The positions in the Art Department at Pixar Animation Studios vary by level of experience as well as by specialization: character, sets, and shaders (the design of colors and textures of all the characters and environments). What follows is a rough description of the different job categories. (You can find a list of definitions below.)
- Sketch artist: An entry-level design position, this job requires some drafting skills, as the final model packets are often produced by sketch artists. This work covers characters, sets and props. Good drawing and understanding of form are a must. Being able to do “turnarounds” of objects, and some conceptual thinking is important.
- Art director: This position entails overseeing the design and often the digital evolution of a character or a set. Design and drawing skills are essential, and being able to work with technical artists is important.
- Sculptor: Working primarily in a hard modeling clay that holds a lot of detail, the sculptors are essential in the character design process, as they provide a detailed three-dimensional look at a character. Both a knowledge of form and proportions and the ability to interpret a range of drawing styles to a fully dimensional model are required. Some entire sets are also modeled in clay.
- Shader art director: This art director is responsible for the textures and colors of all the objects and characters in the film. The job involves lots of research, working with the technical group, and managing a group of painters. Essential qualities are a strong sense of design, aesthetics and organizational skills.
- Shader painter: This job includes painting displacement maps and other types of projection information about a set or a character. Shader painters must have knowledge of paint programs and work with some in-house technical processes.
- Production designer: Responsible for the overall look of the film, the production designer’s role is initially a conceptual one, then moves into design and then into supervision of the production process. Other visual aspects of the film—the color script, lighting design, art direction of effects, and supervision of the matte painting—can also be part of the job.
- Final Model Packet: A set of reference drawings, often with dimensions, photos of sculpts, real objects, and notes that give a modeler enough information to accurately build the object in the computer.
- Turnarounds: Drawing views of an object or character from different angles—front, back, top, three-quarter view, etc.
- Technical artists: The people that work with computer software tools to build, articulate, animate, shade, and light a model. They may be involved in only one of these processes, by the way.
Does an art director at Pixar need computer art skills? At this point, it is quite useful to be able to pull up images, add a few changes and send it to someone for fixes or corrections. Photoshop is probably the most useful tool for doing that. Illustrator is an excellent tool for graphics in the film, and there are some others. A lot of us are learning to use Google’s Sketch Up, a simple modeling program, to do our own rough models to study scale and camera angles.
- Displacement maps: These are gray scale paintings that get converted to surface "bumps" and "dents" on an object. Every object has some sort of texture on it that has to be assigned to it.
Bill Cone cites disparate influences—Mad magazine and the fine art of painters John Singer Sargent, Richard Diebenkorn and Wayne Thiebaud—as inspiration for his more than 14 years of highly respected design work at Pixar Animation Studios. He lives in Moraga, California, with his wife, two children, two dogs and three cats. See his more of his work on his blog at www.billcone.blogspot.com.
To find out more, read “The Nuts and Bolts of Hi-Tech Animation,” an article about Bill Cone and the role of the fine artist at Pixar, see the March 2008 issue of The Artist’s Magazine.