad bought a camera, so I could make little stop motion films, and I used to do that. It was a hobby, it was an obsession, but I never thought of it in terms of an actual career,” he explained. “I was really into art in high school, and I studied fine arts at [UW]. It was after that, that my mom really encouraged me to think about studying animation as an actual career.”

Williams explained how much the animation industry has exploded since he started.

“At the time, when people thought about animation, they mostly thought about Saturday morning cartoons, and it was thought of as just kid stuff. Disney animation had put out Little Mermaid, so they had had some success and some traction there, but they were not a sure thing either. They were kind of hanging by a thread a little bit as well. but I wasn’t interested in much else and very good at much else. So I went to study animation at Sheridan College, and I realized that that was my thing, that was my calling,” he said. “Then I was just very fortunate that animation — the art form — really blew up around the time that I was going to school there. Disney really took off and then there was DreamWorks and Pixar and now illumination – all these big animation studios.”

The Oscar-winning animator also shared how the way animation is viewed in the industry and amongst viewers is changing, slowly but surely. Animation is being seen more and more as a medium to tell stories, rather than a genre itself, and the perception that it is for children is also being challenged. 

“The industry has really been pushing to make more sophisticated stories that take on a wide range of genres and tones and the audience has really come with us, you know, and we’ve seen that people are starting to really change that perception of animation. But sometimes the studios themselves are the last to sort of pick up on it.”

Referencing the recurring Oscars joke at animation’s expense where the presenter says that they only knew the nominees because of their children, Williams said, “Last year’s Oscars, when they cracked that same joke, again, was kind of a breaking point in the industry. We’d all had had enough of it, because we’d been putting out these movies that were trying very hard to tell sophisticated stories and not succumb to this idea that animation is a genre or animation is just for kids.” 

“This last year, we all collectively said we can’t allow ourselves to be pigeonholed like that anymore. There’s been a lot of conversation about the idea that animation is not a genre and animation is not for Kids. Animation is film, animation is storytelling,” Williams added.

Reminiscing about his time in university, the Kitchener-raised filmmaker talked about some of his favourite spots in town.

We used to go to Phil’s grandson’s [club], and there were different periods — sometimes Fed Hall on campus was really popular, other times, not so much, but we’ve spent a lot of time at Fed Hall and the bombshelter. None of us had classes on Friday afternoon, so we used to just go hang out at the bombshelter every [week].

Next in line for Williams is the sequel to The Sea Beast. “ When we were working on the first one, I wasn’t thinking of it in terms of a franchise or the beginning of a series of movies and I think that’s probably for the good. I think that sometimes movies come off now more like instalments, where you’re really just setting up future movies. So I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to tell a story that would feel complete, and when the movie ends, it feels pretty resolved, but the more I thought about it — especially about this new family of Jacob and Maisie and Blue coming together. When you see an image of them sitting on the dock, that’s not really the whole truth of what it is to be a family. There’s a lot more to it than that, and their lives are going to continue.”