Episode 260 — Rosana Sullivan — Pixar
Episode 260 — Rosana Sullivan — Pixar
Rosana Sullivan is a Director, Storyboard Artist, Writer, and Executive Producer. Since 2011 she has worked for Pixar Animation Studios. In 2019 she wrote and directed her first animated short film, Kitbull, for which she received a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film at the 92nd Academy Awards.
Sullivan worked as a lead character designer at Ooga Labs and a 2D artist at Kabam before joining Pixar Animation Studios in 2011. With Pixar, she has contributed to the 3D animated films Monsters University, The Good Dinosaur, Piper, and Incredibles 2. She was nominated for a 2015 Annie Award for outstanding achievement in storyboarding in an animated feature production for her work on The Good Dinosaur.
In February 2019 she wrote and directed her first animated film, a nine-minute traditionally animated short called Kitbull, which is part of the SparkShorts series. In April 2019 she published an autobiographical picture book, Mommy Sayang, describing the life of a girl and her mother in a Malaysian village. This story, along with others that she has written, was inspired by her mother’s roots in Malaysia.
In this Podcast, Rosana gives insider tips on making a successful demo reel, talks about having side passion projects and braintrust for creatives, as well as her experience working at Pixar and her Oscar nominated short film Kitbull.
Rosana Sullivan on IMDb: https://www.imdb.com/name/nm3300040/
Kitbull on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AZS5cgybKcI
Rosana Sullivan on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/rosana-sullivan-b46615a/
Rosana Sullivan’s Interview in Deadline:
[03:08] Rosana Sullivan Talks About Beginning in the Arts
[09:28] Rosana Shares Insider Information on Demo Reels and Portfolios
[13:53] The Importance of Furthering One’s Training
[17:04] Rosana Discusses Common Mistakes in Young Artists’ Portfolios
[21:30] Rosana Remembers Starting Out at Pixar
[23:26] How to Make Imposter Syndrome Work in Your Favor
[27:52] Rosana Talks About the Inspiration Behind Kitbull
[34:36] Rosana Shares Her Experience with the SparkShorts Program at Pixar
[43:01] Allan and Rosana Discuss the Importance of Having Side Projects
[47:56] Rosana Remembers Working on Coco
EPISODE 260 — ROSANA SULLIVAN — PIXAR
Welcome to Episode 260! This is Allan McKay.
I’m sitting down with Rosana Sullivan, a Director, Writer, Storyboard Artist and Executive Producer. She’s been at Pixar since 2011 working on such big projects as Monsters University, The Good Dinosaur, and Incredibles 2. She wrote and directed her own short film Kitbull that was nominated for an Oscar.
I’m really excited for this Episode. Rosana and I talk about about demo reels and mistakes that artists make starting out; as well as her experience writing, directing and working on her short film Kitbull.
Let’s dive in!
FIRST THINGS FIRST:
[00:57] Have you ever sent in your reel and wondered why you didn’t get the callback or what the reason was that you didn’t get the job? 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 The Ultimate Demo Reel Guide from the perspective of someone who actually does the hiring. You can get this book for free right now at www.allanmckay.com/myreel!
[51:41] One of the biggest problems we face as artists is figuring out how much we’re worth. I’ve put together a website. Check it out: www.VFXRates.com! This is a chance for you to put in your level of experience, your discipline, your location — and it will give you an accurate idea what you and everyone else in your discipline should be charging. Check it out: www.VFXRates.com!
INTERVIEW WITH ROSANA SULLIVAN
[03:08] Allan: Do you want to quickly introduce yourself?
Rosana: Hi, my name is Rosana Sullivan. I’m currently a Story Supervisor at Pixar Animation Studios. I started out as a Story Artist at Pixar back in 2011.
[03:27] Allan: Did you always want to be an artist growing up?
Rosana: I think a part of me did. Like in so many artists’ stories, as soon as I could pick up a pencil, I drew in anything and everything including textbooks, phone books, any piece of paper. On walls! I grew up in a smaller city Beaumont, Texas. Both of my parents were in the science and medical fields so I didn’t have any access or knowledge of the animation industry, except for my VHS’s. I didn’t even fathom the idea of working in animation until much later in life when I was in college. That wasn’t until my last year in college. I originally majored in biology because I thought I’d be a veterinarian. And then I had to take an elective painting course and it hit me like a sack of bricks, “Oh! This is what I should be doing!” But I still wasn’t making the leap yet into animation. I thought I’d be a fine artist. Then I got a teacher in the art program who saw a potential in me and she was teaching sculpture classes at Pixar University at the time. She hooked me up with a course credit internship at Pixar University.
