Chris Williams remembers standing at the retirement party for Walt Disney Animation legend John Musker, who directed The Little Mermaid and Aladdin with Ron Clements, and suddenly contemplating his future. “Being a Disney lifer is not a bad thing,” he remembers thinking. “But I didn’t want that to just happen to me, I wanted it to be a choice.” That event was followed not too long after by a company presentation from Pixar’s Ed Catmull, who cited a study where people regretted not things they did, but rather things they didn’t do. Williams, who had spent 25 years at Disney Animation, winning an Oscar for Big Hero 6 and earning a nomination for Moana, decided it was time to jump into the unknown.
He didn’t, however, jump to a rival animation studio or make a foray into live-action, like some other animation filmmakers do. Williams made the decision to go to Netflix. The year was 2018; Netflix was just beginning to bloom its original movies, releasing the first of its YA rom-coms, The Kissing Booth and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before. And, animation? Barely a twinkle in Ted Sarandos’ eye.
“When I decided I was going to leave, I went to get the lay of the land and met other studios,” Williams says. “And I was impressed that they talked about their five-year plan, or 10-year plan, the ‘why we believe we’re going to be successful’ presentations. Netflix was different. Netflix was like, ‘This is the crazy train. We don’t know where this is going. You want in?’”
Won over by their enthusiasm, Williams said yes. And he soon began work on what would become The Sea Beast, a Moby Dick-meets-How to Train Your Dragon rollicking adventure tale, inspired by monster and adventure movies of his youth.
Now, just over four years later, Beast has become the most-viewed animated movie in Netflix’s history, no small feat considering this was the year the company’s feature animation slate exploded with movie offerings ranging from Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio to Henry Selick’s Wendell & Wild. (Netflix’s all-time list is based on the number of hours viewed within the first 28 days of release.)
The movie also has the second-longest Top 10 tenure for a Netflix film launched in 2022, with seven straight weeks in the Global Weekly Top 10 Films list (Ryan Reynolds’ The Adam Project is first on the list, with eight weeks). And it was in the Top 10 for 40 days or more (non-consecutive) in 30 countries. Even six months after its July 8 release, it remains a top performer.
Now, Netflix wants more and Williams is ready to give it to them. In the wake of the success, Williams late last year signed an overall deal with the streaming company, and is now working on not just one feature project but two.
There is a Beast sequel that will bring back monster hunter Jacob Holland and his now adopted daughter, Maisie Brumble. And there is an original fantasy where Williams hopes to use his world-building chops to tell a story both big and small, in the tradition of The Lord of the Rings but with the attitude of The Princess Bride.
Over omelets at a Studio City café, Williams spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about his leap to Netflix (when he parked his car that first day, he felt fear), the Beast sequel (which, quel scandale, may or may not bring back Red!), and his worry that emerging AI technology will put animators out of work.
You have the biggest animated movie in Netflix history. How do you feel?
I feel very fortunate and very grateful and relieved, if you can believe it. I was at Disney for 25 years and it was a very difficult decision to leave. I agonized over it a very long time. There are reasons to stay at Disney and there are reasons to leave. And the reasons to stay are also reasons to leave. They treated me very well, I was very comfortable, and the relationships I had there stretched decades. But I felt like I had to detach from that, partially to tell a story that sat outside the bounds of what you normally consider North American feature animation. You can get creative satisfaction by pushing on boundaries at big companies like Disney or DreamWorks by expanding what people associated a Disney film with tonally. Big Hero 6 wasn’t what people expected from Disney, and that was very gratifying. But I reached a point where I didn’t want to nudge the boundary, I wanted to leap over it.
And it wasn’t until I made that decision, when I first drove down Sunset to where Netflix had their animation offices at the time, and parked my car, that it hit me: “Wow, I am alone. I was a crew of one for the first time.” I was going to be making a movie for a studio that was just coming into being.
And all of the departments — artist development, recruiting — all of it was coming into being. We had to embark to make a movie under those circumstances.
I knew it was going to be tough and creatively risky, so that fact that it turned out the way it did, and that audiences showed up, to see it, is incredibly gratifying. But all the credit should go to the crew. I was very fortunate with the people who were willing to take a chance and join me and Netflix animation. They were literally building the walls around us as we were trying to make a movie.
How do you think the animation landscape has changed since you joined Netflix back in 2018?
We’re in a place where there’s been an acceleration of the trajectory that we may have already been on. When I was in animation school, there was really only 2D animation and Disney was the only company making movies. And, hard to imagine that now, but even that wasn’t a sure thing they were going to last forever. But, that was it. Since then, we’ve had DreamWorks, Pixar, Illumination, video games, TV for kids and adults — it’s incredible how much it’s grown. Stylistically and tonally, it’s been a steady expansion and that has only accelerated in the last four years.
Netflix gets knocks for the movies it makes, especially on the live-action side. But in animation this year, it really established itself as a legit studio. What is the mood inside that department?
It’s a huge source of pride. These are different projects, and they all feel risky. They all feel like they came from a place of passion, that the people who made them really wanted to make them. And that to me really separates it from being strictly a commercial enterprise. When you see these movies that Netflix made, it seems like the artists were given a chance to make the movie they’ve always wanted to make. And there are more coming.
