Episode 168 — Pixar’s Andrea Goh

 

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Episode 168 — Pixar’s Andrea Goh

Hey, everyone!

This is Allan McKay. Welcome to Episode 168! I’m speaking Andrea Goh, a Layout Artist at Pixar. I’m really excited for this one. Andrea talked about setting some high goals to work at Pixar — and accomplishing that. She is also one of the speakers at the IAMAG Master Class: https://masterclasses.iamag.co. We will both be there!

Let’s dive in!

 

FIRST THINGS FIRST:

I. [00:42] Have you ever sent in your reel and wondered why you didn’t get the callback or what the reason was you didn’t get the job? Here is the thing: Most of us think that we can put our latest work on our reel, add some music — and get the job. A lot of us aren’t aware that the majority of reels sent to a studio are skipped through and sometimes never even watched in the first place.

Everything we’re taught about being an artist is wrong! Over the past 20 years of working for studios like ILM, Blur Studio, Ubisoft, I’ve built hundreds of teams and hired hundreds of artists — and reviewed thousands of reels! That’s why I decided to write a book from the perspective of someone who actually does the hiring. I want to:

Give you the formula to be the obvious candidate for the job;

Tell you how to build a reel and put it up on YouTube — that brings studios to you!

You can get this book for free right now! Whether you’re in design, film, tv or games, go to www.allanmckay.com/myreel!

II. [02:44] If you want to check out my Venom training, please go to www.allanmckay.com/venom. I’ve been working like crazy on this. It’s finally out! Make the most of it!

 

INTERVIEW WITH ANDREA GOH

Andrea Goh is a San Francisco based Layout Artist. Her curiosity has driven her to acquire multiple sets of skills: rigging, scripting, sculpting, pipeline, assembly and layout. After studying at an art college in her native country of Malaysia, she pursued an additional degree at the San Francisco Academy of Art. After graduating, her first job was as Layout Artist in the Camera and Staging Department at Pixar Animation Studios.

Andrea has rigged in many films including Exit, Unmasked and VR games like Lilypad. As a layout artist, she has contributed to films like Cars 3, Coco and Incredibles 2. She is also the Technical Supervisor of Sonder, a short film that uses a unique Maya and Unity pipeline.

In this Episode, Andrea talks about her journey as an artist, about setting high goals — and actually getting them accomplished — and then setting new ones!

[03:11] Allan: Thanks for the taking the time to chat, Andrea! Do you want to quickly introduce yourself?

Andrea: Sure. My name is Andrea Goh. I’m a Layout Artist at Pixar. And I’m also the Technical Supervisor for Sonder.

[03:27] Allan: By the way, I’m Australian. I’m always going to butcher people’s name, Andrea. How did you get started in the beginning? Did you always want to be an artist growing up?

Andrea: Oh, wow! I loved watching movies as a kid and I love drawing a lot. But in high school, we had to learn science. I’m from Malaysia where our parents want us to have a stable job. I almost wanted to be a doctor. As I graduated from high school, I had to choose: art / science, art / science? Pixar sent nine people to Malaysia to give a seminar on every single department for Toy Story 3. That was when I was like, “Holy crap! How do I do this? I want to do this!” I was only 17 then. I signed up for an art college in Malaysia called the One Academy and quickly became an art student. People always ask if my parents objected. I think mainly my mom worried. She knows our industry and the passion that keeps driving us through all those late nights. So she made me promise that I would take care of my health.

[05:32] Allan: That’s cool!

Andrea: I’ve probably broken that promise. And for my dad, he thought art was about being a starving artist and selling art on the side of the street. I don’t think there is anything wrong with that. As soon as he realized that I was using a computer, he was like, “Okay, I approve!” That’s how I got started.

[06:00] Allan: It’s funny how people have that perspective: A computer must mean a real job. That’s really cool that you had their support. And it’s cool that Pixar was able to do that and talk about all these different disciplines. From that moment of going to college, did you have your heart set on Pixar?

Andrea: Yes, that is the very moment. And I loved Toy Story since I was 6 years old. My mom told me when I came out of the theatre, my face was pale. “I didn’t know that my toys could come to live!” I still believe that [they can do that] to this day!

