Review of The VanArts Pixar Artists’ Masterclass

Pixar VanArts Pixar Artists Masterclass Review

June 22 couldn’t get here fast enough – but when it finally did, I was like a kid in a candy store. The Pixar Artists’ Masterclass, hosted in Chicago, Illinois by VanArts (Vancouver Institute of Media Arts), took place from June 22 through 23. After some eager waiting and chatter in the hallway, the VanArts team opened registration and all eyes were focused on getting into the theater to get a good seat. After finalizing registration, I settled in a seat in the center of the front row (yup, a teacher’s pet)!  


After I got acclimated, I took a few more photos to show the general look of the class size as well as the stage area. Shortly after I took these photos was when the crowd was instructed that there would be no internet access, no tweeting, no photography, or cell phone usage.

Although the phone sounded like common sense, I was a bit bummed that I couldn’t live-tweet about the event to our readers, but in any regard, I can fill you in now! The seats were comfortable, but the only thing I would have changed from the venue would be to have desk space since there was a lot of note-taking and typing going on from the crowd. The theater was smaller than I thought it would be as well – this was great since it fostered a more personal and intimate setting. As you can see from the photo below, there were only seven rows of seating on the main level, but there was a balcony with an equal amount of seating as well.

The stage setup with simple and focused on the speakers (Matthew Luhn / Andrew Gordon) and their presentations.

I won’t “give away the farm”, per se, but I will highlight the layout of the event to provide an idea of what you could expect from this event.  


Matthew Luhn started off day one with a bang. As you would expect from a master-of-story at Pixar, he told a story about his upbringing and how he was surrounded by toys and artwork his whole life. It was a completely captivating story told by a captivating storyteller.

Another opening topic of the day was regarding working hard and going after what you want (because no one else is going to give it to you). He told the story of how he was hired by Pixar as an animator by really wanted to get involved with the story team. He told Bob Peterson that he would do any amount of “grunt work” necessary to prove to Bob that he would be a good fit for the story team. His story was completely inspirational and for those thinking of attending the class, the entire day was filled with little anecdotes that help boost your confidence and educate you at the same time.

To give a general overview of the story day, the class covered the following topics:

  • Storyboarding and the story artist
  • Preliminary storyboards
  • 3-Act story structure
  • Sequence boards and character development
  • Gags
  • Storyboarding from the script
  • Composing your storyboards
  • Line and value

The two most interesting sections for me during this day were the discussions about the history of storyboarding (how Disney created the process in the 1930s) and the elements of the classic story structure (how every Pixar movie follows this format). It was also a great treat that Matt displayed some never before seen (outside of Pixar and this course), early character sketches, and discarded storyboards from alternate versions of the movies (there were some amazing Cars and Toy Story 2 & 3 sketches that weren’t even shown in the “Art of” books since they were from Matthew’s personal collection). I’d love to be able to show you some of those screenshots, but as I mentioned before, they were adamant that there could be no photography – so it’s all stuck in my head.


Andrew Gordon’s portion of the course kicked right into animation and not only covered the basics (the twelve principles of animation) but also delved into some more advanced topics like “locomotion” (no, this was not a section on trains – but how people, animals, and other objects move). 

To give a general overview of the animation day, the class covered the following topics:

  • Principles of animation
  • Staging and pose design
  • Locomotion
  • Acting for animation
  • Gestures
  • Planning
  • Blocking
  • Facial Animation
  • Polish
  • Reels

The most interesting moments of the day were seeing the animation reels (in various stages from the first test on the computer with each layer being added until we saw the finished product with lighting and shading). I also loved seeing the videos of the animators recording themselves, acting out a scene, and then using that as their guide to animate the scene from – I’ve known this process was done before, but it was great seeing some of the animators I’ve heard about for years making fools of themselves (picture live-action dancing of Spanish Buzz dancing around Jessie…let the hilarity ensue) while acting and then bringing the character to life.

Andrew also spent a few extra minutes at the end of the course providing amazing insight into what types of work should be included in a portfolio (demo reel) if you want to apply at Pixar. I certainly won’t list them all, but here are a few:

  • Provide a mix of shots that show good physicality in the scene and the elements should have proper weighting (an actual car should move slower than a remote control car when they begin moving because of the weight difference between the two).
  • Provide a clip of one and two-person dialogue.
  • Make it original (though not flashy).
  • Your best work should be presented first and last within the portfolio.

We also had the pleasure of viewing several of the student films (like Pete Docter‘s) and portfolios of animators (like Allison Rutland) that got them hired into Pixar.


