Disney Connection: Artist alum walks in footsteps of ‘Uncle Walt’
Chris Chapman ’03 grew up in the Chicago suburbs as a huge fan of Walt Disney cartoons and Walt Disney World in Florida. As an adult, he helps carry Walt’s legacy forward by finding new ways to tell wonderfully exciting stories that will entertain the entire family.
He does so as the global creativity and innovation director for the $40 billion-a-year Walt Disney Company global empire.
At the tender age of 32 and just 10 years after graduating from Illinois State with a fine arts degree in graphic design, Chapman has achieved the kind of success most entertainment-industry wannabes only imagine.
A talented artist who has won plaudits for designing retail merchandise and illustrating marketing materials linked to such Disney cinema blockbusters as The Lion King, Chapman has risen rapidly through Disney’s creative ranks. He is now one of more than 150,000 employees working to keep Uncle Walt’s dream of a worldwide Magic Kingdom a thriving reality.
Chapman signed on for an internship at Walt Disney World after his junior year at ISU. When Disney’s brass saw how good he was at creating story-driven merchandise based on their characters, movies, and theme parks, they offered him a job right out of college.
He joined the Disney team as a graphic designer in 2003, starting at the entertainment giant’s Orlando Animation Building. The congenitally upbeat ISU grad began climbing the ladder during his six years there. After several early successes at designing Disney products—including the popular Vinylmation series of cartoon-based figurines—Chapman was tapped in 2011 to head the company’s West Coast Creativity and Innovation Department.
The unique assignment requires leading creativity and innovation sessions aimed at bringing out the best in writers, animators and designers at Disney divisions around the globe.
Operating out of the company’s Creative Campus in Los Angeles, Chapman directs wide-open brainstorming sessions for an outfit that easily ranks as the largest entertainment entity on Planet Earth. Walt’s numerous production units include Disney Parks, Walt Disney Imagineering, ABC Television, Walt Disney Studios and Walt Disney Animation Studios.
His work can be found at Disneyland Resort, Walt Disney World Resort, Disney Cruise Line, Hong Kong Disneyland, and World of Disney Stores.
What’s it like to spend your days jetting between Orlando and Los Angeles as well as around the world to Paris, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Barcelona and London to lead high-octane innovation projects with the top execs running Disney’s vast enterprise? Chapman answers with a burst of laughter.
“I’ve got a great job, that’s for sure. The work I do is so creative and exciting, and the people I work with are so talented . . . well, there are times when I just have to stop what I’m doing and pinch myself,” said Chapman, who has been working in Los Angeles the past two years. “What our team does, essentially, is help other groups at Disney come up with imaginative big ideas and then bring them to life.”
Describing how his “blue sky creativity sessions” work, Chapman talked excitedly about a series of meetings in which he coached studio and marketing executives on how to ramp up this summer’s scheduled release of the next Disney Muppets movie. The widely publicized event will be accompanied by a massive global sales blitz of Muppet-related toys and other products.
One of Chapman’s favorite strategies during creativity sessions is to hand participants a crayon to smell. How does a round of crayon-sniffing help managers get in closer touch with their own creative energy?
“It’s simple,” said the ebullient innovator. “According to several recent psychological studies, many people associate the smell of ordinary crayons with childhood experiences in which they were able to express their natural creativity in comfort. The nostalgia from crayon-sniffing activates Alpha brain waves that allow for free-flowing thoughts.”
Another favorite tactic is to give “ideation session” participants a loaded water gun. As the action heats up and creative ideas are explored, the water guns can be fired at anybody who downplays a concept with harsh criticism.
“That’s a very interesting process to watch. What usually happens is that when somebody tries to shoot down an idea with language like ‘can’t’ and ‘won’t work’ and ‘leadership won’t go for it,’ everybody else grabs their water gun and squirts ’em! Usually it doesn’t take more than a few squirts before attitudes start to change,” Chapman said. “And when that happens, everything starts to open up and the creative ideas really begin to flow.”
Chapman tapped into his own spontaneous creativity while completing ISU graphic design courses in the late 1990s, when “some really gifted teachers like (associate professors) Julie Johnson and Peter Bushell told us that the key to success in design was to ‘make mistakes rapidly’ so that we could learn from them and then move on.”
The approach paid off in a 3D fundamentals course, Chapman recalled. “Each student had a 3D design project due right at the end of the semester. I had come up with a nifty design-idea that I called ‘The Hand in the Cookie Jar.’ To make the design, I had to craft a human hand out of plaster. But then, the night before the project was due, right in the middle of the drying process, the fingers started to fall off!”
Because he’d been schooled in class to “embrace failure,” Chapman kept his cool. “It was already 2 a.m. and it was due at 7 a.m., but I refused to panic. Instead, I asked myself: ‘Okay, what do I have here, and what can I do with it?’
“Within a few minutes, I came up with an entirely different concept: ‘The Hand of the Dictator.’ What I did was make a bunch more fingers and then scatter them around like they were marching off to war or something. Then I created a stand for the fingerless hand, a dictator-poster that stood behind the hand, and I hid a tape recorder that played blaring dictator music. My professor was thrilled when I told her how I’d turned a disaster into a creative opportunity.”
Chapman went into the Disney internship empowered by this new appreciation for rapid failure. Once hired, he experienced a meteoric rise. He earned rave reviews while crafting a series of Disney toys, purses, logos, brands, games, candy and T-shirts.
He nailed down his first supervisory assignment as art director for the Tinker Bell brand. Soon after he was tasked with translating movie-hit blockbusters such as Pirates of the Caribbean into retail products. Such early success led to his current role that impacts the entire company. He is now poised for a dazzling career with potential for remarkable achievement as a Disney director and designer.
“I know Disney is here to stay and that we’re going to continue to push the envelope in creative entertainment,” Chapman said when asked to predict the future of the world built around Mickey and Minnie.
“The Walt Disney Company is doing amazing things, and we recently broke ground for a new park in Shanghai,” he said. “I think that kind of remarkable growth is based on our continuing determination to remain creative and innovative. At the same time, we never want to forget our basic mission, which is to provide magical story-driven quality entertainment for the entire family. We will continue to grow and remain innovative with our deep well of creative minds.
“Really, I think Walt said it best, himself, when he predicted: ‘Disneyland will never be completed. It will continue to grow as long as there is imagination left in the world.’”