[07:08] Allan: Going to school, did you have a plan of sorts? Did you have a plan?

Andrea: Starting so young, I don’t think I had a plan. I just wanted to learn and I was so passionate about it. Taking all the foundation classes was fun! In college, I made sure to look up to someone. I actually found the IAMAG Master Classes. That’s how I looked at good art and followed their story. I looked at some Pixar artists and how they achieved what they wanted to achieve.

[08:36] Allan: What happened after you graduated?

Andrea: I graduated in 2013 from the Malaysian art college. I thought I was going to be a modeler because I loved ZBrush. I thought maybe I would go to Blur and make monsters and creatures. At the end of college, we had to come up with our graduation short films. That’s when I went into stylized animation. I got to try rigging and I really liked it. And then I graduated! Everyone was so deep into this realistic thing. I could do that do. I maybe forgot why I got started: I can do really technical stuff and achieve a really cool stylized look. It doesn’t have to be badass and it can still be amazing. That’s when I realized I needed to study it even more. That’s when I came to the San Francisco Academy of Art.

[10:17] Allan: Oh, great! I think it’s important to remember why you got into it in the first place, as you go along your career. I think it’s important to get that reminder and where your passion was leading you.

Andrea: Especially in our industry, there are so many different things you could do, it’s so easy to get pulled into what looks cool and not necessarily with a good essence. The content has to be good. That’s what I realized I really cared about: Good storytelling and that the story has a good message, not just a badass creature ripping people apart. [Although] I really love that stuff too!

[11:19] Allan: It’s funny that you mention Blur Studio and Pixar. I’ve worked at Blur on and off forever. They’re great storytellers and have amazing storytellers. And for Pixar, it’s all about good story — or die!

Andrea: I’m not saying one is better than another. I realized I may not last long if I keep doing the other. And I really, really care about the story and making people feel something. I’m willing to give up the badass looks.

[12:06] Allan: I’ve worked plenty of places around the world and for different culture and art. For you, going into studying in Northern California, what was it like in terms of the contrast?

Andrea: It’s surprising it wasn’t as different as I thought it would be. Maybe it’s just California. Before I came to America, I imagined a huge culture shock and they I would never eat Asian food ever again! I guess San Francisco is so diverse (and I still get to eat my Asian food). In terms of school, the teachers in Malaysia are really persistent on lecturing the students. For me, it works when they’re really stern. But when I came here, it wasn’t like that. It’s all on you, in a way. Both [ways] have benefits. I started with people pushing me; but then, I had to remind myself of self-discipline and self-care.

[14:49] Allan: It’s easy to get comfortable. You have to keep pushing yourself. You’re lucky if you have colleagues or teachers pushing you. Otherwise, you can get very comfortable.

Andrea: I was very lucky to have those teachers back in Malaysia. Some of the stuff they said still sticks with me. One day, one of the teachers stomped into the class really angry and said, “Okay. Listen up! You always talk about all the cool video games you, guys, play. [You spend] 16 hours to get to an awesome level. Do you want to be the gamer who plays these good games? Or do you want to be the gamer who makes these good games?” I blew my mind! Every time I play games, I remember that. It works for me.

[16:47] Allan: Once you finished up studying, did you go to Pixar?

Andrea: I actually got an internship during my second to last semester. There is a backstory to this. When I first came here, I applied for a Masters Degree. I already had one back in Malaysia. They accepted me, I moved my life here. And then they told me they couldn’t recognize my degree. So I had to either go back to my home country or take the bachelor courses again. Luckily enough, I had my friend traveling at the same time. We both worked on fighting back, “At least, let us take the bachelor courses with our credits transferred”. We had to bring our portfolios and prove that we already took some classes. I felt defeated but I still did it. “Why is this happening to me?”

