Double Feature

Written by Kristi Evans

T-Rex from The Good Dinosaur

Kelsey Mann ’98 BA had just finished talking about his work on The Good Dinosaur, a film by Pixar Animation Studios, when he began to reminisce about his college days. He started to say, “At MU … ,” then quickly corrected it to NMU. The minor faux pas was humorous and understandable. Mann had invested four years of his career—equal to the time spent on his bachelor’s degree—helping to create the computer-generated campus of another Pixar production, Monsters University (MU). 

“I feel like I’ve gone to two colleges,” he laughed. “But I continue to apply what I learned at Northern. It really gave me a strong foundation in illustration and painting. It also gave me that well-rounded university experience most of my colleagues who went to art schools didn’t get. I was an RA in Van Antwerp and participated in Homecoming and other activities. I was surrounded by students from other majors, including my wife, Julie (Reinacher) Mann [‘97 BSN], who is a nurse. While I couldn’t make a specific reference to NMU, I drew on my experience there while working on the film.”

After graduation, Mann interned at the same Minneapolis studio where fellow Minnesota native and prominent Pixar visionary Pete Docter got his start. But Mann’s path to his dream job included some detours and delays. He still has the rejection letter from his first application in 2000. It would take nine more years working at smaller studios in Los Angeles and augmenting his animation skills with night classes before he got his big break with Pixar. 

Mann started as a story artist on Monsters University and was promoted to story supervisor. The primary role of his department is to help flesh out the script through storyboarding, which is essentially drawing the film from the first shot to the last. Mann said a single movie has required as many as 170,000 drawings.

“We have to wear many hats during that process—from writer to cinematographer to actor,” he said. “Through our drawings, we convey the overall mood and what the characters are feeling. Our drawings are all black and white; we don’t get into color. But we do get into lighting, which helps affect the mood. Sound effects, music and dialogue also add to that. I love the interaction that takes place between story artists and writers. We’re involved in the project from beginning to end because you can always fine-tune the story and make it better.” 
(cut to pg. 20)

The Good Dinosaur was Mann’s follow-up production. It revolves around an Apatosaurus named Arlo who becomes separated from his family and meets an unlikely human friend on his adventure back home. According to a Screen Daily report, Mann presented exclusive footage and storyboard sketches as a preview at the 2015 Rome Film Festival. Strict anti-piracy measures were in place to prevent any leaks before the official release date a month later. 

Mann had admired story artist/animator Peter Sohn’s work on Ratatouille and The Incredibles and was eager to collaborate with him when Sohn directed The Good Dinosaur. The two helped to create Pixar’s “Bullpen,” an open, communal space that promotes professional camaraderie and innovation.

“We used to storyboard on paper and pin the panels on a giant board and people would congregate and discuss them,” Mann said. “Once everything went digital, we were glued to the technology at our desks and tended to hibernate in our offices. Pete and I felt people had become too separated and weren’t interacting as much as they could, even though this environment stresses collaboration. The technology has become more portable, so the Bullpen enables story artists to gather around a large table to share ideas and feed off each other’s creative energy.”

During Northern Magazine’s interview at Pixar, Mann sat on a couch in the atrium of the Steve Jobs Building (named for the company’s former CEO). A large print from The Good Dinosaur served as a backdrop on the wall behind him. Art from films in progress and past projects also lines the second-floor hallways. 

It is typical for Pixar to redecorate the main studio building to fit the theme of each new release. The Monsters University transformation was unveiled at a “freshman orientation” event for the press. It included fraternity and sorority banners and a student lounge, with main characters Mike and Sulley decked out in college gear. Visitors passed through Monsters University gates, were issued MU student IDs and were treated to performances by the MU drumline and cheerleaders. 

It is this attention to detail, along with unique stories delivered with cutting-edge visual artistry and a lighthearted sentimentality, that has made Pixar an acclaimed fixture in feature and short film production for 25 years. Many who aspire to a career in animation consider a job at Pixar the pinnacle achievement. 

Mann was a big fan of Jim Henson’s Muppets. He said Pixar is carrying on that tradition of creating zany and fun characters—from vehicles to 50-foot-tall dinosaurs—capable of emoting relatable feelings. Mann said the expectations placed on those working at Pixar’s 22-acre Emeryville, Calif., campus are high because of the studio’s recognizable name and established commitment to quality. 

“Making a timeless film that will touch the hearts of everyone across the globe no matter their age is a pretty daunting challenge. We stumble—just look at the early reels for any movie—but we try not to think about the pressure and just focus on making each film the best it can be. 

