October 16, 2013

Any Monster, Any Study: An Interview With Claire Faggioli ’06 and Scott Clifford ’96

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Recently, Sun staff writer Mark DiStefano ’16  interviewed Claire Faggioli ’06 and Scott Clifford ’96, two employees at Pixar Animation Studios. The digital animation powerhouse has produced films such as the Toy Story saga, Finding Nemo, Ratatouille and Up. DiStefano spoke with Faggioli and Clifford about their experiences at Pixar working on the studio’s newest release, the summer blockbuster Monsters University. The film is available for Digital Download October 8 and on DVD and Blu Ray October 29.

Interview: Claire Faggioli ’06

The Cornell Sun: Please talk about what your job was on Monsters University.

Claire Faggioli ’06: I was a production coordinator. On each film I’m in a different department —  I was in the animation department on Monsters, coordinating with different departments to [get] the shots out on time. I was a fix coordinator; there were several fix animators on the film. Once the shot reaches a later department, there may be something in the animation that causes the fur to go crazy, or doesn’t look quite right with the lighting, so my job was to track that, which was especially hard on Monsters because there were so many characters.

The Sun: What were some classes that stand out in your memory at Cornell, or some favorite professors or experiences you remember?

C.F.: In the film school I loved [film professor] Sabine Haenni. She was a professor who I really used to connect with and used to guide me through a lot … especially [since] I was figuring out what I wanted to do with my degree. I loved History of American film, and I liked Avant-Garde, [as well as] other non-film classes [like] Decadence and Desire. Those classes were really fun.

The Sun: What is it like to work at Pixar — and to work on a film as highly anticipated at this?

C.F.: Pixar is so much fun; the people are amazing, there are lots of great perks, it’s beautiful. Everyone was really excited about it, everybody felt like they had a great, fun movie to work on, [even though] it had tons of challenges. We had tentacles, tons of fur; every shot had its own challenges.

The Sun: What was your career path like,  from graduating Cornell to working at Pixar?

C.F.: I went to grad school [at] USC, because I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go into the industry, and [USC] was situated where I could intern, but also focus on doing critical studies for my graduate degree.

While at USC I interned at production companies in LA, doing script reading and stereotypical [duties as a] Hollywood intern, grabbing lunches, it was fun to be in that environment. It was very dynamic, with a lot of things to juggle. After I graduated from USC I came back up to the Bay Area. LA wasn’t for me, I mean I’m sure I could’ve lived there if I had to, but I wanted to see if I could do something in film in the Bay Area.

I’d always loved Pixar and been really interested in their movies. It was the summer of 2008, right before the recession, and Pixar was hiring a lot of people for Toy Story 3, and I got really lucky and started as a temp and [moved on] to being a P.A.

The Sun: Sounds like you did pretty well for yourself!

C.F.: I got so lucky, especially since that was the first movie I ever worked on.

The Sun: I understand that the environment at Pixar is an extremely lively one marked by a lot of fun, but where people also work tremendously hard. It sounds quite similar to Cornell. Is that so?

C.F.: At Pixar and at Cornell too, it’s a lot of people who are really driven but who are also really fun. It’s a lot of work-hard-and-play-hard, and the people there are 150-percent committed to what they are doing.

The Sun: As a filmmaker myself here at Cornell, my love of movies began at age seven when I was inspired by the original Monsters Inc. What sorts of films inspired you to want to work in film, and specifically to work at Pixar?

C.F.: When I went to Cornell, I always wanted to do evolutionary biology. But I always loved movies, always in high school, I was in a suburban area, so every night we’d go and see a movie, even if it was really bad. I loved The Jungle Book  and Indiana Jones and then later on at Cornell I was doing evolutionary biology and I had to take an elective, so I took a critical studies class in film, and that was amazing. It was the first time I realized you could study that. Aguirre, the Wrath of God by Herzog [became] one of my favorites, and [so did] The Third Man.

The Sun: What advice would you give to other aspiring filmmakers at Cornell, whether they want to work in animation or live action?

C.F.: These days I think a lot of people approach degrees with the idea of, ‘What am I going to do with it and how am I going to make this a job,’ and I think that’s fine, but I think if there’s something you really want do, if you really want to make a film, don’t let anything stand in the way of that. Be proactive and be open to new things, and it’ll help you.

Interview: Scott Clifford ’96

The Cornell Sun: Please talk about what your job was on Monsters University.

