The Good Dinosaur
To build interest in their latest feature, The Good Dinosaur (opening today), Pixar sent some of the artists involved in its production out into the world to talk about their work. Last month, story artist Rosana Sullivan made the drive down to San Diego to address Professor Sam Shpiegelman’s Cinema as Art and Communication class at San Diego State. I had a chance to speak with her beforehand about her career and about the process of making a Pixar film.
When Sullivan was in high school, “Someone’s aunt was managing a caricature stand at Six Flags Fiesta Texas — it was this random connection — and she said, ‘Do you want a job?’ I said, ‘Yes, of course.’” (The offer wasn’t entirely random: Sullivan’s mom painted, and her brother was “a drawing prodigy,” and so “it was all around me, and I drew my life.”) At Six Flags, “I just showed up and they taught me how to draw a caricature. There was a kind of formula and set style to it, because you had to draw these things within five minutes. I was fortunate to be working in a strange place like a theme park; even when the drawing part got really grind-like or hard, there was always something fun about it that kept me going. The least fun part about it was having to sell: convincing customers to sit in front of me and let me jack up their face and then buy it.”
Back then, Sullivan didn’t know that Pixar existed. But the story of her arrival and development at the studio bears a strong resemblance to the story of her first encounter with professional artmaking.
Start with the random offer: in 2006, Sullivan was a biology major at the University of San Francisco, and she took an elective sculpture class. “The professor was also teaching sculpture at Pixar University, which is an enrichment program for Pixar employees. She said, ‘Hey, do you want a job as an intern there?’ And once again, I said, ‘Yes, of course.’” By the end of her internship, “I realized I wanted to draw.” She applied to Pixar that same year and was rejected. She enrolled in the Academy of Art University “and worked my ass off.” She applied again and was rejected. “Finally, a friend of mine was making a live-action short film for Pixar University and needed an actor. I auditioned and got the role. She saw me drawing on set and asked, ‘Do you want to apply for a storyboard position?’ It was pretty quick after that.”
The Good Dinosaur
Move on to the grind. “It was a lot of drawing, just pushing myself and honing my skills. Getting faster, getting looser, having a quicker connection between my ideas and what I expressed through drawing. The team on a film will often have people with different strengths. In my case, they relied on me for telling the emotional side of the story. The two characters, Arlo the dinosaur and Spot the little boy, coming together and falling in love, basically: a boy and his dog. I did a lot of faces, a lot of character work, trying to figure out, ‘How do you express a character who is alone and vulnerable?’” She found herself reaching back. “Even with a caricature, you’re trying to capture the essence of a person.”
(Sullivan had help here from the creative decision to portray Arlo in a highly stylized, almost plushy fashion, despite the super-realistic, hard-edged backgrounds. “We wanted people to care for him, to see him struggling in nature. If we had gone more realistic, there might not have been the feeling of, ‘Wow, he’s not going to survive out there. What is this soft, round thing going to do when he’s confronted with his fears?’ It was a bold choice, but I loved getting to draw his more emotional eyes and expressions.”)
And finish with the trial of selling your stuff. “You’re working with a team of about seven other artists and the director for a very long time” — three and a half years for The Good Dinosaur. “You get script pages for a scene from the director and you try to imagine the scene the best you can to reach what the director wants. Then you pitch your idea. You pitch like you’re the actor: while you’re showing your storyboards, you’re making the sound effects, doing the silly voices. As it gets closer to its final form, you start pitching it to editors, or the director, or to [Pixar’s chief creative officer] John Lasseter, or to Disney’s head of marketing. You have to develop a thick skin. They let each artist really own the scene, but you’re still all battling for the best idea the group can come up with.” She recalls the discussion of how to depict Arlo’s hatching — “it’s been done before, even within Pixar” — in winning fashion. (But she doesn’t say whose idea won out.)
During her presentation to Shpiegelman’s class, Sullivan got to show the fruit of her labors: a set of her own sketches depicting a scene of Arlo running along a riverbank and then up a mountainside and through a cloudbank, followed by the finished scene from the film. “You start by pitching to yourself. I asked, What would I like to see? I wanted to convey a feeling of harmony and euphoria, the feeling of the world beginning to open up. The film is trying to be as immersive as possible. It’s a simple story, but we’re hoping that people can get the emotions of it.”