“That’s what I love about this place. Everyone is so different in terms of personalities and talents, but we all have a shared, enthusiastic passion for making quality films. What keeps me motivated is the excitement of the next great idea. It’s rewarding to take a script and help turn it into a visual experience.”


Kelsey Smiling


Kelsey Sitting


Kelsey looking at Sketches


"Pixar, here I come!"
Dory from Finding Dory

This bold statement appeared after the closing credits of a short film Neil Helm ’05 BA produced as a student at NMU. He had inserted it half-jokingly to see how Art and Design Professor Stephan Larson would react, but it turned out to be seriously prophetic. Helm achieved his dream career and is now a character animator at Pixar Animation Studios. His credits include this summer’s release, Finding Dory, along with other favorites Toy Story 3, Monsters University, Cars 2 and, his first feature, Up

Helm describes his work as computer-generated performance. He takes a character that has been digitally created and gives it realistic facial expressions and movements that bring it to life and make it believable. 

“There’s physics involved because you have to give the character weight and feeling,” Helm said. “To do that, I use video reference. Let’s say my job is to animate a character who’s saying, ‘Hey, how’s it going?’ I’ll record myself saying that and figure out what’s happening with the eyes, brows, mouth and gestures. Then we have the creative license to stylize and exaggerate it. That’s the appeal of character animation. If you mimic the real thing, it’s not thrilling. But if you stylize, it’s more engaging. Character animation is to live action what a caricature is to a portrait.”

Animators, like actors, are cast appropriately based on their strengths. Some are adept at relaying emotional sensitivity in characters. Helm said he excels more at creating dynamic physical action, such as an octopus diving over a fence and crashing through a brick wall. He said it was his technical problem-solving ability to develop that scene from Toy Story 3 that helped to propel him from a Pixar intern—one of 12 selected from 3,000 applicants—to full-time employee.

Passing through the outdoor courtyard of the Pixar campus, it is impossible to miss the huge sculptures of a desk lamp and colorful ball. Both starred in the studio’s first short, Luxo Jr., which offered a glimpse of the innovative approach to filmmaking that altered the industry and continues to captivate children and adults. Pixar is known for successfully meshing high-tech 3D computer animation with high-touch storytelling that is both heartfelt and humorous.

“[Chief Creative Officer] John Lasseter has a lot to do with that success because he’s established a very supportive work environment,” Helm said. “He lets you know every step of the way that he loves animation and appreciates the effort you put into it. He encourages you to take risks and not be afraid of failing. What you do may not be right, but that’s okay; you redirect and try something else.”

“The creative juices oozing from this place are unlike anything I’ve ever experienced,” Helm said. “Everyone you meet is so talented, it just blows your mind. You might be doing your job and find out that a guy you work with is also an incredible painter or furniture builder on the side. When I was hired, they wanted to know what I do outside of work to fuel my creative drive. Hobbies are encouraged. There are even employee music groups and a photography club to free your mind from work. 

“I also enjoy having lunch with people from other departments. By finding out how they work, it makes me consider things we haven’t tried in animation yet that maybe we should. Or someone might say, ‘I’ve made this car and want it to do this, but I can’t get it to work. Can you help engineer something?’ We try to help each other and feed off each other’s creativity. I love working here.”

Employees and authorized visitors are also greeted at the studio’s main entrance by life-size renditions of Woody the cowboy doll and Buzz Lightyear from the Toy Story series. Helm recalled seeing the first Toy Story film at 15. He said that was the epiphany moment that inspired him to pursue a career in animation. 

The Neenah, Wis., native enrolled as an electronic imaging major at NMU, where he mainly produced short films. He would later develop the technical proficiency required to achieve computer animation as a graduate student at the Savannah College of Art and Design. 

While his graduate experience exposed him to a larger school with a wealth of students to collaborate with and learn from, he remembers and values the strength of the faculty at NMU.   

“At Northern, professors actively practice their craft while teaching. Stephan Larson could pull up a portfolio of work he was showing in exhibitions, or you could ask about his current project and he would show you the video and talk about it. Northern professors were still doing cool things and share their talents and knowledge with students. It was awesome. They also did a great job of customizing instruction based on student interests and challenging us to push harder and do better.”

If Helm were ever to release a sequel to that fateful short film he produced at NMU, he would have to revise the closing statement. Perhaps it could read, “Pixar, I made it!”


Neil Smiling


Neil standing next to a Woody statue


Neil sitting


Characters and renderings are propety of Pixar Animation Studios.