I believe things happen for a reason because two years later, I applied for Pixar’s undergrad program. And they specifically take undergrad students for their internship, and I got it. If I were in the Masters program, I wouldn’t have been able to get in. The Pixar undergrad program — PUPs [abbreviated]. I got in in 2015. It’s the best program ever. It’s a 10-week program. They let you try different departments every week: modeling, layout, lighting, etc. I got really technical in my rigging. When I went to the internship, there was a layout week. I loved photography and I still do it on the side. When our teacher was lecturing us on cinematography, he came over and said I should consider coming over to the layout department. At the time, there weren’t any classes at school. Even now, there are some cinematic classes, so nobody knows what layout is…

[21:04] Allan: Yet, it’s one of the most critical parts of the process.

Andrea: I’m so glad you see that! It is so important. After that program, I still had one semester left and I dedicated it to studying film. After I graduated, I went to layout and applied at Pixar.

That’s another funny story: When I graduated, there was no position for layout. But there was one for rigging. I emailed my mentor and asked if I can apply for the rigging one. He was like, “I will end your life if you apply for rigging!” He talked to the department head and worked out a layout internship, and I applied.

[22:15] Allan: That’s interesting that you jumped around. So many people have their hearts set on, “I’m going to be an animator”. They go into one role and only later start seeing other areas. I think that as artists, we have to learn all the foundations first. It’s great that Pixar exposed you to all the areas. You might love one thing but then naturally pick up another thing. 

Andrea: You wouldn’t know you would be passionate about it if you didn’t try it. I feel like it’s a different personality that gets set on things. I have a very curious personality. There are pros and cons to every personality. I get curious about everything, it’s a crazy extreme. I don’t think it’s a blueprint for everyone. It depends on what you can do and what you want to do. I know people who just want to animate. But I agree that on the technical side, it’s good to learn everything, just to know what’s coming into your department and what’s going out.

[24:56] Allan: It’s good to have that curiosity. The more you expose yourself to other stuff, it’s great to have understanding other stuff in surrounding areas and you’re able to communicate better. It will make you a stronger VFX artist. What was it like to walk into Pixar for the first time?

Andrea: It was really surreal. I remember telling that to another PUP intern who is now my friend. I definitely feel really grateful that I get to even be there. I know there are so many people who applied. The ones that didn’t get it, it’s not because they weren’t good enough. For PUPs, I know they picked me because I did some rigging and coding. I really feel grateful and it’s surreal at the same time.

After school, coming back to the job, it’s less surreal. I felt what everyone feels: The Imposter Syndrome. It was self-inflicted stress because all the people at Pixar are so nice. It was my one mind game. “Why am I here?! I didn’t even go to school for layout.” That made me miserable. My boyfriend (my husband now) was listening to me cry. That was my dream job place. I realized what helped was being grateful for what it is, instead of imagining the worst case. That was something I read in Brene Brown’s book Daring Greatly. She said that for most of us, when we’re faced with joy, most of us question if there is a catch. The way to solve that — is to be thankful and be in the moment. That got me through, as well as great co-workers. Now, it’s my job. This is my third time coming back to Pixar. (There was a visa issue for a while where I had to be out of work for a while.)

[29:48] Allan: I hate visas so much! People stress about taxes. That’s nothing!

Andrea: I know! There was a gap for my work document because it has expired, and the new card did not arrive in time. I could not work and I had to pack up and leave. I appreciated that moment again. It helped me get a perspective on what a career was to me. When I returned, there was no more surrealism anymore.

[30:45] Allan: I think a lot of people experience an Imposter Syndrome. We all have a lot of fears about what we experience. Our brain is wired to keep us alive, therefore change is different. We have to deal with that “We aren’t worthy” thing. It’s important to acknowledge it. It keeps you from being too comfortable. Those things can work in your favor. 

Andrea: I think a way to find out if you’re feeling it — is to constantly check in with yourself, especially when you’re feeling extreme emotions. You find yourself miserable, it’s worth it to stop and ask yourself why. I agree with [your outlook on] change. I guess this is my first job. It’s my first time not being a student. It was a lot to take in. Starting right after school, I didn’t have a breathing moment.

[33:06] Allan: I’ll definitely check out that book Daring Greatly too. Being present is important. We’re too busy focusing on what’s next.

Andrea: That book saved my life!

