Life as an animator at Pixar

-- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 5:45 AM ET

EMERYVILLE, Calif. -- The artists at Pixar Animation Studios work when they want, in the way they want, as long as they generate good ideas and do the work.

That is the scenario painted in a Toronto Sun interview by 30-year-old Dan Scanlon, who was a storyboard artist on Cars under director John Lasseter, who is also Pixar's creative boss.

"Everyone works differently," said Scanlon, a Michigan native who went to a fine art school in Columbus, Ohio, and who toiled briefly on two direct-to-DVD sequels for Disney, The Little Mermaid II and 101 Dalmatians II.

"Some people work better at night. Some people are early. I'm more of a 9-to-5 person and I don't like to work late, so I try to budget my time appropriately."

Animators do not have a "typical" day, Scanlon said. When developing the storyboards for Cars, starting when he came on board Pixar five years ago, he started having typical weeks instead. His job was to take scenes in the rough script for Cars and come up with specific ideas, including jokes or visual routines that would move the story forward.

"It's funny," he said when asked about a day's work, "I can tell you more about a week, because you can have a day where you're stitting down and roughing out your ideas. And it's a no-headphones day. You're really thinking: 'How do I do this?'

"Then you would have a day to do a bigger, more finished version. You know what you're going for. It's more of: 'Put your headphones and draw.' These are great days where you're literally drawing all day."

In his case, that was on paper, although now he is switching directly to computer for his next still-secret project. "I was kind of the last guy," he said of the tech transition.

On drawing days, Scanlon listened to music or a download of a Detroit morning show featuring DJs he followed growing up in Michigan. "It's just this weird ritual. It's mood. Or, if you're doing a sad scene, then you would listen to sad music."

Other days were atypical. "Days when you do nothing. You hit a wall. You're frustrated. You can't get past the one thing and your whole day is blown. But nobody is standing there (monitoring the output). I think that's part of the respect of this place.

"The great thing is that, by Friday, that is showtime! This whole week, it's been like a rehearsal. John is going to come in the room and you're going to put your boards up. They (other animators and artists) roll in and it's this choreographed thing. And, one by one, we all pitch our boards and get our notes. You're pitching that scene. You're performing. You're acting. You want it to go well. You want to get your ideas across."

But artists have to resist the temptation to play to the room. "There is a point where you're just making a fool of yourself to get a laugh." The point is to sell an idea, not yourself as a comedian, Scanlon said. "Then you get your notes and you start all over again."

As time goes, each artist rotates to different scenes. "By the end of it, you might have worked on everything, because it's years. Which is why it is so hard to point at any particular thing in a movie and say: 'Yeah, I did that.' Because you all did everything. It's an ensemble piece. That's part of the magic.

"What I feel is that I live for those weekly pitches. It's my job to make the director and everyone in that room laugh or cry or whatever. But, a lot of the time, you have to throw out a good idea as the story changes and evolves. And you kind of can't get emotional. You can't get too attached to any little thing you came up with. You can't take it personally."

Scanlon also co-directed the Cars off-shoot short, Mater And The Ghostlight, with Lasseter. Mater is a key character in the Cars feature and the DVD due on Tuesday offers Mater And The Ghostlight as a bonus.

"It was a little scary," Scanlon said of directing for the first time. Lasseter, however, is a hands-on teacher who nudged Scanlon into his learning curve. The short may even be an audition for a future assignment as a feature director.

"I didn't see it as that on this movie," Scanlon said of the Mater short. "I've got a lot to learn about from others. But, if they ever (need him to direct), sure, of course. This would be the place to do it."


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