The Process of the Big Picture: A Few Minutes with Animator Brendan Beesley Talking About Living The Pixar Dream

Posted in Interviews, Movies, News, Theatrical, Theatrical by - November 23, 2017
The Process of the Big Picture: A Few Minutes with Animator Brendan Beesley Talking About Living The Pixar Dream

At one stage or another in all of our lives, we’ve all had goals for ourselves.  Some realistic, some pretty farfetched but when you get the chance to meet someone who managed to make the farfetched a reality, than you have to sit down and listen.

That someone is Burlington’s own Brendan Beesley who worked his way through Seneca College all the way to being an integral cog at Pixar Animation and a key player in their new animated wonder Coco that plays up the importance of family and following your dreams as it tells the story of Miguel, a young man obsessed with music who gets magically transported to the Land of the Dead on the holiday of Dia de los Muertos/Day of The Dead in order to find his families musical lineage.

There’s so much more that you need to be able to have some skill at to be an animator at the highest level and Brendan was kind enough to walk us through so much of that when he came to town in advance of the film’s release today to sit down with us and give us some real insight into the magic that truly is Pixar Animation.

 

Dave Voigt: Obviously congratulations on the film because Coco really feels like it plays like a bio pic for Pixar itself as it shows the importance and the genuine layers in the existence of a family while corporately and creatively Pixar really does try to set itself up in the family dynamic.  Walk me through your experiences in Hollywood as someone who broke in outside of that system, but then ultimately arrived there.

Brendan Beasley:  I think one of the real big differences is that Pixar really just values great filmmaking and the company as a whole lets us have the time to layer our performances.  If something isn’t working they’ll never just try and push it through as it because as things always have to get done at some point, it’s a place that is always very focused on seeing another iteration if it needs to in order to get the material right and to be able to extract as much as we can from the material.  I mean I have shown 10 iterations of a shot before having it approved because the director just wants to keep pushing and pulling it all to make sure we’ve collectively gotten everything that we can from any given scene.  Obviously other studios do have the same goals, but really the time is just never there.  I heard a great quote back when I was in college that art is truly never finished, you just run out of time but Pixar allows you as an artist a little bit MORE of that time you might need to get something right and put some more into any given performance.

DV: Something that doesn’t necessarily get appreciated from anyone looking from the outside in to this business, is that in many ways you are a director yourself but it’s a segment here and a segment there and I’m curious to know how that process of just directing one scene helps you climb the ladder to maybe one day direct a feature yourself?  Because you aren’t just necessarily drawing or coloring a scene, you are kind of doing everything that you need to do in order for that particular scene to work in the whole of the picture.

BB: Well obviously it’s all really been a big learning process to be sure and I think that part of filming myself which I have to do when assembling these scenes is really understanding subtext.  My acting has changed because now I really am trying to get myself in the headspace of the characters that I am working with in any particular scene.  What I tend to like to do when piecing together a scene is to act out not only the scenes that come before mine but directly after mine as well so that I can get into that headspace.  If a character just finished jumping off a stage and then says a line, I’m going to jump off of a stage and say a line because understanding the physicality of that moment which will be pretty different then just sitting around and talking to someone will be entirely different.  When I had first started out in my animation career that was something that I just never even thought about, I would just film myself going from point A to B, if I filmed myself at all never really diving into understand the physicality of the moment and understanding the subtext of it all.  You really start thinking about the layers of it all and your character and how they fit into the bigger picture and not just thinking that my segment is the most important part of the movie and I’ll make it looks awesome, etc etc.  Sometimes there are reactions shots when a character is really doing nothing and you have to understand why and make sure that this character still feels alive and vibrant so it can all fit into the story.  I think that just understanding the process as a whole, and I’ve learned SO much about it being at Pixar for five years now.  Just seeing your work develop, which helps to develop your eye which helps you grow because when they look for people to move up the ranks, they look for people who have the entire package and are capable of running with it and those who I have seen move up the ranks, when they present a walking pass (or first pass) of a given scene, they just nail it because they have taken everything into consideration, they speak the same language as the directors and they know how to be on the same wavelength.  For me, I know that’s something that I am working towards but I am fully invested in the process.

DV: This really does feel like ‘On The Job’ training because it really sounds like you are learning and respecting all the different aspects of filmmaking while you are engaged with your scene and not just trying to make it ‘pretty’.

