Alumni have been working at the icon of computer animation since long before Toy Story—when the company wasn’t even called Pixar yet—and a steady stream of Digital Media Design graduates are continuing to help create new hits like the Academy Award-winning Brave and this summer’s Monsters University.
BY MOLLY PETRILLA | Photograph by Ethan Pines C’92 | PDF download
It’s February 24, 2013. Oscar Night.
On stage beside Paul Rudd, Melissa McCarthy leans into the microphone: “Here are the nominees for the Best Animated Feature Film.”
The screen behind Rudd and McCarthy awakens. Bagpipes whine as a red-haired girl arches her bow and arrow. The digital crowd around her cheers as she shoots the arrow straight toward the camera and, in a close-up, whips her ample hair to the side, fiery curls bouncing and swaying. “Brave,” McCarthy says, “directed by Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman.”
Four more animated films flash by. McCarthy names the title and directors of each. “And the Oscar goes to …” Rudd draws it out, prying open an envelope. McCarthy peers over his shoulder and emits a small gasp. “… Brave.”
Andrews and Chapman race to the stage while another clip rolls on screen, accompanied by a jaunty Scottish jig. This time the red-haired girl—Brave’s main character, Merida—is clinging to a steep boulder, her wild hair and green dress flapping in the wind.
Despite McCarthy’s gasp, there’s nothing shocking about the fact that yet another film from Pixar Animation Studios, a subsidiary of The Walt Disney Company, has won an award. In fact, this is the seventh time a Pixar movie has won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature since the award was created in 2001. (For the record, Finding Nemo was the first to win.) The true surprise is how many animators, technical artists, and production managers it took to create the work that flashed by in those seconds-long clips—and how many of those contributors went to Penn. From the technology that enables Merida’s dress to flutter and scrunch, to the large crowd standing behind her, to that springy red hair, alumni had a hand in each moment of Oscar footage.
Professor of Computer and Information Science Norman Badler, director and faculty advisor for Penn’s undergraduate Digital Media Design program (and an old friend of Pixar co-founder Ed Catmull), estimates that Penn has been sending one or two graduating students a year to the revered animation studio. They join still more alumni who have already been working there for years—some since the mid-2000s, others for multiple decades, one since the company’s earliest days.
“The relationship between Penn and Pixar is very strong and we’re very thankful for it,” Badler says. “I know [Catmull] recognizes that Penn has supplied some very capable folks for his team.”
David Baraff EAS’87, a senior animation scientist at Pixar, was on his way into work one morning when he noticed something odd. He’d been striding through the company’s central outdoor area, as he did every day, when a large mass caught his eye. Glancing up, he saw an enormous hot-air balloon. There was a full-size sofa attached to it and, strapped to that sofa, a newscaster was midway through a broadcast about the Pixar film Up.
“That’s when you shake your head,” he says, “and say to yourself, ‘Okay, it’s just another day at work.’”
“I sort of take for granted that every few weeks some weird, random thing is going to happen on campus and I’ll get to watch it,” Samantha Raja EAS’10 GEng’11 says of working at Pixar. The University of California, Berkeley marching band once showed up and played their way through the company’s halls. Another day a petting zoo appeared outside. “I’m sure that some department somewhere had need of a petting zoo,” she adds, “but everyone else just went outside and played with the animals.”
Celebrity sightings are routine, though employees are warned not to approach any of the famous faces. “We just watch from a distance and then tell each other, ‘Omigosh! I saw Shaq today!’” Raja says.
Baraff recently went to a meeting in which an employee from each in-the-works film stood up to discuss its status. Actor John Goodman—the voice of Sullivan in Monsters, Inc.—“just appeared out of nowhere,” Baraff says, to offer an update on the sequel, Monsters University. “That’s just a day in the life here,” he adds.
But even amid the celebrity run-ins, the foosball battles and the cereal bar, the larger-than-life Buzz Lightyear made of Legos, actual work happens—enough work to employ more than 1,200 people. Oscars don’t win themselves, nor do animated movies gross billions of dollars without help from a vast team of artists, storytellers, and technicians.
One of those technicians, Ana Lacaze Jordan EE’97 FA’97, jokes with her husband about tracking their lives by the Pixar films they’ve worked on. They’ve both been with the company since 1997. “We’ll say, ‘We got married during The Incredibles,’or ‘We did this during Toy Story 2,’” she remarks. “It’s kind of funny that we match up certain times in our lives that way.”
As a shading artist, Jordan brings objects and characters to life by giving them color, texture, and shine. “When [computer-generated] props or characters come to us, they just look like white plastic,” she says. “After shading, they look like what they’re supposed to: wood or dirt or plastic or skin. We figure out if something is shiny, if it’s opaque, if it’s wrinkled, if it’s transparent, if it glows, if it’s waxy.”
In the 2009 film Up, Jordan shaded the main character, Carl, whose skin transforms from pale and sickly at the beginning to a youthful tan by the end. She knows the transition is so subtle that audience members may not even notice it, but then again, “if the audience doesn’t notice [the shading] I do, then I’ve done a good job,” she says, “because that means it looks real.”
Yet in Pixar World, human characters are rather rare, so Jordan can’t always rely on complexion to reflect personality. In Cars 2, she shaded several of the film’s vehicular characters, revealing their past lives through their rust patterns.
She sat at her computer every day for several years, surrounded by reference photos: East Coast rust, West Coast rust, upper-facing rust, rust from snow, rust from seawater. “You start figuring out that this character is going to be mostly rusted on the top because of rain and that character gets more mud and maybe has more rust on the bottom,” she says. “Then you start figuring out how rain rust might look different from rust from mud or snow. What is the pattern it leaves? Which places in a car would you see that?”
It’s immensely detailed work, but “I tend to be attracted by details,” Jordan says. “I like figuring out what makes things work, what makes things the way they are.”
Along with Jordan, at least half a dozen Penn graduates currently work as “technical artists” at Pixar—a broad job category that the company sums up in a single sentence: “Our fantasy worlds look so real you could touch them, thanks to the light and shading, crowd and effects, and much more provided by our technical artists.”
Remember that image of the Disney cartoonist, hunched over a drafting table, producing sketch after sketch of Mickey Mouse? There may be shades of that in the Pixar art department, but a technical director’s job relies on advanced technology, trading in colored pencils for powerful computers.
A technical director ideally has “a strong aesthetic vision but also knows the fundamental principles of computer graphics and how to do programming,” Raja says. She uses a physics-based computer simulation program to create and control the way a character’s hair or clothes move. Once a director sees the default simulation, he’ll often decide that things should look a little different and Raja will summon her computer science expertise to start “playing with the parameters,” making a hair toss last longer or a patch of fur stand up straighter.
As a technical director who helped animate hair and fur for Brave and Monsters University, Raja says her work feels important. At times, it’s almost felt too important.
“In the beginning, I got really stressed out because I knew if I made a mistake and no one caught it, it would be there for millions of people to see and then it would live on forever in the DVD,” she says. “But I’ve sort of gotten over that. I’m okay with the pressure now.”