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.”

Well, it took about two years then something did come up and it was working as a storyboard artist on Toy Story 2.

So since that time of Toy Story 2, I’ve been working here as a Story Artist. The job entails storyboarding, character development and story development. We do a little bit of writing, a little bit of drawing and character design.

Usually on a film there are five to eight story artists, and we are the ones who help create the story with the director and the writers.

It’s pretty awesome.

Do feel being an animator made you better prepared as a story artist?

Well, the process of storyboarding is ‘throwing things away’ to be able to get to the good stuff. Storyboarding is the process of elimination, figuring out the best and quickest way to get to the ‘right story‘.

If you throw things away in animation, that means you’re moving backwards. If you animate an entire scene and say that you’ve done it wrong and throw it out, you’ve wasted your time.

In storyboarding, if you done something and say it’s wrong and throw it out, that’s GOOD. It means you’ve eliminated that bad version.

In animation, you have to pose out your characters and you do the same thing in story. You do need to know animation to do story because you’re doing basically character layout posing along with the composition and story and all that.

While I’m doing a storyboard, I don’t worry about how the effects department is going to make fire or water or fur. But I do know the storyboards are going to be a the blueprint for the entire movie. I also know my drawings should look appealing and I want them to look good and all that stuff, but I also know that it’s serving a bigger purpose.

It’s not about my drawings looking pretty in an ‘art of’ book or hanging on a wall in a museum. These storyboard drawings are not supposed to be seen by regular people. They’re just supposed to be about figuring out what the movie is going to be about.

And I’ll say that’s one big thing that’s happened in storyboarding now. It affects how some storyboard artists think while they draw. Now that these ‘art of’ books are so popular and with the extras on DVDs, I think more storyboard artists think, “Is my drawing beautiful?” instead of, “Is the story part of it working? Is it entertaining?”

What’s the best part about doing storyboards for you? And what’s the worst?

Well, my favorite part is the beginning part. Getting no script and being handed an idea and having to turn that idea into a situation and flushing out the sequence all the way from the beginning.

I like coming up with the gags. I like thinking about story structure.

I think the part that doesn’t interest me as much is beautifying the drawings. Doing the clean-up, the shading. Because sometimes that’s just not needed. The visual storytelling is important. You have to make sure the story panels read and your storyboards read. THAT’S important.

But when you’re going in just to make it look like ‘an illustration‘, that’s when I’m like, “Uhh…this isn‘t storyboarding you guys. We‘re not making this a gallery piece for the MOMA…”

What do you think are the three most important skills a story artist should have?

That’s funny you ask because I know the exact answer to it.

The first is you have to have good ideas. You have to be able to brainstorm in meetings, be able to get your brain in a place where you feel comfortable with just being able to come up with ideas.

The second one is the draftsmanship. Being able to execute your ideas and communicate them visually.

And then the last one, is you have to be able to ‘play well with others‘. A big thing I see with people who end up getting asked to leave is not because they’re not good artists or have good ideas. It’s because we’re making movies that are a collaborative team effort and as an artist, sometimes there’s that thing of just wanting to ‘do it all on your own‘.

You have to be able to tell yourself that we’re making a movie with a group of people and we have to share the fun. That’s something you have to make sure you just don’t forget.

Those are my three things. That’s what I always tell my students.

Back in the Toy Story days, did you have any inkling of how successful the studio would become?

Oh, heck no.

When I was in high school, I used to go to these animation festivals up in San Francisco, like the Spike & Mike ones. They would show those little PIXAR animated shorts like “Knick Knack” and “Luxo Jr.” and I remember seeing those and they really stood out. Not so much because they were CG but because the story was endearing and moving.

When I heard of PIXAR, I thought, “Yeah, that’s a cool place.” I was so young I really didn’t think about how things was going to pan out. You don’t think of that long term stuff when you’re 21 years old. The main thing for me was it was in a place I wanted to live.

But yeah, I don’t know. Nowadays when I read something in a magazine or the paper with some big article on PIXAR and I’m like, “How do they know about us? I don‘t understand this.” Then I think, “Everybody knows about us? This is crazy.”

I’m just thankful that good story still counts for something, you know?

What’s the usual pre-production process at PIXAR? How long does the storyboard stage usually last on a film?

Well, there’s not really a sure answer for that. Because I’ve seen films that the story has been done in one year and I’ve seen some take three years.

It’s a weird thing with this studio. I mean, they would love for it to be figured out really quickly. We’re just those kind of perfectionists that if it‘s not working, we’re going to keep figuring it out until we absolutely run out of time.

But I would say for most films the storyboarding lasts for one and a half to two years.

What’s a typical day for you in production?

Well, my hours will be nine to six. And for a sequence, that is 3 or 4 pages long, I will get about a week and a half to turn it around. That is kind of quick.

So I’ll do a really rough version to show the directors and see what they like. From there the director can see it a little fleshed out and they can say, “Well that is or isn’t what I’m looking for” and then I can get some clear direction from them.

Then I go back and put another day or two into it and try to get something cleaned up to go to editorial.

But the first part of the film is really the brainstorming stage. Then it turns into actually storyboarding out the sequences and stuff.

(To be continued…)


Part 1 is here: http://karenjlloyd.com/blog/2010/09/19/pixar-matthew-luhn-1/

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


3 thoughts on “A Story Artist Story: Interview With Matthew Luhn (Part 2)

  1. Pingback: A Story Artist Story: Interview With Pixar Story Artist Matthew Luhn (Part 1) | Karen J Lloyd's Storyboard Blog

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