St. Olaf Magazine | Fall 2018

An Animated Life

Utit Choomuang, a retired animator for The Simpsons, has traveled full circle. His curiosity and artistic talents catapulted him to educational and career opportunities thousands of miles from his remote jungle village before bringing him back to his birthplace nearly 50 years later.

Utit Choomuang is living a remarkable life. From the humblest of beginnings in a primitive Thai jungle to an early education by Buddhist monks to becoming an exchange student at Northfield High School and a graduate of St. Olaf College, Choomuang’s curiosity about the world led him far from home. His artistic talent, work ethic, and easygoing personality has sustained Choomuang during a distinguished career as an animation artist in California and South Korea. And finally, his desire to give back to his childhood community has brought him home to Thailand, where he farms and is continually seeking ways to build up the village of his ancestors.

Humble beginnings

The village in southern Thailand where Choomuang was born is known as Nongnokkai, or “the pond where the birds lay their eggs.” For the first several years of his life (without a paper record of his birth, he guesses he’s about 65 years old), Choomuang thought Nongnokkai was the whole universe, he says.

“We lived off the land, eating rice and fish and ants,” he says. His older siblings and parents moved about to work in various rice fields, so Choomuang was often left in the care of his grandparents. As a little boy, he waited on the nearby river’s edge, keeping an eye out for the tradesman who’d exchange a bucket of rice for a bucket of salt needed for preserving fish.

“I spent a lot of time on the river, floating, watching people,” Choomuang says. “One day, I saw a sailboat with people on it wearing clothes, so pretty and colorful, like the birds of the jungle. I was naked and I had never seen clothes before. I told my grandfather I wanted to wear those things.” So Choomuang and his grandfather went on a walk — naked still — to a school about 10 kilometers away, where the schoolchildren wore colorful clothing.

Choomaung’s move from his small Thai village, Nongnokkai, changed his life forever.

That excursion only intensified Choomuang’s curiosity about clothes and prompted his grandfather to send him — at about age seven — to a Buddhist temple that took in children from poor families, providing a uniform and one meal a day while teaching basic reading and writing. “I didn’t really know what school was, but I liked the pageantry of it — raising the flag and singing, standing in rows,” Choomuang says. He didn’t like learning at first and would often disappear for days, scrounging for food in trees or ponds.

He lived and went to school at the temple for four years before returning to his village and enrolling in a school for older children near his home. Eventually, he made his way to a two-year teacher training school, where he met a Peace Corps volunteer with ties to Northfield, Minnesota, who offered him an experience that irrevocably changed his life.

Coming to America

In 1969, Terry Fredrickson, a Northfield native and recent graduate of Stanford University, was stationed with the Peace Corps in Choomuang’s home province of Nakhon Si Thammarat. He taught English at the nearby teacher training school.

“A little kid knocked on my door one night,” Fredrickson says. “He was about 18, but he was quite small.” The kid was Choomuang, offering to do household chores in Fredrickson’s home. “I did’t want to say no, so he moved in,” Fredrickson says.

Choomuang arrived at the door by way of the school’s library. Curious about the books he couldn’t yet read in English, he was told by the librarian he’d have to befriend Fredrickson if he wanted to learn to read them.

“I followed him around, trying to figure out how to sign up for his class, and then I spotted a sign saying he was looking for somebody to wash his clothes,” Choomuang says. “I told him he didn’t have to pay me if he would teach me how to read those English books.”

Utit Choomuang became a Rotary Club exchange student at Northfield High School. Here, Choomaung and Donny Matson connect to Carleton’s TSS-8 time-sharing system via teletype.

Over the course of their lessons, Fredrickson discovered Choomuang’s love of art — he’d made animals out of clay in the jungle and drew pictures on a slate board at the Buddhist temple. “He was very talented at drawing and especially good at cartooning,” Fredrickson says. Before long, Choomuang was creating visual aids for Fredrickson’s English classes, drawing hundreds of flashcards with images of such things as elephants and tigers or a man walking or jumping over a fence.

Fredrickson noticed other talents in Choomuang as well. When his class needed a projector to watch slides, Choomuang built one. “He got a lens from the astronomy teacher and tinkered with it until it worked,” Fredrickson says. “His curiosity, coupled with his mechanical aptitude, led to all sorts of things. He was fascinated with Neil Armstrong’s moon walk, so he found some instructions and built a small telescope, scrounging for materials.”

Unbeknownst to Choomuang, Fredrickson was writing home to his parents, Margit and Sigurd Fredrickson, about this remarkable student he’d met. Fredrickson and his mother hatched a plan to bring Choomuang to Northfield for a year as a high school exchange student, and his father, a music professor at St. Olaf, agreed that the young man could live with their family.

“He was learning English very well, and it was pretty clear to me that he would make it in the States,” Fredrickson says.

