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Pixar Masterclass report

I was unable to attend the Pixar Masterclass in Toronto last week, but fortunately, I know some people who did.  One of those people is Neil Hunter, Coordinator of Ottawa’s Algonquin College Animation Program.  Here’s his report:

Pixar Masterclass, Toronto 2010

By Neil Hunter, Coordinator Algonquin College Animation Program

It was a hot summer morning in downtown Toronto on Friday, June 18 as I walked with Paul West to join about 200 other animators, students and enthusiasts converging on the Innis Town Hall.  We were there to participate in a 2 day masterclass hosted by Van Arts featuring Pixar artists, Andrew Gordon and Matthew Luhn. As I took my place in the spiraling registration line, I saw a few old friends as well as some of my former and current students who had also decided to brave the streets of Canada’s largest city, even as it wrapped itself in 10 foot high security fences in preparation for next weekend’s G20 Summit. Alan Phillips, president of Van Arts and Wayne Gilbert, head of their animation department, kept the lines moving and before long we had our t-shirts, workbooks, seats and were ready to begin the day.

Andrew Gordon was Friday’s lecturer.  Now a senior animator, he started at Pixar 12 years ago, working on:  A Bug’s Life, Toy Story 2, Monsters Inc, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Ratatouille, Toy Story 3 as well as the animated short, Presto. Here is a guy who knows his stuff!  He confidently led us through a day that started with reviewing the principles of animation, moving on to staging, pose design and gestures continuing after lunch with how he approaches a scene: plans it, blocks it out and polishes it. He provided some great visuals, some depicting scenes at various stages of completion, others showing assorted stages of character development, some character reference shots and some video of other animators and directors discussing their approaches to animating scenes.

Now, I’d love to get into more specifics of what both Andrew and Matt presented, but they asked people specifically not to blog about the details and I want to respect that; while still giving an outline of what was discussed. So if I seem a little vague about the details I apologize.

The audience had a wide range of experience:  There were many professionals attending but also many students. Andrew fielded all questions eloquently, with an easy manner that set the informal tone of his lecture, welcoming comments and questions, making sure that everyone walked away with a better understanding of the Pixar animation process.  At 5 pm the lecture ended and participants drifted off into the noisy summer evening. I made my way down to a movie theatre at Yonge and Dundas and saw Toy Story 3 (in 3D naturally) which was a wonderful way to end day one.

Day two was dedicated to story. Matthew Luhn started with an entertaining look at how he got into Pixar’s story department (beginning with his great grandmother opening a toy store in San Francisco). He started at Pixar in 1992 on their first feature film, Toy Story and has been there since. His lecture started with “what it takes to be a story artist”, then followed a progression of how to develop ideas, structure a story, develop a character through beat boards, gags and eventually led to the actual sequence storyboarding process.

His lecture was as insightful as Andrew’s had been the day before and just as well delivered. He had great visual material to support his information but what I found most useful were several interactive exercises that he had the audience participate in, such as having a few people come up and talk about their favourite toy as a child, evoking memories about the toy, how it made them feel, where it is now and what it might be thinking right now as a way of developing a character. He also gave us a character in a situation, such as witches robbing a bank, and one minute to come up with as many gags as possible. He really showed how to develop gags and characters in a structured, fun way.

Prizes of signed Toy Story 3 posters and “art of” books were raffled off throughout the afternoon. After the lecture was over, both Andrew and Matt hung around and signed books, chatting with the participants who clearly wanted the lectures to continue.

Overall it was a great experience, the speakers were awesome and delivered their lectures with the humour and confidence that one would expect from such accomplished artists. I highly recommend going to see them. Van Arts is hosting another masterclass in September, this time in Vancouver. I did find the $499 price tag a little high and I know of several people who wanted to attend but couldn’t afford to. That would be the only thing that I would change on an otherwise excellent couple of days of animation nerding out.

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