BB: Yeah that’s something I’ve definitely learned because so much of it is truly about context and being able to not just look at your scene as a standalone shot but looking at how it fits into the great continuity of the film.

DV: They always say “It takes a village” to make these things and I guess it literally does!

BB: (Laughs) Right!  I mean on average we have about 60 animators that are working on a film at any given time and then the more people we get on board the hard it becomes to maintain continuity because Miguel is the same character and when he walks he has to walk the exact same way in every scene that he is in, then when we hit crunch time and add about twenty more animators to get the job done it makes it that much harder…

DV: Oh you mean when you’ve got a release date to hit and only three months left to do it?

BB: (Laughs) EXACTLY

DV: Walk me through how you ultimately got the job at Pixar because you’re a Canadian, in California and there might be some people out there that want to do what you do, but really just can make pretty pictures and that’s about it whereas you really do feel like someone who has embraced the entire spectrum of elements that are needed in order to be able to make a quality piece of cinema.

BB: Yeah, I mean getting the job was actually pretty surreal.  I like to tell this story about when I was in school and I was studying animation, I knew I wanted to be in the industry, but really had no clue about what kind of role I could fill or what capacity that I could be useful in.  Then I saw The Incredibles and I just knew I was hooked.  I distinctly remember watching the scene in the film where they were just sitting in these chairs and it all felt so believable to me so then I knew that I wanted to focus on character animation and as a distant goal, yeah I’d love to work at Pixar one day and work on The Incredibles 2 (which I am) but I knew as a goal it was a long, LONG way off.

I’ve always been a realist and I’ve always understood where my talent level was so I just worked at developing my demo reel and my skills and ended up bouncing around a few studios both here in Toronto and in California; like Sony Animation for about seven years until I was put in touch with Alan Barillaro who directed the short film Piper.  One of my animation directors here in Toronto actually went to school with Alan twenty years ago so he put me in touch and for three years before I even got to work at Pixar, I was just talking with him and I’d send him my demo reel and clips and the like and he would give me notes and critique them.  A lot of back and forth and I really feel that it was amazing that he took the time to do this and we just kept in touch until one day I got word that Pixar was hiring and I of course jumped on that opportunity, but it was about 6 months later that I heard back and it was a long road for me to really find and have the ability to be able to seize that moment.

DV: I’ve got to imagine that when you got the call to work on The Incredibles 2 that you had to pinch yourself for just a second.

BB: OH MY GOD YEAH! (SMILES) I really want to just run up to Brad Bird and tell him how that film really carved my path in animation career but he’s a little busy right now working on a movie with a lot to do.  Fingers crossed I can catch him at some point and tell him that but yeah, it’s pretty surreal that all these years later I’m working on something that was a dream for me growing up and I’m just trying to make sure that I appreciate these moments as they fly by me.

DV: What would you say to someone trying to break into the business these days, now with all this on the job knowledge that you’ve acquired over the years.

BB: Just to understand that it’s all a process, it takes time.  You can’t expect to have a developed eye for this business right away, granted some people do but it is very rare and for someone like me I knew that it would be a process.  Understand that you’re going to have to work hard, very hard.  Understand that you’re going to have to take some jobs that may move you around because it’s just the nature of the industry and the work isn’t always in one place.  Mostly though and especially for animation I think it’s really important just to be genuine and honest in your performances and understanding who the character is.  When you are animating someone or a line of dialogue, don’t just do it but think about how they are saying the line or why they are saying the line, take it all into consideration.  What do they look like, how are they sitting, focus on how they are sitting may affect how they are speaking and all these little nuances and knowing all the layers that the performance and the character needs because that’s what places like Pixar are looking for.

DV: Understanding the big picture before you put the picture together I guess?

BB: Yeah, exactly.

Disney/Pixar’s Coco is now playing in theaters everywhere.

This post was written by

David Voigt, has been a lover of cinema all his life and an actual underpaid critic for a solid 5 years covering everything that the city of Toronto has to offer. He was a content manager in video distribution industry before that and his love of all things cinema goes back to his first moments in awe looking up at the big screen. His 12 years of experience on the home entertainment side of the business have provided him with a unique view on what is worth spending your hard earned entertainment dollars on. Combine that with his unquestioned love of film, David should be your only stop to find out about the best in film, not only in Toronto, but worldwide.