Animating for Pixar, with Angus MacLane

This week, Giles Alderson and Dom Lenoir chatted with writer-director (and animator), Angus MacLane. They chatted about his filmmaking journey: films that inspired him, how he started working at Pixar, how he slowly climbed the ranks at Pixar and how he made Lightyear – out this week.

Angus wasn’t always interested in animation but was “film obsessed. And I liked to draw and make things.

When I was about 10, my uncle gave me Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life (first edition). In the book, he’d inscribed ‘may all your cartooning dreams come true’.”

His Inspirations

Star Wars was the first movie I saw in the theatre. It really changed my life.

After I saw that, I wanted to draw Star Wars and make Star Wars stuff – making things was an important part of my childhood. My dad was a mechanical engineer and a sculptor.”

Angus said that it seemed that every year after that another exciting sci-fi action film was released… “Empire Strikes Back, Raiders, Return of the Jedi, Ghostbusters, Back to the Future and then Aliens. Aliens really changed what I thought because it was Star Wars, but it was real (or Star Wars was fake).

Once I saw Aliens, I was like I really want to make movies. I’d make movies with friends and then I saw Toy Story when I was in college and literally after the movie finished (I remember) going to a payphone and calling my parents to say this is what I want to do. I want to work at Pixar. I was working there within a year and a half.”

Opportunity met with Preparation

Toy Story was released in November ’95. The following week, a Pixar employee escorted the movie and showed it at my school, Rhode Island School of Design. They were looking to see if students that weren’t from Cal Arts could be taught the computer.”

One of Angus’ friends got an internship and a year later, he got the same internship.

“I started as an intern in January ’97. I got there a little early and they didn’t have anything for me to do” so they asked him if he wanted to do some designs for a character in Toy Story 2. The character was Zurg.

From Internship to 20+ Years at Pixar

After A Bug’s Life, Pixar trained more people to become story artists, and Angus was invited to attend a Master Story Class.

“We got to do boards on Toy Story 2, 2 years out of school.”

He was also a Storyboarding Assistant on Monsters, Inc. “which meant cutting things out and glueing things on paper (pre-digital). They would video tape each image for 10 seconds and then they’d cut it together that way. 

Now turn of the century, I’m doing boards and animation and I’m busy year-round because, after boarding, I would start developing the animation pre-production, which is a rather unsung art of working with characters to understand how they work.”

After Monsters, Inc. he worked on Finding Nemo and then on The Incredibles

“That was the best education because we learned all this stuff from Brad Bird about animation. And the animation level after that movie went up tremendously because he was applying a lot more animation techniques that he’d learned from his years at Disney.”

Taking the Next Steps

After The Incredibles, Angus was contacted by Andrew Stanton, who wanted him to be a board artist on the non-verbal film, WALL-E.

“He wanted to see what an animator would board. And from that, I was boarding on WALL-E as a main board artist and then I transitioned to directing animator on WALL-E.”

Learning on The Job

Because of his involvement in boarding WALL-E, and his work on Toy Story 2 and Monsters, Inc. he was able to study the processes. But when he started making his own short films, including a half-hour Toy Story special and was working with Andrew on Finding Dory, he learned so much more about the ins and outs.

“It was on-the-job training. And so much of the process is getting it wrong. You write these stories and you put them up on storyboards and they don’t work. And then you have to redo it.

As a director, when you’re starting, having the ability to storyboard, do character set up, do artwork, do voice performance helps to jumpstart your movie.”

Angus made sure that whatever needed to be done, he could do. But that didn’t detract from having a brilliant crew. 

“You want collaborators, but as a director, you often have to wear a few hats.

I think of it like Superman, the motion picture. There’s a train and the tracks are broken. Superman has to lay down the tracks and no one on the train even notices. As a director, sometimes you fill those gaps in.”

Want to learn more about Angus MacLane, working for Pixar, being an animator and making Lightyear? Tune into our latest episode of The Filmmakers Podcast.

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