[05:18] Allan: So did you at any point contemplate being a professional? Or did you view it more as a creative outlet to draw and paint? Weren’t you studying at SFU to be a veterinarian?
Rosana: University of San Francisco, yeah. In terms of an actual career in animation, it didn’t even come into my sphere of consciousness until I actually got the internship. I was about 23 years old and at that point, I switched over to Fine Arts, to finish off my degree and to take my arts training more seriously. Up until that point, I drew and painted as a hobby. It wasn’t until the internship because I just didn’t know any professional artists. During the time I was interning, I met a lot of storyboard artists, mainly Marc Andres, Louis Gonzalez. By talking to them I realized that not only did I want to work as an artist, but I wanted to do what they were doing — which was storyboarding.
[06:47] Allan: That’s really cool! And what was the feeling like to switch majors and go down that path? A lot of us have that hesitation, “Am I doing the right thing?” Was it a very difficult decision to make?
Rosana: It was very much so. People who make that transition either have parents that say, “Of course! It’s about time!” or parents that say, “Are you sure? How are you going to survive?” I had the latter. My dad was a biologist and my mother worked in the medical field, although she painted as a hobby. When I initially made the switch, I just knew I wanted to paint. And that’s switching from a medical career and living in San Francisco at the time (which is one of the most expensive cities in the world!). Naturally, my parents were afraid. Thank God I had the determination not to give up. A lot of people who didn’t take that risk are still trying to find a way to live out their dreams.
[08:32] Allan: I think that’s a really great point! Looking back at your own career and looking at a lot of the talented people around you too, what kind of advice can you share with other people who decide to go into a competitive industry? What do you see as common mistakes that people make (like not taking it seriously)? What do you think the key things are that make one successful or unsuccessful?
Rosana: That’s a really great question. Let’s see! How much time do we have?
[09:28] Allan: I think the difference between someone who makes it and someone who doesn’t is pretty obvious. There are some people who give it everything they’ve got.
Rosana: I think [I’d start] from the biggest question one must ask themselves. A lot of us starting out want to say, “Oh, I want to work at Pixar!” or “I want to work at Disney!” or “I want to direct my own feature film!” Meanwhile, you’re 20 years old. I think these are great goals to have! The question I had to come face to face with is, “Why? Why do I want to do that? Am I willing to sacrifice and put in the amount of energy and investment that it actually takes?” A lot of people initially aren’t aware of that side of things, and that includes the sheer skill level that you need to have, to even be competitive. [10:53] In terms of the Recruitment Department, a lot of the portfolios that get sent in don’t even get seen by artists in charge of the hiring process. A lot of them get screened by people who are in the recruiting role, and there is a lot of thought that needs to go into what you’re presenting when you’re applying for an art position:
- To whom are you applying?
- Who is your audience?
- Is this the best work that you’re putting forward?
- Are you showing your best work at the top of your portfolio, as opposed to the very end?
I think it’s a matter of committing to your goals. Studio or independent houses really see that commitment in the portfolio and whether the skills presented in that portfolio are going to be useful. Now, on this end of the hiring process that’s what I see.
[12:25]] I think what tends to get people at least noticed — if not necessarily through the door on the first round because it is so competitive and there are so many talented artists out there — in my process of reviewing portfolios at Pixar, what stands out is not just the basic level of can they draw and express their ideas? Do they understand basic cinematography? The next level is: Are their ideas interesting? Are they storytelling ideas interesting? What makes them stand out? What pulls a lot of beginner portfolios back is that they tend to try to cater their work toward what they think is popular — rather than what’s interesting to them.
[13:53] Allan: So you want to show something that you’re passionate about rather than what you think is commercial. While everyone is watching Toy Story, let’s do a bunch of that?
