Aaaaannnnnd here we are with Part 3 of my interview with Pixar Story Artist Matthew Luhn.
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.
When you’re applying to studios, different studios may like your type of storytelling sensibility better. Some people may go right into a studio off the bat because they may just have liked how you do story and how you draw. In other places you may not fit with their sensibility.
In my experience, I found it was easier to get a job at a commercial animation place first before getting a job at a movie company. It’s good to get experience working at those smaller places first.
And education? You feel that’s important?
And I think there’s no way of getting around it, there are certain schools that certain movie studios tend to gravitate to. So it’s kind of like if you were playing baseball for a college or whatever and when the baseball teams scout out the players, they go to certain schools.
It’s the same thing is with these animation studios.
Fortunately there’s more animation programs at universities now so the animation studios are going to a lot of these. But you want to be someplace where your stuff is going to get seen. Like my mom used to say, “It’s just not going to fall into your lap.”
You have to put yourself out there.
How would your advice differ for someone with more experience as opposed to a student?
If you’re young and you’re going to school, focus on learning how to draw, taking your classes and where you can make that student film and get seen.
For someone who is older, I think it’s a matter of being able to show examples that clearly demonstrate you know how to storyboard.
I don’t want to say ‘a portfolio’ because anything can go in a portfolio. But if you’re applying for a storyboard job, you just want to show storyboards, character design stuff and gag development stuff.
That’s a big mistake people make when they apply for jobs. They show it all. Just show what you want to get a job in. Don’t confuse people.
So what is your all time favorite PIXAR movie as a *viewer* and why?
It’s got to be Toy Story.
Toy Story was the one that gave me ‘the tingles‘. That’s when I know a movie is good. When I’ve forgotten I’m sitting in a movie theatre and that moment in Toy Story with Woody and the match blows out and he realized Buzz’s helmet to light the fuse…that’s when I got the tingles.
I was like, “YES! They’re gonna make it, it’s gonna work out alright!” And even though I knew the story, watching it in the theatre I was all “Wow, this really worked! This is a great movie.”
And I don’t always get that kind of feeling for any movie I watch, let alone all PIXAR movies. Even though you may look at it now and some of the CG may be a little more out of date, Toy Story is still a great story that’s just so moving.
And what’s your favorite PIXAR short?
I would have to say I really like Presto. It’s a really funny one. It’s like a Bugs Bunny cartoon.
But the one to make me happy is Bounding. I think it’s partly because I’m really good friends with the guy who directed it, sang it and designed it. But it’s a very heartfelt “Life’s gonna be okay!” type of thing.
So those are my two favorites.
And finally, what was your favorite PIXAR film to work on?
I think it was Toy Story 2. Because that was my first role as a storyboard artist and I really got to experience the good and the bad of working on a story and how hard it is.
And wondering “Is this is going to work out?!”
After you work on a couple of movies you’re like “Oh, this is going to work out because it’s always worked out. It‘s going be okay.” But when it’s your ‘maiden voyage‘, you’re like, “Oh craaaaap! Is this gonna turn out okay everyone?”
But you learn to trust the process.
We’re going to follow all the steps we always do with creating the story. And if we do that, we’re going to be okay. And in trusting the process, it also means the good ideas will always come back.
You come up with the ideas, you pitch them, they get shot down. Don’t worry, the good ideas will come back.
That was my first time working with Joe Ranft on story and he and I had offices right next to each other. When you work with people on a film you just become friends with everybody.
And Joe and I spent many hours working on stuff together.
We were both working on sequences together in the story room and he was working on the moment when Woody is having his nightmare dream and Andy is saying, “I don’t want to play with you anymore” and Woody and all the playing cards are falling and he falls in the garbage can. I was in there when Joe was boarding that, totally using sharpie pens and prismacolor pencils.
I was working on ‘the Evil Dr. Porkchop’ moment. Where Andy is like “five more minutes” and they do their little playtime.
We both had gotten those sequences unscripted and it was our job to create a fun moment out of those, so I created that whole scenario of Evil Dr. Porkchop and the crazy monkeys which ended up going into Toy Story 3 in the opening with the big space-pig and everything.
It was just an awesome experience working on that movie.
Thanks so much Matthew! We really appreciate you taking the time for this.
Part 1 is here: http://karenjlloyd.com/blog/2010/09/19/pixar-matthew-luhn-1/
Part 2 is here: http://karenjlloyd.com/blog/2010/09/27/pixar-matthew-luhn-2/