Throughout the course, there were many moments (after breaks and at the end of the day) when they gave out Pixar goodies. The crowd was hooked as they drew numbers to see who would win a selection of Pixar shirts, hats, signed “art of” books, signed Brave posters (I wanted one of these badly), stickers, and much more. I volunteered a couple of times and received a Pixar Animation Studio sticker for volunteering – so if you’re there, raise your hand and you’ll have a chance to win even more.

In addition to the giveaways throughout the course, you are guaranteed to receive (upon check-in), a VanArts bag, a Masterclass shirt, and a course guide with notes, tips, and space to take notes. On breaks and after the class, Matthew and Andrew will also hang out and autograph items and chat with you – so be sure to bring a Sharpie and have a few good questions to ask them. I had both of them sign my The Art of Brave book!

Pixar VanArts Pixar Artists Masterclass Review

During the two days of the course, both Andrew and Matthew recommended many books that they highly recommended to help you build and polish your skills.

Note: Pixar Post may receive a commission for items purchased through affiliate links in this article — we thank you for your support.

In regards to Story, Matthew mentioned:

  • Joseph Campbell’s, The Power of Myth
  • Joseph Campbell’s, The Hero with a Thousand Faces
  • Joseph Mascelli’s, The five C’s of Cinematography – Matthew mentioned that this isn’t required for being an animator, but the same terms that live-action cinematographers use are utilized in animation, so the terms are important to know.
  • Lajos Egri’s, The Art of Dramatic Writing – I think everyone is going to have to read this book after the ringing endorsement that Matthew gave it. He said that Andrew Stanton reads this book each time (as a refresher) before he begins working on a new project for Pixar – wow!

In regards to Animation, Andrew mentioned:

  • Frank Thomas & Ollie Johnston’s, The Illusion of Life – This was pitched as somewhat of a bible for animators and storytellers as it is written by two of Disney’s nine old men (who created, or had a hand in, almost all of today’s Disney classics).
  • John Halas’, Timing For Animation – it was mentioned that this book teaches the importance of the pause being just as important as strong character action/motion.


So, should you attend this event? If you’re thinking about getting into the animation (or the film industry frankly), this is a great way to get a high-level overview of what goes on within Pixar from the story and animation departments. If you’re already in the industry as a seasoned veteran, it would be interesting as a “back to the basics” approach or to “brush up” – but I would imagine that a lot of it would be old information for you.

Some of the people in the class that are finishing up their schooling said the class was basically an overview of what they learned over two years in college (of course more high level though) – but there was still a lot to learn and the networking opportunities and inspiration were extremely valuable.

Finally, from my standpoint as a fan of Pixar and animation, it was great to see and hear some aspects of story development and animation that I wouldn’t have learned in any other way. I was brimming from ear to ear as I soaked in the information presented and frankly, I will look at all films with a more focused eye now because of the class.


In short – I highly recommend this course and if you’re in (or near) one of the cities left of the VanArts Pixar Animators’ Masterclass tour, I recommend you book your seat today! I could go on and on about all the amazing details and insights Matthew and Andrew revealed, but I can’t reveal everything or you wouldn’t need to go yourself. If you have any questions or want to chat more in regards to the class, please let me know – I talked Julie’s ear off about the course as soon as I got back to the hotel with all the Pixar insights I learned.

To whet your appetite just a little bit more (so you attend the course), one of the things I learned that blew my mind, was a tidbit from Up!. Every time Ellie was on screen there were a lot of pink colors (whether it be her clothes or the color tone of the light). Even the funeral scene had a pink hue to the light, and the light remains pink until Carl returns home from her funeral.

As soon as he shuts the door (upon re-entering the house without her for the first time), the tone of the light then turns blue. It was as if it was symbolically showing that he now has to fully move on without her and that her light has faded from his life (at least in physical form). Wow, that was really powerful and amazing – the course is filled with Pixar stories like that – you just couldn’t help but be amazed!


To view the remaining cities and register for the 2012 masterclass tour, click here. Also, keep in mind that VanArts isn’t just the host of this amazing event, it’s also a great place to get a quality education in all areas of 2D and 3D animation, (along with broadcasting, digital photography, and game design, web development and more).

Finally, I’d like to send a big, hearty, thank you to Andrew Gordon and Matthew Luhn for taking the time out of their busy schedules and for traveling away from their families to help educate us on story and animation (with a Pixar flare)! It is very much appreciated and the education I gained is only continuing to fuel my desire to get into this industry.

Comments 2
  1. awesome review, thanks for sharing! Man, this sounds like a great class! I wish it was coming to Minnesota. I can just imagine the little secrets (like your story about Up! and the use of color) would be gold! And throw in some goodies?! What an experience!!

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