Layout Artist Sunguk Chun tells us how he got his dream job at Pixar and what it’s like to work on Luca, Lightyear and The Tomorrow War

What does your role entail?

I am a layout artist at Pixar; my role is the same as the cinematographer in a live-action film. The storyboard artist draws the board based on the script, then we place the camera in the 3D space and think about how to get the shots on the board. For example, we’ll use a close-up for an emotional moment, and a full shot to convey a comical situation.

What is the culture like at Pixar?

Everyone here is a major film enthusiast, so our main values are around making great movies. I feel I work in a fairly horizontal atmosphere culturally; there are many opportunities to share ideas and everyone’s opinions are welcomed. We have fun and get a lot of inspiration from each other because there’s an atmosphere of respect for each artist’s style.

What’s the best thing about working there?

This is the place that made the films that I loved when I was young: Toy Story, Wall-E, Monster’s Inc, Soul. So working here is a very special experience and everything around me here is inspirational. My colleagues are the artists who made my favorite Pixar films, so it’s really amazing to learn from them. I also love hearing their anecdotes about some of the things that went on behind the scenes on those films – some of their stories are gold! The archive here is really well-established so you can do some deep study of materials from Pixar’s early to recent works and learn a lot that way. I have a lot of opportunities to develop myself in many ways here.

What have you been working on recently?

I’ve been working on Lightyear which will be released next summer. Before that, I participated as a layout artist in the recently released Luca, which was like traveling to a small town in Italy with lovely characters.

What inspired you to work in visual effects?

I have always loved films; as a kid I wanted to see as many movies as possible. Fortunately, my parents also film fans and took me to the cinema often. Jurassic Park and Toy Story inspired me the most when I was young. It was an epic moment when I realised the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park were created in CG as opposed to stop motion or someone wearing a rubber suit – that immediately made me very interested in VFX. In 1998 I got hold of the trial version of Cinema 4D and recreated the ocean surface like it was in Titanic. I was very happy with that!

What’s your educational background?

I always wanted to be a film or animation director but my parents were concerned about this career choice and encouraged me to major in business management in college. I thought maybe I could work for a film production company on the business side of things. But when I graduated, I was seriously worried about my future – I didn’t want to miss my chance as a filmmaker. So I persuaded my parents to let me follow my dreams and I came to the US to major in 3D animation at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco. My portfolio at this point was mostly drawing and painting and I only started learning animation properly at AAU. It wasn’t easy, but it was so much fun because it was what I wanted to do.

Tell us about your career path; how did you get to where you are now?

After graduating from AAU I sent my resume and demo reel to various companies, but it was not easy to find a job. I decided to develop my reel as a layout artist and made a demo with various ideas. A little less than a year after graduation, I applied to The Third Floor, Inc. but this was not successful due to work visa problems. When foreign students graduate the US government grants a one-year work authorisation called OPT (Optional Practical Training), but companies who want to hire you under this scheme need to have a system called E-verify, and TTF didn’t have it at the time so they couldn’t hire me even though they wanted to. I developed my demo reel over the course of the following year and during this time they got the E-verify system in place, so I sent my new reel directly to the recruiter who had dealt with me the first time. I got a quick response and was hired as a Previs Artist. I worked there for about 11 months and participated in four films including The Tomorrow War which was recently released through Amazon Prime.

When I was working at TTF, Pixar were recruiting for layout interns and I applied because I thought it was a rare opportunity. I started as a layout intern in January 2020 and was selected as a regular layout artist after about two months of internship – that was the start of my career at Pixar. My first assignment was the Disney Plus show Pixar
, and I was so happy to work with these characters that I love. Then I worked as a layout artist on Luca, and now I’m working on Lightyear.

Do you strive to learn lots of disciplines, or are you more focused on a particular specialism?

My earlier studies were more general. The different fields are organically connected and I worked my way through them out of curiosity, but now I’m studying and learning more specifically about my field because I want to be a specialist.

What show, exhibition or film has most inspired you recently?

I love to watch films on the Criterion Channel. There are lots of classic films and you can pick up some interesting and unique creative points that you don’t really see in contemporary movies.

What project are you most proud of?

Luca. It’s my first Pixar film, and also my son was born while we were making it. His name is included in the credits as a Production Baby so it’s very meaningful to me. I was able to work on a total of four sequences and one of them is the climax of the movie. There were a lot of challenges, but I learned a lot while working and it was an amazing experience to be able to create such an important scene in the film.

What soft skills are valuable in VFX?

The thing I have learned about and enjoyed the most while working at Pixar is the communication process. Departments in many different fields all collaborate to make one movie, so communication skills are really important.

What advice would you give to someone just starting out?

I recommend getting the greatest breadth of experience that you can. Through a lot of experience you’ll develop your own perspective and the ability to solve problems in a flexible way.

Tanya Combrinck
Author: Tanya Combrinck

Tanya is a writer covering art, design, and visual effects. She has 15 years of experience as a magazine journalist and has written for publications including 3D World, 3D Artist, Computer Arts, net magazine, and Creative Bloq.