With the financial support of many Northfielders, the Fredricksons sponsored Choomuang as a Rotary Club exchange student, arranging for him to fly from Bangkok to Minneapolis to attend Northfield High School.

“I didn’t know this was happening until the tickets were purchased,” says Choomuang, who had never been to Bangkok and had only seen contrails from airplanes high in the sky. His family didn’t think he should go, but Choomuang insisted. “I thought it was really exciting! I was curious to fly like a bird and to go to the other side of the world. I planned to learn everything I could and then come home to be a teacher.”

It was nearly nine years before Choomuang returned to Thailand.

Welcome to the Hill

The Fredrickson family fully embraced Choomuang. They celebrated his birthday for the first time and introduced him to many of their St. Olaf friends. Sigurd took him fishing and canoeing on the Cannon River and sledding down Old Main Hill. Margit read books like Tom Sawyer and My Antonia aloud to help with his English comprehension. She also encouraged Choomuang’s love of drawing, taking him to galleries and setting him up with a booth at the Northfield art fair. “I did portraits with a Chinese brush in about 30 seconds for five dollars,” he says. “That was the first time I made money.”

With the Fredricksons’ help, Choomuang applied for and received a scholarship to attend St. Olaf in the fall of 1972. “Not in my wildest dreams did I think I could go to college,” he says.

Choomuang applied for and received a scholarship to attend St. Olaf in the fall of 1972. “Not in my wildest dreams did I think I could go to college,” he says.

He put his plan to return to Thailand on hold, turned his focus to learning animation so he could use his skills to develop educational materials for Thai schoolchildren, and graduated in three years. He was mentored by the late Professor Emeritus of Art Arch Leann, who’d previously worked in animation at Disney.

“I was fascinated that you could make a drawing walk and talk,” Choomuang says. His senior project — a five-minute animated film called By and Bye about his experience of flying in an airplane — won first prize in a film competition sponsored by the CBS Minneapolis affiliate WCCO television.

Professor Emeritus of Art Mac Gimse ’58 says St. Olaf art faculty members were immediately taken with Choomuang’s humility and outgoing personality. They also recognized his raw artistic talent and his knack for visually absorbing his environment. “He’s astoundingly creative,” Gimse says. “It seems as though he’s always creating a composition out of his field of vision, constantly aware of details around him.”

Professor Emeritus of Art Mac Gimse ’58He’s astoundingly creative. It seems as though he’s always creating a composition out of his field of vision, constantly aware of details around him.

Longtime friends Greg Buck ’77, Choomaung, and Mac Gimse ’58 reunited at St. Olaf, where Choomaung shared his personal story with students in Professor Peter Nelson’s animation class.

Charlie Grist, who attended St. Olaf from 1972 to 1974 before transferring to the University of Wisconsin, cemented his friendship with Choomuang in the art studios of the former Flaten Hall, where the two young men spent hours together working on art assignments.

“I liked Utit right away. He had an infectious inquisitiveness, a great sense of humor, and was helpful to other students in art class,” says Grist, who is a conservation resources manager at the Northwest Power and Conservation Council in Portland, Oregon. After college, Choomuang and Grist lost touch, but their St. Olaf connection had been so strong that, in 1981, Grist and his wife visited Choomuang’s Thai village, even though Choomuang was in California at the time.

“We rode in a dugout canoe with an outboard motor down a muddy river, entering the jungle at full speed and sliding up onto a little wooden plank. The driver ordered us out,” Grist says. “We walked deeper into the jungle, calling out. This little man emerged from a bamboo house about eight feet above the ground, and it was Utit’s dad. I had a photo of Utit with me, and his dad welcomed us in. They prepared a duck feast for us and it was marvelous. It was remarkable to put Utit’s life in context and, at the same time, picture him back in the States drawing cartoons for Disney.”

Grist recently reconnected with Choomuang after nearly 40 years when Choomuang visited Portland for several days in March. They bonded over gardening like they first bonded over art at St. Olaf. “It was as if no time had passed,” Grist says. “For a connection to be sustained over the course of decades — between two people from halfway around the planet, from different cultures, backgrounds, and upbringings — is incredible.”

The world of work

Still holding tight to his plan to return to Thailand, Choomuang accepted a job after graduation creating 30-second animated commercials at a small studio in Edina, Minnesota, to save money for his trip home to start a teaching career. He lived briefly with the family of Greg Buck ’77, a St. Olaf friend, who recalls Choomuang arriving with a burlap bag of rice and a rice cooker. “Utit loved his Thai sticky rice,” says Buck, who now serves as a St. Olaf Regent and is president of Productivity, Inc., a metalworking machine supplier.

When asked by Buck’s father why he was always smiling, Choomuang replied, “Everything is wonderful after you have water that comes right into your house.”

After four years at the studio in Edina, Choomuang went home to the jungle. “I returned to the grass roof house that we moved to a dryer spot every time it rained,” he says. He used his savings to build his parents a new home with a bathroom and to help with his younger siblings’ education. “Then I flew back to America, with only $50 in my pocket, to try my luck in Hollywood.”

