A packed class of theater students sat rapt as Roy Conli showed slides of the animated movies he has produced for Walt Disney Animation Studios.
When the six-foot-six-inch former actor illustrated what kind of roles he might be offered if he had stayed with acting instead of moving to producing with a slide of Jaws, the hulking, metal-mouth villain from the James Bond films, the students laughed.
And when the Cal Poly Pomona alumnus showed scenes from “Big Hero 6,” the animated movie that earned Conli an Academy Award earlier this year, the crowd “oohed” and “awed,” amazed at seeing the technology used to bring the familiar characters to life.
“It’s really about passion and what you want to share with your audience,” Conli said. “If you have that passion, you’ll never have to work a day in your life.”
Conli came to talk to students May 14 about his life and work. Bernardo Solano, a professor in the Department of Theatre and New Dance, said he met Conli last year at a memorial for the late Robert Gilbert, who chaired the department in the 1970s and 1980s. The pair spoke again after Conli won the Oscar.
“Then the Professor for a Day idea came up, and I saw the synergy there,” Solano said. “And he said yes.”
Long before his 22-year career started at Disney, Conli was at Cal Poly Pomona in the 1970s honing his craft as a young thespian. The theater major relished performing on stage, but credits Gilbert with encouraging him to read books on diverse subjects. That encouragement broadened his perspective and helped to further fuel his creativity.
“This is where I got the best experience of my life,” he said. “What I got at Cal Poly Pomona was phenomenal. It’s really the things that you learn outside of your interests that you bring to your art.”
After graduating, Conli went on to train at the Pacific Conservatory of the Performing Arts. He got accepted at the prestigious American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, which he said is where he decided he wanted to produce rather than act.
“I fell in love with process and that really altered my life,” he said. “I became passionate about research, literature, analysis, design and putting it all together. I wanted to tell stories.”
Conli had other jobs outside of the arts. He worked in an oilfield. He taught at a summer theater program. He also worked in commercial production, which while lucrative, didn’t feed him creatively.
“My life was really not worth living unless I was somehow involved with artistic pursuits,” he said. “A 30-second Campbell soup commercial was not a story.”
Conli went on to help re-open the famed Pasadena Playhouse. He earned a graduate degree at Boston University before coming to the Mark Taper Forum where he oversaw production on all new work including such notable plays as “Angels in America,” “The Kentucky Cycle,” and “Jelly’s Last Jam.”
His production credits at Disney include “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” “Treasure Planet” and “Tangled.” He also ran production at Walt Disney Animation Studios – Paris where he oversaw work on “Hercules” and “Tarzan”.
Conli shared with the students the importance of research and attention to detail when creating an animated film. He and directors Chris Williams and Don Hall traveled to Tokyo and San Francisco several times to get the feel for both cities and cultures to create San Fransokyo, the fictional metropolis where “Big Hero 6” takes place.
“Visual accuracy makes the world a film creates comes alive, and the audience notices the details”, he said.
“Never underestimate your audience,” Conli said. “Your audience is the most important thing.”