By 1998, Grindle, Porter, and Jordan were each immersed in their roles at Pixar and the company was beginning work on its next film, Monsters, Inc. The movie presented new technical challenges, including a big blue-and-purple monster covered in soft, hair-like fur. The fur had to blow in the wind and stand on end. It had to get drenched and be shaken dry. It had to look real.
After graduating from Penn, David Baraff had gotten a PhD from Cornell and joined the faculty of Carnegie Mellon University as a professor of robotics. He’d been working on hair and fabric simulation technology for several years, co-founding a company called Physical Effects, Inc. It was his fellow alumnus, Tom Porter, who sought Baraff out for Pixar.
The company soon hired him to research and develop cloth and hair simulation technology for its newest film. Back then, “the challenge was simply to make anything work,” Baraff recalls. Along the way, he created the first simulated garment to appear in a feature-length movie—a shirt for the toddler character, Boo—and helped bring monster Sullivan’s fluffy blue mane to life.
Since Monsters, Baraff has continued to develop and refine the technology that clothes Pixar characters and that lets their hair—or fur—move freely.
“He is the father of the simulation department here,” Samantha Raja says of Baraff. “Whenever we have [technical] problems, we’ll file a report and he’ll fix it. He fixes things within an hour, easy. He’s like the mastermind, always fixing things or creating new tools or giving demos for the tools he created.”
Just as Porter had a decade earlier, Baraff won the Scientific and Engineering Academy Award in 2006, sharing it with two others for their combined work in cloth simulation. But while Porter and Baraff both held prominent, even award-winning positions at Pixar, for years they were among only a handful of employees with Penn degrees.
That’s recently started to change.
Of the current alumni-employees at Pixar, more than half graduated after 2004. A number of recent grads and current students have interned there, including Karl Li W’13, Joseph Tong EAS’15, and Zia Zhu EAS’14 this past summer.
Asking about Penn’s budding relationship with Pixar, one name kept coming up: Paul Kanyuk EAS’05. “All of us considered Paul a god, basically,” Raja says.
“He’s a bit of a legend,” Li adds. “His senior design poster is still on the wall. His name definitely gets mentioned a lot.”
“Paul paved the way for Penn at Pixar,” Norm Badler says. “He proved you could become a very effective technical director with an undergraduate DMD degree from Penn.”
Back in the late 1990s, when Badler created the Digital Media Design major and Amy Calhoun became its associate director [“The Cult of DMD,” Sept|Oct 2003], they often heard the same refrain from animation companies: We don’t hire undergraduates for technical jobs. Never mind that the DMD program was producing “a new generation” of computer graphics experts who had studied computer science, fine arts, and communications.
“The expense and the time to do computer graphics 15 years ago pretty much guaranteed that you had to have a PhD to do anything in that world,” Calhoun says. “As the years went by, part of my job was to explain to all these companies that things had changed. It took a long time to convince people who all had PhDs themselves that my little undergraduates could compete in this world. Paul Kanyuk was the one that completely changed their minds.”
Kanyuk arrived at Pixar in the summer of 2004. He’d been selected for a six-month internship, in part because of his “technically proficient but horrifying” demo reel, as Calhoun describes it—an animated, screaming skull that spun on a turntable while German heavy metal played in the background. Light reflected in its eyes and teeth.
“What Paul didn’t know at the time,” she adds, “is that they were working on Cars, so reflective surfaces were really important to them.”
When Kanyuk finished his first week as an intern, Calhoun got a phone call from his managers. “They said, ‘We gave him these assignments thinking That’ll keep the little tyke busy for a while, but he came back at the end of his second day and he’d done everything we gave him,’” Calhoun recalls. “I said, ‘I told you he’s smart!’”
She suggested they put Kanyuk in charge of Pixar’s RenderMan phone support line. “There was a huge backlog of questions,” she adds, “and Paul got rid of it in a week. Within two weeks, [Pixar] knew they wanted to hold on to this kid. He really changed everything for us.”
By the end of his internship, Kanyuk had an offer from Pixar to return full-time after graduation and Calhoun was getting calls from the company asking if Penn had “any more like Paul.” Though the DMD program was seven years old at that point, Kanyuk became its first graduate to land at Pixar. He’s been there ever since, first shading chipped paint, rust, and dust for Cars, then rendering crowd shots for Ratatouille, Wall-E, Up, Brave, and Monsters University.
