Natalie Nourigat: Women in Film

gon Alpha, Natalie Nourigat, started her time at Disney as a storyboard artist on widely acclaimed films like “Encanto,” “Raya and the Last Dragon” and “Ralph Breaks the Internet.” As a storyboard artist, she was responsible for creating the rough draft of each movie. “We receive the script from the writer and create the first images of the movie,” Natalie says. “We draw out everything you see: the camera could be here, the character could be this far away, they could act like this. It’s a black and white, sketched-out layout of the entire movie.” Natalie had her first taste of directing when she was chosen to participate in Disney’s experimental Short Circuit Program—a program that encourages anyone at Walt Disney Animation Studios to pitch an original short film through a blind submission process. Through the program, Natalie created Exchange Student, her first animated short. 

The 90-second short film was also Natalie’s first-ever completed film project and was an incredible learning experience. “I didn’t go to art school, so I didn’t have a lot of training,” she says. “The cool thing about Disney is you know you’re working with some of the best people in the business and you’ve got the support of the studio.” At the end of the program, Natalie was invited to pitch theatrical animated shorts. Inspired by her native Oregon beaches, Natalie pitched “Far From the Tree,” the animated short which would go on to play in theaters before Disney’s “Encanto.” Similar to “Encanto’s” exploration of family dynamics, “Far From the Tree” explores different styles of parenting and how to break harmful cycles.

Both of Natalie’s animated shorts were intentionally created to be free of dialogue. “I believe there is immense power in the story,” she explains. “You and I might have very different lives, but we can connect over a story or even just a moment or character in a story. Every day I go into the mind of a character and try to bring out what they’re feeling in a way that’s going to elicit an emotional response from people all over the world.” Today, Natalie is Head of Story for Walt Disney Animation Studios on the upcoming project “Iwájú,” set to launch on Disney+ in 2023. She manages a team of storyboard artists and provides notes and feedback while also connecting with the director, writer, and producer to ensure everything is running smoothly. 

While her future in animation seems certain now, that wasn’t always the case. “I always knew I wanted to draw, but I did give up the idea of being an artist for a while,” she says. Growing up outside of a major film hub, Natalie remembers thinking a career in animation felt like a far-off fairy tale. 

As a student at the University of Oregon, she focused her efforts elsewhere. Although Natalie had written off art as a viable career path, she continued to pursue it as a hobby. From interning at a comic collective and networking in the comics community to attending comics conventions and selling mini-comics, Natalie began to meet publishers and other artists. Before graduating college, a publisher reached out to Natalie with a book deal on a graphic novel. “The publisher first went to another artist who was busy, but instead of telling them no, she recommended me,” she says. “Every major break I’ve gotten in my career has come from another artist recommending me.” Natalie extends this practice today and finds opportunities to recommend artists on projects she’s unable to take on.

“There are not many women who have directed feature animated films, so that would be the dream for me.”

As for the future, Natalie hopes to have the opportunity to direct again. “I would love to direct a feature,” she says. “There are not many women who have directed feature animated films, so that would be the dream for me.” More than anything, she hopes to continue developing original ideas and collaborating with others to contribute to the immense power of storytelling.

Special thanks to Pi Beta Phi for providing this article. Visit Pi Beta Phi’s website to learn more about the organization.

Emma Austin

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