Everyone knows that Pete Docter’s film Up, coming next month, stars a square-headed man and a kid he finds annoying.
Not so many people know that a square-headed man and an annoying neighborhood kid helped Docter get his job at Pixar.
Docter spent three years at the California Institute of the Arts, or CalArts, before receiving his degree in character animation in 1990. He won a Student Academy Award for his third-year animation project, a short film called Next Door about … a square-headed man and a kid he finds annoying. (A couple of images from the film are online here.)
Every spring, John Lasseter and a few others from Pixar attended the student film festival at CalArts to check out the new talent. Next Door set Docter apart right away. For the Pixar group, Docter “had the whole package as an animator,” one of them remembered: strong drawing skills, timing, and story-telling.
Docter joined Pixar later that year, the third animator the company hired after Lasseter and Andrew Stanton. There, he went to work animating commercials for Tropicana and Lifesavers. Pixar had turned to commercial production to keep itself afloat while waiting for the chance to make a feature film.
He also made two other films at CalArts, titled Winter and Palm Springs. (The Minnesota born-and-bred student evidently had weather on his mind.)
Docter’s story is one that has repeated many times at Pixar, on both the artistic and technical sides of the house. Outside Pixar, too. It’s important to have the skills, but the way you make yourself stand out from the crowd is to use those skills to create something good and original — a calling card, even if it’s something small, like Next Door.