Pixar goes prehistoric


Webster University animation majors asked Pixar Animation Studios effects artist Michael O’Brien what a studio like the animation giant was looking for in a portfolio. He said it is important for students not to recreate things Pixar has done before and to bring their own vision.

He remembered how one applicant had recreated a scene from Toy Story.

“That’s amazing, but we already have that person,” O’Brien said.

O’Brien spoke to students at Winifred Moore Auditorium Nov. 10 about his work as lead effects artist on Pixar’s upcoming film The Good Dinosaur and what to do to prepare for a career in the animation industry.

O’Brien was employed at Pixar in Feb. 2000 as a member of the Studio Tools Department, which develops the studio’s in-house proprietary animation software. Monsters, Inc. was the first feature film he worked on.

O’Brien first moved into the production department on Finding Nemo, moved back to the tools department for The Incredibles, WALL-E and Up, rejoined the effects team for Cars and served as technical effects lead for Brave and The Good Dinosaur.

In the field

Pixar effects artist Michael O’Brien addresses students Nov. 10 about his work on the upcoming film The Good Dinosaur. BRIAN VERBARG / The Journal

O’Brien said the students need to make the most of any opportunity presented, even if it means submitting work to big companies from the start.  O’Brien said Pixar is a highly competitive business hundreds apply for. While there is rejection, he said that does not mean trying again upon improvment is out of the question.

“There are so many things happening in the industry in so many parts of the globe,” O’Brien said. “If you’re willing to put yourself out in a lot of places, you will find opportunity.”

Redoing Pixar work is not what attracts the employers to potential candidates, O’Brien said. Showing a unique animation style will get a portfolio noticed.

“We’re looking for young people,” O’Brien said. “We’re looking for new voices.”

O’Brien received his education from Santa Clara University.  He said the most valuable thing he learned as a student was giving and taking criticism.

O’Brien said students need to learn the art of communication, never being afraid to express their ideas. However, he said students need to be open to interpretation.

Pixar involves over 1,000 animators working towards the same goal and ego has no place in that goal, O’Brien said.

“That’s one thing people are always surprised about,” O’Brien said. “You show up and it’s a group effort.”

O’Brien said, above all, Pixar is looking for artists first. Computer science and math play a role in the field of animation, but he says it is easier to teach someone about computers and mathematics than it is teaching them art, something animation sophomore Makayla Elliot was relieved to hear.

Elliot said she dreams of working at a company like Pixar.  She said what O’Brien said at the presentation parallels with what the animation program at Webster teaches and that she feels she is on the right track.

“Keeping your own character in your portfolio and being confident in yourself and pushing forward is the most important thing I’ve learned,” Elliot said.

Video game design major Harrison Shackelford wondered what the difference was between animation in films and in video games. O’Brien believes many of the principles remain the same.  This includes giving the audience a sense of scope and perspective and making the game look cinematic.

Shakelford said he looked into the informational side of being a video game designer.  However, seeing O’Brien’s work gave him a whole new perspective.

“What this [event] showed me was how important the detail and scope of things is,” Shackelford said.  “It’s one thing to know it.  It’s another thing to see it.”

Webster students watch a behind-the-scenes feature on The Good Dinosaur. BRIAN VERBARG / The Journal
Webster students watch a behind-the-scenes feature on The Good Dinosaur. BRIAN VERBARG / The Journal

Deadlines in the field are crucial, O’Brien said. Without them, an artist will never be done.

Back in time

The Good Dinosaur is Pixar’s next feature release. The film takes place in an alternate timeline where the asteroid that wipes out the dinosaurs never hit the Earth.

The film follows a young dinosaur named Arlo who falls into a river one day and gets knocked unconscious by a rock. He tries to find his way back home while befriending a human caveboy he names Spot.

O’Brien said The Good Dinosaur is one of the most technically complex films Pixar has ever done.  The film features over 900 visual effects shots, twice as many as any other Pixar film.  The river sequence where Arlo is separated from home has more data than the entirety of Cars 2.  The setting used up 300 terabytes of server space, 10 times more than Monsters University.

O’Brien’s day-to-day tasks include managing and monitoring large-scale systems, assisting other artists and working on his own shots. In The Good Dinosaur, O’Brien handled the underwater shots.

Visual effects work involves balancing different elements of a shot so that the picture looks realistic, O’Brien said. For example, one shot of a leafy branch on a rainy day has multiple elements to make it work: the leaves, background rain, mid-ground rain, foreground rain, water dripping off of the leaves and the splashes on the leaves.

“If one of [these elements] offsets the picture, it all goes out of whack,” O’Brien said.

O’Brien said the people at Pixar are there because they bring their own style to the table.  They did not apply with thinking about “what Pixar wants.”

“Those [portfolios] are so obvious,” O’Brien said. “We want a portfolio representative of you [the students]. You have to find something you are excited about and stick to it.”

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