Menu

Allison Rutland Shares Her Path to Pixar

Allison Rutland shares her path to Pixar

Allison Rutland is an an animator at Pixar.

After making Finding Chia, her first animated short, Allison Rutland was pretty sure she’d found her calling. She completed the funny mockumentary about a Chia Pet who’s traumatized when he can’t grow a coat of foliage while studying 3-D animation at Sheridan College in Canada. 

“It was really fun to do,” said Rutland, who has been an animator at Pixar since 2009 and won a prestigious Annie Award for her character work on Inside Out. “I thought that as soon as I got this whole animation thing figured out, I was going to make films.”

But as Rutland noted several times during her recent entertaining and candid presentation to a large group of students at 79 Montgomery Street, getting the animation part down took awhile. “There are people who go straight from school to DreamWorks, but that’s rare, and it’s a lot to put on yourself to expect that,” she said. “It’s fine to work your way up—that’s what I did. You develop your own confidence with animation while you’re practicing it. After awhile, you have your bag of tricks and know you can handle stuff.”

Rutland realized she still had a lot to learn about animation after landing her first job at a Toronto commercial studio. It took her more than two months to finish a project that was supposed to take three weeks. (Luckily, her director liked the end result and gave her more work.) During this time, she also worked on a Canadian TV show called Caliber.

“That was a really good experience,” Rutland remarked. “Working on a TV show allowed me to have time to just animate. All I had to do was get stuff done, and it didn’t have to be very good. It taught me how to figure out my process and how to animate faster.”

While doing another commercial, Rutland met fellow animator Morgan Ginsberg. The two became friends and ended up working together on her first feature film, Everyone’s Hero.

Morgan taught me so much about animation,” Rutland stated. “He helped me learn how to visually see what I wanted to get, which was a big step forward in my animation. Before, I didn’t know what I wanted it to be, or what the curves looked like, so there was a lot of guessing. That’s partly why things took me so long to animate.”

Rutland wrote down tips from her mentor in a book that she carried around with her from job to job. One bit of advice from Ginsberg that served her well is to always try your best on every shot. 

“It doesn’t matter if it’s something big or a background shot—work your hardest on whatever it is,” she said. “I’ve found that to be very useful in the industry. People notice if you’re putting your heart into it.”

Ginsberg also encouraged Rutland and a couple of her friends to create demo reels to submit to Pixar when the studio was hiring animators for Ratatouille. Her friends did and got hired. But making a reel proved too stressful for Rutland back then and she didn’t finish in time. 

“It doesn’t matter if it’s something big or a background shot—work your hardest on whatever it is,” she said. “I’ve found that to be very useful in the industry. People notice if you’re putting your heart into it.”

Ginsberg also encouraged Rutland and a couple of her friends to create demo reels to submit to Pixar when the studio was hiring animators for Ratatouille. Her friends did and got hired. But making a reel proved too stressful for Rutland back then and she didn’t finish in time.

Allison Rutland shares her path to Pixar

Pixar animator Allison Rutland shares her journey during a recent Tea Time Animation event. Photo by Bob Toy.

While she missed out on the Ratatouille gig, another exciting opportunity soon came her way. She spent two years living and working in London, honing her animation skills on features such as Prince Caspian, The Tale of Despereaux, and Where the Wild Things Are

The dream of being a Pixar animator was still in the back of her mind, so she continued to work on her demo reel at night. She showed the impressive end result—which got her hired for Toy Story 3— to the audience and described the inspiration behind it. 

“I wanted to animate things I hadn’t seen in animation and do it with interesting gestures,” she explained. “I did one scene with a guy trying to suppress emotions and trying not to cry because I hadn’t seen a lot of that.”

Rutland also talked about the inspiration behind her award-winning work on Inside Out. To capture 11-year-old Riley’s emotions in a moving scene where she’s fighting back tears, she observed how the young girl in the film “Whale Rider” looked when she started crying and also studied a book on facial muscles. 

Rutland advised young animators hoping to impress Pixar with their demo reels to focus on interesting character work, spontaneity and originality. “If your work is a bit rough, that’s okay,” she said. “If your acting ideas are cliché and overdone, that’s not good. Really solid acting is what they’re looking for.”

The Tea Time Animation Club made Rutland’s presentation possible. The club meets Fridays at 3:30 p.m. at 180 New Montgomery Street, room 420.