When Pixar's latest movie hit screens, the main character's explosion of orange curls quickly became a point of fixation and is easily one of the most distinct characteristics for any character in the studio's canon.
And you can thank Tyler native Christopher Corey Griffin for it.
Griffin, 26, is a 2003 graduate of Robert E. Lee High School. He went on to attend college at Texas A&M University and, after receiving his master's there, went straight to becoming an animator for Pixar working on “Brave.”
Not a bad way to start a career.
Path To Pixar
A job in animation wasn't his first goal.
“I kind of fell into it almost by accident,” he said.
Though he had grown up enjoying drawing and painting and other artistic ventures, Griffin didn't consider pursuing a career in animation to be very practical and said he originally planned to be an architect. His undergraduate degree was in environmental design (more or less, architecture, he said) but decided to pursue his master's via Texas A&M's Department of Visualization Science, which provided a “very nice mixture of the artistic and technical.”
One of the major recruiting avenues for studios such as Pixar is to visit schools, such as Texas A&M, with animation and design programs and pluck the best of the best.
“It's almost like a biannual thing. It's really great. We all get our portfolios or our demo reels ready and then you just set up an appointment time and you go in and they'll critique your work,” he said. “They'll tell you, 'This looks great; this could be improved.' And if they find peoples' work they find exceptional, they'll take you back and make a consideration for a job application.”
Never quite expecting to be strongly considered for a job, Griffin said he appreciated the rare opportunity to be seriously critiqued by animation veterans.
“That's where I got the most benefit,” Griffin said.
But catch their eye he did, and in 2010 (immediately following his completion of the master's program) began work at Pixar in Emeryville, Calif.
Walking into the Pixar offices for the first time was overwhelming. It was like “walking into Disneyland.”
“Except you get to stay and you get to work and there is beautiful artwork everywhere. It's really amazing to be here. It's very inviting,” he said.
That excitement quickly gave way to a sense of scale, Griffin said.
“At the same time, it's a little humbling. They are the best and the brightest here. At your school you thought you were the top 10 percent of your class,” he said. “Then you get here and you're in a building full of people who were in the top 10 percent of their class. It's a little humbling and there's John Lasseter walking down the hallway … it's a little surreal.”
The intimidation factor didn't last, however, as Griffin soon discovered that Pixar is about as open a creative environment as he could have hoped for.
“Initially as a young person starting out here, it was slightly intimidating walking through the door here. But after a short time here, it wasn't intimidating. Everyone is very cool and inviting and open to ideas,” Griffin said. “It looks like Disneyland when you walk in, and this may sound cheesy, but it also feels like Disneyland because everyone's cool. You can walk up to somebody and talk to them. It's very open and comfortable, and you can tell they try to make it feel that way so that no one feels pressured. They try to relieve a lot of the stress when dealing with the pressure of having to maintain the status of the company. But everyone is very relaxed about it.”
On The Job
“No one is out for themselves or trying to undercut anyone else. Everyone is on board. It goes to that openness. If anyone has a problem they state it and it gets resolved pretty quickly. Nothing is just swept under the rug. Everything is very open and that allows for a really great work environment,” he said.
And when you're working on a landmark film like “Brave,” that sort of unity is essential. “Brave” was notable right from its announcement as it was to be the first Pixar film with a female lead character and a female co-director. There wasn't any sort of special pressure because of that, but Griffin said it was exciting none the less to know that his first project while at Pixar had an extra bit of significance to it.
Griffin's involvement with the film was slightly more on the technical side than the artistic. Working as a technical director in the Character Simulation Department, Griffin was part of the team responsible for making sure the characters' hair and garments looked and moved realistically.
Since there are no actors to film, each shot in an animated film must be rendered individually, so teams are given individual shots or a series of shots. Griffin had about 105 shots for which he was responsible.
“For the most part, it kind of goes, you're handed a project. If your task is to simulate garments and hair in a particular shot, they assign you the shot, you go in, you do your work, and then you present it to your bosses and supervisors. They approve of it and present it to the director, and he'll have his creative input and put his stamp of approval or offer suggestions. It's pretty open, though,” he said. “You are allowed to have your own input. If you disagree or if you have a suggestion, you're very much allowed to say, 'Hey, I think it would be better if we did it this way,' and everyone is open to it. It's pretty cool.”
On the garment side of things, audiences are sure to remember at least one of Griffin's shots.
“I did the simulation work on the 'Feast your eyes!' shot. It's the one in the trailer where Lord Dingwall at the festival moons the other lords and everyone else behind him. I did the simulation work for that,” he said.
“We're handed the shot with the characters and have no animation on their clothing and garments. It's our job to take the clothing and garments and put them on the character and simulate it so that it (looks and moves) like a natural garment. Then we also have to do special case things such as, in that scene, the character grabs his kilt and lifts it up and moons everybody and puts it back down. I was responsible for making the grab and the lift up and making it look all natural.”
The Hair Up There
“There is a lot of physics that goes into making curly hair look real like that. There is a lot of tension and spring constancies and a whole slew of physical aspects and attributes that go into making a strand of hair that is coiled up in a curl. The way that it moves is it's going to bounce like a spring, but not necessarily. It's going to hold its tension because it is naturally grown in that sort of curling sense, as opposed to hair that is straight and then curled,” he said. “Hair that is straight and then curled will eventually fall back to its straightness, whereas curly hair is grown that way. The whole head of hair like that, aside from the technical aspect, directing it was challenging because it's like trying to art direct chaos, except it's not technically chaos. There is an order to why it looks chaotic. Those shots in particular were a lot of fun.”
“Right now we're working on building some of the garments in the film, and then I will be moving up to animating those garments. It's a definite change of pace and scenery,” Griffin said. “You go from kilts and dresses and exploding hair to college attire and stuff like that. You've got monsters with very unique body shapes that are very different from human shapes.”
The challenge with “Brave” was to make everything look and move as realistically as possible, a term that doesn't always quite apply when animating monsters.
“This character is not wearing a four-layer dress or seven layers of clothing and a kilt. But then the character has four arms and two legs, and it's like, well, OK. Not sure what a guy with four arms is even going to look like.”
“Monsters University” is set for release in June 2013.