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Meet Drew Hartel

Today we’d like to introduce you to Drew Hartel.

So, before we jump into specific questions, why don’t you give us some details about you and your story.
I grew up loving to create. I was constantly drawing, writing poetry, writing songs and acting for my family/friends for as long as I can remember. I was never particularly good at any one of those things and never took any professional classes, just a very innocent childlike fascination with creating things. My Papa, Robert, made a huge impact on me. He really encouraged me in all of my obsessive tendencies and would find ways to join me in independent activities and make them fun. Somewhere in high school, I started to realize that my dreams were never going to come true, that time in life is so crucial because you’re learning all these new things that you felt like were kept from you as a child. It seemed like my potential to become a professional creative was simply not in the cards for me. I still found ways to express myself in the random jobs I took on, one of my favorites being a skipper on the jungle cruise at Disneyland.

My Papa passed away from cancer 12 years ago and it changed me a lot. I started to do things to escape my feelings of loss. I began to play music professionally but mostly because of the lifestyle not so much the artistry. A couple of years later, I got married and was helped out by my Uncle to get a stable job in the produce industry as a sales rep. It paid well enough and honestly, I was content for a good stretch of time, I had made peace with all of the disappointments in my life. Several years later, my wife and I were expecting a baby and we put on a documentary to watch called “A Pixar Story”. The film started with one of the founders, John Lasseter, talking about how at one moment during his life it hit him “that people actually make cartoons for a living”. I don’t know why it was that moment in particular but I began to weep and pour out my soul that I had always wanted to work in animation for a living. We talked it over and she fully supported me in investing some time after work to learn about it and maybe take a class. So I did exactly that and became hooked on the subject, I would watch the clock at work and when it hit noon, I would rush over to barnes and noble and read all about the history of animation and how they developed films today.

In December 2012, my daughter Ellie was born and although it was the happiest moment of my life it was also the most difficult because she was born with all kinds of serious health issues and we did not have health insurance. We had to be very creative in how we cared for her and how we could balance credit cards to get to the right doctors. It became apparent that I really needed a good job with health insurance. Fortunately, a great job opportunity came up in Idaho. I flew out there, interviewed, shook hands on a deal and couldn’t wait to move out there with my family. We packed up everything we had and setup our new home. My first day of work I didn’t know where to go or what to do so I called and no one answered. I went to the office where I interviewed and the security guard wouldn’t let me in. It took a few long painful days to realize that something had happened and I was being hung out to dry. We had to call our family to help us get money to move back to California. I paid my landlord for three months of rent and apologized explaining our situation. My wife and daughter flew out to California and I stayed behind to move everything. A man approached me and served me with a big lawsuit from my landlord wanting us to pay for a whole year. I called my wife and out of frustration said as a figure of speech “I just can’t handle this I just wish I wasn’t alive today”. The phone died at that moment, I plugged it in and continued to pack up the truck. I saw a policeman sneak behind my back then another one around the corner near the bushes, a third policeman approached me with his hand on his hip talking to me like he was my friend and just wanted to help. They explained that my wife had called them because she was worried about me. The last thing I said was that I wish I wasn’t alive then hung up the phone and wasn’t answering. I had to explain to them that I wasn’t serious and after much back and forth they agreed to let me carry on. Tired and miserable, I pulled into an old motel that only had smoking rooms available. As I pulled in, I neglected to consider that I was driving a giant UHaul. I felt a huge thud and saw some wood fall down from the sky. Perplexed, I walked outside the truck and saw that I didn’t make the clearance, so now I had some new problems I had acquired with the motel and UHaul.

I made it home the next evening to my parent’s house where we were living in their back shed. I had officially hit rock bottom. Like most good stories this is where mine begins.

