A Story Artist Story: Interview With Matthew Luhn (Part 3)

Aaaaannnnnd here we are with Part 3 of my interview with Pixar Story Artist Matthew Luhn.

You can find Part 1 of Matthew’s interview here. And Part 2 here.

Hope you dig it. I know I did.

Do you have your own kind of process of how you think through a sequence?


But I’ve gotten better at it. When I get my script, I pretty much just let it sink in a little bit. Just kind of think about it. It’s really an 80% thinking and 20% drawing kind of thing. I don’t want to just sit there and hope that my doodles might turn into a sequence.

Lately what I like to do is, from the sequence I just start thinking of those ‘key moments‘. I kind of think of them like ‘beat boards’ and I develop thumbnails from those shots or those moments in that sequence that I know that I want to be there.

I sometimes find that when I just start at the very beginning and go straight ahead, I start wasting time doing A’s and B’s and getting into the details. Because I know when I get to the end I’ll go, “Oh great. Everything else I did at the beginning, I’ve changed my mind on.” Then I have to go and change it.

So if I just get those key moments down, I kind of use those at the ‘tent poles’ to putting up the circus tent sort of thing. Then I can start putting in those little in-between moments to string it all together.

What’s your favorite kind of sequence to work on?

Probably comedy and character based stuff. That’s what I usually get too. I’ll get the ‘idea-guy-comedy-problem-solving’ stuff.

I’ve gotten better at where I’ve told myself that I want to keep versatile, so I’ll take on action based sequences once in a while. But my heart really is with the funny stuff. And they know that.

What’s your best piece of advice for people who dream of being story artists in feature animation?

I would say if you’re in high school and you’re young, I know that you’re passionate about getting right into story but to just remember that those basic life drawing, draftsmanship kind of classes are really good for you.

And they will pay off even if they may seem boring at first. Being able to do that and being able to transfer those images inside your head onto paper as best you can.

I would also say doing improv helps out a lot with idea development. Being able to come up with ideas with limitations.

And then the other thing I would say is the more you actually storyboard, the better you’re going to get at it. The easiest thing to do to get better is to just go on the internet and go to one of those free scripts websites and print out just a couple of pages of a movie script and board it out.

Don’t just copy what was already done in the movie. Do your own version. You’ll learn a lot from that.

Watch movies and freeze frame through shots and sketch them up on paper. Listen to the commentary of why the DP made the decisions they did with the shots. That’ll help out.

And also the biggest thing is just being in an environment with other story artists, especially ones that have more experience than you do. You will learn from them.

There’s only so much you can do sitting in a room by yourself storyboarding. You need to be around other people who know what they’re doing and who do it well. That’s where you really learn.

That’s why it’s great when you’re able to take a class at university or college and have someone who’s experienced at storyboarding as your teacher. Cause you’re going to learn.

What should you have in place before applying to a big studio? Do you think you should start with television and work up to feature? Or do you think people can get right in?

Well, I’ve seen people get pulled in, even in the last couple of years, right out of college.

But I think that every different studio has a different type of ‘sensibility’ of how they make movies. During the time those great Disney movies were being made, there was also the Warner Bros. Studio. And they were making these irreverent, offensive cartoons for their time compared to the happy fairy tale Disney stuff. It was just a different kind of sensibility.

Read more

A Story Artist Story: Interview With Matthew Luhn (Part 2)

And we’re back!

Here’s Part 2 of the interview I did with Pixar Story Artist Matthew Luhn.

You can find Part 1 of Matthew’s interview here.


So I animated a couple of the army men shots on Toy Story and it was very difficult. But the great thing about the experience was that in the room right next door was the story department. It was made up of only 5 storyboard artists and their Head of Story, the late Joe Ranft.

That was the very first time I saw people actually drawing and creating story at a studio. At The Simpsons as a character layout animator, you just get a storyboard handed to you at your desk. Then you’d get a cassette tape with the audio of the actors so you get their inflections into your acting. But I never saw people sitting down and figuring out the story.

Even at The Simpsons, they have a script first and then the storyboard artists (like most TV shows) just go directly from the script to drawing the storyboards.

But what I was seeing at PIXAR was that there was no script. It was like an improv show with cartoons. Basically people were coming up with ideas, drawing them up as gags and that was inspiring sequence ideas. Then the sequence ideas would end up inspiring and making the decisions of what the story structure was going to be.

I totally remember the very first pitch I saw which was the opening for Toy Story in storyboards with Joe Ranft pitching it. And I was just like, “I really want to do this.”

At the same time when I’m doing animation and learning how to animate on the computer, the Head of Animation was Pete Doctor. We became good friends.

Then John Lasseter was the other guy teaching us how to animate Luxo, because you had to do a Luxo the Lamp jumping animation test. John would totally step you through it, showing you how to animate it.