Rosana: Yes, “Let’s draw a bunch of Buzzes or Woodys!” But that’s not, at least at Pixar, what they’re looking for. [What they’re looking for] is hiring filmmakers and people with vision, who could potentially be directors. Or leadership positions. And finally, the most important one is — don’t give up! If you’re really committed and you invested that time and energy to present your best foot forward! For me it meant that after completing my Bachelors Degree, I sent my story portfolio to Pixar. I didn’t get it and it was a wakeup skill. Which is why I enrolled in the Academy of Art University, just to take the foundational classes: just to study the anatomy and get better at draftsmanship. If you want to get into the NBA, you have to be athletic! In my case, it was investing in my pure drawing mileage and expanding my animation knowledge. Beyond that, I applied for work multiple times and didn’t get in, multiple times. I think that can be true for a lot of people. So I almost gave up a few times. I thought I should try a different route. After college, I got to work for a startup in games, in downtown San Francisco. That was a blessing because I got to learn a lot about animation and character design and building assets directly for the people that would be consuming it. After that, I tried applying for a storyboard position one more time at Pixar — and I actually got in that time.
[16:34] Allan: Awesome! It’s always the “one last time” that it works.
Rosana: But in that “one last time”, I don’t think I would’ve gotten that opportunity if I hadn’t expanded my horizons and tried different opportunities first. For a lot of the younger people, including myself, it’s “Pixar — or nothing!”
[17:04] Allan: You touched on something important! There are people who are fixated on applying for their dream job as their first job. Because of that, they limit out all those opportunities to grow in between. Obviously, there are stepping stones on the way too. Another thing that you’ve touched on is the fact that just because you’ve sent in your demo reel, it doesn’t mean it would get seen by the right people. Some people think that doesn’t make sense. They don’t realize there are barriers to get through. My final question would be: What mistakes do you see people making in terms of their applications?
Rosana: To reiterate some of the earlier points: Not knowing how to curate their portfolio that shows their best and most personal work upfront. I’ve seen a lot of portfolios that seem like a bunch of dishes in a kitchen sink. “Here are a bunch of storyboards!” I get turned off when I see tiny storyboards filling up a page and no sense of how to present their work, or how to prioritize it. How do you tell a story? You don’t get straight to the punchline. You want to create an experience for your audience. The portfolios that do well have an extra layer of storytelling or have an awareness of how to present their work. If there are three miniature projects within a story portfolio, I’ve always appreciated when each project had an introduction, some characters and a separation of each section. And I like to see some thought put into it: sketches, thumbnails showing the thinking process. Some portfolios show highly polished, extremely well drawn, fully colored renditions. But we don’t do that at Pixar. We don’t have that much time to draw storyboards. We like to draw rougher boards or sketches. Because that will show that they can draw quickly and that they aren’t too precious with their ideas.
[20:42] Allan: That’s really valid! I’ve come across that when I’m supervising and the artist doesn’t want to show their work because it’s not finished. But that’s not how the creative process works.
Rosana: People in storyboards, think of it more like jazz improv. You’re auditioning to be a part of a band. To practice to perfection isn’t going to show what you can do in improvisation. That’s what we’re looking for: that spark of new ideas or personal ideas that come from just playing and having fun.
[21:30] Allan: Once you did go to Pixar — which for so many people is a dream job — what was that experience initially like? You’ve now been there for quite some time now. What was it like to get accepted after having pursued it for so long?
Rosana: I’d say I had a really nice doze of the Imposter Syndrome. I think that was common for a lot of people that start out there. But it was also at the time when there weren’t a lot of women Storyboard Artists, let alone female Directors. Brenda Chapman just got assigned to direct the first feature at the studio when I got hired. Aside from that, being surrounded by this enormous amount of talent and freshly graduated students that came from places like CalArts where they already had some short films under their belt! So it was not just the veterans! I felt my peers had done much more than I have. So there was a constant, “Oh, no! They made a mistake in hiring me!” So I felt I had to work extra hard to prove I belong there. I think Kitbull sprung out of that. It was that some personal creative hunger.
[23:26] Allan: That’s something I wanted to ask about whether you experienced any Imposter Syndrome. When people want something for so long, when they finally get it, it then becomes, “Oh, crap! Am I ready yet?” Instead of trusting that you were hired for a reason. Do you think that can also be a strength? If you think you aren’t good enough, you can double down and prove that you’re ready.
Rosana: I think so. To a degree, when it’s taken to an extreme, it can become destructive. Not that the Imposter Syndrome has gone away. I wish I could tell myself back then to be patient with myself. I’ve noticed that people who are high achievers are such hard working people. People who go the extra, extra mile are also weirdly humble. There is this anxiety that fuels them, internally. But I’d say that it helps you not take it for granted how privileged this opportunity is. There are times when you’re working on a project and think it’s the worst. But it’s also amazing at the same time, even if you aren’t connected to it! You get to draw and you’re trusted by people, and you get to work with people who also love to draw. I feel that a little of Imposter Syndrome evolved into not wanting to lose this kind of chance. And it makes you want to make the most out of every day.
