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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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Behind The Storyboards of The Princess And The Frog


Well, well, well. Look at me.

I’m writing a post! No lazy-ass video this time! Because I have one awesome interview for you!

I bring you Paul Briggs, Story Artist on Walt Disney’s ‘The Princess and The Frog’.

(UPDATE & CLARIFICATION: Oops, my bad! Paul was not, in fact, the Head of Story on ‘The Princess and The Frog’. He was a Story Artist. But he *is* Head of Story on a current, untitled project at Disney at this time. Sorry everybody! I’ve made corrections to this post since publishing it.)

How cool is THAT?

I feel all special and stuff.

And there are original thumbnail and storyboard drawings from him! Feel free to drool on your screen.

But before we get to it, I want to wish all of you a very HAPPY HOLIDAY SEASON! Whatever that holiday may be for you.

If it’s nothing…well have a great weekend or something. 🙂

This interview is a juicy one, so I’ll be splitting it up into two parts. You get this one now to read at your leisure till 2009 is over. Then you’ll get the rest sometime in January 2010. (2010? My word, where does the time go?)

And the way I’ve been posting in my ‘Kid vs Kat’ haze, this could be the last thing your hear from me till June or something.

I kid, I kid! (Maybe.)

So without further ado, I bring you Paul Briggs, current Head of Story at Disney and proud new Daddy. Paul_Briggs_Baby


What is your background, education and how did you get started in the animation business?

In 1984 I was 10 years old and I was in a mall at a Walden’s Bookstore and came across ‘The Illusion of Life’ by Frank and Ollie. Even though there was no way we could afford it, my Mom bought it for me and I spent the rest of the day slamming into people, benches and planters because I couldn’t take my face out of that massive book.

That was the day I fell in love with wanting to do animation.

I went to college at the Kansas City Art Institute in Kansas City, Missouri but I wasn’t focused on animation at the time (even though I found out later that Walt himself as well as the great Marc Davis both went to KCAI!) I was focused on doing sculpture, ceramics, painting, and really solid drawing.

I was busy experimenting, having fun, and making a million mistakes and learning from them. A lot of my classmates were talented draftsmen so I was constantly focused on learning and trying to better myself as an artist. We had some amazing drawing classes –including one where we went to a medical university and drew from cadavers for a week!

One of my instructors pressured me to submit a portfolio to the Disney Internship but I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do. He pestered me enough that at the last minute I threw a drawing portfolio together in a week and mailed it off. To my surprise and disbelief they called me a couple of weeks later to tell me I was accepted! I was 20 and packed everything in my Jeep and moved to Orlando to work at the Florida Animation Studio.

I trained under Pres Romanillos (supervising animator Shan Yu for Mulan) and David Tidgwell (Head of Effects.) At the end of the program they were hiring in special effects to work on Mulan and I was brought on as an inbetweener!


How did you end up as a story artist? Was that your original plan?

It was great being in special effects animation but I always wanted to do story. I always loved the development of characters and journeys to another world. In effects I saw how a sequence traveled from beginning to end through the animation pipeline and I was constantly examining why those sequences were in the film.

There were some sequences that I was really frustrated with and thought – “This isn’t working at all! I could do better than this .” So I decided “that’s it, either get into story or shut up!” So I really started to focus my learning. I started analyzing film, reading books, and showing my story tests to people I respected and admired.

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My Own Personal Toy Story

As a child, I was not a ‘Barbie girl’.

Clothes and high heels? Eeesh.

And baby dolls?

Ack. Gag. What the hell was I supposed to do with one of those? Blech.

Interestingly enough, I currently don’t own a dress and don’t have kids. Hmmm.

I mainly played with stuffed animals, plastic creatures (I loved rubber snakes and dinosaurs) and male action figures (anyone remember ‘Big Jim’ and ‘Big Josh’?).

Yeah. I was a real little princess, I was.

Now, any self-respecting animation artist knows that if you don’t have some kind of toy collection, you are not that serious about animation.

It’s some kind of unwritten law or something.

So I thought it might be fun to share a few of mine. Some are actually from my childhood. But a lot of my collection accumulated while in animation school and beyond. Most of which you can see above.

Let’s take a look shall we? (My apologies for the crappy photos.)


This one is from my childhood. I loved Happy Days and had a crush on Henry Winkler. I had the Fonzie Happy Days album for goodness sakes (and really wish I still did).

This toy is friggin’ pristine (except for the dust). It looks like it came right out of the box. I didn’t play with it so much as just admired it. The thumbs are pose-able and there’s a lever in the back to make his hands go up and down.

I challenge you to do this and not say, “Ayyyyyyyyy!”

I love him. And he lives on the top of my toy shelf.

Because he’s cool.

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Facing Off With ‘Bolt’

All images © 2008 Walt Disney Pictures (Well, except Faraday)

Before I begin, is it just me or…?

If you’ve seen ‘Bolt’ and watch ‘Lost’, you might find that uncanny like I do.