The business model is fundamentally different. If you’re at Pixar or Disney, you make one or two movies a year. And all the eggs are in that basket, so there’s a lot of concern and consternation about that one thing. And when you’re working on it, it’s a conscious thing and it’s also an unconscious thing. You feel that nervousness. If it doesn’t succeed, it can be an existential problem.
At Netflix, the risk is spread out over many things so that no one movie feels like it has that burden. So you’re free to make what you think is great. In either system you can make a movie that is great and one isn’t inherently better than the other. But I do feel like being at a place in my career that is less risk averse is pretty exciting.
So now, all of a sudden, you have two new projects. How did that happen?
We had just wrapped up on the Sea Beast and we were in the post-production phase when we started talking about me continuing at Netflix and working on something else. They were cool about letting me know they wanted me to stay.
I felt so supported throughout the making of Sea Beast, even though it was a massively ambitious movie. That represents a financial investment and risk, and they were always cool letting me making the movie I wanted to make. I always value people’s opinions and I will always listen to what anyone has to say. But they never forced my hand and they never made me do anything other than let me do the movie I wanted to make. And I really appreciated that. And so I wanted to do it again.
So, what are you working on?
I pitched an original fantasy story. And it would be similar to Sea Beast in that I would create a completely cohesive world. Tonally, it would be between Lord of the Rings and Princess Bride. It’s like Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings where you have a history that leads up to the point where the story begins, and it’s a huge world with multiple events going on outside the story being told. But at the same time, I want to have fun with some of the conventions that Princess Bride did. It’s not parody and it’s not making fun of it, but it has a perspective that is light and refreshing.
Then the success of the Sea Beast happened.
I never thought beyond the first movie. We were not planning for a series. And that was for the good. I just wanted to make this a fun experience and not compromise (the movie) by trying to set up future anythings.
A priority in the first one was making it feel plausible and truthful. And when I thought about the truth about where the Sea Beast ended, it looks like everything is nicely wrapped. You have the father and daughter sitting on the dock, the world has changed and given up monster hunting and, isn’t that terrific? But the more I thought about the truth of it, the more I realized the story wasn’t really over.
And primarily, I was thinking about this brand new family of Jacob and Masie that have been thrown together. Suddenly Jacob is a parent, a parent to an especially willful kid, right? And so when you see them on the dock, you know that’s not what parenting looks like. It’s far messier, far more complicated and more trying at times than that. So the idea of the challenges of this new family became interesting to me.
And I also wondered about whether every single hunter in the world would just give up their source of income and identity, and I thought there’s a lot more story here.
Would Red come back for Sea Beast 2?
Can I say… maybe?
One of the things that is true about story is that it always evolves. Dramatically, even. Sea Beast used to be called Jacob and the Sea Beast before Masie existed. And it underwent a radical transformation. Almost anything I say now, in four years, can be completely different.
The story will get a life of its own and communicate back to you and say, “This thing you thought was so great? It’s not so great.” Or, “This thing you didn’t think much of? It’s pretty great.” And in interacting with the story team, the story also grows.
So you’re working on both projects at the same time?
I’m actively developing two projects. It wasn’t what I intended, it just kinda happened. And the executives are letting me decide which one I want to make first. I’m exploring both, writing outlines, pitching ideas and talking to Owen Sullivan (Sea Beast’s head of story), who will co-direct on the next thing, and Jed Schlanger (Sea Beast’s producer).
They are both growing organically and the goal is for one of them to take the commanding lead. Right now, though, I’m going back and forth. The intention is to ultimately make them both.
It’s one thing to be a success on Netflix, it’s another to be one in the “real world.” Is that something that bothers you?
It’s possible to be a runaway success on Netflix while being invisible in other circles, where others haven’t even heard of the movie. And you can go, “Oh, that’s a bummer, I wish more people knew it existed.” But I counter-argue by saying, “Wait a minute, why did we make this? For people to see a billboard? Or for people to actually watch it and hopefully enjoy it?” And by that metric, which is ultimately the right way to think about it, I believe, it’s been a massive success. Which is why I’m happy to remain at Netflix and make more movies there.
There’s been growing talk in the creative community about AI. And taking over the medium of storytelling. Is that a worry you have?
First, I claim to not be an expert and that this is new technology we’re trying to get our heads around and wrestle with. I tend to be more of a Luddite and concerned about these sort of things and I am nervous about the capacity to put people out of work. I’m nervous and skeptical about how it’s going to be used and about the economical pressures on studios, if they can make something cheaper they probably will even if that means hiring less artists. I worry about viz dev artists. I worry about story artists. I worry about all of us and what AI may have the capacity to replace.
The idea that a machine can out-Chris Williams Chris Williams one day is scary.
The fact that there are programs right now that can write pretty convincing essays or stories is scary, and that can be a concern for you, for me, for anybody that wants to create images or create stories, or is involved in visual storytelling. It’s concerning what it can do already. And I wonder where we are going to be in six months or a year from now.
What is the biggest misconception people have about animation directors?
I think directors tend to get too much credit for a movie’s success. I know when it’s working well, it’s a deeply collaborative artform where, if you’re doing it right, you’ve created an environment where people are comfortable to volunteer their ideas and comfortable disagreeing with each other, and disagreeing with me. It should be an egoless environment. And that’s what I’m always trying to create. When all is said and done, the movie is a product of the creative health of the crew.