Iowa Computer Science alum heads computer graphics at Disney Animation Vancouver

Ernest Petti earned his graduate degree from the UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and has used the skills he learned in his work on major motion pictures like Tangled, Zootopia, and more.
Wednesday, October 5, 2022

Emily Delgado 

Ernest Petti (00MS) didn’t know he would want to pursue animation when he arrived at the University of Iowa to pursue his master’s degree in computer science.  

Ernest Petti
Ernest Petti (00MS)

“I knew I enjoyed software engineering but was not exactly sure where to focus. I spent a couple of years in aerospace and it helped me to narrow down my passion for using my technical skills to create something visual that you could see on the screen,” Petti explains.  

Computer graphics coursework is what attracted Petti to Iowa. Although he knew he wanted to work in the entertainment industry, he hadn’t considered animation. As a Hawkeye, he explored a variety of areas like gaming, visual special effects, and animation—but was still unsure what to pursue.  

“While looking into available jobs at the time there was definitely a level of serendipity that allowed me to find Disney,” Petti says.  

After graduating in 2000, he joined the Walt Disney Animation Studios as part of its technology group and worked to develop tools to enhance animation work, such lighting a shot. Once he got his foot in the door, he was able to move into production and worked on hit movies like Tangled, Big Hero 6, and Zootopia.  

Petti has been at Disney for more than two decades, and says a lot of the technology he has worked on is still used. He is currently the head of the CG department at Disney Animation in Vancouver and is working on projects for Disney+, including the animated musical series Moana, which will release in 2025.  

“What’s most exciting about this new role is the opportunity to work with a small, dynamic group building the location from the ground up . . . to the point where we are able to bring the same high standards of quality expected from Disney Animation to new projects,” Petti says.  

He says current students studying computer science should know animation is an exciting and rewarding field, and he offers this advice to anyone thinking about pursing it:  

“Learn the basics, find your areas of interest, attend a conference, if you can, and persist in your goal,” he says.  

The University of Iowa College of Liberal Arts and Sciences offers about 70 majors across the humanities; fine, performing and literary arts; natural and mathematical sciences; social and behavioral sciences; and communication disciplines. About 15,000 undergraduate and nearly 2,000 graduate students study each year in the college’s 37 departments, led by faculty at the forefront of teaching and research in their disciplines. The college teaches all Iowa undergraduates through the college's general education program, CLAS CORE. About 80 percent of all Iowa undergraduates begin their academic journey in CLAS. The college confers about 60 percent of the university's bachelor's degrees each academic year.