“Because [Pixar] had hired someone they were happy with, we started to appear on their recruiting radar,” Badler says. The company began sending Kanyuk back to Penn once or twice a year to interview other DMD students and tell them about his work. “He knows the program, he knows the school,” Badler adds. “He can be an advocate for us as well as for Pixar.”
Several recent graduates, including Samantha Raja, had their first Pixar interview with the now-legendary Kanyuk. “Pretty much everyone [at Pixar] from Penn, I recruited,” he says—a list that includes fellow technical directors Matt Kuruc EAS’08, Nancy Tsang EAS’09, Ariela Nurko EAS’09, Emily Weihrich EAS’10, and Raja. Getting one or two students into Pixar every year is significant, Badler says, since the DMD major has only 20 or so students in a graduating class.
Once the computer-animated gate into Pixar had been pried open, Calhoun realized that “I just have to get one [DMD student] in the door everywhere, and then everything changes,” she says. In addition to Pixar, DMD alumni are currently working at DreamWorks Animation, the game company Zynga, The Walt Disney Company, Google, Facebook, Electronic Arts, and more. As Karl Li puts it: “Pixar is not a one-hit wonder for DMD.”
But it’s still the most sought-after wonder. “Pixar has a certain stature because of the small number of gems it produces and the particular ways it pushes technology in interesting directions,” Badler says. “I certainly think it’s the premiere destination for our alums, but not every DMD student wants to work in the motion-picture industry.”
“I think what’s most interesting about Pixar in comparison to any place I can think of is that the awe lasts longer,” Calhoun adds. “The feeling that they really are making magic continues for a long time. Our alumni are really proud of what it is they’re creating. [They] are practically swirling around in a world of delight, like, Can you believe they pay us to do this?!”
Nicole Grindle has been thinking about her Penn days a lot lately.
She associate produced Monsters University, which chronicles the Monsters, Inc. characters’ college years. “We always embrace the theme of the movie we’re working on,” she says, and for Monsters University that meant a college sweatshirt day, a special-issue Frisbee to toss around, and even an employee yearbook.
“For me, there’s an emotional resonance,” she says of the film. “There’s that feeling of striving so hard and wanting so badly to figure out that you’re good at things. That’s what really resonates for me.”
When Grindle left the bioengineering major at the end of her freshman year, “I felt like such a failure at first,” she says. But then she found Bloomers. She joined the all-women musical and sketch comedy group her junior year and was soon asked to direct the next spring show.
“I was terrified,” she recalls. “I think my stomach hurt for the entire year after that.” Still, in the spring of 1983, her name appeared under Director for the show All Nonsense. It included a “Broken Family Feud” sketch with the cast of Kramer vs. Kramer battling the cast of Ordinary People—“including the dead son,” Grindle adds with a laugh.
“It’s always really scary starting a new project here,” she says of her current work. “But that fundamental experience at Penn gave me faith that I could pull anything off. Working with Bloomers probably contributed the most to where I am today.”
While Samantha Raja’s college days ended only a few years ago, she also finds frequent reminders of Penn at Pixar. She’s surrounded by other recent DMD alums and, especially at the beginning, “it was nice to have familiar faces,” she says. “You sort of forget you went to Penn together because now Pixar is your common ground. But every so often you’ll say, ‘Hey, remember that thing that happened in Philadelphia?’ and everyone does.”
For Raja, Pixar is The Dream Job—the place she fantasized about working since watching Ratatouille as a teenager. Two years in, she still takes the long way into work every morning just to pass under the giant Pixar sign.
“I think that for an awful lot of students who come into computer graphics, the magic of the movies is the thing that inspired them to study this in the first place and that motivated them through the really hard parts,” Calhoun says.
“There are parts of the computer-science curriculum that are just difficult. To be sitting there in the computer lab at 2 a.m. on Hey Day when you know that all of your friends are out, there has to be something that’s motivating you. For my students, the motivating factor is But someday I could work at Pixar. That was the thing they always wanted to do, and they believe that by going through the DMD program they’ll get it. And they usually do.”
Molly Petrilla C’06 write frequently for the Gazette and oversees the magazine’s arts&culture blog.
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