This was a different time. This was when John drove a beat up Honda and he would sleep at the studio a lot.

So I became friends with all these guys and not just at work, but after work. Then one day I confronted Joe and said, “I really want to do story. Can you give me any things to do, any advice?”

Joe was always a very nice, big uncle or older brother type who always wanted to help you out, kind of personality. So he started giving me little gag assignments and little sequence scenarios to work on when I had free time. I’d show him and he’d tell me what he thought and help me out. As I started to fall more and more in love with story, I was not so interested in the animation part anymore.

Then what happened was, Disney decided this ‘crazy CG animated film‘…who was gonna watch this? The story’s not a fairy tale, there’s no musical, there’s no “I want” song, it’s CG, so we’re going to have to rethink this.

So I remember getting called into John’s office, and John saying “Matthew I’m really sorry, but we’re having to let the animators go because we don’t really know if we’re going to be making this movie.”

I could sense from John that he was really sad, that this was possibly not going to get made. He said he would call us all back in four months to let us know. I knew that this was pretty normal at animation companies and things like this happen.

So I meandered over to ILM for a little bit and worked as an animator to pay off some bills. Then after that I was like, “You know, I really want to do story.” My options for working in animation companies were ILM and PIXAR, and that’s it.

But I started figuring out there were a few little commercial animation studios like Wild Brain and Colossal Pictures. And I started working as a freelance artist for these places.

I went in and said I want to do storyboards and gag development. They thought I’d been doing this for a long time, but I hadn’t. So the first couple of freelance jobs I did for them, they didn’t even pay me for because they said I “did them wrong“.

But the great thing is there was this great guy who was a director and he said, “Let me show you what we’re looking for in gags. Let me show you a good way to come up with this stuff.”

And I found that it was very similar to when you do improv. The way you come up with ideas is just a matter of giving yourself a little structure, some limitations and to allow yourself to be spontaneous. At that time and still today, I do a lot of improv.

For about two years, I did freelance story stuff for these companies.

Then PIXAR called me back in that four month time to hire me back as animator. I said, “I really want to be a story guy.” So they said,  “Okay, if a storyboard job opening becomes available we’ll let you know.”

Read more

A Story Artist Story: Interview With Pixar Story Artist Matthew Luhn (Part 1)

Hey, look! I’m here!

Trust me, it was worth the wait.

Because I have one awesome interview for you. Remember the (sold out) Masterclass coming up in Vancouver with Pixar artists Matthew Luhn and Andrew Gordon?

Well, I got to talk to Matthew Luhn (yes, I feel your envy) and here’s the first part of that interview.

Now grab a beverage of your choice and enjoy!

Before we get started, what would you like to tell us about the VanArts Masterclass in Vancouver?

Well it’s really fun for me to be able to do these classes. I love inspiring people about story and how to come up with ideas.

Some people wonder, “How in the world can you talk for that long and keep people entertained and stuff?” I do a lot of hands on stuff when I teach these classes. I do a lot of exercises like story development and idea development exercises where I give people assignments in class to do.

Basically I go over why we tell stories, how we tell stories, how to create characters for stories, character art and all that stuff. And how to start from the very beginning if you have an idea for a movie.

Then we move into how you develop that idea into a script. Then how you take that script and turn it into visual storytelling and storyboarding.

It’s a very full day of  “if you want to make a movie, this is how you do it.”

It’s also for people who do storyboarding for a living. Or for people who are in college and doing storyboarding. Or even if you’re not a storyboard artist, because everyone uses story in some form or another.

So whether you want to create better video games with story and character, whether you want to create better toys that have a story behind them and have good character development, this is who my class pertains to. People who want to create good stories and characters.

I basically share my experiences of working as an animator/storyboard/story artist on 9  PIXAR films, an animator on the The Simpsons, and my other experiences working in the animation industry.

Awesome. So let’s start with some background information. How did you get started in the animation business and how did you end up at PIXAR?

I was really lucky to have a dad who was totally into animation and drawing cartoons and loved everything Disney. A total artist. But he did not get to do animation for a living. He ended up working and later taking over the family toy stores ‘Jeffrey’s Toys’, in San Francisco. That’s our family business. Which is still pretty awesome.

My dad owned toy stores, my granddad owned toy stores, my great-granddad owned toy stores so it’s been going on for a while. And my plan was that I was just going to work in the toy store because everyone in our family worked in the them. It was like being part of ‘the mob’.

Like many artists, I started getting hooked on cartoons and drawing in kindergarten. It was in high school when I was like, “I really want to do animation”. I didn’t know what job or how l would do it, but I really wanted to do it.

