Working at Pixar: Tips for Success From Sheridan Grad

Persistence, passion and pulling from life experience are critical according to alumnus Benjamin Su

Persistence, passion, and pulling from life experience . . . those are just a few of the things that come to mind when you ask Benjamin Su, a double graduate of Sheridan animation, for ideas about how to succeed in his highly competitive field.

Su will be in Toronto this weekend to give a talk at TAAFI- the Toronto Animation Arts Festival International – in which he’ll share tips on what studios look for in a demo reel, whether 2D animation is still relevant in today’s CG marketplace, and ideas on how to work more efficiently as an animator.

Space-Chimps-wallpaperThe Lure of Feature Films

After graduating from Sheridan’s classical animation program in 2002 and its post graduate certificate in computer animation in 2003, Su spent the next five years working at a number of studios in Toronto and Vancouver on films such as The Wild, Everyone’s Hero, Space Chimps and Nine.

“By that point, I had worked on just about every major Canadian CG animated feature that had ever come out,” says Su. “I’m just a big movie buff and I’ve always loved animated movies. I got my first job through Sheridan’s Animation Industry Day. The owners of Core Digital Pictures – who were grads from Sheridan – came to campus to hire more Sheridan grads. My first job was to work on a feature film they were working on for Disney.”

Persistence Paves the Way to Pixar

Cars-2-20Following an “itch to try Hollywood,” Su moved to California and worked on Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs at Sony Pictures Animation in Culver City. He knew he wanted to work at Pixar one day because of the outstanding calibre of films they produce and the talented directors and animators they hire. Since arriving in 2009, Su has worked on Cars 2, Toy Story 3, Brave, and Monsters University. “It took me three tries to get in,” he admits. “And I actually work with someone who sent in a demo reel every year for ten years before he got in.”

Su’s not joking when he suggests that people need to get used to rejection letters. “It’s just part of the deal working in this industry. It’s not necessarily that your demo reel lacks something – sometimes it just comes down to timing. So never give up if this is something that you really want. Do your due diligence and just keep on applying.”

Su also stresses the importance of connections. His first three summer jobs, working at professional studios during the course of his studies came about by talking to classmates who were going for interviews and invited him to tag along. “You’d be surprised – that is still the way this industry works,” he says. “A lot of work is done on a contract basis, so when you finish one movie, you look for the next – and those jobs come from your peers.” Su suggests that a good attitude is also critical. “You need to be nice to people in general and be likeable. That’s what makes other people willing to help you.”

Following Your Passion

“My first love was comic books. I grew up in Taiwan so my influence was anime and manga. I moved to Canada when I was 10 so from there I got influenced by North American comics, cartoons and Disney movies. I went to an arts high school in Ottawa. No one was taking art to get an easy credit. We all took it seriously. Being surrounded by my peers was very inspirational.”

Su applied to six universities for business and accounting and to Sheridan for animation. “My dad was a VP at a bank and my mom worked in accounting. They were pushing me in that direction. When I got accepted into a really good program at UofT for economics and co-op, I had to convince them that you really could make a living in animation by looking for statistics of Disney salaries on line. I told them if I wasn’t toward the top of my class after one year, I’d quit myself and go into business. I worked my butt off that first year and have never looked back. From there, they saw my passion toward art and animation. Just being able to wake up every morning and draw was an absolute dream come true.”

Pulling from Life Experience: Acting, Observing and the Referencing Road Map

Benjamin Su

Benjamin Su

To really stand out in the field, Su says “you need to use your life experience in your animation. Animators are actors, after all. You can imagine a shot in your head, but there are a lot of subtleties that you can’t envision without acting them out first and seeing yourself on film. You need to look for the locomotion of your body, the silhouettes, expressions, hip and shoulder angles, and postures. And you don’t want to copy what you see exactly because animation is about exaggeration and caricature. Having a referencing video gives you a road map of thing to push along your shot.”

“You also need to think about the personality and feelings that the character is going through” he adds. “A lot of that comes from a sense of observation. I’ll watch a movie and when I come across a scene where they hit the emotional points, I’ll rewind it and study it to figure out what the actors did to make it so effective. You have to use what you see and combine it with how you feel about your performance.”

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