Chris Sasaki, a character designer at Pixar, visited DePaul during the spring quarter as part of the Visiting Artists Series, which is sponsored by the School of Cinematic Arts in the College of Computing and Digital Media. Recently, Sasaki wrapped up his work on Pixar’s latest animated film, “Inside Out,” which hits theatres across the country this weekend. Directed by Pete Docter, who also directed “Up” and “Monsters, Inc.,” the new movie personifies the emotions living inside our heads. With an all-star cast—including Amy Poehler (“Joy”), Bill Hader (“Fear”), Mindy Kaling (“Disgust”), Lewis Black (“Anger”) and Phyllis Smith (“Sadness), “Inside Out” promises to deliver Pixar’s usual blend of humor, pathos and adventure.
During his one-hour presentation, Sasaki entertained and informed a rapt audience of animation students and alumni. Students started lining up half an hour before the program began, and their excitement about hearing from a Pixar artist was palpable.
Like many in the audience, Sasaki traced his love of drawing to childhood. “Drawing was always my passion, but I didn’t know how I could make a career out of it,” the California native said. In high school, watching “Monsters, Inc.” on repeat triggered a reminder of his earlier obsession with “Dumbo” as a child, and he realized that while animation may be “just cartoons” to some people, it is, like any artistic pursuit, a creative endeavor that can pack a punch and make an impact.
While Sasaki thought he had found a career path, his high school guidance counselor cautioned against his plan. “I was told that computers do animation now,” he recalls. Undaunted, Sasaki applied to the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, Calif.—and was rejected. He eventually earned a degree from Woodbury University, but the uphill battle continued. “I would submit my portfolio for jobs only to be told ‘we love your stuff, but we feel like you need more experience,’” he explained. Heads nodded in empathy throughout the auditorium.
However, Sasaki refused to give up. Over time, small projects led to bigger opportunities. He reminded the audience that you can learn a great deal from failure. Even after scoring an interview at Pixar in 2009, Sasaki didn’t receive an offer from the company until a year later. Now, he calls it a dream job.
As a character artist, Sasaki starts with research. “For ‘Inside Out,’ it was a five-year journey of discovery,” he noted. Since the film takes place largely inside its characters’ minds, the character design team asked probing questions of psychologists and neurologists, as Sasaki illustrated: “Why does a song stick in our head? How does the brain store memory? How many measurable emotions exist?” Sasaki also focused on gathering character references from sources as diverse as YouTube, books and his own experiences. For example, in an initial rough sketch, he depicted anger as a solid red brick, while joy was inspired by stars and champagne bubbles.
“It’s like one of your classroom assignments,” he explained. “You have a week to explore a character, and then you bring in your boards and talk through your rationale.” Building on this point during the Q&A session that followed his presentation, Sasaki stressed that “showing your ideas through drawings is the most important part.” He noted that while you may be able to communicate an idea verbally, if it’s not obvious visually, you haven’t done your job. That mandate is not the same as creating the most artistic drawing. “The best drawing isn’t always the winner,” Sasaki said. “It’s the drawing that captures the personality of the character—according to the director’s vision—that will win out.”
Of course, sometimes this means parting with a character that Sasaki has grown attached to. He acknowledged this creative hurdle but takes it in stride. “Since it’s a multi-year process for each film, you have to be able to work well with people, problem solve together and always be nice.”
Watch past conversations from the Visiting Artists Series.
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