From 'Le Monde': The Pixar Talent Factory

The following feature story about California Institute of the Arts' animation programs was published June 17, 2023, in the major French daily newspaper Le Monde. Please read the English translation below, and find the original article at Le Monde.

Le Monde (French)   English (PDF)

The Pixar Talent Factory

Only a stone’s throw from Hollywood, CalArts, a university of the Arts and its prestigious animation department is the antechamber of American film studios and primarily of Pixar, whose latest opus, “Elemental” will be released on June 21. With its Bohemian and artisanal spirit, the school, envisioned by Walt Disney, offers its students serious and valuable business connections.

—Written by Clémentine GOLDSZAL – Photographs by Damien MALONEY

BEING A GIANT of the American film industry,  crowned with twenty-three Oscars and ten Golden Globes, does not prevent you from having a sense of humor. At the Pixar Studios headquarters in Emeryville, bordering on San Francisco Bay in California, the 1,300 employees are used to connecting to the A113 Wi-Fi network. This name, however, owes nothing to chance. To insiders it is a nod in reference to a classroom number at the CalArts Institute of the Arts in Santa Clarita, a suburb of Los Angeles.

At Pixar, A113 is everywhere; on the Wi-Fi network, of course, but also in films as an essential detail. As Roman numerals in Brave, as graffiti in Inside Out...

In Toy Story, it is the number of the license plate on the car of the hero’s mother; in Toy Story 2, the announcement for  the fictitious LassetAir Flight A113 is heard in the terminal building of the airport. In Ratatouille, Git, the lab rat has an ear tag with A113 and in Finding Nemo, the scuba diver’s camera is a model A113. All of the above are a reference to a classroom at the California Institute of the Arts. In my time, A113 was the computer room. It was located in the basement which had graffiti everywhere; it was like an eerie catacomb which provoked either terror or inspiration, relates Peter Sohn, the director of  “Elemental”, the latest Pixar creation (in cinemas on June 21), shown at the closing performance of the Cannes Film Festival this year. In his film, A113 appears on the metro’s display sign. Like many Pixar employees, this CalArts alumnus paid tribute to his alma mater in this way, literally his “foster mother”, meaning the university that trained him. It is not certain precisely what portion of  the prestigious studio’s employees come from the animation department of CalArts, but of the 26 feature films produced by Pixar since the release of Toy Story in 1995, eighteen were directed by former students from the school of “CalArtians”, as they call each other.

CalArts provides study in all forms of art to almost 1,500 students every year: Sculpture, Theater, History of Art... But the most famous department is the one devoted to animation, considered to be the “walk of fame” for the sector. The passage to the Santa Clarita campus is the first step to a career which is secured.

CalArts is the best school and Pixar is the most prestigious studio. The connection, therefore, makes sense and has existed for a long time. In a way, Pixar is an extension of CalArts, like a Doctorate programme, summarizes Jason Katz, a former student who has worked on several Pixar blockbusters, such as Monsters and Co., Coco  and the most recent, Elemental. Each year 175 students are enrolled and despite the fact that there are many similar curricula in the United States and elsewhere, CalArts students in particular remain the genre’s elite for American studios. The quality of the training has a lot to do with it. The solid network of former students also comes into play.

The founder of the university is none other than Walt Disney, the most famous cartoon producer in the world. I want a school that trains graduates to master all the aspects of the film manufacturing process, such as photography, mise en scène, design, animation, filming, Walt Disney explained to Thornton Hee in the early 1960s, one of the first Disney animators and a future CalArts teacher. At the time, the artist and business genius knew that his empire was aging. The “Nine Old Men”, directors and animation artists who, at his side, contributed to the fame of his studio by drawing and directing the masterpieces Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), Pinocchio (1940), Peter Pan (1953), and his associates, were about to retire.

Walt Disney sensed that a new generation had to be trained so that the studios could regain the luster and artistic boldness of yesteryear. Walt Disney had indeed, as early as the 1930s, sent some of his employees to the Chouinard Art Institute, an art school in Los Angeles, to study drawing.

