Animator Kelly Asbury, who directed Shrek 2 and Gnomeo & Juliet, died on Friday following a long battle with abdominal cancer. Asbury, whose career began at the Walt Disney Studios in the 1980s, was 60 years old. His representative Nancy Newhouse Porter confirmed his death to Deadline, calling him "one of the most admired and beloved people in the industry."
Asbury worked several positions on major productions at Disney before moving to DreamWorks Animation to work on 1998's The Prince of Egypt. He went on to serve as co-director on the traditionally animated Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron before working as a solo director on Shrek 2. In 2011, he directed Gnomeo & Juliet, an independent production featuring music from Elton John. He also directed 2017's Smurfs: The Lost Village for Sony Pictures Animation and 2019's UglyDolls for STX Films.
The filmmaker was born on Jan. 15, 1960, in Beaumont, Texas. In an interview with the Beaumont Enterprise, Asbury's sister Gwen Asbury Speed said he was captivated by Disney and Chuck Jones' animation at a young age. He "literally excelled at art" and was a "natural comedian, and one of the wittiest human beings alive," Speed said. She said a living room set created for The Nightmare Before Christmas was inspired by the home they grew up in.
Brett Thacker, one of Asbury's high school friends, told the Enterprise he was a "humble guy" who was "down to earth" even after hitting it big in Hollywood. "In Kelly, I found a fellow subversive and sharp sense of humor, but he was never a bad guy. We had a great time together," Thacker recalled of their time together in school.
After graduating high school, Asbury attended Lamar University before transferring to the California Institute of the Arts. After presenting a short animation of a cowboy riding a mechanical horse, Disney hired him, and his first gig was as an in-between artist on The Black Cauldron. Asbury went on to work on The Little Mermaid as a visual development artist and served as a character designer on The Rescuers Down Under. He also worked on Beauty and the Beast, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Toy Story and James and the Giant Peach.
Asbury later moved on to DreamWorks, where he also worked on the first Sherk, Shrek the Third and Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa. He returned to Disney as a story artist on Wreck-It Ralph and Frozen. Last year, Asbury also served as a story artist on The Addams Family. Outside of animation, he had an interest in ventriloquists, the subject of his 2003 non-fiction book Dummy Days. He also wrote and illustrated 12 children's books.
Speed said Asbury was diagnosed with cancer seven years ago. "Only his close family members knew... and, of course, his wife and two stepsons, who adored him," she told the Enterprise. "It helped him not to focus on it, I think."