“It all started back in Canada with my love for art,” shared Greg Culp (BA 2006), Associate Director of Cinematography Lighting at Walt Disney Animation Studios. Greg has worked at Disney Animation for 12 years and contributed to the final animated frames of a long list of popular Disney films including both Frozen movies, Big Hero 6, Zootopia, and Moana—to name a few.

“I grew up on a farm in Jordan, Ontario, and I had this passion for drawing in my spare time,” Greg began. In Grade 6, when his grandmother submitted her pies to the Grimsby Fall Fair, Greg decided to send in his art alongside the plates of dessert. After winning several competitions, Greg started to realize his talent for drawing. “Early on, I knew there was something there with the artwork.”

Greg began his first year at the University of Waterloo in 2001 as a student in the Computer Science (CS) program and moved into the Grebel residence that winter. Although computer programming interested Greg, his passion remained in art. “All the electives I took were in Fine Arts; I enrolled in as many as I was allowed. I realized the thing I looked forward to the most were those courses...computer science wasn’t the thing for me.” Greg still enjoyed computer programming, but he wanted to find a way to bridge the gap between CS and Fine Arts. “That’s where I discovered computer animation in a Houdini class with Professor Doug Kirton.” Computer animation made the connection between programming and art. So Greg, three years into his CS degree, switched to Fine Arts and specialized in Digital Imaging.

Greg Culp leaning against Mickey Mouse sign in Disney Animation Studios

“I knew my next step would have to be Sheridan College.” After completing a yearlong Computer Animation program, Greg began working for several animation studios. He started at Starz in Toronto, then joined Rhythm and Hues (R&H) in LA, working on Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel.

Greg found his way to Disney through a conversation with a coworker at R&H. “The person sitting beside me at R&H had worked for Disney and said they were heading back after the job. They invited me to join them...so I applied to Disney Animation.”

At Disney, Greg specializes in the lighting element of animation. “Imagine there were absolutely no lights in this room,” explained Greg as he looked around his office. “You’d have to put a light bulb in. It’s the same with computer-generated imagery (CGI). You need a light in the room.”

Lighting involves more than just brightening a frame. It plays an important role in furthering the storytelling through colour and mood. “I consider it painting with light. I’m using light as my paint strokes. When you see an image, I want your eye to go where it needs to be in a frame. It might need to be looking at a certain character, or a villain, or the shadows being cast. A lighter’s role is all about directing your focus around a frame appropriately.”

The lighting department is the last of a long line of departments. “It all comes together with us.” For Greg, adding the finishing touches to the final frame is one of the most exciting aspects of his job. “It’s amazing when you realize as an artist, as an individual, how much you can contribute to a last frame. It's up to you, so have fun with it!”

“The road to where I am today at Disney was paved from my time at Waterloo and Grebel,” reflected Greg. After moving into residence in his first year, Greg continued to live at Grebel throughout his schooling at UWaterloo. He admitted, “I stayed there as long as I could...and I was always on the food plan!”

During the pivotal time of deciding between finishing a degree in CS or pursuing Fine Arts, Greg felt encouraged by the Grebel community to chase his passion for art. “They all were so supportive of what I was doing and rallied behind me—I had such a great experience there.” One Grebel supporter was particularly encouraging and continues to inspire Greg today. “I met Andrea Paetkau in Orientation Week, second year, and we’ve been together ever since.” Greg and Andrea were married in 2008 and live in Los Angeles with their three daughters.

Most of Greg’s favourite memories from his time at Grebel involve the silly things he and Andrea did while dating—like almost burning down the gazebo. “Andrea should never have done this, but she made a macaroni dinner for me and put sheets around Grebel’s gazebo with candles illuminating the whole thing...and left it to go get me. It could have gone up in flames!” But disaster was averted, and the couple enjoyed a wonderful macaroni dinner date.

“I think Grebel shaped who I am through the friends and relationships I had,” he reflected. The community at Grebel recognized and encouraged Greg’s talent, even when he couldn’t see or believe in his potential. “In my final year of computer animation at Waterloo, I did a project with animated dancing stormtroopers...it was awful. But Andrea was supportive and said, ‘Wouldn’t it be funny if this is something that leads to you being at Disney someday?’ And I’ll never forget that. She had faith in me.”

“Really enjoy the moments with the friends you have,” advised Greg to current students. In Greg’s experience, it was the time spent with friends that “put the lightbulb in the room.” Friendships illuminated and guided Greg’s awareness of his potential—they even lit the long path between a dancing stormtrooper and a career at Disney. Friends paint with light.

Greg's story is part of Grebel's 60 Stories for 60 Years project. Check out our 60 Stories page for more articles in this series. If you would like to nominate a Grebel alumnus to share about their experiences at Grebel, please submit a nomination form.

By Tim Saari

Greg Culp graduated from the University of Waterloo in 2006 with a degree in Fine Arts. He now lives in Burbank, California with his wife Andrea and three daughters. Since 2012, Greg has worked at Disney Animation Studios in Cinematography Lighting. In his free time, Greg enjoys plein-air digital painting and sketching, photography, and taking the family to Disneyland or to Malibu for a beach day.