[33:26] Allan: Having work in California at Pixar, to accomplish all that, what was that like? When I put so much focus on a big goal, after I get it, I’ve definitely experienced depression. Have you experienced that?

Andrea: Definitely! What now? The first time, there is a lot of excitement. Once that settles and becomes real, it’s like any other job. It felt like, “Do I keep doing this for the rest of my life? Do I want to do more?” It’s good to think about the future, but if you’re fantasizing a lot, you aren’t doing your job. I do want to work toward being a director. I want to direct my own film. That’s always been in the back of my mind. There is still so much more to learn! I want to tell really good stories! Having side projects really helped keep me active. Because you can get comfortable, especially in a big studio. You will keep doing similar things for a long time. That’s why I joined Sonder. I keep setting new goals while focusing on what I have right now.

[36:51] Allan: Do you want to talk about what Sonder is and how you got involved?

Andrea: Sure! Sonder is a 14-minute animated short film. We used Maya and Unity software to do it. The lighting and rendering is all Unity, but production is definitely in Maya. And the story is about love and loss and how you get over it. It’s about relationships. My instructor Neth Nom at the Academy of Art teaches animation. He also worked at Disney and Pixar before. He’s a great teacher! One day, he was like, “I want to work on something! I want to do more!” He pitched this short film [to me and my friend]. It’s about depression. I felt that it was something really personal from his life. It was really early on. How he did it was try and make something simple [with] a small team first. We joined a VR game competition where you have 6 weeks to make a game from scratch. That was a small team. The game is called Lilypad. I became the only rigger and Art Supervisor. That was so cool, [with] late nights [and] fast pace! From there, we realized we made a really great team. That’s when we [decided] to make this short film. I was one of the core members for Sonder. We just started building the story, bringing in the artists and building a team. Sonder took 3 years to finish. We just finished it in May.

[40:08] Allan: How does it feel?

Andrea: Very, very rewarding! It was very crazy. I didn’t start as a Tech Sup. We just took up any task we could do. At the time, we got support from Unity, the software company. Sara Sampson was the Producer. She was from Pixar as well. They built the team from 10-15 people to 144 at the end. Everyone was working on this as a passion project, on the side  their full-time jobs. Everyone dedicated their free time to do it. When I was appointed to be the Sup, I was the one building each department. I was researching and bringing people in. There was so much stuff! That’s when I became the Tech Supervisor. That was my first time leading such a huge team. It was scary, but I’ve always been the worker. Now that I’m in a leadership position, the biggest thing I’ve learned is to delegate and look at the bigger picture. Being a leader doesn’t mean that you will have all the answers. In the end, I realized it’s about solving things together. I appreciated having teammates that knew things I didn’t. I’m grateful I wasn’t intimidated by that. I learned a lot! I’m really grateful that Neth and Sara trusted that I would learn and grow on this project. They really created a culture where we could explore and try new things.

[44:38] Allan: That’s great! I think that those are the sorts of projects where you get so much growth from. Having all those fires to put out, that’s when you grow the most. Even when people don’t have the answers, it’s important to put up your hand — even as a leader — and ask questions. 

Andrea: I was really grateful for my team. One of the teams was the assembly team. This pipeline is so new from Unity, there aren’t many tools for this. This is the pipeline I came up with. We had to make a lot of tools or make it manually. I learned from making a trailer. When we got a team, I was grateful that my tools people weren’t afraid to suggest something. They were also being respectful. I was really appreciative of the culture we had: We could discuss things and solve the problems in the best way.

[47:14] Allan: What were your thoughts working in Real Time? What are thoughts on that experience and storytelling via VR down the line?

Andrea: We chose to use Unity because Neth and I were interested in the VR industry because it’s booming lately. We didn’t want to put all the eggs in one basket so we divided between that and Maya. If anything failed, we had done most of it in our comfort zone. But that’s why we didn’t make it fully a VR feel. I feel that Unity is really powerful and user-friendly and pretty stripped down. I find that the more robust the software, the less flexible it is to make tools for. But if it’s really simple, you can write a bunch of tools. Unity was good for that. We saved a lot of time in rendering. When we rendered Sonder, it was so fast. I made a chart. It would have taken 8-12 hours per frame in a render farm. For Unity, it took a second per frame. That really helped! I remember when we released the trailer, we were able to render it the night before. That’ really helps.