Scott Clifford ’96: On Monsters University, I was would be called a lighting technical director, which is someone who is responsible for pretty much the same job that a director of photography would be responsible for on a live action film. We need to go in the shots and set up the lights so that they reflect the appropriate mood, the setting, whether it’s sunny or overcast, the textures of all the shadows, the colors of all the lights[and] the qualities of all the lights.

The Sun: What was your year/major at Cornell and your general background here?

S.C.: I graduated in the Class of ’96; I was a computer science major in the engineering school. When I first came to Cornell, I wanted to be a mechanical engineer but as a kid I’d always been involved with computers. … I was sort of in that first wave of VIC-20s and programming in high school where no one really knew what was going on, so I taught myself a lot of it. By time I got to college I realized I had this wealth of skills already that sat around computer science, and it just was a natural fit for me, even though in my dream I was a mechanical engineer. … I just realized that my skills were so well equipped for computer science, [that] I decided to go for that program.

The Sun: What your career path like from graduating Cornell to working at Pixar?

S.C.: I graduated [from] Cornell and I had two jobs that were very computer science oriented, and … neither of them really fit for me because it was only exercising the one side of the brain that was very technical, and I didn’t really feel rewarded by that. [When] Toy Story came out in 1995, I was so buried in college that I didn’t see it in the theater, I didn’t actually know that this job existed, that people were actually being paid to be a digital cinematographer. … [Similarly], a lot of the skills I [had were] half creative and aesthetic, and half technical, and I had no idea that job was out there.

I managed to get into Blue Sky at the time before they were owned by Fox, before they had done Ice Age, and I got brought in as a programmer [while] there were only 60 people in that company … and I looked around and I saw these people who were called technical directors. And I saw that their job was to do a lot of the technical piece, but they also got to pick the colors and do the shot compositions, and work with the clients, and a lot of the aesthetic stuff that I always felt like I should be doing. It wasn’t until 2000 that I started [at Pixar] and Monsters Inc. was the first film that I’d ever worked on. I came in as a lighter, and my first shot on that film was when Sulley is trying to hide the stuff that Boo sticks to him when he runs into her room, and he’s trying to flush those things down the toilet.

The Sun: That is one of the most difficult things to simulate, isn’t it? The toilet water flushing?

S.C.: It is. I spent my first couple of months at Pixar looking at a lot of toilets. … Make that water just the right shade of blue, make the toilet look nice and shiny and clean. … [laughs]

The Sun: What do you find sets Pixar movies at such an exceptional quality level? How is it that they manage to keep producing such masterpieces?

S.C.: What it always comes down to here is that story is king, and we follow that lead at any chance that we can. If the story isn’t right, we’ll wait and we’ll fix it, and we’ll find the right vehicle to express it through lighting, and animation, and effects. … Every single department that we have answers the question of ‘How is this helping the story?’ When we keep ourselves in that mindset, that’s the only way we can make sure that what we produce is something that’s going to be worth seeing not just because it’s pretty, or because it looks cool, but because it actually says something and makes people feel something.

The Sun: As a filmmaker myself here at Cornell, my love of movies began at age seven when I was inspired by the original Monsters Inc. What sorts of films inspired you to want to work in film, and specifically to work at Pixar?

S.C.: Some of the ones that really affected me were the Darren Aronofsky films, Pi and Requiem for a Dream. His whole canon pretty much is an inspiration to me. … When I was at Cornell they would do [an] animation festival every year, and I went to see that and that’s where I first saw some of the Pixar shorts that were coming out, between ’92 and ’96. … I saw them and I was like, “Wow, how cool is this?” … It was kind of this theme of the happy accident where I found myself in a place where [film and technology] collided … and it really started to spark my interest in films. I started to watch movies like Brazil, and Solaris, Blade Runner … all these films that started to inform the visual effects business.

The Sun: What advice would you give to other aspiring filmmakers at Cornell, whether they want to work in animation or live action?

S.C.: You’ve just got to do it. … If you just decide you’re going to do something and you give yourself a goal, and you say, “I’m going to make this film, and I’m gonna do it [in] whatever way, [even if] I have to beg, borrow, and steal to do it, I’m going to do it.” … You’re going to end up with something that you can point to, and something that will teach you volumes as you do it. … If you just say, “Look, this is what I love, and this is what I’ve [set] my heart to … and you do it, I guarantee that you will get something positive out of it and it will move you further down the road that [you] want to be on.

Mark DiStefano is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]