[26:12] Allan: With your style, what inspired you? Where do you look for inspiration?
Rosana: It’s changed every year of my life! I feel that the last few years are very different. Before I would look at artists I found inspiring or super talented. I would look at blogs and Instagram. I would watch movies and be inspired by the craft of storytelling of directors like Stanley Kubrick. I love being inspired by illustrators and filmmakers and ask that question of, “How did they do that?” It keeps my brain going. These days, a lot of the inspiration comes from the day-to-day, just watching my child grow and discover things himself. Just the fact that I created life! I’m a wizard! Those types of things become more of an inspiration. And I’m looking at the horizon and what other stories I could have in my back pocket.
[27:52] Allan: Talking about Kitbull, how did that come to be? Could you talk about the story and the premise. And how did you decide it was time to do that story?
Rosana: Yeah, the inspiration behind Kitbull. It started from being really stressed out over a project and having that Imposter Syndrome. It was my second year working at Pixar and I was working on a project that was having a lot of production issues at the time. I was feeling a little lost and untethered. If you’re working on a project you don’t feel as connected to creatively or emotionally, you start [doubting if] this is what you were supposed to do. If you have a hobby or a passion, it’s better to be a hobby. There is no complexity around it. It started to get to a dark point for me, creatively. So I channeled a lot of that frustration into doing my own thing on the side. That’s when the inspiration for Kitbull came about. My office mate and I were both obsessed with animals and we would send animal videos to each other. She sent me a video of a cat arching its back and getting those intense eyes, jumping across a kitchen counter and then it falls off the edge. So all the bravado is completely thrown out. That sparked the idea of a tiny stray kitten that thought itself to be a lion and what that would look like in an urban environment. At the time, I was living in the Mission District.
[30:51] Allan: I’d imagine there were a lot of stray cats in that area.
Rosana: Not as many as you’d think. I think a lot of the animal shelters have been good. But they’re still there. Also, from my time studying to be a veterinarian, I always had this passion for animals and their welfare. When I started drawing the storyboards, I wanted to create a cat that acts like a cat and have its animalistic behavior and be a bit of a caricature. That’s why I pushed the design to look more flat. Shortly after drawing that kitten, I thought, “What kind of story do I want to tell? How about a classic one of a dog and cat becoming friends?” Because that was more manageable for me. But then it evolved into a deeper story about how pitbulls are treated by society and how black cats are as well. That started in 2013. During this whole time I worked on it independently. At one point, I asked Kathryn Hendrickson who was my Producer, to produce it. We worked together on The Good Dinosaur. In 2017, the studio had found out I was working on something. I had survived enough crazy projects to stand out as someone who still had the passion to stand out. They’d asked me if I wanted to make a SparkShort, which was a sort of an indie film studio project within the film studio.
[32:59] Allan: In terms of the style of animation, did you have an idea about what you wanted it to be? And how would you describe that style?
Rosana: I always wanted it to be 2D. Mostly because I thought I’d be doing most of the animation and I didn’t know how I’d do CG. The pipeline for that is much more complicated. It was more accessible to me. But I also grew up loving 2D animation and it’s what inspired me to draw in the first place. I wanted to pay an homage to the Disney features I grew up loving. And the nature of the main characters would be harder to capture in CG. It would have to be much more realism based, and you’d have to battle more to make it look more spontaneous. And it’s great that Pixar supported that! It was like, “You have a Ferrari and you’re deciding to ride a bicycle to work?”
[34:36] Allan: I love that analogy! With this being a passion project and then Pixar picking it up as a SparkShorts, did the pressure switch for you? It suddenly had more eyes on it than you initially anticipated.
Rosana: That was the initial concern. They did say I didn’t have to use this story. I just had to finish the project in 6 months. I thought about if I wanted to give away the rights to it. The project was always a training project for me as a director and that’s what the SparkShorts Program is for. When they approached me, they told me it was a new program and it would low-budget. The trade-off was that you’d get no oversight. It had to be PG. With that I thought, I had the best of both worlds: I still had the distribution and the backing of Pixar but I also got to retain my creative control. While we were making it, we checked in with the leadership of the Program. That gave us some space as well. At Pixar, there is a lot of money at stake. The studio invests a lot which means a lot of oversight. But with SparkShorts, we got to create our own braintrust. I pulled my own peers. It was the best filmmaking process I could’ve asked for! There was never anyone saying, “You shouldn’t make that story.”
