Pixar Animator Talks Squash and Stretch, “Finding Dory” at IUPUI

Joy, the bubbly, sky-blue-haired leader of Riley’s emotions from the Pixar film “Inside Out,” bounced across the stage.

Pixar animator Bret Parker discusses her work on “Brave.”

Pixar animator Bret Parker discusses her work on “Brave.”

Edna Mode, the commanding, black-loving fashion designer from “The Incredibles,” opened her laptop.

And then the high-pitched whine of Kari, the teenage babysitter from “The Incredibles,” started coming out of Bret Parker’s mouth.

‘What’s Pixar?’

The woman who made Dory blink and the “Toy Story 2” soldiers march didn’t start out in animation. In fact, she never even studied animation.

Parker, who comes from a theater and dance background, double majored in English and dance performance at Oberlin College in 1991 before studying film and performance at graduate school in the Netherlands.

After graduate school, she moved back to the states and began working in Bay Area restaurants and cafes, “because what do you do with a degree in performance and literature except work in restaurants?”

But it wasn’t long before a friend told her about an opening at Pixar.

“And I’m like, ‘Great—what’s Pixar?’ ” she said.

“Needless to say, they hired me.”

Unfamiliarity with the studio aside, she signed on as a Pixar production assistant in April 1996, a job that entailed “doing anything and everything anyone asked me to do.”  She quickly fell in love with animation, and her work on “Toy Story 2” inspired her to ramp up her career goals.

“It was the first time that it occurred to me that I could be an artist and get paid for it,” she said. “Not as a production assistant; it was the first time I thought about being an animator.”

“So then the end of that project came and they [Pixar] were like, ‘What do you want to do here?’”

“And I don’t think they expected my answer, but I said, ‘I want to be an animator.’”

“Today, I think they probably would have been like ‘Wha-ha-ha go away,’ but fortunately Pixar at that time was 250 people, and they were an incredibly open-minded studio that way,” she said.

“So they’re like ‘Well, all right, let’s see what we can do to sort of lean you in that direction.’”

Squash and stretch

Parker began spending late nights at the studio studying all things animation. Although she was already familiar with the choreography, acting, and timing aspects of the process thanks to her theatrical background, she “didn’t know any of the real principles of animation.”

However, she quickly picked up industry terminology like ‘squash and stretch’ and ‘exaggeration’ and learned how to work with the Pixar software.

“I put together a reel [a sample of an animator’s work], which I’ve never looked at again, and that I have to admit I would die of embarrassment looking at now,” she said.  

Parker’s dedication paid off when that reel landed her a job as a fix animator on “A Bug’s Life.”

“Fix animator is a really interesting position because you have to sort of sneak into a shot and make changes and sneak out,” she said. “And you never want to mess up the animator’s original intention.”

‘You do a lot of different things—sometimes it’s really just fixing something, like the hand intersected the cup, but sometimes it’s a little more, like adding some eye blinks or finessing a gesture.”

And, if she was lucky, sometimes more.

“Sometimes on “A Bug’s Life” it was like ‘Oh, they forgot to animate these four background characters.’ And I would always be really excited when that happened because then I would get to go do that.”

Parker’s position allowed her to learn from a diverse pool of experienced animators.

“Animators all animate really differently,” she said. “There’s definitely not one way. And you see things that you’re like ‘Oh, I don’t want to do that’ and you see things that are like ‘Oh, wow, this is really interesting.’ ”

“It’s a really unique way of learning a lot about animation, just getting in and literally seeing how all these different animators approach their shots.”

‘Thank goodness I had braces as a kid’

Parker’s increasing involvement in animation soon led to requests to do scratch, the animation industry’s term for temporary dialogue in films.

“I did some of the voices in Monsters [Inc.],” she said. “There’s a bunch of people at Pixar, and they just use the employees for scratch.”

“It’s always very fun; you think ‘Oh, the actor gets the script and gets to know the scene.’ No; you’re at your desk, and you’re working and you get a phone call and they’re like, ‘Hey, can you come down in five minutes and do scratch?’ And you’re like, ‘OK.’ ”

Parker offered tips for animating Pixar characters’ mouths.

Parker offered tips for animating Pixar characters’ mouths.

“And then you walk in and start reading your lines, and you have no idea what’s going on in the scene and you aren’t with anybody else.”

“[“Incredibles” director] Brad Bird had me do this scene as Kari [the babysitter] and then he was like, ‘OK, now I want you to have braces.’ ”

“So I was like ‘Oh, OK, thank goodness I had braces as a kid because I knew how to do that little schlurr that happens when you have a retainer on.’ ”

“And then of course I begged and pleaded to be able to animate her as well, so that was a super fun experience.”

After finishing her fix animation work on “A Bug’s Life,” Parker was promoted to a junior animator on “Toy Story 2.” From “Toy Story 2” she went on to become a full-time animator on films such as “Monsters, Inc.,” “Finding Nemo,” “The Incredibles,” and “Ratatouille.”

And then came an offer she couldn’t refuse: Pixar asked her to be the animation tools lead on “Brave.”

