Lights, camera, action

Mountain Islander makes move to the big screen

by Alan Hodge

Derek Nelson, front, with his father, Bobby Nelson and mother, Millie Nelson, in their Mountain Island home.

Lines from the song in the 1940 Walt Disney movie “Pinocchio” that go, “When you wish upon a star, makes no difference who you are, anything your heart desires, will come to you” seem as if they were written especially for 30-year-old Derek Nelson of the Mountain Island community.
A lifelong Disney fan, Nelson is living his dream by working at the Walt Disney Animation Studio in Burbank, Calif., as a computer-generated lighting artist.
Taking a break from the California climate, Nelson is home for the holidays and visiting his parents, Bobby and Millie Nelson, who live in the Chastain Parc neighborhood.
Derek’s mother recalled his early love of all things Disney.
“We went to Disney World when Derek was nine years old,” she said. “He had a Disney book and read the whole thing by the time we got to Orlando. From there, his interest grew and grew.”
By the time Derek graduated from West Charlotte High School, he was adding movies and theatre to his list of interests, as well as an affinity for computers.
“We watched him grow up and how fast he learned computer games and all,” Millie said. “When he combined his interest in Disney, it all came together.”
Besides Disney, another source of career inspiration for Nelson was the special effects in films.
“I loved ‘Jurassic Park’ and got a copy of the book that showed how they did the effects,” Nelson said.
Other influences he cites are the Steven Spielberg and George Lucas works such as “Star Wars.”
Needless to say, Nelson needed some schooling to mesh his avocation with a vocation. After high school, he attended the University of Central Florida and studied visual media. Graduate school was the Savannah College of Art and Design, where he earned a master’s degree in visual effects.
Fresh from school, Nelson moved into a position with Salisbury-based Miller Davis Studio, where he was video interactive developer.
“It was good working there and boosted my skill level,” Derek said. “But I always wanted to be in film and television.”
That chance was not long in coming. Last summer, Nelson sent out demo tapes and got an invitation to pack his bags and head for Burbank and Disney Animation Studio, where he started in the Talent Development Program as a paid lighting artist apprentice.
In the old days, lighting crew members on film sets moved large lamps on poles or booms into position to illuminate a scene. Now, the technique Nelson uses is all handled by a combination of artistic skill and powerful computers that manipulate multiple layers of images.
“Everything is done digitally,” Nelson said. “The computer processes and renders out the scene.”
The result makes the animation astonishing in its clarity, color and definition and light years ahead of the Mickey Mouse cartoons of old.
So far, titles Nelson has had a hand in lighting includes the short “Tick Tock Tale,” and Disney’s recent feature film, “Tangled.” He is also helping convert the popular film “The Lion King” to 3D.
“ ‘Tangled’ is the story of Rapunzel with a contemporary twist,” Nelson said. “It’s the fiftieth animated movie by Disney.”
Nelson has every right to be proud of his contribution to “Tangled.” The film premiered Nov. 24 at theaters and 3D cinemas and is not only the second most expensive film made to date, but also the most costly animated production with a budget of $260 million.
As for the future, Nelson says he wants to just get better at what he already has a high degree of skill in and continue pursuing his star.
“I want to hone my craft,” he said. “I want to go back to Disney and advance.”
But no matter where his career takes him, his parents will always remember that first trip to Disney World.
“I am so proud to be Derek’s dad and of the accomplishments he is making in his career,” Bobby Nelson said.

Did you like this? Share it:

Leave a Reply