Then I found out about Cal Arts through my art teacher who had a nephew working in the animation industry. He suggested to me, this naïve 16 year old kid, that I should call up Cal Arts, ask for a brochure and get a tour to check the place out.

I did that and fortunately I was smart enough to realize that okay, I’m only 6 hours away from this school so this is my best option. In 1989, it was really the only option to attend an animation program in California. Every university has an animation program now, but back then it wasn’t that way.

But I did know that it was super hard to get accepted into this school. So I pretty much spent my junior and senior year of high school just focused on putting together a good portfolio. Also my art teacher had an 8mm camera which you could shoot animation on. He let me borrow it for two years and I was able to shoot flip books, do claymation and stop motion stuff.

So by the time I applied at Cal Arts, I had about five minutes of different animation samples to show. That’s what really got me accepted into the school. I think they saw that I was very ambitious. I mean, I showed up in a shirt and tie in a school where everyone had purple dyed hair. I had never been to an art school before and didn’t know what to expect.

Read more

A Cool Event for Vancouverites

I have an actual post in the works, but here’s a little note of interest for you Vancouver artists. It’s pretty neat and you better hurry because at the time of this writing, it’s 75% sold out! So get cracking. VanArts is proud to present a Masterclass in Animation & Story Development with instructors Story … Read more

The Post About Nothing


Remember me?

I used to write a blog about storyboarding. Well okay, I still do… just not lately.

*slaps wrist*

And I’ve been stressing about starting up again because it’s been so long. As in…the first post back better be a GOOD ONE.

So I’m going to write a crappy one just to take the edge off, if that’s okay.

Rest assured I am very much alive and well.

I’ve just been suffering from a case of post-storyboard-contract “Lazy-ass-itis”.

Here’s what I’ve been doing.

I ended my Kid vs Kat contract at the end of May. *whew*

And survived.

I went to Hawaii at the beginning of June.


Sweet, sweet Hawaii. *sigh*

Then home and relaxed some more. (That’s about when the “Lazy-ass-itis” kicked in.)

I turned down some work. (See above.)

I saw ‘Toy Story 3’. Twice.

Loved it. *sniff*

Read more

Just Make It Look Good

Thank goodness May is here. Because April was emotionally draining.

I was looking forward to April ending because of all the ‘death stuff‘, then on the morning of the 30th (the last day of the month) I received an email with more sad news.

My ex-boss and friend of many years had succumbed to cancer and passed away at the age of 59.

I burst into tears. And cried all day.

But I don’t want to write another post about death (one was enough don’t ya think?). So I’d rather tell you the good stuff about my friend and one great art lesson he taught me ‘way back when’.

Call it a little tribute.

As I’ve mentioned before on the blog, I used to be a graphic designer in my twenties (remember…I’m old). I worked at a small studio out of college for a year or two, then tried to go the freelancing route at 22. A bit risky. But I was still living at home so the timing was good.

Through a mutual connection, I met Steve Buist who was looking for a little extra help around his small graphic design studio. He took a chance on me and I did some work for him off and on for another two years or so.

Then he offered me a full time position. I took it and worked at D-Zign S.A.B. for the next six years until I left to pursue animation with Steve’s blessing.

Back then, the studio was just me, Steve, another guy named LP and Steve’s wonderful wife Cheryl. Steve was a boss who wasn’t a ‘boss’. His clients loved him. His suppliers loved him.

He loved his job, he loved his family and he loved cars.

Anyone would be lucky to work for a guy like Steve. We were a little family in that studio.

I saw his three girls grow up. We knew what was going on in each others lives. We drank a lot at our little Christmas parties.

And I learned tons about graphic design.

Now, this was a time when a graphic designer didn’t mean ‘someone with 3 months of training and a MacBook’.

When I started, it was markers, paste-ups, wax machines, rubber cement thinner, x-acto knives, T-squares, Letraset and stat cameras (Google it). Half of the supplies could cause some serious health issues or cut the end of your finger off! Those were the days, baby.

Everything was done by hand. It rocked.

Read more

The Stories We Tell Ourselves

I hope this post isn’t too much of a downer. But it might be.


Because it’s a little off-subject and might not have the comic snark you’re used to if you come here often. If you are new (hi!), just know this isn’t the norm and I will get back to the business of boards eventually. I’m still in Kid vs Kat vs Karen mode.

But here it goes anyway.

A man died in front of me a week ago.

His funeral was yesterday but I didn’t go because I had to work and I didn’t really know him.

But I was thinking about him. Because I witnessed the last moments of his life.

Read more

We Have A Winnah!

Yes,  I finally got off my butt and made a video of me picking the winner to the fabulous “From Word To Image” book contest! If you have no idea what I’m talking about, check out this great guest post by Marcie Begleiter and the contest details at the end. If you don’t want to … Read more

Books, Birthdays and Contests, Oh My!

