O-Town Artist of the Month: John Hurst, the “Squirrel Guy”

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Perhaps the most famous squirrel in the world lives in one of Orlando’s downtown communities.

Yes, the creator of the squirrel from Ice Age is your neighbor. Born in New Jersey to two schoolteachers, John Hurst can’t remember a time when he didn’t draw. He used his parents’ papers and pencils and even their walls and furniture as his canvases.

Hurst studied fine art at the University of the Arts in Pennsylvania, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and then a time in Boston. He eventually earned his degree in illustration from the School of Visual Arts in New York City.

Earning a living as an illustrator was satisfying, but, when Hurst learned of a call from Disney to become an intern working on The Lion King, he applied. For nine months, he heard nothing while The Lion King was finished. Hurst finally got the notice to attend Disney “boot camp” in Orlando to intern on Pocahontas. After only three months, he was hired to a full-time position and drew the main character.

While still an intern, he married his life partner, Chimene Pindar. They met in Philadelphia when they were both young and will be celebrating their 25th anniversary in October. When they moved to Orlando, they bought the home they live in today.

“My first full-time project in 1995 was ‘Pocahontas,’” Hurst said. “My characters were Pocahontas for Pocahontas, and, for Mulan, I did the little dragon, Mushu.”

After that, Hurst worked on The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Hercules, Tarzan and Lilo and Stitch.

“My favorite character to animate was Nani, Lilo’s older sister in Lilo and Stitch,” Hurst said. “I loved her.”

Mulan, Lilo and Stich and Brother Bear were completely produced in Orlando before Disney closed the animation department. Orlando was home, so Hurst looked for new opportunities.

In 1995, Disney took a risk with computer animation when they released Toy Story. According to Hurst, “It was such a new way of animating films that they had not even thought of making the toys of the characters, like Woody and Buzz Lightyear.”

Hurst said Nain (Lilo’s older sister in Lilo and Stitch) was his favorite character to animate. (Courtesy of John Hurst)

With all the new technology and changes with Pixar and Disney, Hurst began working with Blue Sky Productions/20th Century Fox in White Plains, New York. There¸ he became a story artist, developing a story board for his characters complete with the background scenes.

“It is something like a comic strip,” Hurst said. “At the pitch meetings, I literally act out the characters I have drawn with sound effects, motion and background.”

At Blue Sky, Hurst works with a team, and they bounce ideas off of one another and capture the vision of the director. In 2002, Scrat came to life. Scrat is the crazy squirrel chasing his acorn in the first Blue Sky computer-animated feature film Ice Age and the reason Hurst quickly became known as “the Squirrel Guy.”

Scrat has not stopped running after his prize and neither has Hurst. After a year of brutal commuting, he is now able to collaborate via Skype and video conferencing. His family has grown to include four active boys. In 2006, he was part of the team that made Curious George come to life.

In 2011, Hurst won a prestigious Annie Award for his storyboard of the film Rio. With the Blue Sky Studios team, he was able to work with Charles Schulz’s son and grandson on The Peanuts Movie in 2015.

Hurst was invited to San Raffel, California, to meet with George Lucas about a possible future project. While there, he was able to explore the Lucas Ranch and see his extensive art collection. Although Hurst is an illustrator, his background is fine art, which he pursues for his own pleasure.

In 2017, Hurst’s most recent Blue Sky Studio production, Ferdinand, was nominated for an Academy Award for “Best Animated Film.”

“As an animator, I had a single character to draw, but, as a story artist, I draw all the characters, which is what I did for Ferdinand,” Hurst said.

It seems as if the sky’s the limit for Hurst. Just recently, Hurst and his wife took their four boys — Keegan (23), Miles (18), Noah (13) and Luca (4) — on a whirlwind European tour of nine countries. As an artist, this kind of adventure feeds one’s soul. We can only imagine what will come next from Hurst’s creative mind.

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