One of the first things artist Brian Kesinger did as a freshly minted 18-year-old just hired by Walt Disney Animation Studios was buy an AT-AT walker figurine from Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. It may sound like the frivolous impulse of a teenage boy suddenly flush with Mickey Mouse money, but to Kesinger and his brother, the toy was so much more than that.
Growing up “everywhere between Yorba Linda and Buena Park” in the 1980s and 1990s as the sons of musicians, Brian and his brother desperately wanted the coveted Imperial All Terrain Armored Transport toy as a present. But as each Christmas and birthday went, the pricey toy never came.
Kesinger worked his OC childhood experience into the 2009 ABC-TV Christmas short, Prep & Landing, with brother elves coveting a sled instead of high-end Star Wars toys. And though Kesinger has worked on far bigger Disney properties since (Zootopia and Moana, and he just illustrated Marvel’s Groot comic book, a part of the wildly popular Guardians of the Galaxy franchise), the tribute was touching to his brother and parents, who spent numerous hours after school at Disneyland. (The young Kesinger would have no idea at that time his drawings would inspire parts of Tarzan’s Tree House or that he would have his own art shows at the Disney Gallery.)
In fact, much of Kesinger’s portfolio when he applied to Disney Animation Studios as a high-school senior was made up of sketches he made while at Disneyland after school with his childhood best friend. Kesinger admits he only applied to Disney as a means for feedback while he was applying to colleges anyway. Disney actually got back to him before any college. He wasn’t expecting to get accepted, and the Mouse wasn’t expecting him to be so young. In fact, he had to wait a few months to turn 18 before he could start. “It’s certainly a dream job, right?” Kesinger says.
He began in the layout department, fixing leaves and other details in the background of Tarzan. He then worked on Atlantis, a movie that eventually launched his own career as an artist in his own right. “I was on Atlantis for about a year and a half, drawing rivets, gears, pressure valves,” he explains. “I wasn’t doing a lot of character work. So when it came time to drawing characters for [the Story Department], I was a bit self-conscious because I didn’t have much practice. So I started drawing these characters with gears and rivets over the hard parts to draw, and it turns out that ‘Oh, that’s steampunk!'”
He has made his name in the genre since with an art series called Tea Girls, a more feminine and wispy take on an often industrial genre, using tea (it’s a steampunk thing) to color in the stylish Gibson Girls. And his Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Calvin and Hobbes mashups, in which he portrays Kylo Ren as Calvin, were an instant hit.
Kesinger’s Disney training has served him well; he has a line of merchandise, including a plush toy and a parasol, with more in the works, such as a traveling marionette show.
Eventually, he’d like to take a page out of Uncle Walt’s book and make a full-length film. “Luckily,” he says, “I’m in the right industry.”