Her work on “Brave” was the springboard for a series of other animation tools lead positions on “Monsters University,” “Inside Out,” and most recently “Finding Dory.”

Since getting her start as a fix animator on “A Bug’s Life” 20 years ago, Parker has had a hand in almost every Pixar film, from “Toy Story 2” to “Finding Dory.”

The fledgling company that had 250 people when Parker first started now employs 1200.

And all the fix animation and coordination work she did single-handedly on “A Bug’s Life?”

“Now they have a team of like eight people who do that,” she said.

Soaring like Superman

It’s a typical day on the job for Parker: she rockets through Riley’s brain as Joy from “Inside Out.”

She hunches over like Wall-E, filming herself scooping up piles of garbage like the little robot.

And that’s all before lunch.  

Parker showed the audience videos of her acting out Joy’s “Inside Out” scenes and posing as Riley’s teacher, clips which she claimed were “entertaining for you and embarrassing for me to watch.”

“I approach every shot differently, but the common thread is to act shots out as much as humanly possible—although I couldn’t act out the flying,” she said.

“So I watched “Superman” when I was trying to figure out how to animate Joy’s flying scenes [in “Inside Out”].”

After acting out scenes, Parker and the other animators recreate their movements in meticulously detailed drawings. No movement, from an eye blink to a head tilt, is too small.

“There are often really subtle things that create the appeal and the believability in the character,” Parker said. “It’s not necessarily the broad choices; it’s the smaller ones that are creating the appeal and reality of who that character is.”

Despite her love of working in animation, Parker said occasional crunch times do come with the territory.

“Finals are good practice, you guys,” she said.

During crunch times, Parker said she never works less than 10 hour days, including weekends.

“Pixar mandates an 8-hour turnaround, but they do allow working dinners,” she said. “They offer yoga classes and basically encourage you to continue to have a normal life as much as possible.”

“Which, ironically, isn’t really possible.”

An insider industry

“[In animation], a degree means absolutely nothing,” Parker said.

“I knew it!” someone in the audience whispered.  

“But it is the best course for you to learn everything you need to learn,” she continued.

Despite not having an animation degree, Parker managed to work her way up to a position as a Pixar animation tools lead.

“Just show your work to people,” she said. “You don’t have to have a degree, but you need an amazing reel.”

“Say yes to things,” she continued. “If a door opens, walk right through it. Maybe you won’t go from a program assistant to an animator; I don’t know.

“But if you never walk through it, you’ll never know.”

IUPUI SIGGRAPH (Special Interest Group on Graphics and Interactive Techniques) President Cade Jacobs’ experience is a good example of the payoff of Parker’s “Say Yes to Things” philosophy.

“I met [Parker] at the SIGGRAPH Conference in LA last year [where I served as a student volunteer],” he said. After their initial connection, he was able to arrange for her to visit IUPUI in April.

Parker also advised aspiring animators was to not be too picky when it comes to internships.

“Don’t shy away from something that’s potentially not the perfect job,” she said. “Take junior level and intern positions. Pixar prefers to keep in-house people rather than starting over, so we have a very high percentage of animation interns that we eventually hire.”

IUPUI student and aspiring animator Courtney Plummer was excited to meet Parker because “I super-love Disney and Pixar” and said the most valuable part of Parker’s visit was “getting a heads-up that I need a really good reel if I want to be an animator and that I need a thick skin.”

‘[Parker]’s really cool,” she added.

Women in animation

When Parker started at Pixar she was one of only a few women at the studio, but now she estimates the department is 10-12% women.

“There are much more women in animation now,” she said. “I love to see the diversity in the industry.”

Parker advises her audience how to avoid “crunchy eyes and noodle brows.”

Parker advises her audience how to avoid “crunchy eyes and noodle brows.”

“Studios are starting to release more stories that are more diverse, although maybe slower than we’d like,” she said. “Riley was a female star in ‘Inside Out,’ and Pixar’s had more diverse stars in recent years like the Korean American in ‘Up.’ ”

Her advice to young women interested in animation is that they “need a thick skin.”

“When I first started, I would melt under critique,” she said. “You need a thick skin. You’ll almost never get someone saying ‘Oh, that’s brilliant.’ ”

“You’ll never get that.”

“Even today I get a little defensive—everyone does,” she said. “You have to pour your heart in, yet be ready to make changes.”

“You have to remember critiques aren’t personal—they’re about making the work better.”

“Finding Dory”

She brought millennials’ childhood friends to life. And, with “Finding Dory” set for a June 2016 release, she’ll soon be laughing, dancing, and wriggling her way into the lives of the next generation.

Parker said the characters she animates become part of her. From Dory, the perpetually forgetful fish of “Finding Nemo” to Riley, the 11-year-old female protagonist of “Inside Out,” she forges an emotional connection with her on-screen counterparts.

“The characters are like old friends,” she said. “To go back and dive back into all those characters was a really awesome experience.”

$5 on Thursday bought me an audience with Kari the babysitter.

And, as long as Parker keeps going in animation, who knows who else?