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Pixar's Chris Chua Discusses a Day in the Life of an Animator and How He Got There

Written by Bonnie Boglioli...December 19, 2011
Pixar
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How can I become a Pixar animator?” Those seven little words comprise one of the most commonly fielded questions at Pixar HQ. To be sure, they can be heard well beyond, mumbled from children’s lips in the theater to the hallways of college animation departments. While computer skills may be important, it’s the ability to bring life to a character that distinguishes a Pixar animator from others. And that’s no small task, as Pixar animator Chris Chua can tell you.

Like many kids, Chua loved animated films and cartoons growing up and fostered this interest by drawing. Upon graduating from CalArts, Chua began his career as a character layout artist on Matt Groening’s Futurama and eventually worked his way up the totem pole on features such as DreamWork’s Sinbad and Flushed Away. Since joining Pixar, Chua has been one of the many reasons behind the success of films like WALL-E and Up, bringing smiles to countless faces while enticing a new generation of animators to pursue their dreams.

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Mentoring students at Animation Mentor while currently working on Pixar’s thirteenth feature film, Brave, Chua is one busy guy yet he still managed to give us an interview! Here’s a sneak peak of a day in the life of a Pixar animator, what he did to get there and a few recommendations to all you aspiring animators out there. 

ACR:  It’s a delight to speak with you, Chris. To start, fill us in on a typical ‘day in the life’ of Chris Chua like at Pixar?

CC:  A typical work day for me usually involves getting to work and going to dailies every morning. Dailies are fun and terrifying at the same time because you’re usually showing a shot or a series of shots to be critiqued. All animators are encouraged to speak up and share their thoughts!  After dailies, I'll go back to my desk and dive into my shot.

On any given week at Pixar, something interesting is always happening whether it's a screening of a film, guest lectures, or any number of Pixar University classes that any employee is encouraged to sign up for and attend. If I’m caught up with my work, I usually take a bit of time for myself by going to one of these.

After lunch, I'll pretty much work ‘til the end of the day, taking small breaks or going to the gym to keep myself fresh and motivated.  Brave is scheduled to be released in the U.S. on June 22, 2012, so we’re now on a crunch to get it finished!

ACR:  Aside from your busy schedule at Pixar, you also mentor animation students at Animation Mentor.  What drew you to mentoring and what do you love most about offering your insight to aspiring animators?

CC:  Believe it or not, I was actually quite hesitant to teach at first!  This all changed after seeing the passion and dedication of my first class at Animation Mentor and since then I’ve been totally hooked! As a student who spent my formative years at CalArts learning animation from artists working in the industry, I know that having the opportunity to ask questions and learn closely from a mentor is just priceless.  

It’s such a great reciprocal process of not only seeing and critiquing students’ work, but also helping them grow and develop into the animators they want to become. Teaching for Animation Mentor is certainly a great opportunity for that and I’m glad to see the students embracing it with such enthusiasm.     

ACR:  You mentioned your educational background in 2D animation from CalArts. How important has drawing been on your career and do you advise your own students to sketch often?

CC:  I’ve been very passionate about drawing since I can remember. I encourage all my students to get a sketchbook and draw as often as they can, no matter what their skill level is. This is very crucial for several reasons. First, it helps you start a regimen of observing people and capturing something about them that interests you.  It really helps me as an animator when I can pull from direct observation and put it into a scene that I’m animating.

Another reason why I feel that drawing is so crucial to good animation is that it has strengthened my eye for good poses, appeal, and clarity. Draftsmanship is certainly not essential to being a great animator, but you DO need to be sensitive to the world around you and be able to transfer that to your animation. Constant sketching and observing from life just facilitates that for me.

ACR:  Is there a way for aspiring animators to adequately learn about the production pipeline before embarking on their careers?

CC: Yes, make your own short films! Don’t wait until you go to school or find work.  If you can immerse yourself in your own projects, you’ll end up doing much the same things, albeit on a much smaller scale. Take a small idea that you’re passionate about and pour your heart and soul into it. Boarding, designing, animating, and editing you own films are all excellent ways to learn! Don’t worry about whether you’re doing it right, just have fun and tell the story you want to tell. Most importantly, do it with sincerity!     

ACR:  As a Pixar animator, you must be incredibly savvy when it comes to CGI. Are there aspects of working with CGI that you love or loathe?

CC:  Animating in CG is truly a double-edged sword. On one hand, I love the precise, exact quality it affords me as an animator. If I’m familiar with the software I’m using, a well-rigged and modeled character frees me up to concentrate on acting and performance rather than worrying about draftsmanship. I can go from the broadest motions to the most subtle acting and have a fair amount of control.

The downside to CG is that it’s more technical and is not as intuitive as putting pencil to paper. Brad Bird has described the computer as being the ultimate used car salesman. You can easily get tricked by the smooth, slick look you get from a CG model and forget about the acting, the performance. Don’t walk off the lot with a clunker!  If you’re not technically savvy, you have to try that much harder to get the results YOU want! That’s the goal of character animation, no matter what the medium.  

ACR:  Did you have a favorite animator who inspired you growing up?

CC:  Growing up, I was absolutely obsessed with Glen Keane’s work.  I would watch his scenes over and over on video, study his drawings in my collection of “Art Of” books and even tried to draw like him! I just loved his relentless drive to breathe as much life as he could into his characters. If you look at any of his drawings, they’re so alive and have such vitality to them. I’m STILL in awe of his work to this day!

ACR:  And do you have mentors of your own?

CC:  I had a slew of great teachers at CalArts that helped shape me into the artist I am today.  Mike Nguyen, Marc Smith and Mark Andrews to name a few. And of course, I learn so much from working with the super talented folks at Pixar. I’m humbled by their stunning work every single day.   

ACR:  Chris, it’s been so great to speak with you about the lessons you’ve learned in your career. All the best!

CC:  Thanks!

For additional information about Chris or to catch up on his latest sketches, check out his blog.

To discover more about Animation Mentor, visit their website or read our recent interview.

Check out more interviews at Animation Career Review's Interview Series.