A Queer Vietnamese-Houstonian-New Yorker Writer musing about the arts and absurdities when not screenwriting or playwrighting

Pixar Artist Graces My Campus! (SPOILER FREE)

The celebrities always get hogged by the fans.

Stop hogging the celebrity.

Like with every visiting celebrity, even if they’re in “approachable mode,” people tend to hog them for a conversation or gush about their work to boast to their friends and family that said celebrity, “smiled at them.” This happened for a while with Michael O’Brien, a visiting Pixar artist, until someone noticed I was standing by waiting to take a picture with him. So we took a photo.


I told him, “I always wanted to work for Pixar, but I can’t do CGI.”

“You can. You have to just keep drawing.”

“I can’t draw.” I think of my inadequate stick-figure storyboards I scribble for film class.

“Start learning.”

In the first full trailer of The Good Dinosaur, the most striking scene to me is the image of the rain dripping from leaves in a richly photorealistic scene that caused first-time viewers to wonder, “Wait? This is real or animation?”


Naaaaah, Pixar ripped us off and gave us a real-life clip of nature.

This one little segment requires layers. There’s foreground rain. There’s mid-ground rain (the rain that intersects with the space of the leaves). And there’s background rain. As someone who’s toyed with Photoshop and Aftereffects, I have a bit more understanding what it means to have layers of graphics over graphics.

Michael O’ Brien, a Pixar Artist paid my campus a visit to bestow his technical wisdom. Like many of us animation fans, he didn’t seem too happy to find that the University of Houston lacked an animation program. His one-time visit was probably the closest to an animation lesson that UH would ever had. Here’s a little something to mediate on: O’Brien states that Pixar animator think of their work as hand-drawn/2-D first before they are CGI.

He showed us a few test animation, including a few “behavior/expression” test of Arlo’s and Spot’s mannerisms. O’Brien’s contribution to the film includes the underwater moments.

“I get a lot of, “Why do the dinosaurs look too cartoony?”” He said, alluding to a common base breaker on the character designs. “Think about it this way, imagine if the characters look like the dinosaurs from Jurassic Park.” The end goal was to construct a world where a dinosaur can feel small.

So picture Arlo if he's as realistic as the Jurassic Park dinosaurs.

So picture Arlo if he’s as realistic as the Jurassic Park dinosaurs.

He spoke of a quiet scene in the film as the “haiku moment,” where a moment takes a breath to absorb the environment.

I think of Miyzaki’s Studio Ghibli films, that employ the Japanese technique of “ma.” The great Miyazaki, a contemporary of Pixar and friend of John Lasseter said in an interview, “Emptiness. It’s there intentionally. The time in between my clapping is ma. If you just have non-stop action with no breathing space at all, it’s just busyness. But if you take a moment, then the tension building in the film can grow into a wider dimension.”

O’Brien screened a few clips, including an emotional clip between Arlo and Spot, which in O’Brien words, made Anna Paquin (the voice of the T-Rex Ramsay) walk out of Pixar teary-eyed and mutter, “Effffing Pixar.” 

It’s no secret that animation is a painstaking trade, even if he enjoys every moment of it. To navigate the behavior of nature, the Pixar team visited the rivers and O’ Brien showed a rather serene clip of the rivers.

And cut to them white-water rafting. It wasn’t enough to look at the water. They had to get in the water.

With director Peter Sohn at the front of a boat, they went white-water rafting, which made O’Brien think, “Oh god, I could die….” Also, on the very first white water rafting attempt, the producer and head of the story tumbled into the raging water, which led to Peter Sohn getting livid because they would’ve lost the whole story team and the movie would have gone underwater. And the poor producer began slamming into the rocks like a pinball machine (she survived to not have this film say, In Memory of Our Producer).

At the Q & A section, we get these pieces of gold.

My friend ask, “What do you think of the Pixar Theory?”

“I think it’s genius! So far ahead of us.” He’s only grateful that they ever get their movies finished, but they never really stopped to think of anything as far-off at the Pixar Theory.  He even tossed us a few hints of Easter Eggs — where A-113 and the Pizza Planet truck is located, and yes, a Finding Dory character is present in one scene for perhaps a few milliseconds (Hint: Why an octopus is in freshwater I’ll never know).

An acquaintance asked, “Where do ideas come from? Is it a group-mentality idea? Or does it come from one person?”

So he clarified that each movie idea comes from one director.

Which prompt me to inquire, “As I understand, early in production, Bob Peterson (the original director) was switched out. How did that effect the process?”

To which he replied that the process of switching out directors is quite common with a Pixar project and alluded to the fact that this particular switch-out was one of the more publicized cases.

Someone asked this chronic question, “Is it a mandate that ever Pixar film must make us cry?”

“No, but I’m sure it’s some unwritten rule.”

I came to the lecture as a Pixar fan, as someone who found Monsters University as decent and underappreciated, as a lover of Finding Nemo and former fanfiction writer of WALL-E, as someone who slip in Incredibles dvd every year. But I didn’t really think come as a filmmaker because I didn’t think an animated director would apply much to my live-action pursuits. Of course, everyone knows that Pixar’s storytelling approach is universal and I didn’t think that what he’d say would be anything new.

But it’s nice to get reinforcement on what it means to create.

“We don’t want them to walk out of the theater saying, “those were lovely visuals.” We want them to say, “the story was great.””

Keep telling those great stories, Mr. O’Brien.


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