[38:12] Allan: Do you want to share some insight into the braintrust? For civilians, this is something no one has heard of. It’s about bringing on other people to offer ideas. Can you explain how a braintrust works and what it is?
Rosana: Yeah. It’s a really great tool. Braintrust is something that has been most affiliated with Pixar, but I think the concept existed since ancient times. An artist or a director seeks out consultation, usually in a group setting, at multiple stages. For me, I found it to be essential with helping me articulate the vision I was going for or when I got stuck. It provided fresh ideas. In addition to that I would seek advice from my peers. I also included my crew in my screenings because they knew the film better than anyone else and where I was trying to go. Having a braintrust of peers or relatives is super essential.
[40:59] Allan: With Kitbull being nominated for an Oscar, what was that experience like? Looking back, it was more of an escape project. And congratulations, by the way!
Rosana: Thank you so much! It was insane! It felt like a dream the entire time. First from finishing the film and screening it at the studio, to then having it be released on YouTube. The response that it was getting worldwide was the first shock of disbelief and pride. When it got shortlisted for the Oscars, it was more surreal. When it got nominated, I thought, “I’m done!” That was an incredible experience and I feel really humbled by it all. The Imposter Syndrome does not go away. And then getting to be around those people, it’s nothing more than awe inspiring.
[43:01] Allan: I remember being at ILM and there would be meetings where people asked about making short projects like you do at Pixar. How important do you think it is for creative to still have side projects?
Rosana: [43:40] I think it’s essential, if you’re the type that has a story to tell and a burning desire to tell it. Not everyone feels that need. But those that do, it’s essential for your own soul to express what’s going on. That’s the fuel that keeps the engine going. Working in the industry can be a long and arduous journey, and you don’t always get to make your own work and touch people directly. So I am excited by people who aren’t in the animation department and they tell stories I’ve never seen. I’d love to see more directors from different backgrounds, because that’s how we get diversity in stories.
[45:13] Allan: You mentioned that you had a project you needed to step away from. Was that The Good Dinosaur?
Rosana: At the time, I was popping around different projects. I was on The Good Dinosaur for 3.5 years which is pretty long. Definitely, it felt pretty long. For a green artist like me, there was this worry if the film would get finished. And if it doesn’t get finished, I wouldn’t get any credit for the work I had been doing.
[46:20] Allan: I was working Transformers at Atomic Fiction and I was having lunch with Neil Blevins at the time. He mentioned that the story was getting scrapped. He put so much effort and time into it.
Rosana: It’s the risk we take in this business. Sometimes, I step back and think we are creative magic out of nothing. If we finish the film — which sometimes feels like a miracle — it feels so rewarding. But there is so much out of our control. There is a sense of acceptance I had to develop. I had to learn how to be at peace with what I could control, which is my work.
[47:56] Allan: To date, what is your most favorite project that you’ve worked on?
Rosana: Objectively, I’d say it’s Kitbull. But if we put that aside and the fact that I got to direct and collaborate with so many amazing people, I would say it was Coco directed by Lee Unkrich. That was really fun! It was the first time I thought, “Oh, this is the fantasy project I’d imagined working on at Pixar!” It was a healthy, functioning story process. It did have its trials and tribulations, but the team worked really well and we had a really great relationship with the director and the writer. That experience will always last with me. If I were to have the opportunity to direct a feature film, I would want to do it that way. And it’s nice that the film was really liked!
[49:57] Allan: I can’t think of any films you, guys, make that aren’t liked! That’s always reassuring. I appreciate your taking your time to chat. Where can people go to learn more about you and Kitbull?
Rosana: If you don’t have Disney+, Kitbull is still on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AZS5cgybKcI. There are some behind-the-scenes documentaries. I have an old blog that I haven’t updated in years. You can learn more about my work. And I do have my old Deviant Art up somewhere. There is an art gallery account there.
[51:33] Allan: Again, I appreciate your taking the time to chat!
Rosana: It was lovely chatting to you too, Allan!
I hope you enjoyed this Episode. I want to thank Rosana for taking the time to do this Podcast.
I’ll be back next week with my To-Do List and how it helps me organize and structure my day.
Until next week —
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