There was another team working on a Unity short film called Adam. It’s hyper realistic. It’s an in-house Unity team that made it and we got to talk to them. We talked to the Director and Producer. That was really cool! But their goal was to be realistic. It was cool to see that if they could see that, the future is already there. I feel that people don’t want to risk right now. I own an Oculus and I can’t play a game for more than an hour without getting a headache. We just have to wait it out and let the engineers approve it. As for the storytelling aspect, it’s really immersive. For now, it’s really amazing for those immersive exhibitions. It was amazing! I was a Storm Trooper and I felt genuinely scared for my life. There is a time limit to it though. I’m always curious to see what’s new. I’ve always had this fantasy about being in a movie. That would be cool!

[54:27] Allan: I was having this conversation about picturing myself in a movie. As kids, that’s what we always wanted.

Andrea: I do camera every day. Composition is such a beautiful thing to make. VR takes that away, but I believe it will be just be another medium. The people who aren’t in favor, they’re just afraid of change. I remember when animation or VFX was coming out, people were also afraid. People were wondering if that would replace live action. But [it didn’t]! We just have more choices now! I just want all the options.

[56:16] Allan: That’s just it! It’s just another form of storytelling and it’s so cool! People are always resistant to change. It’s about different interpretations! I think it’s better to experience things before making that decision. It made me excited about where we’re going to be 5 years from now.

Andrea: And I think that’s what made me really excited after working on Sonder. I am seeing 2D coming back and it’s amazing. There are so many cartoons that are doing such a great job with 2D animation. We were really persistent with making Sonder a 2D style. I really love that style and I’m seeing more and more of it coming back, especially in games. My next goal is to try a 2D / 3D film.

[58:23] Allan: What was it like working on your first feature at Pixar and seeing your name in the credits? 

Andrea: My first feature film was Cars 3. I remember my mentor Adam telling me that it was a great film to start with. I had so much fun! It’s a franchise so there is a certain way characters have to be. Everyone already knows how it’s going to be. The team was so amazing and fun and they were just solving the problems. We already knew the character and their backstory. So we just worried about making it the best story possible. We didn’t have to do things from scratch. It was a really good ease-in.

I tried so many things in the pipeline. The one thing I tried to avoid was animation. But in layout, we have to do some blocking. I was questioning it. But the Cars just have faces and wheels, no limbs. So I didn’t have to think about the silhouettes. Posing the characters was super fast because they were Cars. It was really fun and I was really fortunate that the DP Jeremy Lasky trusted me. He gave me a lot of responsibility. And it helped me learn a lot. I get to say, “I built that sequence.” Seeing the credits, I just felt really grateful: “I know all these people! I’ve worked with them and seen them solve these problems!” It comes with a lot of memories. I told so many of my friends and family to see it. They were really supportive. For Cars 3, it was a different movie, in a good way. It was more about standing up and about feminism. It made me more excited! We need more female artists in this industry. This movie talks about mentoring people and giving more opportunities.

[1:03:20] Allan: I think you’re right. When it comes to diversity, I find that China and Japan has a lot more women in VFX. The US has a bit, but they’re more in compositing. It’s always surprised me. But it’s starting to get more balanced.

Andrea: Even in Asia, even though there are women working in the industry, it doesn’t mean there isn’t a bias. I’m passionate about changing it and I know it takes time. In the US, people are more aware of it. I remember back in college I was doing rigging, I had guys come up to me and say, “I never knew a woman could do these technical things”. I get it: It’s a back-handed compliment. But it’s also why are they so surprised?

[1:05:13] Allan: There is the equality issue but it’s also about guys being idiots. My wife is a designer in the vehicle wrap industry. She works at a bodyshop kind of place and there is always some stupid stuff that comes up. Neil Blevins’s wife Kat Evans did a Podcast with me about women in the industry (www.allanmckay.com/127). I’ve been wanting to do a round table for while with women artists. But it would be for both women’s and men’s sake. Pixar is such a great atmosphere, but there are environments that can be counter-intuitive. You have to be more thoughtful about the people around you.