Okay, it’s only one book. ‘From Word To Image’ by Marcie Begleiter.

Only one birthday. Mine. Today. I’m old.

And only one contest. But it’s my first, so that’s cool.

But first a quick note to say I’m still alive.

Again. And it looks like I can only manage one post a month or so until I finish this contract that may or may not kill me.

You know you’re working too hard when you have to write “Don’t die” in your day planner. (You think I’m kidding…I actually did that. Twice.)

But enough about ‘Kid vs Kat vs Karen’. We have a guest author today! From a real author!

I’ve recommended this book before and I am doing it again. Because the new edition just came out last month. And word has it, my blog is mentioned in the resources. How cool is that? Plus it is one great book on the subject of storyboarding for live-action film.

If that’s what you want to do, get this book.

So in celebration of this second edition of  ‘From Word To Image‘ by the awesome Marcie Begleiter, I bring you a guest post by her. About a little twist to storyboarding  and pitching a film.

Then there will be some details on the little contest we’re having. I’ll give you a hint…FREE BOOK. Signed by the author. (Okay, that was more than a hint.)

Take it away, Marcie!

Visual Pitching: Storyboards on Steroids

By Marcie Begleiter
Author of From Word to Image: Storyboarding and the Filmmaking Process

Since the mid 1980’s my film activities have covered storyboarding, set decoration, art direction, prop design, graphics and even gassing up cars…basically, when a producer or director called, my attitude was ‘You need it, I’ll do it’ (within reason, of course ;-))

The pre-viz work in particular was developed once the financing has been secured, the heads of the production team chosen and then we raced against a production schedule to complete the prep work before the cameras rolled.

But lately a particular request has arrived on my desktop that’s a bit different in character.

Visual Pitching’s time has come.

With production financing a challenge in the best of times, many a director and producer are looking to walk into meetings with more than a practiced verbal pitch. Bringing in visual research that focuses on characters and settings, presenting key frames and flipping though storyboards or even showing animatics in pitch meetings have often been a key to selling Action and SciFi films.

But these materials can also bring inspiration and an expanded avenue of communication to pitches for all manner of projects including character driven stories, romantic comedies or indie dramas.

Key frame for visual pitch ”Super Chicas”
A feature film by Juliette Carillo, writer/director

What comprises a visual pitch?

At the simplest level, it helps to  convey the look and feel of the story and how it will be told in images. There can be references to lighting, to other classic films, to character appearance and even how the film will be shot. Key frames, what I sometimes think of as ‘storyboards on steroids’, are sometimes used to give a snapshot of particular moments of high action or emotion.

Read more

Behind The Storyboards of The Princess And The Frog – Part 2

Wee! The first official post of 2010!


And what better way to kick it off than the second part of my interview with Paul Briggs? You can find the first part of my interview with the ‘The Princess and The Frog’ story artist, here.

Enjoy Part 2 and don’t forget to click on the illustrations to get a better view of Paul’s awesome work!

What’s a ‘typical day’ for you as (current) Head of Story when you’re in production?

A typical day as a Head of Story is managing a team of Story Artists to help the Director get their vision up on screen.

That doesn’t mean I completely buy into it. In fact, I feel the biggest part of my job is always being honest and open in questioning and confirming what the Director wants. Together as the story team, we work really hard in supporting or challenging the idea that is being presented on the screen.

There’s also the scheduling side of it all, but that’s no fun!

Is there a process for assigning certain story artists a particular sequence to work on? Do you go with their strengths or is it the ‘luck of the draw’ for them?

We have some pretty incredible board artists at the studio that can do a wide range of scenes but most tend to gravitate to sequences that appeal to them more. So you want to assign sequences that people will have the most fun boarding.

You know you’re going to get incredible work from them but I always like to try and push people out of their comfort zone for a sequence or two. It really challenges them and forces them to keep their skills sharp and grow as a story artist.

The best artists are the ones that you can hand any sequence to and know you’re going to get something special back.

Click on image to enlarge.

Are feature boards still done with paper and pencil and set up in a story room? Or have things gone completely digital? What are your typical working tools?

You know it all depends on the artist. Some guys here still work on paper but a lot of us work digital now. Whatever makes you comfortable but also allows you the freedom to quickly sketch your ideas down and not become precious with them.

I normally work in Photoshop on a Cintiq and use another program to pitch in. When I’m boarding I actually limit myself to 2 custom brushes, 3 to 4 levels and only 4 different gray values (no color unless absolutely necessary to make a story point.) This limited palette forces me not to get caught up in all the bells and whistles.

I concentrate more on the just getting the idea down rather than a pretty drawing. We pitch all digital on screens that our boards are projected onto.

Read more