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