Thirty years later, in 1961, dreaming of a “City of the Arts” on the West Coast, he merged Chouinard and the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music to establish the California Institute of the Arts, known as CalArts. The Hollywood Premiere of Mary Poppins in 1964 was used as fundraiser and a short film was shown to promote the school. 

The paths of CalArts and Pixar crossed in the 1980s when Steve Jobs bought from George Lucas, the director of Star Wars, the Graphics Group, a division of Lucasfilm dedicated to special effects and graphics. He renamed it Pixar Animation Studios. Steve Jobs intended to develop innovative software and to get his teams to direct short films to generate income. In 1976 a certain John Lasseter, a future figure in Pixar made his entrance to CalArts. With his degree in his pocket, he left in 1980 to work at Disney studios. He failed, however to convince his superiors of the extraordinary potential of recent advances in computer graphics applied to animation and left Disney for Graphics Group in 1983. Five years later his film Tin Toy won an Oscar for  Best Animated Short Film. It was the first Oscar for a graduate of CalArts and a first Oscar for Pixar: the epic had started.

Established in 1971 on the Santa Clarita campus north-east of Los Angeles, CalArts is also dull and anonymous from the outside but vibrant inside. The concrete structures suffered damage: in 2020 a flood rendered the three floors dedicated to animation completely unusable. Construction work is still in progress. Meanwhile some rooms have been moved to soulless prefabs and light does not  reach some of the corridors because site tarpaulins are used to cover the windows on the outside. You are not able to join the experience of former students which exemplifies CalArts, accounts a teacher with a sigh, adding that many things here suffer on account of the bohemian and artisanal spirit, which paradoxically makes teaching here so unique. 

 When I arrived on campus, recalls alumni Jason Katz, I was very intimidated. My only reference of art school was the ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, a magnificent place where everyone was super stylish. CalArts wasn’t as chic as I thought it would be. Where the typical ArtCenter student would wear Prada, at CalArts he would look like a biker in ripped jeans and Perfecto leather. Even so, a biker who has the means, since the annual school fees are in the range of 60,000 USD (approximately 56,000 euros, multiplied by four for the complete program in the animation department). The school’s curriculum is among the most expensive of its kind in the United States. Many people at CalArts are clearly here to find a job. Because they pay so much, they want a return on their investment, assumes Paula Assadourian, a young Mexican girl who studied at CalArts before being employed by Pixar five years ago, where she participated in the making of Elemental and of Soul as a story artist, and also helped with the creation of the storyboard.

The atmosphere may be bohemian, but the animation curriculum does not hold back on one obsession: drawing, whether it be with pencil or stylus. The first thing we insist on, is that candidates must know how to draw, asserts Maija Burnett, who has managed the school’s animation department since 2014. We teach them storytelling, screenwriting and everything else, but above all we are looking for artists with strong personalities. Although instruction in the arts is demanding, CalArts never loses sight of career opportunities. We have no control over the politics of studio recruitment, but we like to offer our students as many career connections as we can, which is up to them to follow through to fruition, she continues.

Although Pixar was acquired by Disney for 7.4 billion USD in 2006, access to Emeryville studio is not guaranteed. The school is a private institution which has the status of a non-profit organization and no longer has any link with the mammoth Disney company, even if the Chairman of the Board of Trustees is none other than Walt’s great-nephew, Tim Disney.



On the other hand, CalArts benefits from its close geographic proximity to Hollywood, a serious advantage for cultivating privileged relationships with the studios.

In addition to daytime classes, the students also attend several evening classes per week between 19h00 and 22h00 with part-time teachers who work in the animation industry for companies such as Pixar, Disney, Netflix or Warner Bros.

Every year in February, a “portfolio day” makes it possible for recruiters to meet students and start discussions which may or may not result in employment.

