Pixar character animator and Mac graduate, Allison Rutland. (Images c/o Pixar.)

Allison Rutland spent her time at McMaster’s campus as many do: she lived in Hedden Hall in first year, submitted comics to Incite Magazine, went frequently to the Downstairs John - the TwelvEighty of yesteryear - and made “a lot of fun memories just hanging out with people from my class.” But the career she pursued after graduation is rather extraordinary. Allison Rutland is a character animator at Pixar’s animation studios in Emeryville, California.

After graduating with a bachelor’s in fine arts and multimedia in 2002, Rutland went on to Sheridan College to pursue a diploma in animation. It wasn’t long after that Rutland found a home first at a studio in Toronto, and then made the leap across the pond to a studio in London. There, she worked on visual effects for such well-known films as Where the Wild Things Are and The Tale of Despereaux.

But Pixar had always been at the back of her mind. “A couple of friends of mine had got in [during Ratatouille], and they’d been at Pixar for about two years, and I thought, ‘Ah, you know what, I think I wanna try’ and applied,” Rutland said from her California office.

She then flew from London to San Francisco to compete in an intensive interview process.

“It was very intimidating. It was like a full day thing,” she said. “You meet with several different people - I think there are five or six mini interviews. Each one’s a half an hour, and it’s with four or so people from the animation department, some real animation suits, and some just animation guys, or animation directors and stuff.  Everyone was really nice, but it was just kind of a very intimidating process.”

It paid off in the end, though, and Rutland made the move from English rain to California sun to begin work in April of 2009. Since then, her life has been any aspiring animator’s dream come true. As a character animator, she has worked on Toy Story 3 (she animated Woody and Buzz), Brave and most recently, Monster’s University (which was released on DVD earlier this week).

Character animation is no walk in the park. In this role, Rutland is responsible for every aspect of a character’s movement during a scene. “Before I start a shot, there’s like whole day of research,” she said.

For the sequels she worked on, much of Rutland’s prep-work was in the form of reviewing older material. “I had the DVDs at home [of Toy Story and Monster’s Inc.] and I would just watch them over and over again,” she said. Rutland would make extensive viewing notes and would study frame-by-frame what her predecessors had done in order to maintain the same style in Toy Story 3 and Monsters University as in the original movies.

After her research is complete, Rutland can get down to her detail-oriented work. “I’ll get a shot where the audio’s already recorded and some layout is already there, which means that the camera’s already set up and stuff,” she said. “I’ll open that shot up, and basically, I get to design all the movement.”

Storyboards, the pre-recorded character audio file and daily meetings with the director to go over his vision guide Rutland for the shot or scene that she’s working on. Her day involves acting, studying movements and imagining herself into different – often impossible – kinds of bodies to better design how they might move if they actually existed.

For Monster’s University, Rutland was the primary character animator for Sulley, the huge blue and purple monster voiced by John Goodman. “I did a couple of shots at the beginning of the show that the animation directors liked, so they kind of kept giving me Sulley animation, so I ended up with a big chunk of Sulley’s shots,” Rutland said.

“There’s something kind of fun about his body style, because he’s big and heavy. His attitude’s pretty clear, and the director’s words and recordings were really good, so there was a lot of really fun stuff that I could do with him.”

For a character as central and intricate in his design as Sulley, this means that Rutland spent a lot of time at her desk, getting every tiny movement just right. “It depends on the complexity, but each shot can take a while,” she explained. “[I] generally do, I don’t know, maybe, three or four shots a week.”

And with each shot lasting only a second or two, that amounts to only about one second’s worth of footage being completed each day. It’s painstaking work, but Rutland still had encouraging words to offer for those looking to get into the animation business.

“You have to be willing to be constantly learning,” she said. “I think animation’s one of those things that you don’t ever really feel like you’ve totally mastered it. You kind of have to be humble about your work, and just be willing to always be critiqued on it, and always be learning. I think that’s part of it.”

Allison Rutland’s work as a character animator can next be seen in Pixar’s forthcoming feature Inside Out, due for release in spring 2015.

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