Fortunately for him, luck and hard work was on his side.

Choomuang cold-called film studios and animation companies from the Los Angeles airport. He lucked out with independent filmmaker Barry Nelson, who’d just received a $10,000 grant from the American Film Institute to create an animated short film. “He said he’d give the grant to me if I’d work alone and finish the film in six months,” says Choomuang, who drew a cartoon frame-by-frame in Prismacolor pencils — about an animated character directing an animated play — while living in Nelson’s guest house in Malibu Beach.

“He gave me my big break,” Choomuang says.

Choomuang was tapped to become the animation director for The Simpsons overseas operation in Seoul, South Korea, where he managed hundreds of artists who were animating every frame of each Simpsons episode, based on scripts, storyboards and layouts sent from Los Angeles.

Choomuang’s next break came on the day he walked into Bill Melendez Productions in Hollywood, portfolio in hand. He was hired on the spot as an animator for the Charlie Brown and Snoopy Show that aired Saturday mornings on CBS-TV. He drew many of the Peanuts characters and painted background scenery for the cartoons, working for Melendez for 11 years.

Meanwhile, Hollywood was buzzing about a new show called The Simpsons — which would go on to become the longest running primetime animated show, beginning its 30th season — being produced by the Klasky Csupo animation studio. Choomuang thought it would be a cool show to work on, so he applied and was tested on his animation skills. “I had to make Bart Simpson walk into a room, pick up a remote control, turn on the TV, and sit on the couch,” he says.

He flunked the test.

“My Bart walked too much like Charlie Brown,” Choomuang says.

Again, luck intervened. Choomuang was invited to join the studio to practice, he says. “I practiced day and night, trying to get better at drawing the Simpsons.” Eventually he got paid working in character layout, drawing images from storyboards to define a scene’s action and perspective. For example, if the character Homer needed to crack a beer or Lisa was going to play the saxophone, Choomuang drew precisely how that would look on screen. Laid off from the show at the end of the season, Choomuang found work as a scene layout artist for Disney Television’s animated Goof Troop, a job he held for three and a half years.

I’m a problem solver. I knew camera work, sound work, background, ink and paint — every aspect of animation. I enjoyed using what I’d learned, and I’m proud of having worked on a famous show.Utit Choomuang ’75

While at Disney, Choomuang met comic book writer and producer Stan Lee, who offered him work on Spiderman in Japan, which propelled Choomuang into making his biggest gamble yet: go back to The Simpsons to see if that show’s producers would give him a better deal.

They did.

The Simpsons had begun outsourcing the final stage of animation to AKOM Production Company, an animation studio in Seoul, South Korea, and Choomuang was offered the position of animation director for that overseas operation. He managed three subcontracted studios with hundreds of artists who were responsible for animating every frame of each episode of the show based on scripts, storyboards, and layouts sent from Los Angeles. The process took about two months for each episode, and the completed, full-color versions were shipped back to be edited in California.

“It was the perfect job for me,” Choomuang says. “I’m a problem solver. I knew camera work, sound work, background, ink and paint — every aspect of animation. I enjoyed using what I’d learned, and I’m proud of having worked on a famous show.”

Sixteen years and 200 to 300 episodes of The Simpsons later, Choomuang made his final move: returning home to Thailand.

Full circle

Today, Choomuang lives in Nongnokkai, his childhood home. It’s no longer as primitive as it was in the 1960s, having been overdeveloped and stripped of trees by the shrimp farming industry. Choomuang pursued sustainable shrimp farming himself for a while and is now focusing on reforestation and supporting housing and educational efforts in the area.

The village of Nongnokkai today.

“It’s important to me to regenerate the jungle, so I grow coconut, mango, and banana trees,” he says. “I’m also growing trees that can house the ants’ nests, because I love eating ants.”

In 2008, Choomuang welcomed Greg Buck — his friend from St. Olaf — to his village for the opening celebration of an English-language school Choomuang built for local Thai people.

“It was really something,” Buck says. “They killed a cow for the feast, the Buddhist monks blessed the building, and there was much singing and dancing. I’m grateful I got to meet Utit’s family.”

At Buck’s request, Choomuang returned to Northfield this past March to share his life story with the students in Assistant Professor of Art Peter Nelson’s animation class. His visit coincided with the 100th birthday celebration for his American mom, Margit Fredrickson, and gave Choomuang the opportunity to reconnect with friends and reflect on how far he’s come from his days as a boy in the jungle.

“My life started as a naked kid who was curious about wearing clothes,” he says. “So many people helped me to come and study here, and I was lucky to meet the right people at the right time. It was magical, and I want to create that magic for others. I’m home again to help people have the same chances I did.”

“So many people helped me to come and study at St. Olaf, and I was lucky to meet the right people at the right time. It was magical.”