We also organize screenings throughout the year, explained Maija Burnett. In January, Chris Miller, the director of Puss in Boots, an alumni of CalArts, spoke after the film. When Inside Out was released, Pete Docter came to show the film and to answer the students’ questions.

In Spring, the famous producers’ show finally arrives: after viewing the short films of the students at the end of the year, the teachers select about twenty which are shown in a cinema to a large audience of big names in the industry. This is followed by a cocktail party, according to Maija Burnett, which is  always very exciting. And for good reason:  in recent years the animation industry has experienced significant growth, partly due to the arrival of platforms such as Netflix or Apple TV+ in the industry. In this context the very dense network of CalArts alumni has unquestionably been very useful. The director Peter Sohn, a former student at CalArts in the 1990s, met many of his current co-workers at Pixar at this event. He was also recruited there after a screening at Warner, by the artistic director Ralph Eggleston – who died in 2022 – also a former CalArtian. These years of study have been among the most beautiful days of my life, he says. To this day we  have a texting group  with thirty or forty alumni. We discuss everyone’s new projects, we give each other advice on our children’s studies, we share memories and talk about what we were doing at that time, but also about the latest trailers or rumors in the industry.

Hollywood has changed a lot since Walt Disney, a staunch advocate of WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) traditional family values. So has the campus that he founded. On the walls of CalArts, a very colorful poster displays the school program: “Latino Fest” with Reggae party, exhibition of the work of “Latin/x/a/” students (i.e. students with a Latin immigrant background of all genders, male, female or non-binary), and speed-dating events.

For years men were in the majority, but today we have many women and non-binary people, says Maija Burnett delightfully, who does not hesitate to specify at the beginning of the interview that her pronoun is (“she”). 

CalArts students are excellent at drawing, very good at character, design, curious, open-minded and generous, confides Cécile Blondel, who heads up the Master’s program in animation at Gobelins, another great animation school in Paris. When we host them for exchange programs, their liberal ideas and their diversity is good for us: they radiate freedom of expression.

Walt Disney wouldn’t believe it if he saw students studying with transgressive artists recruited as teachers. The queer writer and essayist, Maggie Nelson, teaches creative writing courses here, and in the past, contemporary artists such as John Baldessari, Bill Viola, Paul McCarthy, Roy Lichtenstein or Laurie Anderson led classes of aspiring 
artists. A very liberal, erudite and counter-cultural atmosphere seems to have spread all the way to the Pixar premises: posters on the walls remodeled as notices for feminist events or transgender rights, an invitation to webinars called, “Let your inner She-Hulk speak”. All this is common in Silicon Valley but even stronger at Pixar.

What matters at CalArts is the ideas, continues Paula Assadourian. Here we are encouraged to develop an original work, rather than to think what might please. The technique can be taught but the artistic personality is the priority.  

This is the recipe that has contributed to Pixar’s success for nearly thirty years. “Elemental”, insists Peter Sohn, is thus strongly inspired by the personal history of this son of Korean immigrants. Numerous subjects such as homosexuality, emotional fragility or even cultural diversity have therefore appeared to children in the world of animation thanks to Pixar. A big new challenge is however threatening the school as well as the studios: The big topic of discussion at the moment is Pinocchio by Guillermo del Toro, says Cécile Blondel. It was made using stop-motion animation and produced by Netflix. The film, released in December 2022, endorses a new era for animation, far removed from the spirit of classic Disney masterpieces in 2D: filmed with puppets animated by a director already known for his work in live action (Pacific Rim, Pan’s Labyrinth), the film marks Netflix’s first win at the Oscars in the category Best Animated Film, a serious challenge for CalArts and Pixar, the heirs of an almost century-old tradition and a recognizable visual identity. A new unicorn for the studio and its employees. 

Cleansed of its mural frescoes, Room A113 is now a simple neon-lit space, where students from the animation department work on their technique in neutral spaces separated by white bison partitions. You don’t need décor if you have talent.