Before a Pixar movie hits the theaters, a Badger is working behind the scenes to help bring those animated characters to life.
Mike and Sully. Lightning McQueen. Buzz and Woody.
These characters are real to moviegoers who become deeply invested in their onscreen journeys, as much as they would with protagonists played by flesh-and-blood actors. And when that happens, it means that Allison Nelson ’08 has done her job.
Nelson works on the production team at Pixar Animation Studios, the force behind movies such as Toy Story that are wildly popular among both children and their parents. Behind the artistry and imagination, each shot of a Pixar film is a “giant math problem” of many layers that have to be put together, she says.
When she started as an intern at Pixar in January 2009, just weeks after graduation, Nelson expected a to-do list of ordering lunches and making coffee. But on her first day, she was handed a spreadsheet and thrown into the technical aspects of making Toy Story 3.
“I was so surprised and grateful that they were trusting me with things that were actually relevant to the film,” she says.
Pixar has features that many workplaces don’t, including a soccer field, basketball court, and cereal bar. “They know that you’re here and you’re going to get work done,” she says. “But they also understand that you’re human and you need to blow off steam sometimes.”
Nelson moved into a permanent position after only three months, working as a production coordinator on Cars 2. Her current project, Monsters University, is a prequel to Monsters, Inc., and tells the story of how Mike and Sully (voiced by Billy Crystal and John Goodman) became friends during their college years.
During her own college years, Nelson made live-action movies as a film and television production student and worked as a production assistant on Wisconsin Public Television documentaries. For her, campus was a proving ground. “It was a little bit overwhelming for me to be thrown into this forty-thousand-[student] university,” she says. “No one’s holding your hand.”
A self-described “control freak,” Nelson appreciates how animation allows filmmakers to avoid issues such as the weather. “Everything is in the computer; you can control everything, for the most part … as opposed to if you’re doing live action and it rains one day,” she explains.
So it’s not surprising that her favorite Pixar character is Edna Mode, the exacting designer of “super suits” for the superhero characters in The Incredibles. To make an animated film, one has to be like Mode: focused on the details and relentless in pursuing a vision.
A ninety-minute film averages about 1,600 shots built using computers. Each shot of the film travels — often simultaneously — through multiple departments, including sets, characters, effects, animation, simulation, and crowds. “It’s a giant checklist,” Nelson says.
She works in the place where all the pieces ultimately come together — the sweatbox, so named during the early days of animated films, when Walt Disney crammed his team into a tiny, hot room to critique rough shots of movies.
Nelson works daily with each department, ensuring that the shots are on time, artistically and technically correct, and that they maintain continuity, before moving on to the director to finalize the film.
She’d love to become a producer someday. But, for now, she’s focused on learning the roles that are critical in the process of making movies.
“Some of my friends and roommates now are changing jobs all the time, and they don’t really know what they want to do,” she says. “I’m pretty happy doing what I’m doing now, and I realize that that’s very rare for people my age.”
Jenny Price ’96 is still waiting for a sequel to The Incredibles, her favorite Pixar movie.