We are truly saddened to report that veteran animation director and storyboard artist Kelly Asbury has died. Asbury, best known for directing Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, Shrek 2, Gnomeo & Juliet, Smurfs: The Lost Village, and UglyDolls, lost his life at the age of 60 after a long battle with cancer.
Asbury’s representative Nancy Newhouse Porter confirmed his passing to Deadline:
“He was one of the most admired and beloved people in the industry. It’s heartbreaking for everyone.”Nancy Newhouse Porter, Kelly Asbury’s representative, Newhouse Porter Hubbard
Born in Beaumont, Texas on January 15, 1960, Kelly Adam Asbury built up his love for drawing through illustrating stories between him and his father. At age 7, a theatrical screening of Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs with his brother was what motivated him to become an animator, and later with the Christopher Finch book The Art of Walt Disney. After a lengthy process and a lot of commitment, he got accepted into the California Institute of the Arts in 1980.
After his second year at CalArts, Asbury was hired by Disney to storyboard a project in the live-action division, and later at Walt Disney Feature Animation where he gained his first screen credit on The Black Cauldron as an in-between artist. This then followed with him becoming a visual development artist on The Little Mermaid, The Rescuers Down Under, and Beauty and the Beast. He also worked on Henry Selick’s The Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach as an art director and storyboard supervisor respectively, and briefly at Pixar as a storyboard artist on Toy Story.
Asbury moved from Disney to DreamWorks Animation in 1995, working as an artistic supervisor on the story of The Prince of Egypt, and as a storyboard artist on Shrek. He was originally going to direct the latter with Andrew Adamson, but the death of Shrek’s original voice actor Chris Farley temporarily put the project on hold. As a result, Asbury was then assigned to be the co-director of 2002’s Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron alongside animator Lorna Cook. He would later get another chance with the green ogre by teaming up with Adamson and Conrad Vernon to direct the highly-anticipated Shrek 2, which would release in 2004.
Both Spirit and Shrek 2 were well-received, and both were nominated the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, but it was Shrek 2 that became the massive success, becoming the highest-grossing animated feature at the time by grossing $919 million worldwide. While Spirit wasn’t as big of a hit, it did eventually gain a strong cult following and even spawned a rebooted Netflix series in 2017 titled Spirit Riding Free.
After additional storyboard work on Kung Fu Panda and Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa, Asbury departed DreamWorks for his first solo directing gig, Gnomeo & Juliet. A comical take on the famous William Shakespeare play, Asbury served as the director, one of the writers, and the voice of the Red Goon Gnomes, while Arc Productions (today known as Jam Filled Toronto) provided the animation.
Reviews were mixed upon Gnomeo & Juliet‘s 2011 release, though it performed decently at the box office, and Asbury personally considered the film to be the high point of his career. He later reprised his voice role and served as a creative consultant on the 2018 sequel Sherlock Gnomes, which was directed by Kung Fu Panda‘s John Stevenson.
Asbury briefly returned to Disney Animation to storyboard on Wreck-It Ralph and Frozen before being hired by Sony Pictures Animation to direct a project titled Kazorn and the Unicorn. Due to development issues with Kazorn, he was reassigned to direct a fully-animated reboot of The Smurfs. This became known as 2017’s Smurfs: The Lost Village.
With The Lost Village, Asbury aimed to honour the work of Peyo while also introducing unexplored elements of the franchise. Additionally, he provided the voice of Nosey Smurf, and even documented his journey on the movie in a Tumblr blog titled “The Blue Print”. While the reboot was better-reviewed than the earlier two live-action Smurfs movies, it massively struggled in cinemas against DreamWorks’ surprise hit The Boss Baby.
The final directing job undertaken by Asbury was STX’s UglyDolls, based on the popular toy-line. He was assigned late into the project after Robert Rodriguez stepped down from directing it, leaving him and the animation team at Reel FX only one year to complete the entire movie. Asbury also did voice work in the film for Gibberish Cat, Oliver, Chef, and Buttons. UglyDolls was released in May 2019 to poor reviews and box office returns.
Following the release of UglyDolls, Asbury provided two insightful commentary articles to Cartoon Brew; one on his coping of the film’s box office failure, and the other on the chances of getting a directing gig. He even guest-starred in Episode 171 of our Animation Addicts Podcast where Chelsea Robson interviewed him about the making of UglyDolls.
Asbury’s last credited role was being a storyboard consultant on MGM’s The Addams Family, an animated adaptation helmed by his fellow Shrek 2 co-director Conrad Vernon.
Kelly Asbury’s 38-year-career in the animation industry was indeed a remarkable one. Whether his films were successes of flops, his dedication to the medium has resulted in bold contributions in the industry, with an admirable filmography that has brought joy to millions of people. Kelly will dearly be missed.
To conclude, we’ll link a 2015 profile video featuring Asbury detailing his journey in animation, which was recorded during his time working at Sony Pictures Animation: