Creative producer Nathan Wilkes on the secret to telling effective stories

Multi-disciplinary creative Nathan Wilkes has worked for the likes of Disney, Netflix and the BBC. We caught up with him to learn more about his work, and how he goes about developing stories for IPs.

Nathan Wilkes is a man of many creative talents. He’s developed IPs for picture books, short films and TV series, orchestrated digital marketing campaigns for Disney, and been involved with product ideation and execution at Blue Zoo Animation.

It’s an impressive career that looks set to go even further, and one that’s built on a childhood love of media and a lot of hard work. “For as long as I can remember, I’ve been enamoured with media in all its many forms,” Nathan tells Creative Boom.

“I remember being obsessed with a VHS of Oliver & Company and watching it on repeat. By around age 10, I knew I wanted to work in film, which progressed into working in animation. I started off by filming my toys. I was a big fan of making random stuff out of K’Nex and so I would make things and film myself acting out scenes with them on the family camcorder.”

Some of the brands Nathan worked on during his time at Disney

Fuelling Nathan on his creative journey was a whole host of artistic inspirations, something which still continues to grow to this day. “This industry is so nice and welcoming that a lot of the time you can just go up to people or message people, and they’ll reply and look at your work and support you, which is really super duper helpful,” he explains.

“Peter Ramsey has to be up there as one of my biggest inspirations. I was gripped by Rise of the Guardians and reached out to him almost immediately after watching it. He was so kind and supportive. And to see everything that has happened since the Spiderverse franchise is just jaw-droppingly, awe-inspiringly brilliant! I find myself really inspired by people who just forge their own path and do their own thing.”

Artists like Gints Zilbalodis and Will Anderson who have doen amazing things on their own and then thrown in a rogue project are a particular fascination of Nathan’s. “I really admire humble beginnings and the fact you can see them in their tiny bedrooms years ago and then see where they’re at now. The growth they’ve gone through I find super inspiring.”

Alpha Blocks and Big Tree City are among the brands Nathan worked on while at Blue Zoo

Nathan jokes that his art style is “whatever the client wants”, but we feel he’s being modest. It’s more than luck that he’s been able to work across a mixture of different mediums and styles as well as being thrown in at the deep end on so many projects.

“My background was originally in CG animation and that’s what I loved doing as a kid growing up,” he reveals. “Then when I started studying that at uni, the jump between doing something on your own for fun and doing something professionally was very difficult to balance. I ended up in limbo for a little while but that was also a great point to be able to go and explore what I actually like doing, and that’s when I landed at motion graphics.”

The jump from studying at the University of Hertfordshire to Disney was a difficult one though. After two years of studies and struggling to figure out what to do next, he took a year out to discover his passion. “I had no clue what form that would take but I knew I had to do it,” Nathan reveals.

“One of my lecturers posted an internship opportunity to take a year out and work at Disney. It was to be a creative production assistant and I thought ‘sweet! that sounds vague enough for me to be experimental with a few different things!’ And then three interviews, three assignments and a test day later, I got the job!

“The second I read the job description I knew it was the job for me, so I wasn’t willing to let anything get in my way. I went so above and beyond during the whole process to always prove myself and make sure there was no doubt left in their minds, and it paid off. Then when I was there, I just gave 110% to everything.”

At the heart of Nathan’s work is a keen eye for storytelling. But with so much advice about storytelling swirling around, how does he focus on what needs to be said? “There’s lots you can read about creating good stories and good characters that are well received, but one of the things that I find most important is to find that point of relatability,” he explains.

“I don’t write anything I wouldn’t like to watch myself, even if it’s for preschool. I’ll still think ‘what would I have liked to have watched when I was little?’ and putting that into anything I create. I think if I wouldn’t watch it myself, it becomes very difficult to get passionate about it.

“At the same time, I get very easily excited about finding new niches and new ways to present and see ideas, and that’s my biggest passion. It can sometimes take a long time to find a story’s USP but once it’s there, it’s really hard to stop me from being super buzzed about it.”

It’s clearly an approach that’s definitely paid off, as Nathan is keeping himself productive by writing, directing, developing IPs and marketing products. How does he stay on top of it all? “The key to juggling lots of responsibilities is… a lack of sleep!” he laughs.

“No, that is very much a joke, and creatives need to get more sleep. It’s a genuine problem. Most importantly, I have an amazing, super talented team around me who are always on hand to take responsibilities and balance workloads in both ways. So that really helps for sure!

“But otherwise, it’s just about priorities and finding balance and sometimes having to step out of the ego of it all and get on with what you’ve got to do. Sure, I would love to spend every day working on my personal project or my new show idea but that’s not the job.

“But I have also started being very strict with my time management and allocating the required time to do personal projects. If I know it’s there in a schedule, that makes it a lot easier to put it aside during work hours because I know I’ll be able to work on it later.”

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