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.

I ended up going to that school for one year. This is during the time when Roger Rabbit came out 3 years earlier, The Little Mermaid came out the year I was a senior and The Simpsons was on the air. So all of a sudden the animation industry is booming and they need people and I just happened to be in the right place at the right time.

In that first year at Cal Arts, I made a student film that was a minute long like everybody does. It was seen by people on The Simpsons and they asked me if I wanted a job as an animator. And I was like, “Hmm, go back to school another year or work in Hollywood drawing cartoons? Hmm…”

So I didn’t go back to school and I ended up, at nineteen years old, working on The Simpsons as an animator. They called it ‘character layout’. I got an apartment in Burbank, and that was the beginning of me working in the animation field.

I worked there a year, and after that I decided it would be smart for me to head back to Cal Arts for a second year to continue my education. During my second year at Cal Arts I really focused on learning more about animating and life drawing.

So I went back to Cal Arts for another year and made another film. This time I got a couple of different job offers at the end of the year. The reason why I picked PIXAR was because my whole family, that whole ‘toy store family’ is from the Bay area.

When I lived in LA I was just very separated from my family, which is very important to me. Also the LA climate is different than the Northern California climate. The Northern California climate is trees and peaceful walks along the ocean and LA is kind of seedy and polluted. And I was like, “Nehh, I don’t want to do that again.”

So PIXAR offered me a job to work as an animator on Toy Story. I was going to be one of the very first twelve animators trained to work on this “crazy film” that was going to be the first CG animated feature film that everybody was like, “This is not going to work”.

The funny thing is when they hired me, they didn’t tell me I was going to be an animator. And already in my second year at Cal Arts I was getting passionate about story. So when I got hired at PIXAR I actually thought I was getting hired as a Story Artist.

It wasn’t until the first day I was working there, when they sat us down in front of the ‘black glowing box’ and they said I was going to animate on this thing, I was like, “Ohhh sh*t…what did I get myself into?”

Then I thought, “I’ll just go along with this.”

(To be continued…)

Thanks so much Matthew! Stay tuned for Part 2 coming up soon(ish). 🙂


Part 2 is here: http://karenjlloyd.com/blog/2010/09/27/pixar-matthew-luhn-2/

Part 3 is here: http://karenjlloyd.com/blog/2010/10/04/pixar-matthew-luhn-3/

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6 thoughts on “A Story Artist Story: Interview With Pixar Story Artist Matthew Luhn (Part 1)

  1. Level_Head

    I am enjoying the interview, and looking forward to the next part.

    The link above is to a board full of Pixar enthusiasts focused on the movie WALL•E — from the science aspects to the cinematography. And always, always the story.

    ===|==============/ Level Head

  2. Pingback: Interview With Pixar Story Artist Matthew Luhn - Chronicles of an Animator

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