The art of crafting an authentic story
Last month, 25 Sheridan animation students got the chance of a lifetime.
The group of fourth-year students were invited to hone their storytelling skills during a two-day workshop with the masters in the business – visiting story artists from Pixar Animation Studios.
The visit was part of Pixar’s outreach strategy in recent years to invest in the next generation of storytellers, running special workshops to help students understand the particular storytelling depth Pixar looks for during recruitment.
“At Pixar, our focus on story is very specific,” says Beth Sasseen, Pixar University Relations Manager. “Finding excellent story artists is challenging. Through these workshops we want to help future storytellers grow, who will in turn help Pixar tell different, diverse stories. We have many Sheridan alumni working at Pixar, so running the workshop here was a natural fit.”
Sheridan animation alumni have found great success with Pixar, including Domee Shi (Animation, 2011), who won the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film in 2018 for her directorial debut, Bao.
My story could be told many, many different ways and it’s okay not to choose the “perfect” one – I learned that the most important thing is to choose the approach that feels genuine to me.” – Animation student Corinne Roy
Workshop leaders, story artists Derek Thompson and Kristen Lester (herself a graduate of Sheridan’s animation program) challenged the students to develop and storyboard a short story titled “My Day Yesterday” and pitch it to their peers during the workshop. Each student story was limited to only 20 boards.
The result? 25 unique mini-stories reflecting a memorable moment from each student’s recent day, ranging from tense moments at the Tim Hortons line on campus, to heartwarming exchanges with family, daydreams during class, and even last-minute trips to the emergency room. Each unique story brimmed with personality, humour, and heart.
Following the pitches, Thompson and Lester guided the students through a group critique of each other’s work in the style of Pixar’s peer feedback process. They discussed what they liked about each story, explored any lingering questions, and mined for new details that could reveal more twists, humour, and emotional depth. Above all, Thompson and Lester encouraged students to remain authentic and true to the spirit of their own story, even when incorporating peer feedback or adding creative elements to enhance its impact.
“Make the most of the community you have around you – it will serve you well to learn to be curious, how to ask questions of your peers, to coax out the intent and purpose behind their work,” Thompson told the students.
On the second day of the workshop, each student presented their revised story to the group, and received additional group feedback.
For the student participants, the workshop was a unique glimpse into one of the world’s most prestigious animation studios.
“The workshop gave me a lot of perspective on how animation industry veterans critique each other’s work,” says fourth-year student, Justin Leal. “I also gained a lot of clarity on my own process – how I might try drawing in different styles and become more versatile as an artist.”
His classmate, Corinne Roy, walked away with a deeper understanding of story authenticity. “My story could be told many, many different ways and it’s okay not to choose the “perfect” one – I learned that the most important thing is to choose the approach that feels genuine to me,” she said.
Their peer, Isabelle Caron, found Derek and Kristen’s study on story structure to be invaluable. “It was wonderful to be able to dive into the ‘bones’ of story structure using Pixar’s approach – to break it down to basics and explore how it applies to every impactful story, and how it might apply to my own.”
The visiting team from Pixar also shared their own career stories with the students, shedding light on some of the personal challenges they encountered on their varied paths through the animation industry. The workshop ended with a screening of Lester’s short film, Purl, developed as part of Pixar’s SparkShorts program.
“Kristen and Derek showed us that the road is different for everyone,” adds Roy. “They showed us that if we work hard and commit to what we love, we’ll eventually end up in the right place.”
“Through these workshops we want to help future storytellers grow, who will in turn help Pixar tell different, diverse stories. We have many Sheridan alumni working at Pixar, so running the workshop here was a natural fit.” – Beth Sasseen, Pixar University Relations Manager
The Pixar team hopes the workshop will empower the participating students with the skills they will need to make their unique creative voices stand out as they prepare to enter the industry – and notes that the future looks bright for these young animators.
“Sheridan students are so engaged and ready to share; they show a real interest in being able to tell a pure story,” remarks Sasseen. “We hope they’ll take away our message to always approach stories from a personal, emotional, authentic place. That’s always what we strive for at Pixar.”
Pictured at top of page: The participating fourth-year animation students pose with Kristen Lester (front, fourth from the left) and Derek Thompson (front, third from the right) at Sheridan’s Trafalgar Campus in Oakville.
Written by: Carolina Salcedo, Internal Communications Officer at Sheridan.