Back to analyzing some Bolt sequences. You can find the first Bolt post here.

I’m just going to pick apart one sequence this week.

Like with the first post, I’m sticking to the opening of the movie when it’s really the ‘Bolt’ TV show we’re watching.

Because it’s full of action movie cliches and fun to watch.

Which bring us to:

The Face Off

Or ‘stand off’. Or ‘playing chicken’.

Either one, it’s when two parties are at either end of what usually turns out to be an alley.

Because there is no escape from an alley, hence the heightened drama.

So it starts.

The dark, black car pulls into the alley blocking off the only exit Penny and Bolt have. (They are at the other end.)

The camera is low, making the car more menacing.

Cut inside. The creepy bad guy gives our driver-thug his orders. “Just the girl.”

Because creepy bad guys never do their own dirty work. They call ‘Thugs-R-Us’ or something.

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Getting Some Action with ‘Bolt’

All images © 2008 Walt Disney Pictures

Wee! Back to writing about cartoons.

This is not a movie review.

But in case you were wondering: I liked Bolt. No complaints really.

Well, except that I was forced to wear glasses on top of my glasses so I could watch it in craptastic ‘Real 3D’.

The 3D thing was totally useless for this movie. Useless, I say! There was no reason for it but to gauge me an extra $3 for a ticket.

And the fact Disney gave away all the funny hamster bits in the trailers leading up to the movie release. (Yeah, thanks guys.)

But I digress.

I thought it would be a good movie to learn some lessons in action sequences.

Ahh, the action sequence.

Some board artists love ’em. Some hate ’em.

In a script they sit as cute little paragraphs. Seemingly harmless.

Then you start to thumbnail them out. And that cute little three-line paragraph suddenly morphs into a beast of pages upon pages of storyboarding hell.

I am not all that fond of them. I’m more of an ‘acting and dialogue’ kind of gal.

But they can be fun sometimes.

The opening sequences of Bolt have some really great ones. Because they are kind of spoofing action movies, there is a lot of cliched fun going on.

So let’s take a look at a few.

The Quick-Cut Mini Montage

I actually really like doing these. They are dynamic, fast and cut to the chase.

And are awesome ‘cheats’ to tell a lot of information without worrying too much about hook-ups.

Penny and Bolt are about to be chased by the bad guys. So Penny needs to get out her super-scooter thing.

How exciting would it be to storyboard this on a wide shot?


So with a series of quick little cuts from different angles, we get all the information we need.

Up shot on Penny lifting the scooter into shot.

Zing! The wheel comes to camera.

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My Feature Favorites: South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut

All images © 1999 Comedy Central Films/Paramount Pictures.

First off, a technical note: If the site is looking a little wonky, clear your cache and reload it. Hopefully that does it. I’ve been making a few tweaks.

Yes. The South Park movie is one of my favorite animated feature films.


Well, first off, it’s funny as all hell. Second, I’ve been a fan of the show since it first came on the air (like I said before…it brings out the 20 year old frat boy in me). And third, it proves the point I made in the Toy Story post.

That point being, the technology doesn’t matter. You can tell a good story with stick men.

Or in this case, with paper cut-out, potty-mouthed little kids.

And yes, I’m fully aware of the irony that it’s not made with paper cut-outs but with a super-powerful computer program called Maya. It’s still meant to look like paper cut-outs, so that’s really the point. It’s still simplistic in style and execution.

In other words: Crappy.

And I love it.

My personal opinion is the best seasons of South Park are 4 to 8. The movie came out after Season 3, so I think this is where it really took off. They found their voice. The characters were solid. It was ready to evolve. And it did.

This movie isn’t for everyone. If you already love South Park and haven’t seen it, what are you waiting for? If you only kind of like South Park, watch it to see them at their best. If you hate South Park, you’ll either become a convert or hate it more.

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My Feature Favorites: Finding Nemo

All images © 2003 Walt Disney Pictures/Pixar Animation Studios.

Simplicity of story.

If anyone ever questions why I love Pixar’s Finding Nemo so damn much, this is my answer.

The basic story is so simple. And they do so much with it.

When planning their short films, I used to tell students there are two ways to tell a story. You can ‘enjoy the journey’ or you can ‘lead up to a great finale’.

Finding Nemo is a terrific example of enjoying the journey. Do we really think it won’t be a happy ending? Of course not. In a story like this we can pretty much assume everything will turn out just fine.

That’s not the point

It’s what happens along the way that makes it so great.

So if you are planning your own short (or long) story, remember that. If you don’t have a super satisfying ending that will knock the socks off your audience, you can always make the journey one heck of a great ride.

I’m over-simplifying things a bit, but I hope you get what I mean.

Same deal as my other feature favorites. No story summary or anything, I’m just digging in to my favorite bits of Finding Nemo.

Let’s Roll.

It’s gorgeous. Look at the image up top. The whole underwater world is so beautiful and believable. Makes you want to take up scuba diving (if I didn’t have such a nasty fear of suffocation).

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