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Exclusive On-Site Interview: Pixar Story Artist Josh Cooley

We were first introduced to the very talented Josh Cooley through a member's post back in June 2010. As luck would have it, when we contacted him for a follow up interview, he invited us up to Pixar! Of course, we jumped at the chance to meet the Pixar story artist and tour his sacred headquarters. (Who hasn't dreamt of seeing a building Steve Jobs helped design?) So a few weekend ago, we went up to Emeryville and sat down with Josh Cooley for this inspiring interview.

You've been with Pixar eight years. Can you tell us what it's like working here?
It's collaborative. What I love is that you have to check your ego at the door. It's not like it's their idea or it's my idea, it's what's the best idea for the movie. How do you make the movie as good as it can be? It's about making the best movie possible.

I read in a previous interview where you said, “Creating characters where the audience understandings their feelings, and wants to see what's next, that's part of the magic.” Which characters have you helped create that you think resonated with audiences the most?
The one I worked on that I think people connected to was Carl from Up. The movie seemed to have a really good response. It was always fun to see it with an audience that had never seen it before and turn around and watch their reaction after the first 10 minutes of the movie. Sometimes you didn't have to even turn around, you could just hear the sniffles.

To have people on board, connecting to a character that soon in the movie, that always blew me away. That wasn't all me, by any stretch of the imagination, but it was fun to be a part of that.

Why do you think that scene elicited that response?
For me, you're looking at ones and zeros on the screen but the animators, writers and the director brought the character to life so that it didn't feel like you're watching an animated movie. Even though it was so stylized, the audience brought their own personal story to it going, “Wow, I can relate to this. I've lost somebody in my life.” That's relating to the audience immediately so you have them on board for the rest of the movie.

Up won so many awards, as well.
Awards are great but having people respond to your work, especially after having worked on it for a such a long time, there's no award that can top that. Getting an Academy Award is great but seeing how people connect to your work, that's something else.

What's working in a team like for Pixar? Take for instance Up, how does your role as a story artist play with others?
That is my role. (Laughing). I need to play well with others. The team that I'm with, I'm with them 8 hours a day, so you have to be able to play nice with everyone. That doesn't mean we don't argue…we're a family, same kind of dynamic. So you have to be a team player. That's probably the most important thing. Of course, you also have to be able to draw, as well.

As a story artist, we're pretty early in the process. We're worried about what happens, we're building the blueprints of the movie that the next department refers to. We're helping the director find the movie.

At Pixar, all the stories and characters are created internally by the artists, what kind of pressure is that like or do you see it more as artistic freedom?
Every character has to support the story in some manner, otherwise, they're not important or just fat you can trim off. I know that a lot of people see these movies but I don't feel pressure. I feel pressure to do a good job for my director, but it's almost like when these movies are being made, I'm in a protective bubble, which I like because I only have to think about the story.

So you're saying Pixar gives you artistic license to run with ideas?
Absolutely. I never feel like I can't bring up something. If I feel comfortable enough to do it or if I disagree with the director, I can voice my opinion. I would say every single director here is great at listening to their team. They might not agree but they'll still listen and take it into consideration. It's their movie and, at the end of the day, they can do what they want, but they're still respectful to the artists.

It takes about 200-250 people to make one movie and about 4 to 5 years. What is that process like?
We're in the first two years and once the story is finished and approved, our job is done usually about a year before the movie comes out. Then, I'm on to the next thing.


Going into your personal projects. Tell us about George and AJ, your short for Pixar.
We love those characters, those nurses, and they're literally in only one tiny scene. We were always joking about what happened to them. If you think about it, it's really beautiful and lyrical in the movie when the house gets lifted up by balloons, but it's kind of ridiculous and terrifying at the same time from their point of view.

What if we played it differently, from their point of view? They're in complete shock. I wanted to see how the news would portray this weird event and explore the idea of a house being lifted up by balloons in different ways.

I came up with this idea and pitched it to Bob Peterson, who was a co-director. I boarded it and pitched it to some people. Then, I officially pitched it and found out that it would cost an exorbitant amount of money because there are new characters to build and effects that go along with it. I totally get that, it's a film. So I ended up doing it as an animatic, a nice cleaned up storyboard.

It got released on the web. What kind of reaction did you get?
There was talk about putting it on the Blueray but releasing on the web was perfect. It was an instant mass audience. You read the comments in the comments section, and they're all really positive so I was really happy with that. I drew the whole thing myself in my off hours.

Now tell us about Movies R Fun, the Inappropriate Golden Books project. How did that come about?
It came from a couple of things. One of them was that my daughter was just born and I'm a movie nut. I love watching movies. I have a lot but I noticed a lot of them aren't for kids. My daughter isn't going to enjoy Silence of the Lambs right now. So I thought, what if you made a kid friendly version of Silence of the Lambs? I'm also a big fan of Golden Books so I took something that should never be seen by children and made it accessible. Kind of the opposite of the way Pixar works – accessible to everybody, even adults. I think people respond to that kind of contradiction.

I drew up a couple and put them on my blog early on and got a response from random people. I was also inspired by others, here at Pixar, who make their own books.

Last Comic-Con, I had a booth and I was going to sell my book there. A couple of weeks before, all of a sudden, I woke up because my email was going crazy on my phone letting me know that I had all these comments on my blog. A couple of random websites somehow found my work and posted it and it spread like wildfire. It was – really lucky free advertising, the timing was great. It was really bizarre.

I got my book from the printers, drove it to Comic-Con and the response was huge. That was really exciting. I'm close to selling out. I printed 1,000 without any distribution.


A big thanks to Josh for sharing his world with us! We can't wait to see what you have in store for us both at Pixar and with your own projects!

You can buy one of Josh's cool prints or the book Movies R Fun over at his shop. Also, make sure to drop by Josh's blog to stay up-to-date with this amazing artist.

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