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Path to Pixar

by Art U News

By Greta Chiocchetti

“I don’t think I’ve ever regretted starting over. I think every time I’ve started over, my work has been better,” Pixar Senior Animator Terry Song told a Zoom room full of aspiring animators. “To let go of a week’s worth of work is never easy, but I think the day that you learn to do it, you’ll get stronger.” 

Song and his colleague, Pixar Character Animator John Chun Chiu Lee, peppered the Animation Virtual Summit on Saturday, July 18, with many more valuable pieces of industry advice. Song and Lee, who have 12 and 14 years at Pixar under their belts, respectively, had plenty of insights to share with students along with live animation demonstrations and art critiques. The two have worked on titles such as “Ratatouille,” “Coco,” “Monsters University,” “Up,” and “The Incredibles 2.”  

“It was awesome,” said Song, who graduated from Academy of Art University’s School of Animation & Visual Effects (ANM) in 2008 and began his career with an internship at Pixar. “Initially, we were worried about keeping the energy up, since we had to do this remotely, and that can be kind of a challenge. But I would look over at the chat room and see all the students talking to each other and asking questions. Seeing students chiming in and giving their two cents was so great.” 

The workshop, which was hosted by ANM, was attended by almost 150 students, many of whom enthusiastically took to the chat throughout the day’s events. 

“Watching the chat explode when Terry and John gave demonstrations in real-time was exciting and inspiring—what a fun day!” said ANM Program Manager Becky Johnson. “We plan to do more of these in the future.” 

Song and Lee began the webinar with a lecture about shape change and timing—two basic but essential concepts any aspiring animator should master. They demonstrated by replicating recognizable scenes from Pixar in real-time, troubleshooting students’ technical questions as they went.  

Throughout the event, students had the opportunity to ask general questions about breaking into the industry, with many asking about getting jobs at Pixar specifically. Emcees Dayna Wi and Sebastian Cerutti of the Tea Time Animation Club interjected with questions as they shot to the top of the chat.  

Graduate animation student Christin Smolinski asked, “What do you feel junior animators lack when they first go into their fields?” 

In response, Song stressed the importance of being a team player. “Not seeking help—they often stick to themselves, thinking that they can handle it themselves, or there’s an ego or pride getting in the way. But there’s no shame in asking for help, and it often makes your work better, and you better as an animator.” 

Josephine Sun, a 2015 ANM alumna asked, “Is there anything special a concept artist should think about when they’re designing a character to be animated?” 

Lee reminded students that sometimes art is a battle between technology and the artist. “Graphically, with 2-D, you can do a lot of ‘cheats.’ Make sure that if you’re gonna apply it to a 3-D model, that you think about if you can turn a character around. It’s always good to do your turntable drawing and stuff like that. Sometimes it doesn’t work out once you put it in CG and you have to compensate for that.” 

Though students asked a wide range of questions, there was certainly a recurring theme about “getting the job”—particularly at Pixar.  

“We do a lot of genuine performances, and that’s what really makes Pixar special,” said Lee. “Of course, there are other studios that do more cartoony or fast-paced stuff. But Pixar emphasizes honest, sincere acting—so it makes sense that it would appeal to students that want to pursue that kind of next-level storytelling.” 

Learn more about the Academy’s Feature Animation Training classes taught by Pixar Animators: https://vimeo.com/169780610

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