I got a job at a local Art Supply store making minimum wage and hoping to hit the six months mark to get health insurance. It was clear each evening when I got home that I was a complete failure and my daughter was literally suffering for it. One afternoon, an old friend came into the Art Supply store and we chatted a bit, he shared with me that he was going to this school called “Art Center College of Design”. I had never heard of it and he was studying fine art which I wasn’t ready to pursue, he mentioned that they teach something sort of like animation there and that I should check it out. Not likely, I thought I had missed my chance long ago to go to college and I had bigger things on my plate. The last thing he said was that they actually had really great health insurance and it applies to your family too. A crazy idea came up in my head and I went home and pitched it to my wife. What if I go to this art school for one semester and we can get health insurance and take Ellie to see as many doctors as we can during that time until we get her health under control. We looked up the school and it turned out to be the best design school in the world. Another obstacle for a guy who had no experience or training but at least this one I was in control of. Neither one of us thought it was a very good idea but at this point, why the hell not. I worked without sleeping for the course of a week, studying all the portfolios of recent students who were admitted to the school. I put together my hail mary portfolio and within a week found out, I was accepted with a small scholarship. I would only have to wait one year to get in, that’s when I snapped, I called the dean of admissions there, poor lady, and begged and pleaded with her that my family depended on me getting in right now. She caved and I started the following week.

My first week at Art Center they gave me my schedule and all of the classes sounded boring, “drawing fundamentals” “history of art” etc… So I skipped my first class, logged onto a computer and dropped all the classes and signed up for a bunch of advanced classes that I didn’t meet the prerequisite for but I was getting good at begging at this point. The four teachers who made a life-changing impact on me there were Jon Nguyen, Noah Woods, Mike Humphries and Bill Perkins. I spent little time with my classmates and hung around all of my professors like the awkward younger brother who was trying to fit in. I discovered that I loved painting and anything having to do with light. I convinced my wife to let me stay there for five more semesters where I studied in two majors, illustration (to learn how to be an artist) and cinematography (to learn how to be a filmmaker). I found a great friend there, Mike Uwandi, and the two of us pushed each other like we were in the military to improve and outwork anybody and everybody. It was a painful couple of years, I slept in my car in the school parking lot a lot and went days without seeing my family. I was at a huge disadvantage compared to every other student except for one thing, I had a stronger drive than most because for me it was all about providing for my family.

I hit a creative wall as I started to transition out of school and into freelance. Long story short, I connected with an Artist I really admired who made me swear at the time to not mention his name so I won’t. He encouraged me to stop trying to create work for other people or studios, but to create it as a way to express myself. I began to do that and four weeks later got an internship at Pixar where my career kept going. I’ve had the pleasure of working for Pixar, Disney, Sony, Laika, Netflix, HBO and Skydance on films such as Spider-man: Into the Spider-verse, Coco and Cars 3. Although I’m positive that my journey was exactly what God led me into and thru, I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone. It was hard on my body and mind and we accrued an amount of debt equivalent to what a doctor would pay for school and hopefully one day we will pay it off but its too far out to even imagine at this point. Although my strategy wasn’t the greatest, there are some truths that I’ve learned along the way and try to share with everybody.

1. Help everyone. Don’t judge people for any reason whatsoever, love people at least as well as you love yourself, its the closest thing to meaning that I’m aware of.

2. Often times in any creative endeavor the goal is not to think harder but feel harder.

3. Don’t focus on creating great art, focus on getting yourself in an inspired state of mind and good art will flow out naturally, I promise you!

4. Never forget all of those who helped you get there and respect them no matter how different their choices may be from yours or how time may have separated you, every single person who has invested love into you matters and should be remembered.

Please tell us more about your art.
As an artist, I focus on two things; helping artists grow and communicating emotions with light. I don’t know what sets me apart to be honest and its something I try to not think about to be honest. I just strive to be passionate, genuine, practical and open-minded when I’m working on a project. The one word that has come up for me a lot lately is the word “classic” it’s a really interesting word and impossible to define until time has proven it to be worthy of such a definition. I’m always chasing that “classic” element not the past but the undiscovered “classic” future.

Is there a characteristic or quality that you feel is essential to success?
Whatever you do, work at it with all of your heart, as for the Lord and not for men – Colossians 3:23

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Image Credit:
© Pixar Animation Studios , © Sony Pictures Animation

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