Living in Hog country is a natural fit for David Kersey, executive director of the New Design School in Fayetteville. Although he grew up on the Texas side of Texarkana, Kersey was born in Little Rock and raised by parents who graduated from the University of Arkansas.
Kersey knew early in his childhood that he loved art. He recalls a story of being five years old, carrying around a drawing pad and portfolio of drawings and paintings. “Art was my thing,” he says. While art was always a focal point for him, Kersey was also a multi-sport athlete. “There was a time in high school that I had to kind of make a choice between sports or art,” he remembers.
As a sophomore in high school, Kersey was introduced to computers, which changed his way of thinking about art. With help from a friend, he learned about technology and got hands-on experience with how computers work. Around this time, the artist in Kersey became inspired by the smash hit Toy Story, 3-D art, and CGI animation.
Kersey admits that utilizing the technology became sort of a way for him to hide behind a computer, without putting his own original art in the forefront. It became easier for him to work in groups and use computers, instead of taking the route of traditional fine artist.
Luckily for Kersey, he found the Savannah College of Art and Design, which had both a fine arts program and athletic programs. “I played soccer there, and continued to work on art,” he says of his time at the Georgia school. He knew that he wanted to work on movies for a career, so he earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree with a specialization in computer animation.
Upon graduating college, Kersey began the job search process. “Basically in the end, I had a VHS tape with a bunch of stuff on it that was pretty terrible,” he laughs. “Well, it was OK,” he adds. He sent dozens of resumes and tapes to places like Chicago and Los Angeles. After an extended visit to Chicago, and an interview with a game company, Kersey decided it wasn’t the place for him. With only one interview scheduled in LA, he packed up with his then-girlfriend and moved west.
Kersey didn’t get that job. “But I had a computer, and I had the internet, and I had the tool set to make stuff that I had learned in college,” he says. Kersey got online and began to land some freelance work. He recalls how that time was difficult and credits the family of his girlfriend with helping to keep them afloat in the lean times. “It was feast or famine, for sure. Get a gig, make a little money,” he remembers.
Kersey’s first big break in LA came in the form of a job with a movie production company owned by actor Jon Voight, working on the film The Karate Dog. “I ended up starting there doing something I had never done before,” he says of his role as a 2-D Tracker. Kersey worked from 7 p.m. until 4 a.m. tracking camera movements of a computer-generated dog. Though it wasn’t what he’d studied in college, it was his first taste of the movie making business. He believes that not being afraid to ask questions was a big help during this learning process.
Most jobs for Kersey and other artists were contract or project based, meaning that they were hired for one piece of a project then were able to move on to other work. During this time, he found himself networking with people who had worked for Disney, Sony, DreamWorks and others.
Kersey’s next job led him to Sony Pictures, during the making of The Polar Express, which utilized a technology called motion capture. In this project, Kersey was on the cloth and hair team for animation. He stayed in this role at Sony for six years, until he became weary of designing hair. “I felt stagnant as an artist,” he recalls.
Around this time, Kersey’s friend and former co-worker from The Karate Dog was working at Disney, and told him about an opportunity to work on Tangled. “Oddly enough, I’m ready to quit working on hair, and I get hired for the biggest hair movie ever,” he says with a laugh. At Disney, Kersey began working in the look development department, which created textures and materials for the movie, including the hair.
Once the project was complete, Kersey found himself without work again. Coincidentally, he ran into the supervisor of the hair simulation department with Tangled, and inquired about moving over to his team. As luck would have it, they needed help in hair animation and Kersey was able to work solely on animation for the main character of the movie, Rapunzel. “Looking back, I was insanely fortunate that it just went like that,” he says.
He worked on Rapunzel’s character for about six months, then remained on the look development team to create Wreck It Ralph, which turned out to be Kersey’s favorite movie to work on and to watch. He was also on the team to create the smash Frozen, which won the first Oscar for Disney in the animated feature category. He also has worked on award-winning short films.
After working five years at Disney and 15 years in LA, Kersey began to seriously think of leaving the west coast. He can remember as early as 2003, talking to his mother about leaving. “LA’s not my place. I’m here for the experience,” he told her back then. He loved the sunny beach life, but knew it wasn’t a great place to stay forever.
As Kersey began the next job search, he found himself looking at similar jobs in big cities, and nothing felt right to him. “I knew education was something that I was going to be part of in some way, shape or form,” he says, because he’s always felt drawn to helping others learn.
He remembers a road trip that brought him to Northwest Arkansas two year prior to leaving LA. He loved the area and all the nature around it. Upon returning to LA, he realized what he missed. “I missed seasons, thunderstorms, bass fishing, hiking, access to nature,” he says.
Kersey knew he was ready to give up the long commute time and the traffic in LA. He left his job at Disney to move back to Arkansas. “I came here with no idea of what I was going to do,” he says.
This is a two-part interview with David Kersey; check back here for the conclusion next week.