Andrea: I feel that the problem is so big. It’s not just work place related, but in every day life. No industry is safe from it. We’re trying to make it safer in the industry. The smaller companies have more choice too. The change is happening, but it sucks that it’s a bigger issue, in everyday life. It’s the mindset of how women are being seen.

[1:08:39] Allan: Yes, that’s unfortunate. My friend Maggie Oh is a product manager for Star Wars. She went to MIT and she’s one of the smartest people I know! I look at people like her and she’s way smarter than me. There are some really stupid contradictions when it comes to stuff like this.

Andrea: We have to work double / triple hard. Right now, since we’re all fighting for women, there is extra pressure. If you are the only woman in the room, you have to represent all women. You have to fight the myths. If you slip, the men would be like, “See, I knew it! You’re a woman!” It’s frustrating.

[1:10:36] Allan: I do want to be a round table and it’s one we all need.

Andrea: You should definitely do it with alcohol.

[1:10:50] Allan: Yes, absolutely! To talk about more technical stuff: What’s your opinion about artists learning how to code? 

Andrea: I think it depends on what kind of artist you want to be. If you want to be in a competitive VFX industry, having some set of technical skills will help. But I understand that people are different. I believe in keeping an open mind and know what kind of artist you want to be. You could sell fine art for the rest of your life and not have to know a line of code. There are time limitations about what you want to put more time into: Should you learn more painting or learn some new software?

[1:13:02] Allan: That’s where having less sleep comes in. 

Andrea: Definitely! I think being more aware and open to learning is more important than being good at it. You don’t have to be as good as the programer that’s sitting next to you. But for a programer to know, what painting is — is important too. In reverse, the artists who look at coding — if they aren’t intimidated by it — they have to be willing to spend that time. It’s more about getting the skills. It’s fair and important to try to understand it.

[1:14:19] Allan: Finally: What are you talking about in Paris: https://masterclasses.iamag.co

Andrea: Gosh, I have not prepared [for it yet]. Basically, I am trying to watch all the past videos. Most of them are like classes with demos, right?

[1:14:41] Allan: They’re all different. I loved Goro Fujita’s talks. He split them in half about his journey and how he transitioned that to VR.

Andrea: He’s so inspiring. He is the one who inspired me to buy Oculus and try Quill. Now, I want to make a movie in Quill. That’s my goal.

[At the Master Class], I think I do want to tell a story about my journey. I think that the more you hear those stories — the more people benefit. I’ll probably talk about Sonder. I’m still thinking about going more theory and soft skills or technical. I’m taking my time to think about it. I might do a cinematography talk. But I will definitely do a talk on Sonder.

[1:16:52] Allan: I think you have to talk about your journey. You have to do that! Talking about soft and hard skills is also important. We put so much focus on technical skills, rather than put time after what we want. I look forward to seeing your talk.

Andrea: I feel like it’ll be a balance of both. I’m not sure about the soft skills but I do know it’s crucial for achieving this career. It takes so many people skills and technical skills to be successful. I might slip in the subject.

[1:18:50] Allan: That’s so cool! Where would people go to find out more about you?

Andrea: I have a website: https://www.andreagoh.com/. My portfolio will be there. Definitely hit me up on Instagram or Facebook. For Sonder, there is a website: www.sondershortfilm.com. Sonder is running in film festivals. We’re qualifying for the Oscars next year. I hope people can go see it. The film will be out next year, after the circuit.

[1:17:00] Allan: Thank you for taking the time to chat! This has been so fun!

Andrea: Thank you! I feel like we talked a lot.

 

I hope you enjoyed this Episode. I want to thank Andrea for doing this interview. Let me know what you think.

Please share this Episode around. The easiest thing to do is to take a screenshot and post it on your Instagram and tag me in it.

  • Next week, I’ll be back with Mike Morris who is one of the animators who’s worked on The Simpsons.
  • For the free Venom training, go to www.allanmckay.com/venom/.

I’ll be back next week. Until then —

Rock on!

 

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